When I was 22 I went to the Cairngorms in the company of a fell runner. Thank the Lord I was only 22, as he took me up the mountain at a fair lick and declared I looked much healthier when I arrived puffing and red faced on the summit. Now I want to go again thanks to reading The Living Mountain.
Nan Shepherd knew these mountains with an intimacy normally reserved for indigenous tribesmen. She describes every element of the mountain with exquisite attention to detail, the taste of the air, the feel of heather under bare feet, the forming of ice in a mountain stream.
Do not think though that this makes the book dry and fact ridden, anything but. Her love affair with the mountain and it’s people comes through in every line. There is such delicacy of prose here that you stop and re read a line for the shear beauty of it.
I find it hard to imagine a man writing this book. That is not to say that men cannot be great nature writers, just that I feel they would see the mountain differently, walk it differently, as a summit to climb, as a thing to be conquered. They maybe would not take the time to see and feel as she did about each flower and change of light.
The more I read this book the more I began to think that, if Nan Shepherd were alive today, I would be encouraging her to take other women out into the mountains. There is something hugely liberating about reading about a women who walks alone in the wilderness and doesn’t once feel afraid. If this was somehow easier to do in the 1940’s when she wrote this book, than it is now, then we have gone backwards as a society.
As a women who also walks alone in the countryside and doesn’t feel afraid then maybe it is for me to take up that mantel and lead other women into the hills and say, ‘look, this is for you too.’
The historical nature of this book is also part of the fascination. Shepherd writes of a world of downed fighter planes in lonely gullies, of old women living in bothies, of the felling of the Caledonian forest. This book more than any I have possibly ever read transports you into it’s landscape. You can read this on a packed underground train and miss your stop as you walk the summits and skinny dip in the lochs and sit by a peat fire in a lonely mountain hut.
I would rate The Living Mountain alongside The Peregrine as the best that nature writing can be. This is a book to keep and savour again and again and underline the passages and visit them when you are down and the world has gone dark and you are in bed alone and need to be up among the mountains with Nan.