The Living Mountain

Oh how I wish I’d thought of that post heading, but I borrowed it – the title of a new favourite book, “The Living Mountain” by Nan Shepherd. A wonderful little volume, I’d never heard of it until a few months ago. There’s a story behind that…fullsizeoutput_5cb

Back in late January, Junior announced she’d applied for a chef position with the Fairmont group. Fair enough, a good company to work for by all accounts, and a chance to learn and refine her skills in a different environment, with hotels in beautiful Alberta and BC locations. All true, but the position she’d applied for was in St. Andrews, Scotland. Also beautiful, but somewhat further afield! Two weeks after her announcement, she was on a jet plane heading for new adventures, and has been having a lovely time the past few months, so well done, Junior!fullsizeoutput_545

How does this connect to “The Living Mountain” mentioned at the start? The day Junior was on her way, I came home from the airport, rinsed my contact lenses – seemed to be having an issue with welling up – and started to read The Guardian paper online. Would you believe, that very day, they had an article suggesting the top ten books about wilderness Scotland? An interesting mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and because it was about books, I was brave enough to venture BTL and read comments and suggestions. It was there I saw Nan Shepherd recommended over and over, so I managed to track down a copy.fullsizeoutput_56f

What a find! Nan Shepherd’s slim volume is wonderful, a love letter to the beauty of the Cairngorm mountains, a place she explored her entire life. Her writing is outstanding – intense, detailed and meditative, describing the mountains using all her senses to bring them alive. She loves her mountains, and cannot quite believe their beauty. On describing the clarity of water:

Water so clear cannot be imagined, but must be seen. One must go back, and back again, to look at it, for in the interval memory refuses to recreate its brightness. This is one of the reasons why the high plateau where these streams begin, the streams themselves, their cataracts and rocky beds, the corries, the whole wild enchantment, like a work of art is perpetually new when one returns to it. The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.

You find yourself nodding with shared recognition at her delight in the natural world. When she describes silence at altitude, it is really about peace and quiet, rather than the absence of sound:

To bend the ear to silence, is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose…but now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. it is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon.fullsizeoutput_56e

There is a lovely section about how she is like an excited dog surrounded by the scents of the mountain:

On a hot moist midsummer day, I have caught a rich fruity perfume rising from the mat of grass, moss and wild berry bushes that covers so much of the plateau. The earthy smell of moss, and the soil itself, is best savoured by grubbing. Sometimes the rank smell of deer assails one’s nostril, and in the spring the sharp scent of fire.DSCF7094

I enjoyed how she captured the animal life on and above the mountain, like the eagle rising coil over coil in slow symmetry…and when he has soared to the top of his bent, there comes the level flight as far as the eye can follow, straight, clean, and effortless as breathing. There is a description of hares streaking up a brown hillside like rising smoke – perhaps hoping to avoid becoming prey to the eagle?

Every page reveals how Shepherd increases her love for the mountain. She understands the immeasurable value and importance of time spent in nature:

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 before, or sees in a new way what it has already seen.IMG_20180225_122122

What wealth indeed. The challenges to our natural environment have increased enormously in the decades since Shepherd wrote and published. Wild places are under more and more commercial pressure, reducing the opportunities to slow down, immerse the physical (and mental) self in outdoor beauty, and stop to contemplate the treasures we have. It is splendid to have books like “The Living Mountain”, but I wonder if in the near future, her record and those like it, will be all that remains, that we’ll be reading about instead of experiencing first hand the wonders of our natural world?IMG_20180311_125558

Many years ago, we took a camping trip in Scotland when Junior was a wee bairn. It was her first time camping, and she enjoyed it, from being bathed in a washing up bowl to sleeping soundly (phew!) in a tent, despite the wind and rain outside. Sometimes sunny, oftentimes wild and woolly, it was a fun trip. We got as far as the Cairngorms, but didn’t spend any significant time up there. Better informed now, thanks to Nan Shepherd, and with Junior as an advance party, it seems as if we’ll have to arrange another trip…

I’ll stop now, because otherwise all I’ll do is continue to select passages to illustrate how much I enjoyed Nan Shepherd’s mountain musing. The best thing is to get a copy – I heartily recommend it.

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

PS The photographs featured this week were all taken out and about in the past six months – not of the Cairngorms, but in our living mountains here in Alberta.

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I am a would be outdoorsman - that is if I had more time, skills and knowledge. When I can, I love being outdoors, just camping, hiking, snowboarding, xc skiing, snowshoeing, paddling a canoe or trying something new. What I lack in ability, I make up for in enthusiasm and having a go. I'd never really survive for long out there in the wild, but I enjoy pretending I could if I had to...

22 thoughts on “The Living Mountain”

  1. One of your most moving posts ever, pc. In our embraces, whether it is our young ones or earth’s natural beauties, we do what we can to preserve the bliss. Really enjoyed hearing about the Cairngorms, Junior’s career move, and the writings of Nan Shepherd; and seeing the grandeur of the mountains in Alberta. Warm thanks for this piece of art today.


    1. Thank you, Jet, for the lovely comment. Delighted you enjoyed this one, and if you get the chance, I think you’d really enjoy Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorms book – you share her love of the outdoors, be it on the grand scale, or something smaller and more intimate.
      I hope you’ve had a wonderful weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a really good book. I might indeed have to pick up a copy and congratulations to Junior. That sounds like a pretty amazing opportunity.


  3. Oh I get this. I really do.This is why I keep wanting to trek in Nepal again. And again. Once is never enough. So well expressed. Thank you for highlighting the book. What year was it written? I love the close up photo of the tree with the last of the autumn leaves. Louise


    1. Thank you, Louise! The close up of the leaves was taken in early March – we were surprised to see them still attached!
      To answer your questions using information from the introduction by Robert McFarlane, Nan Shepherd drew on a lifetime of wandering in the Cairngorms, but the bulk of the writing was done towards the end of the Second World War. However, the book wasn’t published until 1977, a few years before Nan Shepherd died. She’d been published before, several times in the 1930s, but when she submitted the manuscript to a friend for review, he suggested it might be difficult to get published, and she put the manuscript aside – for forty plus years!
      With your love of mountains, if you read it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful, on several accounts here, Plaid. First, congrats to Junior on her new post in Scotland. Be sure to visit her soon. I missed an opportunity when my own daughter got her Master’s over there in Glasgow. Secondly, thanks for the Shepherd book review. The excerpts you selected certainly are evocative and want me to add this book to my Search For list. Thirdly, your photos are on the mark again and complement the text very nicely. I’ve enjoyed it!


    1. Thanks for the congrats to Junior, Walt, and happy you enjoyed this one. Glasgow, historical reputation aside, is a fine city, somewhat rougher around the edges than rival Edinburgh, but I have fond (if hazy…) memories of a fun Glaswegian weekend. I hope your daughter enjoyed her time there – an easy launch pad to the Highlands. Will revisit, older and wiser, along with a trip to Edinburgh and beyond, when we get over to visit Junior.
      If you get hold of a copy, you’ll enjoy the Shepherd book, recognizing a kindred spirit…


  5. The book intrigues me so I bought it. I went to Scotland when I was a little girl and have a strong desire to return. I love the ruggedness of it and the mountains and scenery.


    1. I do hope you enjoy the book, and it further fuels your desire to return to Scotland. As you say, a land of rugged beauty!
      Thanks, Sherry, and I hope your weekend was a pleasant one.


  6. Absolutely lovely and you perfectly captured the beauty of our world with your photos, words and the words of Nan Shepherd! So wonderful to read about Junior’s exciting new adventure and you may need to plan a few trips! I loved Shepherd’s quote about silence and already bought the book. Of course, I had to check out the other books on the top ten list and I’ve always found it difficult to buy only one book. There was a great hockey story this week with the Capitals win, but it was another week of very depressing news in the world and I want to thank you for sharing these special words about your family and nature that provided a smile and reminder about the beautiful wonders of the world.


    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment – much appreciated!
      It is a lovely book, so I hope you enjoy it. Did you buy another from the list recommended in The Guardian? I was tempted by a few. Another writer mentioned BTL by many was Peter May and his Lewis trilogy. I got hold of the first two from the library, “The Blackhouse” and “The Lewis Man” and thoroughly enjoyed these mysteries set on the Hebrides, and I have the last on hold – recommended!
      Yup, I think the Caps win was about the only positive news out there this week. Everything else pretty poor, culminating in insulting the PM of the host country for the G7 meeting (and on twitter when flying away…)
      Thank goodness for natural wonders – and books!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I bought The Outrun A Memoir and Love of Country A Journey Through The Hebrides and now it looks like I will be adding Peter May to the library. Between the twitter statements and the comments yesterday on our Sunday news show, each week it is getting more difficult to turn on the news. Thankfully I have many books to read instead.📖🙂


  7. Sounds like a good book to bring along on our next trip, being read by a fire. I always admire when authors are able to weave words that stimulate your visual senses in a way most others cannot. This is especially true where nature is concerned.

    We’ll have to pick up a copy.


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