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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Published March 19, 2018