Book Week: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

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Walking into the mountains. Credit: Ross Brannigan

Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain is often introduced with the first lines of the first chapter, of the varying climes of the mountains and the people who walk them.

However, Nan Shepherd’s most obscure and mysterious book has another, more philosophical tone: “Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.”

This taps into the sensuous aspect of Shepherd’s work, and goes to the core of that philosophical strand of thought Merleau-Ponty would later go on to describe in his 1945 work The Phenomenology of Perception. Shepherd wrote those lines almost a decade before.

For Shepherd, the walker, the trees, the rivers, the snow, the wind – they are all one. Just as the massif of the Cairngorms is one huge lump of granite – of which the tops are but eddies, as she calls them. Everything is connected in The Living Mountain. Nothing works in isolation. We become part of the land, and the landscape within ourselves can be further explored.

The book lay dormant for almost four decades after Shepherd finished the book. Why, I have not found out yet, but it was published quietly by Aberdeen University in the 1970s.

It is a book on wandering. There is no summit in Shepherd’s meanderings through the Cairngorm mountains.

She can describe every twist and turn of the streams which pour from the sides of Braeriach, and every scar in the stone of this great plateau.

Having walked myself in these mountains, it gives me great pleasure to walk with her into them, and understand how she perceives the range.

So, go on an adventure. Don’t just aim for the peak of the mountain, to obtain some sort of god-like view over the dominion of earth below. Walk into the mountain, the living mountain; because it is alive, as Shepherd so accurately portrays.

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“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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