With the expectation of another week disrupted by building work I decide to undertake a careful re-read of The Living Mountain (1977) with Tilda Swinton reading the audible version at the same time. Although an audible version is not available for much of my academic research, I do find the combination of someone else reading, and me following and annotating the text, a very productive way of picking out key sentences, sections and insights.
Robert Macfarlane in his Introduction to the book, which is almost as long as this slender read of just over a hundred pages, notes that it is in the re-reading that more insights and an appreciation of Shepherd’s skills as a writer and voyeur combine with the pleasures of her simple life in the Cairngorms.
There are a number of passages of text that I noted for various reasons. Her insights into the dual feelings of fascination and fear in the natural world strike a chord with me in terms of the almost hypnotic powers of water and its over-whelming power:
“For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength. I fear it as my ancestors must have feared the natural forces that they worshipped. All the mysteries are in its movement.” (Shepherd 1977 p27).
I have similar feelings in connection with tidal waters, and more specifically I am fascinated by the Black Cuillin of Skye, with their jagged edges and precipices and dark and foreboding outline, all serving to instil a sense of fear that sends shivers down my spine. On the other hand, I find the Red Cuillin, more generous in spirit, calming and warm, not just in their appearance but also in their core.
As a photographer I find Shepherd’s observations on the effects of air and light on the colour of the landscape very instructive:
“The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. They are most opulently blue when rain is in the air. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds
These sultry blues have more emotional effect than a dry air can produce. One is not moved by china blue. But the violet range of colours can trouble the mind like music.” (Shepherd 1977 p41/42).
I need to spend more time at my favoured places in the landscape learning some of these observational skills. I need to learn to predict changes in air and light that might have a positive affect in terms of my photographic practice.
The beginning of Chapter 7 Life: The Plants provides me with the revelation and confirmation that any vignette or scene from the natural world is one entity. Shepherd argues that The Living Mountain is one entity made up of many parts. And for me, taking an object-oriented approach to my writing and photography, an object is more than the sum of its parts.
“I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain.” (Shepherd 1977 p48).
Object-oriented ontology encompasses everything from the infinitesimal sub-atomic particles that are the basis of all matter through to the galaxy of stars (Harman 2018) that adorn the night sky. Shepherd’s description of the Living Mountain is, I believe, consistent with this ontological approach.
In Chapter 11 Senses, Shepherd provides some useful advice for me as a photographer. She suggests that we all have a habitual vision of things and that seeing things from a different perspective can be unsettling and/or provide a glimpse of the unfamiliar.
“. . . Half-closing the eyes can also change the values of what I look upon. 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 place and used, drive home the truth that one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again. . . It will take a long time to get to the end of a world that behaves like this if I do no more than turn round on my side or my back” (Shepherd 1977 p100-101).
I hope to be able to catch with my camera the glimpses, ephemeral moments and different perspectives of the world that Shepherd speaks of.
Every time I read The Living Mountain, I find something new to marvel at. Whether it be her beautiful prose, or her insights into the natural world. Whilst there are many photographers and artists that provide me with inspiration, it is Shepherd that fills me with optimism that I too can become aware of being in the subjects of my photography.
Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican Books.
Shepherd, N. (1977). The Living Mountain. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.