Nan Shepherd

The Living Mountain

“As I reach the highest part of my dark moor, the world seems to fall away all around, as though I have come to its edge, and were about to walk over.”

A life spent taking heed of Annie Dillard‘s advice to throw oneself into a mountain, or Hermann Hesse‘s call to look up at its distant, dark peaks, is a life that leaves one in no doubt of its fullness.

Such was the life of Anna “Nan” Shepherd (February 11, 1893 – February 23, 1981), a Scottish writer and Highland native who threw herself into this incomprehensible space her entire life.

The Living Mountain is a short, elegant work Shepherd wrote in 1945. Due to a lukewarm reception from a publisher, she held on to the manuscript for thirty years. Lucky was the drawer into which it was tucked.

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.1

The Living Mountain is about Shepherd’s beloved Cairngorm mountain range in Scotland. These granite mountains, once higher than the Alps, were made from an eruptive core and chiseled within and away by ice and chapping wind.

Photo of Maine. Featured in Nan Shepard's "The Living Mountain" in the Examined Life Library.
Appalachian mountains in Maine. Like the Cairngorms this area forms an arctic-alpine environment with tundra-like flora and year-long snow and bald patches. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind.

The beauty of Shepherd’s writing is her all encompassing view of the mountain, from the geology, the history to the interplay of the smallest things visible through the aperture of nearsightedness.

The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin, that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age.

Alpine flora in Arthur's Pass, New Zealand. Featured in Nan Shepard's "The Living Mountain" in The Examined Life Library.
Alpine flora in Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The blue of the distance is “the light that got lost” Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her study of the beingness of lost. That blue is the depths of water and the distant of air. A volume that welcomes our imagination and expulsion of being.

Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity. So on a clear day one looks without any sense of strain from Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs, and out past Ben Nevis to Morar. At midsummer, I have had to be persuaded I was not seeing further even than that. I could have sworn I saw a shape, distinct and blue, very clear and small, further off than any hill the chart recorded.

The most wonderful spaces in nature act, in a way, like a mirror. I’m reminded of Emerson and Alan Lightman who both looked to the stars and felt lifted in their consciousness. The mountain reflects Shepherd back to herself and expands her consciousness at the same time.

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. If I had other senses there, there are other things I should know.

Photo of Nan Shepard featured in Shepard's "The Living Mountain" in The Examined Life Library.
Anna “Nan” Shepherd.
In The Living Mountain we see the mountain as a being. An embodied entity, an old friend, the calcification of all our memories, hopes, dreams, and yet a place unknown.

I began to discover the mountain in itself. Everything became good to me, its contours, its colours, its water and rock, flowers and birds. This process has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing.

Mountains – Shepherd’s, Dillard’s, Hesses’, my own and yours – exist in the greatest possible complexity. As Shepherd constantly notices, there is eternity and yet units of measure with each footfall, there is the fullness of life and constant death, joyous fear, revealing haze, strong water, knowledge and mystery.

Shepherd embraces everything, holds them up to the air, holds them close to her heart and in The Living Mountain graciously hands them to us.2

Often, in my bed at home I have remembered the places I have run lightly over with no sense of fear, and have gone cold to think of them. It seems to me then that I could never go back; my fear unmans me. Horror is in my mouth. Yet when I go back, the same leap of the spirit carries me up.

As you drift on Shepherd’s words you might also enjoy Joseph Brodsky’s love letter to Venice, written in a similar key as Shepherd; or Robert MacFarlane and Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark‘s respective writings on paths, journeys and the delights of walking.

And finally, Juni’chirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, written a decade before The Living Mountain but which whispers the same adoration of space, silence, wind and giving oneself to nature.