‘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.
The Living Mountain, review by Robert Macfarlane:
The lazy eye: