This week I want to put a word in for a work in prose that I find, in the good sense, very poetic. (I am sadly aware, of course, that for most people these days ‘poetic’ has come to be more or less synonymous with ‘obscure, pretentious and artificial’, but I would like to reclaim it for ‘precise, observant, vivid and not too far removed from the idiom and rhythms of common speech’).
The work in question is ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) and is about her lifelong relationship with the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland. Written towards the end of the Second World War, it lay for years unpublished and assumedly unpublishable in the writer’s drawer, as if waiting till the times were ready for it, and finally appeared to a steadily growing acclaim in the nineteen-seventies.
It is a work hard to characterise, that has a transcendent visionary quality but at the same time is firmly rooted in the tangible, in rock and water, bird and flower, the nuances of changing light and weather, and is suffused throughout with a fierce physical joy in both the writer’s own body and the body of the mountain. The Gaels have a word ‘dùthchas’ (pronounced something like ‘doo-khas’) that is not easily translated: it can simply mean ‘one’s country, the place of one’s birth’, but it can mean more than that: an intense feeling of belonging to a particular landscape, ‘a sense of landscape, geography and history combined into one formal order of experience’. Nan Shepherd’s book seems to me a perfect exemplar of dùthchas. It also brings to mind the words that Walter de la Mare used of Edward Thomas: ‘Long-looking, long-desiring, long-loving – these win at last to the inmost being of a thing.’ They certainly allowed Nan Shepherd to win to the heart of her beloved Cairngorms.
I have chosen just a few almost random extracts to give some idea of the book’s style and substance, but really every page has some luminous phrase, some celebratory flash of observation. Just don’t expect a plot, or any help with peak-bagging. This is not a guide to conquering mountains. It is a guide to being part of them.
‘Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating immense distances with an effortless intensity. So on a clear day one looks without any sense of strain from Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs, and out past Ben Nevis to Morar. At midsummer, I have had to be persuaded I was not seeing further even than that. I could have sworn I saw a shape, distinct and blue, very clear and small, further off than any hill the chart recorded. The chart was against me, my companions were against me, I never saw it again. On a day like that, height goes to one’s head. Perhaps it was the lost Atlantis focused for a moment out of time’.
‘To walk out through the top of a cloud is good. Once or twice I have had the luck to stand on a tip of ground and see a pearled and lustrous plain stretch out to the horizons. Far off, another peak lifts like a small island from the smother. It is like the morning of creation.’
‘The Cairngorm water is all clear. Flowing from granite, with no peat to darken it, it never has the golden amber, the ‘horse-back brown’ so often praised in Highlands burns. When it has any colour at all, it is green, as in the Quoich near its linn. It is a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water.’
‘Of plants that carry their fragrance in their leaves, bog myrtle is the mountain example. This grey-green shrub fill the boggy hollows, neighboured by cotton-grass and sundew, bog asphodel and the spotted orchis, and the minute scarlet cups of the lichens. Its fragrance is cool and clean, and like the wild thyme it gives it most strongly when crushed. The other shrub, juniper, is secretive with its scent. It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it afresh now and then to renew the spice. This dead wood has a grey silk skin, impervious to rain. In the wettest season, when every fir branch in the woods is sodden, the juniper is crackling dry and burns with a clear heat.’
‘Once the snow has fallen, and the gullies are choked and ice is in the burns, green is the most characteristic colour in sky and water. Burns and river alike have a green glint when seen between snowy banks, and the smoke from a woodman’s fire looks greenish against the snow. The shadows on snow are of course blue, but where snow is blown into ripples, the shadowed undercut portion can look quite green. A snowy sky is often pure green, not only at sunrise or sunset, but all day; and a snow-green sky looks greener in reflection, either in water or from windows, than it seems in reality. Against such a sky, a snow-covered hill may look purplish, as though washed in blaeberry. On the other hand, before a fresh snowfall, whole lengths of snowy hill may appear a golden green. One small hill stands out from this greenness: it is veiled by a wide-spaced fringe of fir trees, and behind them the whole snowy surface of the hill is burning with a vivid electric blue.’
‘No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world. These moments of quiescent perceptiveness before sleep are among the most rewarding of the day. I am emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and sky. In midsummer the north glows with light long after midnight is past. As I watch, the light comes pouring round the edges of the shapes that stand against the sky, sharpening them till the more slender have a sort of glowing insubstantiality, as though they themselves were nothing but light.’