Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you discover a literary classic later in life. Sometimes it can be a disaster. One can only feel sympathy for those readers who came across Le Grand Meaulnes at any point after adolescence. With each rereading the widening distance between one’s long lost youth and the adolescent flash and fire so brilliantly evoked by Alain-Fournier seems more and more unbridgeable. The connection is torn away in what can feel like a minor personal tragedy. Yet to read it for the first time as a 17-year-old is an unrepeatable joy.
The Living Mountain, thankfully, is a treasure that, rather like the Cairngorms it describes so wondrously, stands alone in space and time. Happening on it at any point in one’s reading life brings unexpected pleasure. It is thanks to Robert Macfarlane, who has written a typically penetrating introduction to a new edition, that the book, first published in 1977 after lying orphaned in a drawer for four decades, is now enjoying a second wind. So much so that the recent, universally glowing accolades even include the claim that this is ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. For Macfarlane it is ‘one of the two most remarkable twentieth-century British studies of a landscape that I know’. So we are in serious territory here.
Nan Shepherd, the author of this little-known, rediscovered gem, might have choked on her hillwalker’s flask of tea to read such superlatives about a book for which she was unable – or was it unwilling?– to find a publisher for half a lifetime. When it was finally published, in the same year as Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, it is only fair to say that it created a modest literary ripple rather than an out-and-out splash. And yet.
Books, as we know, can have curious gestation periods and lives of their own. Nan Shepherd was known in her lifetime for a trio of novels, published from the late 1920s, and a collection of poetry, which appeared in 1934. There then followed decades of literary silence, precisely why we may never really know. The Living Mountain only saw the light of day four years before her death in 1981 at the age of 88. Until last year, when the first biography of Shepherd was published (Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock), much of this enigmatic writer’s life was a mystery, beyond the fact that she worked for four decades as an English lecturer at what is now Aberdeen College of Education.
The Living Mountain is not mountaineering literature as we have come to know it: honourable exceptions aside, thank goodness for that. There are different, more valuable thrills to be found in these pages. Those searching for the familiar fare of self-dramatizing male mountaineers slogging up cols, pioneering suicidal new routes up snow, rock and ice, and ‘knocking off’ summits in moments of hypoxic, hallucinating glory will be disappointed. Shepherd does not go in for that characteristically male brand of bravado. Her writing instead is marked by a gentle lyricism which unfolds across, and helps shape and reshape, this extraordinary landscape, to the point where peaks are neither here nor there. In her Cairngorms summits are mere distractions from the greater, more interesting whole.
The clue, I think, lies in the title, The Living Mountain – that use of the singular. I found myself captivated by this sense of the organic whole, the distillation of an entire range of mountains encompassing more than a hundred square miles into a single entity. For Shepherd, ‘The plateau is the true summit of these mountains; they must be seen as a single mountain, and the individual tops . . . no more than eddies on the plateau surface.’ It is an arrestingly aerial, almost otherworldly, perspective in a book which, despite its slim dimensions, offers multiple viewpoints and visions of a landscape experienced deeply and repeatedly over a lifetime. And it is not just the various aspects of the Cairngorms themselves which meld into the singular. The wind and weather, the flora and fauna, the very air itself are all constituent parts of the living mountain. ‘The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird – all are one.’ If this may be a little too Zennish for some readers – the book ends with an overtly Buddhist flourish – it should be said that the mysticism and metaphysics are worn lightly and conveyed, like the rest of the book, in sparkling prose.
Shepherd’s observational powers, expressed through a lens which moves serenely from the smallest detail to the broadest, wind-lashed panorama, announce her as a writer of real distinction. In a tripartite section on ‘Life’, divided into chapters on plants, wildlife and man, she marvels at the flora that somehow survives in this savage environment. She delights in ‘birdsfoot trefoil, tormentil, blaeberry, the tiny genista, alpine lady’s mantle’, all of which look ‘inexpressibly delicate’ from above, though their sturdy roots below bespeak a ‘timeless endurance’. There is profound physical satisfaction in walking through the ‘soft radiance’ of amethyst-coloured ling, kicking up ‘a perfumed cloud’ of pollen. She revels in the sight and smell and touch and sounds of shocking-pink moss campion, bog myrtle, pine, spruce, birch and juniper. The roots of enormous Scots firs are ‘twisted and intertwined like a cage of snakes’.
Shepherd is more alive to her environment than almost any other writer one can think of. Her writing bristles with aperçus – light catching the down of a ptarmigan’s translucent breast feather (a ‘fugitive spindrift’); blueberry growing out of the stumps of fir trees felled in the Great War: ‘a multitude of pointed flames seem to burn up-
wards all over the moor’. Forensic attention is given to the mystery of how running water freezes.
But the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion in water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved.
Who has pondered so elegiacally the many sounds of water, ‘the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate’, or paused long enough to discern ‘a dozen different notes’ on a short stretch of burn? This is Britain’s Arctic, a land of ferocious, frequently fatal storms. She records the worst one to hit the Cairngorms in fifty years, watching the great mountain mass ‘eddy and sink and rise (as it seemed) like a tossed wreck on a yellow sea’, flashes of rock and ice jutting through ‘the boiling sea of cloud’ like masts and spars as ‘the sky kicked convulsively’ around them.
The prose-poetry continues with the fauna of the Cairngorms. To read Shepherd on the ‘mad, joyous abandon’ of the swift swooping over a precipice again and again for the sheer delight of it is to recall Leigh Fermor writing on dolphins gambolling off the Peloponnesian coast in Mani. This is a world of white hares ‘streaking up a brown hillside like rising smoke’. She muses startlingly on the swiftness of the eagle and the peregrine falcon, the red deer and the hare, wondering why grace has been added to the severely practical necessity of speed. Perhaps ‘the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings’ become lovely through their obedience to function so that ‘Beauty is not adventitious but essential’.
The travel writer and warrior Wilfred Thesiger used to say that it was the people, not the places, that mattered most to him. They are likewise fundamental to Shepherd, part of the living mountain, and she pays grand tribute to those wind-wizened souls who have made this wilderness their home.
Shepherd teaches us, too, to view the world with new eyes. The living mountain she contemplates with such wonder has an inside, she tells us, and this sharp but gentle contemplation of the interior finds its natural reflection in her own internal journey of discovery, enabled and framed by the mountain, ‘for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own’.
‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live,’ Shepherd wrote in The Quarry Wood, her first novel – words which now appear on the Scottish £5 note. In this, her last published work, she demonstrates how dazzlingly she used such leave as a gift for living, listening, loving, recording, discovering and, above all perhaps, for writing.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Justin Marozzi 2018