The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

First Published: 1977, Aberdeen University Press

This Edition: 2011, Canongate Books

From the back of the book:  “Awe-inspiring, poetic and philosophical, The Living Mountain is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing.”

Thoughts: This book is beautifully written. From the descriptions of the scenery to the immersive way Shepherd walks you through the Cairngorms, it’s a delight to read. The only drawback is its brevity, at only 108 pages long, I could have read more. I would, however, skip reading the introduction. It is almost as long as the main text, and although an interesting look into the context of the book, I feel like Robert Macfarlane gives away most of the precious lines before you have a chance to reach them yourself. I’ve learnt my lesson there.

From years spent wandering in the mountains, Shepherd divides her thoughts into logical chapters, from plant-life to the humans that inhabit and appreciate  them. Her observations of the living world are astute yet poetic, and peppered with subtle commentary on human nature that give this book its substance. If I were to spend a week in the Cairngorms now, I would be looking out for the wonderful characters that she meets on her adventures, even though she forlornly added that most had passed away prior to publishing.

Her descriptions of the living world are never dry. When writing about the experience of walking through heather, the scent “like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp sense of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of intellect as well as the surge of emotion.” Each time a tiny fragment of the scenery is described in this way, I couldn’t help but stop and think ‘wow, I would never have thought to put it like that.’ And so, I spent a lot of time thinking about how clever the writing was, in addition to enjoying the reading.

The manuscript was finished in 1945, but lay unpublished until the late seventies. Whether this was due to a lack of confidence in it, indicated through letters discussed in the introduction, or the lack of market, I don’t know. But I wonder whether she would have attempted publication earlier had she known that The Living Mountain would become one of the true nature writing classics?

Edibility Rating: 4.5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “But they are not in the books for me – they are in living encounters, moments of their life that have crossed moments of mine.”

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Badgerlands

Badgerlands – Patrick Barkham

First Published: 2013, Granta Books

This Edition: 2014, Granta Books

From the back of the book: “There are more badgers per square kilometre in Britain than in any other country, yet they are scarcely seen and much maligned. Travelling across our fields and through our woods, Patrick Barkham seeks out these distinctively striped creatures, and the enthusiasts, farmers and scientists who know them best.”

Thoughts: When Badgerlands arrived on my bookshelf, I had already spent the last few years keenly following the controversy over the UK government’s decision to implement a yearly cull of badgers. It is happening as a desperate attempt to eradicate bovine Tuberculosis, a disease that costs the farming industry an awful lot of money and stress. But is it really the fault of badgers or have these iconic mammals become a scapegoat for the problem? Are there other options? Why is the cull continuing despite the lack of any scientific evidence to suggest it may work?

The cull has attracted both fervent supporters and passionate objectors, and the two have come head to head in debates, online and in the dark fields of Britain, trying desperately to kill and protect badgers in equal measure. Patrick Barkham spends time with both and lets us into the picture from several different angles.

In Badgerlands, Barkham investigates not only the current cull, but reminds us of the dark history that this species has faced in our countryside. This is not the first time they have been subjected to persecution, and despite the fact that the badger is a protected species under UK law, it looks like they will be targeted for some time to come. Badgerlands takes a deep breath and asks the questions that don’t come up in the furious online arguments and can’t be found within the DEFRA cull guidelines: What do these animals mean to us as individuals and as a nation? How have they been represented in folklore, popular culture and the media? And who are the people who live deep within Badgerlands, his imagined sphere of badger-y existence?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It appeared to earnestly try and present a balanced picture of the cull, but as with anyone who sticks their head too far down this particular rabbit hole, Barkham’s opinions sneak out more as the pages turn. It is not a lecture though, nor is it aggressive in its approach, and it was refreshing to read coherent and sensible arguments, even those that I didn’t agree with.

The only flaw I could really identify was in one chapter entitled ‘Vermin’ where the figures confused me a little. When referring to the percentage of cattle killed in the UK due to bovine TB it discusses a 10.2% rise between the years 2011 and 2012, but without knowing the actual number of cattle killed in the first year this isn’t helpful in appreciating the scale of the problem. Of the 8.3 million cows in the country, it makes a big difference if 10 cows were killed in 2011, or if 1 million cows were killed. That 10.2% rise would be somewhat more significant if it were the latter!

It is not a book overloaded with facts and figures though, and for those interested in a broad overview of how these nocturnal creatures exist in our landscape it is easy to digest and littered with anecdotes and fun character descriptions as Barkham gets to know badger scientists and backyard enthusiasts, and follows them in their work.

There was one chapter that made me feel very uncomfortable, ‘Lunch’. I did push through it, but it is not for the faint-hearted. So if you have a weak stomach or are a staunch vegan who recoils at the idea of gobbling up wildlife for curiosity’s sake, this might be a chapter to skim read. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person whose first thought when seeing something new is: “I want to eat that!” then, by all means, knock yourself out and read away!

Overall, this is the best book I’ve read in recent times, and I would recommend it whole-heartedly.

Edibility Rating: 5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Most deliciously, above the attractively variegated cast of bungling politicians, pitchfork-brandishing farmers and animal rights nutters, loomed the photogenic hero: the noble, innocent, tragically flawed black-and-white.”

Buy Badgerlands here