The Living Mountain

One of the best books I’ve ever read is The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Written during the long hard years of World War II, The Living Mountain takes the reader right into the heart of the Cairngorms in the northeast of Scotland. The Cairngorms are subarctic highlands, mountains some four million years old, having been conceived in the Devonian Period. Shepherd was born and lived her whole life near these mountains and spent countless hours, nights and days, traipsing through them, napping on them, tenting in a crag or on a riverside. (The magical Rivers Avon and Dee begin here.)

We almost lost the opportunity to read this treasure of a book, for it lay in a drawer for three decades after a single publisher rejected it. The book is original in its approach; its twelve short chapters have simple-sounding titles like “Water” or “The Senses”. But Shepherd’s writing is lyrical and her relationship with the mountains is complex. She writes: “However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.”

Shepherd tells of ptarmigan in the snow, young amateur alpinists lost in the heavy mists, military planes smashing into the plateau, and Mary MacKenzie, a crofter who speaks Gaelic by the fire. But her writing is not romantic; it surpasses rapture and ascends into an appreciation that is intimate. Shepherd has an ability to see beauty in all aspects of the mountains; her awe never leaves her and its high level draws us in.

All the aromatic and heady fragrances — pine and birch, bog myrtle, the spicy juniper, heather and the honey-sweet orchis, and the clean smell of wild thyme — mean nothing at all in words. They are there to be smelled.

Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorms

I read this book slowly, which is unusual for me, but I did not want it to end. I was sad when it did. For it had been a companion that reached into my soul, as the mountains did to Shepherd’s:

“…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…I am not out of myself but in myself.”

With The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd gives us a classic that ranks with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Emerson’s Nature. Having been rediscovered, The Living Mountain should be widely read.

Nan Shepherd on a Bank of Scotland note

This blog is written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. I’m also a retired Sub-lieutenant (NCS) and a member of the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. You are invited to subscribe to the blog by going to the Contact page, clicking the bars in the top right corner, and then clicking the small blue bar that says “following.” Then you’ll get an entry every couple of weeks or so delivered right to your inbox.

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