Happy New Year! I saw in 2013 up in Scotland, where two dear friends were getting married on New Year’s Eve itself – great cause for a magnificent double celebration.
Scotland is a very special place. I feel like I will never get enough of it. Not only is it the home of jawdropping landscape and all my favourite foods – raspberries, smoked salmon, porridge, whisky – but it is also home to many wonderful books. On recent trips to Scotland, I’ve read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s coming-of-age classic Sunset Song – which, incidentally, also features a wedding on New Year’s Eve – and Gavin Maxwell’s beautiful Ring of Bright Water. This time, knowing I was going to be surrounded by friends and mostly drinking and dancing for the few days, I took a slim book as my companion, most of which was read on the train journey home.
I came across Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Macfarlane evidently loves this book, as, in addition to writing about it at length, he found one of his epitaphs in it: ‘My eyes were in my feet’. Happily, in this Canongate Canons edition of The Living Mountain, Shepherd’s masterpiece is preceded by a mighty Macfarlane introduction.
The Living Mountain is Nan Shepherd’s tale of her ‘traffic of love’ with the Cairngorm mountains. Today’s traffic – the scourge of cities, motorways, modern-day life – seems like it must be a million miles away from the Cairngorms; indeed it is to escape this traffic that one goes walking in the mountains. But Shepherd means traffic in the sense of movement not congestion, as exchange – this book is what she has learned from the mountain, what she has experienced through years of climbing, walking, foraging, sleeping on it:
Something moves between me and it … I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.
Looking at the etymological root of ‘traffic’, etymonline (a wonderful and fascinating website, by the way) states it could be from the Vulgar Latin word transfricare, meaning ‘to rub across’, with the original sense of the Italian verb being ‘touch repeatedly, handle’. I love this etymological resonance of ‘traffic’ as it hints at the sensuality of Shepherd’s book. There is a huge amount of touching in The Living Mountain, as though she spends the hundred pages of it literally rubbing herself across the mountain. There is for sure an eroticism in this book full of bodily sensations, a thrill at the touch of things:
After rain I run my hand through juniper or birches for the joy of the wet drops trickling over the palm, or walk through long heather to feel its wetness on my naked legs.
Nan Shepherd’s prose is stunning – clear as a mountain stream, deep as a loch. Macfarlane describes it as ‘precision as lyricism’, which is spot on. There are no wafty, vague, romantic sweeps across the landscape, instead she pays attention to minutiae – names of flora, specific encounters with animals. Somehow in Shepherd’s hands a list of flowers becomes a spell of poetry:
birdsfoot trefoil, tormentil, blaeberry, the tiny genista, alpine lady’s mantle
Who knows what on earth these queerly named alpine plants look like? It is as though she is conjuring a magical kingdom, some kind of Narnia, but in very precise scientific terms. And indeed, as she points out:
The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect … the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin – that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension … It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done.
It is astonishing to think that these mountain flowers, with their peculiar names, have been alive since before the Ice Age. Even Shepherd admits that her ‘imagination boggles’ at this. Boggling or not, she treats this fact with her idiosyncratic intelligence: ‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery.’ This should be every scientist’s motto! Even from my amateur scientific experience of Biology and Chemistry A-Levels, I could see that the more you learn about the nature of things, the more there is to discover, and the further you feel from getting the bottom of it. Moreover, I found science to be riddled with a sense of a mysterious beauty underlying everything. The double helix of DNA, for instance, is an astonishing, mysterious beautiful thing literally at the heart of our existence. So much work and knowledge went into discovering this structure, yet never dispelled its mystery.
Shepherd says that the knowledge of something ‘gives it a new dimension’. This is an idea that she comes back to again and again on the mountain – new dimensions, new ways of seeing:
A scatter of white flowers in grass, looked at through half-closed eyes blaze out with a sharp clarity as though they had actually risen up out of their background. Such illusions, depending on how the eye is placed and used, drive home the truth that our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again. It’s queer but invigorating.
This idea of looking at things with ‘half-closed eyes’ reminds me of Hermia’s line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Methinks I see things with parted eye
When every thing seems double.
For Hermia, it is as though she is awakening from a dream, and so there is a feeling of being bleary-eyed and half-asleep, but there is also a sense of other-worldliness. ‘Every thing seems double’, as though there is another version in another world, which you can only see with this eerie ‘parted eye’. This is not so far from Shepherd’s ‘half-closed eyes’ seeing illusions that suggest ‘our habitual vision of things … is only one of an infinite number’. Here in the thin air of the mountain, perhaps she is on the edge of another world – if not of fairies, then certainly of magic.
The Living Mountain shines and pulses with the magic behind life. If ever there was a book to show you how feeble and limited our ‘habitual vision of things’ is, this is it. Shepherd has an astonishing way of pointing things out and distorting your vision, pulling things around, leaping from peering at the track of a hare to staring over a vertiginous drop. It is indeed an ‘unfamiliar’ vision of things, ‘queer but invigorating’.
How I long to go to the Cairngorms and see this landscape for myself – I wonder if it will be anything like as magical as the landscape conjured by Shepherd’s prose.
For now, however, my memory has been imprinted with the stunning neverending flatness of the vast West Sands beach by St Andrews, where we walked after the wedding, the new year stretching ahead of us.