Nan Shepherd

In the Cairngorms

“Strange gifts of pleasure has the mind
Strange darknesses the soul.
An influence takes her from the blind
Dark worlds that round her roll.”

“Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent.” wrote Annie Dillard in her observations of nature and self at the most conscious level. “You can heave your spirits into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and will not throw it back.”

Though I eagerly nod in agreement with Dillard, I was content not to ponder it too deeply until I considered the prepositions.1

Not long ago mountains were the metaphor of the most supreme, sublime power. “As the Titans had made Othrys their mountain home, so Zeus now chose for his headquarters Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest peak,” instructs Stephen Fry in his retelling of ancient myths, “He and his gods would be known as the Olympians and they would rule as no divine being had ever ruled before or since.”

Mountains have time beyond measure, an eternity of slow force and change. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
We’ve always gone up mountains or down them, body and soul.

What Dillard reckoned, and really she’s just reimagining something conceived decades earlier by Scottish nature writer and poet Anna “Nan” Shepherd (February 11, 1893 – February 23, 1981), is perhaps our spirit has a different relationship with a mountain than our body does. Perhaps we need a different preposition.

So there I lie on the plateau, 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. Slowly I have found my way in.

From Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain

In the Cairngorms is a small book holding the only poems Shepherd ever wrote though they span forty-five years.2 In these lines her heart is barestript (a word from Walt Whitman.)

“I found my way in.

Bush and meadow, field and tree,
stand in their self-sufficient silence.
Each belonging wholly to itself.
Each deep in its own dream.

Clouds float by and stars stream light
as if appointed as higher sentinels
and the mountain with its steep ridges
towers above, dark, tall, and distant.

From Hermann Hesse’s “Walking at Night”3

sidereus nuncius
Galileo’s drawing of the moon’s mountains as seen through his hand-made telescope. Published in Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius in 1610.

Shepherd’s Cairngorms are found in northern Scotland. The weather, the light, and the wet are as much a part of the mountain as its flora, fauna and rock.

As Shepherd says, everything is “blent.”

Strange gifts of pleasure has the mind
Strange darknesses the soul.
An influence takes her from the blind
Dark worlds that round her roll.

The world of rocks and streaming seas,
And thrusting tangled roots;
Of bogs and old engulfed trees,
And boulders dank as brutes.

And sunken there the mind may not
Relume her former fire,
All her bright pinnacles forgot,
Her vehemence and ire […]

From “Lux Perpetua”

In this mountain/mind/spirit space, one does more than merely go up and over or up and down, there is transmutation.

But in the climbing ecstasy of thought,
Ere consummation, ere the final peak,
Come hours like this. Behind, the long defile,
The steep rock-path, alongside which, from under
Snow-caves, sharp-corniced, tumble the ice-cold waters.
And now, here, at the corries summit, no peak,
No vision of the blue world, far, unattainable,
But this grey plateau, rock-strewn, vast, silent…

From “Summit of Corrie Etchachan”

The unexpected inversion of a summit into a lake mirrors the same unexpected inversion into self, when Shepherd writes “slowly I have found my way in” she could mean her own hollows.

From Shepherd’s poem “Embodiment”

There is no substance but light.
The visible worlds
Are light
Undergoing process of creation

Into some vision
that a god thought out in light
And that in consummation
Will shine as pure light.

We are this substance,
We are too near it,
As the god wrests it and strains it,
To see it for what it is.

We are the knots and tangles
In a god’s vision,
The thrawn refusals
Of material to become form.

This tangled stew of light, god, mountain and human is a sort of transmutation of things, ‘material becomes form.’ The mountain means more than metaphor,4 it is almost a being.5

Thirty years in the life of a mountain is nothing – the flicker of an eyelid. Yet in the thirty years since this book was written many things have happened to the Cairngorms, some of them spectacular things, things that have won them a place in the Press. … Now, an old woman, I begin tidying out my possessions and reading it again and I realize that the tale of my traffic with a mountain is as valid today as it was then. That it was a traffic of love is sufficiently clear; but love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge.

From Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain

Approaching nature with such expansive openness changes how we see its possibilities in not only an exclusive, unique being, but also as it ultimately relates to humans.

Shepherd’s “Pool Beside the Birches” imagines water wanting to move to wind and sun (in some Orpheus-induced splendor).

Pool, where would thy waters run,
fleeing so fast toward the sun?
Dost thou not know thou art shut in?
Thou canst not pass thy boundary,
And ’tis but air that hurries by,
Disturbing they serenity. […]

Does the pool pursue its own glory? Does it dialogue with the wind or an unknowable divine? The idea that nature contains secrets from us is quite different than imagining it contains secrets for us.

The older I become the more I recognize the sanctity of nature. I’ve never been completely anthropocentric (despite this blog being ostensibly all about humans) but it was not until I let myself sink into nature that I realized it does not have to be traipsed, discovered, written about or even photographed to be grand. And when we do these things they are small ways of “owning” it, in that we frame, focus, take etc.

Photograph by Ade Parker, featured in Peter Wohlleben's "The Secret Life of Trees" in the Examined Life Library.
“I’ve known of this tree for a long time but because it’s quite close to where I live I’ve never been to see it, for some strange reason….what a mistake! It’s a beautiful old tree, full of character. Probably about 350-400 years old and about 6m girth.” Photograph and notes by tree tracker Adrian Parker.
When reading Shepherd I wonder; what if I let nature own me? Of course it will in death, nature reclaims everything alive. Are we fighting nature because we cannot fight death, or because it reminds us of death? Many have thought so, from fairy and folk tales, to contemporary poetry, nature is a metaphor for something completely indifferent to our existence, bigger than our existence.

How do we make peace with that?

The Bush

In that pure ecstasy of light
The bush is burning bright.
Its substance is consumed away
And only form doth stay,
Form as of boughs, but boughs of fire,
That flicker and aspire,
Or stand in stilled beatitude
And shine, which is their good.
So holy Sun, pour down on me,
That I pure fight may be.
Thy life, my form – a whole unique
Whereof I would not speak,
But only be’t, that though mayst shine
In this new shape of thine.

I believe Shepherd sought that peace her entire life and furthermore, I think this collection demonstrates she found it.