I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself.
“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself while looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality,” she writes in the book’s early pages to explain her approach to her surroundings:
[S]tatic things may [thus] be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. … From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles—
But here, where she might have allowed herself to be swept up in the lyricism of her own descriptive prose, she pauses to reconsider her words and goes on to revise them. “[B]ristles is a word of too much commotion for it,” she concedes. “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”
The object of Shepherd’s boundless fascination is the Cairngorm Plateau in northern Scotland, a plateau long ago fragmented under the pressure of the glacial drift that shaped the heights and carved out the valleys of the spectacular Cairngorm Mountains. In The Living Mountain, treating the whole of the plateau as one enormous mountain crowned with multiple peaks, Shepherd describes some of her experiences in the Cairngorms, albeit with a tighter focus on their quotidian details than on the eventful scaling of summits. The title, however, is slightly misleading in its suggestion that the book sets out to simply catalogue the varieties of life on the plateau. A more accurate title would be Living the Mountain, since the book in fact records an attempt to delve within the mountain and live as the mountain lives, to become the mountain itself and thereby bring to expression its view of the life that thrives on and around it. “So there I lie on the plateau,” Shepherd writes at the end, “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.” But while all of those elements of the Cairngorms are detailed in The Living Mountain, poetically and often adoringly, the purpose of their detailing seems to be for Shepherd to attempt to do what she now says she feels she has done. “Slowly,” she declares, “I have found my way in.” She wants not simply to experience the Cairngorm Plateau, nor to recount or convey an experience of it, but, having already experienced it, to retrospectively reach towards becoming the source of experience and to do so via an articulation of an appropriately suprahuman view of this part of the world.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, Shepherd works her way through the various aspects of the Cairngorm Plateau: its creation during the glacial age, its erosion by the elements, its resultant geology and geography, its plentiful plant and animal life, its metamorphosis under human hands. In each instance, though, looking beyond the surface of these aspects of the plateau, she finds her own vision imposing upon them a meaning they otherwise lack — reading significance into them much as one reads it into the symbols forming the words of a book — and then she casts about for ways in which to purge herself of this tendency to impose, all the better to see the plateau as it is in itself, in total, and stripped of onlookers’ preconceptions. “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?” she marvels:
the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. … [But p]erhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty. … A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.
Occasionally, Shepherd defends and even romanticises her admiration of the natural world, naming it as very literally her raison d’être. “[T]he resultant issue is a living spirit,” she writes, “a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” Ultimately, though, Shepherd finds herself drawn back to the tactility and integrity of the mountain, to its feeding of her senses, to her recurrent immersion in its surroundings, to her accretive appreciation of its quotidian being, and to the suprahuman view of the mountain that this appreciation allows her to achieve, piecemeal, over the course of a lifetime. “If I had other senses,” she writes,
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.
Is it futile for Shepherd to attempt to articulate what she sees when she stands in awe of such moments? On occasion, it is, and as a result her articulations can contradict one another. But perhaps futility is simply the price to be paid by those who would seek to do what she does. Bending her own mode of being to better encompass that of something far beyond the human, she cannot help but bend and sometimes break the language through which she would channel this mode of being into human expression. It is, above all, this warping of both the woman and the words she uses that sets The Living Mountain apart from the bulk of that with which it has been forced to share a genre. Much nature writing, and much writing in general, is the echo of an author’s impulse to sit down and write. Some object sparks the imagination, the mind lights up with a glow, and the writing elaborates on the qualities of the vista newly illuminated. Rather than echoing that impulse, however, The Living Mountain turns towards it in order to strike at its very core. Shepherd’s imagination, sparked by the object of the Cairngorm Plateau, fixes its gaze on the spark itself to advance a conflation of subject and object, to burrow deep down inside the thing that both impels the writing and is written about, and so to investigate, rather than elaborate on, how and why it gives off the glow that lights up the imagination in the first place.