The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

Composed during the Second World War but not published until 1977, The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd expresses the authors adoration and devotion to walking, exploring and understanding the Cairngorm Mountains of north-east Scotland.  Rich in Romantic language and imagery, Shepherd shares her encounters upon the mountain, often revealing snippets of a world that invokes faerie; crystal clear lochs, skies of blue and sloping mountains adorned with a pallet of purple, green and yellow.  But as expected of faerie land, danger lurks below the surface and the mountain demands respect, blowing arctic winds, snow and ice, disorientating fog and dizzying drops upon visitors who do not look, listen or understand.  Shepherd’s chapters range from discussing the inanimate, ‘The Plateau’, ‘The Recesses’, and ‘The Group’, to what she refers to as ‘the elementals’, water, light and air, to the plant life upon the mountain and the human senses and ‘Being’.  The mountain, and Shepherd are both at their most vibrant and alive in the recollections that invoke the sublime.

In the second chapter, ‘The Recesses’, Shepherd admits that when first climbing she “made always for the summits, and would not take time to explore the recesses”, until one September day when she was guided to “Coire on Lochain”.  Shepherd describes her awe at discovering the Loch which hitherto had been hidden from sight.  Recounting with pure joy and emotion Shepherd describes how this hidden place assaults the senses and corrodes the human understanding of time, “as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear”. From her newly acquired knowledge of place upon the mountain Shepherd explains she only then “began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills”.  It is impossible not to feel the overwhelming emotions of Shepherd in that recollection, of being out of time at the realisation that the mountain is timeless in a human sense of keeping time, and that despite ceaselessly looking, she had “hardly begun to see”.

Shepherd tells a further story of the recesses upon the mountain featuring a visit to Loch Avon that sits at an altitude of 2300 feet.  On a crisp, clear July morning she began to ascend with a companion Cain Gorm and having reached their destination by midday, encouraged by the clear, cool water they stripped and bathed.  Shepherd recounts that the clarity of the water was greater than looking through air and the true expanse of the Loch was only revealed as they began to wade into it, but their march was halted by the revelation of a shelf that plunged down to what was the true bottom of the Loch.  Communicating in silence the companions made their way to the safety of the shore and Shepherd recalls her “spirit was as naked as my body”.  These moments of wonder, awe, beauty and tranquillity, contrasted with the perils that are a constant potentiality is a reminder to the reader that nature is harsh, it is violent, and it is unforgiving.

With regards to the Anthropocene, The Living Mountain is a beautiful reminder that nature is alive, a dominant force, and irreverent to human time, purpose and agenda.  Shepherd alludes to the element of exclusivity in accessing and appreciating the mountain, an exclusivity that could potentially help appreciate, respect and understand the natural world within the environmental crisis we are currently within.

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