“This is how one ought to feel, I am convinced,” Vita Sackville-West exulted in a letter to Virginia Woolf early in their courtship, recounting the electric elation of having climbed to the top of a mountain summit to find bright yellow poppies punctuate the eternal snow. “I contemplate young mountaineers hung with ropes and ice-axes, and think that they alone have understood how to live life.”
Around the same time, ten latitude degrees north, Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) — another woman of immense literary talent and altitudinal ardor — was reverencing another mountain range and gleaning from it abiding wisdom on the art of living.
Shepherd, born Anna and self-christened Nan, was only an adolescent when she discovered her dual calling to literature and altitude. She roamed the Highlands of her native Scotland as zealously as she copied passages of the books she was devouring — novels, poetry, philosophy — into her commonplace book. By her twenties, she was writing original works of her own.
In the second half of her thirties, Shepherd was possessed with a wild burst of creativity perhaps best described by the Scots term fey in its mountaineering context — the iridescent exhilaration that comes over climbers, making them appear, in Shepherd’s own words, “a little mad, in the eyes of the folk who do not climb.” Over the course of six years, she published four books: three novels before she was forty and, in her forty-first year, a slim, immensely beautiful collection of poetry — the form she held above all other arts as concentrating “in intensest being the very heart of all experience” — titled The Cairngorms after her most beloved mountain range.
And then, half a lifetime of silence — it would be another forty-three years until Shepherd published her next, final, and greatest book.
Most probably, Shepherd began composing it sometime in the final years of WWII, drawing on her lifelong love and intimate knowledge of mountains in a masterpiece of observation and contemplation, both precise and spacious. But something stopped Shepherd from publishing it. Instead, she rested it in a drawer, where it was to remain for more than four decades, until it finally entered the world in the final years of her life as The Living Mountain (public library) — a most unusual braiding of memoir, field notebook, and philosophical inquiry irradiated with the poetic and endowed with what geologist Hans Cloos celebrated as the rare art of hearing Earth’s music.
Shepherd does for the mountain what Rachel Carson did for the ocean — both women explore entire worlds previously mapped only by men and mostly through the lens of conquest rather than contemplation; both bring to their subject a naturalist’s rigor and a poet’s reverence, gleaming from the splendor of facts a larger meditation on meaning.
With an eye to the Cairngorms — the locus of her most devoted mountaineering and most intimate knowledge of the poetics of the mountain — Shepherd celebrates the spirit of the place beyond its statistics:
Their physiognomy is in the geography books — so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet — but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind.
Reflecting on the exhilarating feyness that overtakes her every time she ascends the mountain and surrenders to its elements, both geologic and living, Shepherd adds:
Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered.
Shepherd illustrates this reality deeper than fact through her revelatory encounter with a narrow mountain loch that had never been sounded — a loch the depth of which she came to know on a level more dimensional than what is measured in feet or meters. She recounts wading into it for the first time with her climbing companion:
The clear water was at our knees, then at our thighs. How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal. To look through it was to discover its own properties. What we saw under water had a sharper clarity than what we saw through air. We waded on into the brightness, and the width of the water increased, as it always does when one is on or in it, so that the loch no longer seemed narrow, but the far side was a long way off. Then I looked…
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