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The manuscript was finished in 1945, but lay unpublished until the late seventies.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.”