By Nan Shepherd
Canongate Books £8.99 114pp
Nan Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain at the latter end of the Second World War. Perhaps with the fear of invasion and Nazi occupation receding, her thoughts once more returned to her beloved Cairngorms – a symbol of stability and truth in an uncertain and dangerous world. But the exigencies of the war, with its shortage of paper and consequent publishing difficulties, meant the manuscript was put to one side. It was only as an old woman that it was retrieved from the back of the drawer and feeling its contents were still as relevant in 1977 as they were when she wrote them, she submitted the manuscript to the Aberdeen University Press. In 1977 it was duly published and that seemed the end of that. But over thirty years later it was republished with a lengthy introduction by the renowned nature writer Robert MacFarlane. This raises an interesting question – what was it that the current publishers saw that made them think that the book would still be of interest today?
The simple answer is Shepherd can put her finger on the truth. Those of us who love mountains and love losing themselves in their particular grandeur know that they are more than the flat description of the Geography text-book – so many square miles, so many peaks over a given height etc. And they also know that a mountain is more than the sum of its parts, but that is where most of us stop. Shepherd not only understands the mountain, as she says “something moved between me and it”, but has also become part of it – “I have walked out of my body and into it.” Her book puts into words this experience. It tries to capture the Cairngorms as poets would try to capture some elemental truth in their work. The key to this understanding, as she makes abundantly clear, is to realise that it is not just the peaks that make a mountain range, but as much, if not more, the nooks and crannies that can be discovered by the curious.
The choice of title is not only deliberate but also definitive - the water which “does nothing but be itself” is the life-giving fluid, mists that hide and reveal its respiratory system, the rock its bones, the snow its flesh. And among this inanimate life lives the flora and fauna. Plants that were able to outwit an ice-age still cling close to the ground. Animals like the mountain hare and ptarmigan that can fool their predators by blending into the landscape regardless of season – these are the lives within the life, caught in the footprints that make the observer “companied, but not in time”. There are also humans who are part of this living world, but not those who arrive in their air-polluting cars and stride out in their must-have motley to add another tick to their collection. Rather they are men and women who, because they have to work with the hill, blend with the hill and understand it and its ways.
The sort of men and women who understand that in snow when “you can’t see your footsteps behind you, [you] don’t go on” – the sort of advice that might have saved lives that were needlessly lost. Perhaps this is the reason why the book is as relevant today as it was when Shepherd first wrote it. With our lists of summits to be ticked, coffee-table extravaganza and Sunday Supplements trilling ‘The last Wilderness in Britain’ there is a tendency to subject mountains like the Cairngorms to Disneyfication, turning them into places you should visit as you might an exotic holiday resort. But the Cairngorms are not a sanitised, air-conditioned version of the Great Outdoors. They are dangerous and if you make a serious mistake you will in all probability die. As the snow bunting and saxifrage know conditions on the tops are Arctic rather than Alpine and should be approached with caution. Shepherd says you should “visit the mountain as one visits an old friend”. The implication that the Cairngorms is somewhere you know intimately and treat with respect should not be lost on the reader.
But there is another side to this particular coin. As much as you should respect the mountain you should also embrace it. The author believes that no one knows the mountain who has not slept on it. She feels that to discover its essence something intangible must exist between you and the mountain. What makes this slim memoir unique is her ability to not only quantify in words that “something” but also inspire the reader to look for a similar experience.