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The Living Mountain: Pioneering Scottish Mountaineer and Poet Nan Shepherd’s Forgotten Masterpiece About Our Relationship with Nature

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered.”

The Living Mountain: Pioneering Scottish Mountaineer and Poet Nan Shepherd’s Forgotten Masterpiece About Our Relationship with Nature

“This is how one ought to feel, I am convinced,” Vita Sackville-West exulted in a letter to Virginia Woolf early in their courtship, recounting the electric elation of having climbed to the top of a mountain summit to find bright yellow poppies punctuate the eternal snow. “I contemplate young mountaineers hung with ropes and ice-axes, and think that they alone have understood how to live life.”

Around the same time, ten latitude degrees north, Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) — another woman of immense literary talent and altitudinal ardor — was reverencing another mountain range and gleaning from it abiding wisdom on the art of living.

Shepherd, born Anna and self-christened Nan, was only an adolescent when she discovered her dual calling to literature and altitude. She roamed the Highlands of her native Scotland as zealously as she copied passages of the books she was devouring — novels, poetry, philosophy — into her commonplace book. By her twenties, she was writing original works of her own.

Nan Shepherd

In the second half of her thirties, Shepherd was possessed with a wild burst of creativity perhaps best described by the Scots term fey in its mountaineering context — the iridescent exhilaration that comes over climbers, making them appear, in Shepherd’s own words, “a little mad, in the eyes of the folk who do not climb.” Over the course of six years, she published four books: three novels before she was forty and, in her forty-first year, a slim, immensely beautiful collection of poetry — the form she held above all other arts as concentrating “in intensest being the very heart of all experience” — titled The Cairngorms after her most beloved mountain range.

And then, half a lifetime of silence — it would be another forty-three years until Shepherd published her next, final, and greatest book.

Most probably, Shepherd began composing it sometime in the final years of WWII, drawing on her lifelong love and intimate knowledge of mountains in a masterpiece of observation and contemplation, both precise and spacious. But something stopped Shepherd from publishing it. Instead, she rested it in a drawer, where it was to remain for more than four decades, until it finally entered the world in the final years of her life as The Living Mountain (public library) — a most unusual braiding of memoir, field notebook, and philosophical inquiry irradiated with the poetic and endowed with what geologist Hans Cloos celebrated as the rare art of hearing Earth’s music.

Art by Toshikado Hajiri from You Are an Echo by Misuzu Kaneko

Shepherd does for the mountain what Rachel Carson did for the ocean — both women explore entire worlds previously mapped only by men and mostly through the lens of conquest rather than contemplation; both bring to their subject a naturalist’s rigor and a poet’s reverence, gleaming from the splendor of facts a larger meditation on meaning.

With an eye to the Cairngorms — the locus of her most devoted mountaineering and most intimate knowledge of the poetics of the mountain — Shepherd celebrates the spirit of the place beyond its statistics:

Their physiognomy is in the geography books — so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet — but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind.

Reflecting on the exhilarating feyness that overtakes her every time she ascends the mountain and surrenders to its elements, both geologic and living, Shepherd adds:

Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered.

Shepherd illustrates this reality deeper than fact through her revelatory encounter with a narrow mountain loch that had never been sounded — a loch the depth of which she came to know on a level more dimensional than what is measured in feet or meters. She recounts wading into it for the first time with her climbing companion:

The clear water was at our knees, then at our thighs. How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal. To look through it was to discover its own properties. What we saw under water had a sharper clarity than what we saw through air. We waded on into the brightness, and the width of the water increased, as it always does when one is on or in it, so that the loch no longer seemed narrow, but the far side was a long way off. Then I looked down; and at my feet there opened a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped. We were standing on the edge of a shelf that ran some yards into the loch before plunging down to the pit that is the true bottom. And through that inordinate clearness we saw to the depth of the pit. So limpid was it that every stone was clear.

I motioned to my companion, who was a step behind, and she came, and glanced as I had down the submerged precipice. Then we looked into each other’s eyes, and again into the pit. I waded slowly back into shallower water. There was nothing that seemed worth saying. My spirit was as naked as my body. It was one of the most defenceless moments of my life.

Just as Rachel Carson was preparing to sound her courageous clarion call for protecting nature from political and commercial exploitation across the Atlantic, Shepherd adds a cautionary lamentation:

The inaccessibility of this loch is part of its power. Silence belongs to it. If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness.

Around the time Virginia Woolf beheld the magnificent interleafing of every part of nature in the epiphany that made her an artist and before Rachel Carson made ecology a household word, Shepherd serenades the intricate ecosystem of the mountain:

I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird — all are one. Eagle and alpine veronica are part of the mountain’s wholeness. Saxifrage — the “rock-breaker” — in some of its loveliest forms, Stellaris, that stars with its single blossoms the high rocky corrie burns, and Azoides, that clusters like soft sunshine in their lower reaches, cannot live apart from the mountain.

Photograph by John Collier, 1943 (public domain)

Perched in time partway between Thoreau’s meditation on the splendors of mystery in the age of knowledge and Feynman’s legendary Ode to a Flower monologue about the reciprocity of knowledge and mystery, Shepherd writes:

The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin — that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension… My imagination boggles at this. I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower — that is harder. It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done.

Out of this awareness arises an enlargement of both the mind and the senses, of the very self, beyond the body and yet intensely of the body:

Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in. If I had other senses, there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation. The many details — a stroke here, a stroke there — come for a moment into perfect focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the beginning.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Shepherd considers how an attentive and benevolent curiosity about this living mountain — about anything beyond oneself, indeed — effects a generous enlargement of both self and other:

Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing. I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.

Complement The Living Mountain — a magnificent read in its totality — with Rachel Carson on science and our spiritual bond with nature and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit Temujin Doran’s lovely short film about the life and death of mountains.


I and Thou: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Art of Relationship and What Makes Us Real to One Another

“The primary word I–Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I–It can never be spoken with the whole being.”

I and Thou: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Art of Relationship and What Makes Us Real to One Another

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize — wrote in contemplating human nature and the interdependence of existence. Relationship is what makes a forest a forest and an ocean an ocean. To meet the world on its own terms and respect the reality of another as an expression of that world as fundamental and inalienable as your own reality is an art immensely rewarding yet immensely difficult — especially in an era when we have ceased to meet one another as whole persons and instead collide as fragments.

How to master the orientation of heart, mind, and spirit essential for the art of sincere and honorable relationship is what philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) explores in his 1923 classic I and Thou (public library) — the foundation of Buber’s influential existentialist philosophy of dialogue.

Martin Buber

Three decades before Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts cautioned that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Buber considers the layers of reality across which life and relationship unfold:

To the man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I–Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I–It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

Hence the I of man is also twofold. For the I of the primary word I–Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I–It.

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful insistence that “we encounter each other in words… words to consider, reconsider,” and with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s conviction that words confer dignity upon that which they name, Buber adds:

Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.

Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.

Primary words are spoken from the being.

If Thou is said, the I of the combination I–Thou is said along with it.

If It is said, the I of the combination I–It is said along with it.

The primary word I–Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.

The primary word I–It can never be spoken with the whole being.


Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.

When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf — a tender tale of transformation through relationship

Each battery, Buber argues, has a place and a function in human life — I–It establishes the world of experience and sensation, which arises in the space between the person and the world by its own accord, and I–Thou establishes the world of relationship, which asks of each person a participatory intimacy. Thou addresses another not as an object but as a presence — the highest in philosopher Amelie Rorty’s seven layers of personhood, which she defines as “the return of the unchartable soul.” Buber writes:

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I–Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.

Buber offers a symphonic counterpoint to the presently fashionable fragmentation of whole human beings into sub-identities:

Just as the melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the colour of his hair, or of his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou.


I do not experience the man to whom I say Thou. But I take my stand in relation to him, in the sanctity of the primary word. Only when I step out of it do I experience him once more… Even if the man to whom I say Thou is not aware of it in the midst of his experience, yet relation may exist. For Thou is more that It realises. No deception penetrates here; here is the cradle of the Real Life.

“Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you.” Illustration for The Velveteen Rabbit by Japanese artist Komako Sakai.

To address another as Thou, Buber suggests, requires a certain self-surrender that springs from inhabiting one’s own presence while at the same time stepping outside one’s self. Only then does the other cease to be a means to one’s own ends and becomes real. Buber writes:

The primary word I–Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.

All real living is meeting.


No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunges out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about.

I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with physicist David Bohm on the art of dialogue and what is keeping us from listening to one another, Amin Maalouf on identity and belonging, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication.


“Humans of New York” Creator Brandon Stanton Reads John Updike’s Playful and Profound Ode to the Neutrino

A celebration of the imperceptible that governs the universe on the most fundamental level.

“Humans of New York” Creator Brandon Stanton Reads John Updike’s Playful and Profound Ode to the Neutrino

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wrote. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” There is a loveliness to this perspective, almost the opposite of nihilism in its untroubled acceptance of existence on its own terms — an acceptance that can’t be unrelated to Updike’s lifelong love of science and his fascination with the laws that govern the universe.

Although best known as a novelist and short story writer, Updike was a lifelong poet and belongs to the small cabal of poets in whose body of work science occupies a significant portion. In 1985, he published Facing Nature (public library) — an entire collection of his poems celebrating science, among which is a short, charming ode to one of the most bewitching discoveries in physics.

John Updike (Photograph: Ulf Andersen)

In 1930, fifteen years before Wolfgang Pauli received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Einstein’s nomination and nearly two decades before he co-invented synchronicity with Carl Jung, the Austrian-Swiss physicist envisioned a solution to a great enigma: When a neutron transforms into a proton and an electron in a reaction, some of its energy and angular momentum — or spin — seemed to mysteriously disappear. Pauli proposed a new kind of particle, which was soon christened neutrino — a tiny, massless catchall for the missing energy and momentum. It took twenty-six years for experimentalists to detect the particle Pauli had theorized. (This may seem like a long time, but it is dwarfed by the heroic century-long quest to detect the gravitational waves Einstein theorized, which resulted in the most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo first pointed his crude telescope at the sky.)

Three decades after the detection of this ghostly particle, which defies every human intuition and yet is part and parcel of the most fundamental nature of reality, Updike eulogized the neutrino in a poem titled “Cosmic Gall,” which the largehearted and endlessly funny Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton read at the inaugural 2017 edition of The Universe in Verse, taking the stage after poet Elizabeth Alexander’s magnificent performance. Please enjoy:


Every second, hundreds of billions of these neutrinos pass through each square inch of our bodies, coming from above during the day and from below at night, when the sun is shining on the other side of the earth!

— From “An Explanatory Statement on Elementary Particle Physics,” by M.A. Ruderman and A.H. Rosenfeld, in American Scientist

Neutrinos they are very small.
    They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
    To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
    Or photons through a sheet of glass.
    They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
    Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
    And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
    Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
    And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed — you call
    It wonderful; I call it crass.

The Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry, which I am hosting in collaboration with astrophysicist Janna Levin and The Academy of American Poets — returns in April of 2018. For more highlights from the 2017 edition, savor Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and my reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s ode to the number pi, then watch the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.


Stephen Hawking on the Meaning of the Universe

A rare existential reflection from the man who set out to devise a theory of everything.

Stephen Hawking on the Meaning of the Universe

At twenty-two, Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a rare motor disease — and given a few years to live. He lived for more than half a century thereafter. Despite the increasing bodily limitations inflicted by the incurable disease, he went on to soar with a limitless mind that has impacted the course of modern physics perhaps more profoundly than any scientist since Albert Einstein. His theory of what is now known as Hawking radiation — the thermal electromagnetic radiation which quantum phenomena on the event horizon cause a black hole to emit — revolutionized our understanding of the most powerful objects in the known universe and, in consequence, of the universe itself. His pursuit of a “theory of everything” adrenalized the scientific community and his landmark 1988 book A Brief History of Time awakened generations of lay readers to the splendor of physics, welding science to the rest of culture.

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

A different, complementary, more existential side of Hawking comes alive in an interview conducted shortly after the release of A Brief History of Time and found in the out-of-print treasure Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (public library) — the 1990 collection of interviews by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer, exploring “the ways in which personal, philosophical, and social factors enter the scientific process,” which also gave us pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science, dark matter, and our never-ending quest to know the universe.

When asked how he would design the universe if he could design it any way he wanted, Hawking, beloved for his dry humor, answers:

It is like the anthropic argument: If I had designed it differently, it wouldn’t have produced me. So that is a meaningless question. I’m prepared to make do with the universe we have, and try to find out what it is like.

Turning over the question of meaning to Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s famous assertion that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” Hawking offers a laconic yet spirited counterpoint:

I don’t feel like that. I think that human intellectual history is a record of how we have come nearer and nearer to an understanding of the order in the universe. I’m proud of our achievement.

Complement with Errol Morris’s documentary about Hawking’s life, Hawking’s “theory of everything” animated in 150 seconds, and his lovely children’s book about time travel, co-written with his own daughter, then revisit another culture-shifting, Nobel-winning physicist — Richard Feynman — on the meaning of life.


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