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My Inner Anthology: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

Written by Rachael Norris, 19th May 2021

Teaching and Learning Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin, recommends The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

In May the theme for our Daily Readings is inspired by The Reader Bookshelf theme of 'Walking the Earth'.  Our readings this month are about the human journeys – physical and metaphorical – we take to become who we are, about living on and with planet earth. Download our calendar for May.


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“It is when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles a trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.”

The Living Mountain is a book that had travelled in and out of my consciousness for the past year, if not a little longer. I had heard it being recommended by several Reader colleagues, which is typically a very good sign that a book is worth spending time with. I was particularly intrigued given that it was a non-fictional account; my reading ‘home’ is most typically with fiction, so choosing to read The Living Mountain felt like something of a journey in itself; somewhere out of the ordinary, a stretching beyond my comfort zone.

While I enjoy walking, and have definitely discovered a new-found appreciation for going on a lengthy walk during the various periods of lockdown and restrictions experienced over the last year, my abilities have never stretched as far as mountain climbing. Indeed, the closest I’ve ever come is clambering somewhat unsteadily up a steep hill – and more often than not, if there’s an easier route to be taken, then I will choose to embark upon it in order to give my less-than-peak fitness levels a better time of it. This left me wondering whether reading The Living Mountain would leave me feeling like a bit of an onlooker; able to nod along and predominately marvel in awe at, what is to me, the superhuman feat of traversing the Cairngorms, rather than feel any real identification with what was being detailed.

It didn’t take more than a few pages in for my apprehensions to be unfounded. Nan Shepherd writes in such a way, and with such intimate knowledge of the regions of the Cairngorms, that novices and fellow experienced climbers, as well as all those resting in-between, become utterly engaged with her world, and gain the ability, for a time, to see through her eyes and walk in her well-trodden footsteps. You can’t help but be filled with wonder as the most minute details of the landscape are recounted, along with a panoramic view of the wider picture, and a better guide you could not be in the company of, given the passion, as well as the curiosity, reverence, perhaps even a touch of fear, that Nan has for every aspect of the region that she has come to know so well throughout her life. Despite her well-versed familiarity, there is a clear thread of discovery that is always to be found, no matter how many times she has walked upon the range; she is constantly learning, seeing, hearing and feeling things that she has never felt before, which instills comfort as well as excitement in the reader; we are fellow adventurers upon Nan’s journey.

We are given an insight to the conditions and climate, from the frost and snow that can often be found throughout the year, no matter the season, to the quality of light and the dangers of the surrounding water, and the wildlife and nature that make their home amongst the mountains. All life is there, and it goes on, despite the harshness and perils that are to be expected out in the wilderness. I find myself fascinated by the cycle of nature even in my largely urban surroundings, but there’s something particularly magical in reading about this most fundamental of ‘going on’ in a place so remote, both in distance and the realms of my imagination.

The picture that is so effortlessly but expertly built gives us, the reader, a breadth of knowledge, as though we have every moment lived Nan’s experience alongside her. Yet for her deep connection with the mountains, woven through a lifetime spent walking, exploring, even sleeping upon them, it is the not knowing which is just as powerful, if not more so, than everything that has been acquired. As with every living thing in existence, Nan does not fully know the places she explores, but that is precisely what makes them worth being with.  To merely look holds so much potential.

“It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, 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.”

I read The Living Mountain not too far into the UK’s third national Covid lockdown in the depths of winter, which was also a time when I was feeling particularly beleaguered by anxiety and a general sense of uncertainty and trepidation of what was ahead. Reading The Living Mountain came not just as a breath but a lungful of fresh air, deepening my gratitude for the priceless value nature holds, wherever it is to be found.

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