‘Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent’ (Nan Shepherd)


Have been meaning to write about Nan Shepherd for some time now, and then I found one of these whilst in Scotland last month – a Bank of Scotland £5 note honouring her. For anyone not already familiar, the novelist and poet Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) is best known for her book The Living Mountain, an account of her time spent walking in the Cairngorms. There is a quote from this wonderful book on the note itself, alongside one from her novel The Quarry – It’s a grand thing to get leave to live – itself a good thing to be reminded of.

But it is in The Living Mountain that Shepherd really explores what it is to live and be truly present. The note is decorated with a portrait of Nan staring thoughtfully out across the mountains, with a long quote about the battle between frost and running water. The reverse of the £5 note is pretty swish too, with its mackerel and squished midge and quote from Sorley MacLean’s ‘An Roghainn’ (‘The Choice’) But it was Nan’s face I kept hoping for in my change.

The most recent edition of the Living Mountain has an excellent introduction by Robert Macfarlane, who is (as one would of course expect) particularly good on Shepherd’s felicity for the interiority of landscape. Whether it be the inside of a mountain, or the inside of a cloud, she is never less than luminously present. Macfarlane references the novelist Neil Gunn, a friend of Shepherd’s, who described her precision as a form of lyricism, and weighs what sort of writing this really is. Prose poetry? Travel journal? Philosophy?

Her description of finding herself inside a cloud it was horrible to stand and stare into that pot of whiteness reminded me of being in a whiteout a few years ago on the Snæfellsjökull glacier in Iceland. This glacier was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s own trip to the heart of things, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In his description of the Snæfells summit, Verne mentions the art of looking down without blinking. I have written elsewhere about my experience of having amblyopia and its impact on depth perception and, finding myself that day on the glacier without any precise reference points besides perhaps the vaguest sense of an atomic friction was vertiginous and bewildering. Nan Shepherd really captures that almost existential micro-crisis that can be precipitated by fog or deep water. Elsewhere in Living Mountain, she writes – It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.

I was reminded here also of Jay Griffith’s book Wild (not Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same title) which also addresses ideas around visual perception. In her chapter Sight and Ice Light, Griffiths describes issues of shifting scale in the whiteness of the Arctic, for example the tale of a Swedish explorer carefully drawing a distant headland only for that headland to suddenly move and be revealed as a much closer walrus. Evidently the Inuit rely more on hearing than sight for reliable markers. Shepherd too, is practiced in the art of using all the senses, and resists any narrow formulations of perspective. She writes – I am not the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.

As Macfarlane also notes, Shepherd’s work, with its emphasis on thinking through the body, speaks directly to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Nan writes – Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through. A  reminder that too often we are consumed by the input of the eye, at the expense of the other senses – the hands for example, which as she says have an infinity of pleasure in them.

Nan is very good too on our apprehension of beauty, again speaking of the mountain – Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Having lived all my life in London I find myself envious of, and inspired by her ability (almost a century ago now) to return again and again by virtue of both will and proximity, to her beloved Cairngorms. To visit with them, as with a friend. Her book is a record of that friendship, and one which I return to often. It is as much an object lesson in paying close attention as it is in how to be alive, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Links –

The Living Mountain, review by Robert Macfarlane:

Nan’s poetry:


The lazy eye:

whw, last leg


long distance daydream




(because some days are longer than others)

‘Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins)


(much as Hopkins found it in 1881)


trail traffic



‘may the fire be always lit’


Day One on the West Highland Way, and not far out of Milngavie we reach the Craigallian Fire Memorial. It is a modest marker of something quite significant in the history of walking, despite which (today at least) most passing hikers seem to be just passing by. This granite boulder with its concrete firesticks commemorates a spot where people would meet during the Great Depression. They would share a cup of tea from the communal pot on the fire and swap stories, discussing philosophy, trail lore, politics and social movements. This doesn’t sound so far removed from many campfires I’ve sat around, but walking and mountaineering clubs grew out of this community, people went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and some of the fire-sitters went on to be instrumental in the Rights of Way movement, helping to secure the very paths and access that walkers often now take for granted. As such, it sits in spirit alongisde the likes of Kinder Scout and should be regarded as a beacon.

There’s a great website where you can read reminiscences of the time, here:

the determination of love

brady love

It was the annual Warton Lecture at the British Academy this week, in which Andrea Brady sought to affirm the value of poetry in difficult times. Loosely, her method was to celebrate and discuss poems of love which had been significant for her, in hope of pointing the audience back to those that might have been significant for them, with the larger aim of exploring how this might help us determine a better future. Referencing work by, amongst others: Lisa Robertson, Denise Riley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marvell, Shakespeare, Brady explored how love can be defined in language; how love might be released from its fixation on endings and catastrophe; and how love in its many forms might be resolute, particularly in terrible times, playing neatly on those two meanings of determination, vis-à-vis resolve and delineation. From the heart as ‘stupid fist raised in protest’ (Sophie Robinson), to the almost-opening lines of John Wieners’ transcendent ‘A Poem for Painters’ –

I look for love. / My lips stand out / dry and cracked with want / of it. / Oh it is well. / My poem shall show the need for it.

Wieners was regarded by Robert Creeley as ‘the most articulate poet of human love’ of his time, and this fine poem certainly argues the case.

During the Q&A, Marina Warner asked specifically, why poetry? Why poetry, as opposed to other forms? Why do we feel the connectivity here most keenly? It was a two-part question and Brady’s answer looked primarily to address Warner’s second point which leant more towards gender, and I was left thinking about the why poetry specifically part. It struck me that beyond the notion of the usable ‘thing’ or gift of the poem to the reader, the poet’s own experience with the grapple and leap of process, writing in a space that offers both constraint and freedom, is analogous to an involvement in love, or indeed ‘a kind of love making‘ – the raw craft and technique that goes toward floating the ecstatic, an act almost supernaturally galvanised, yet simultaneously a thing of form and rigour.

As Robert Duncan, recalling his first experience of hearing a teacher reading H.D.’s work, says in his H.D. Book – ‘as if, were I to come to the heart of the matter in them, I would come too to this woman’s heart and to my own.’ Prose can be lucid and profoundly moving, compellingly so, but there is rarely that same sense of physicality, of enactment. That sense of grasping the live wire of the heart. Brady ended by quoting from Keston Sutherland’s essay, ‘Infinite Exhaustion’ – ‘poetry makes resound right now and in this world the promise of whatever we would risk this crushed life for.’ An exhortation if nothing else to live well and to write as though your heart depends upon it.

Andrea Brady’s tremendous Archive of the Now –

A Poem for Painters –