Needless, to say, it would be impossible to spend a lifetime in the Cairngorms without writing about the natural world around you and the living mountain in particular. However, in the final paragraph of The Living Mountain, she confirms her ultimate question and answer:
“I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.” (Shepherd 1977 p108).
There are a number of aspects of Shepherd’s pilgrimage that I find inspiring moving forward in my search for being and being aware of being. It is something that can be found, through constantly revisiting the same local place, and furthermore is something that can be recognised. Although The Living Mountain was not ultimately published until 1977, she had penned its final words much earlier during the Second World War. Thus, this understanding of the mountain was not something that was revealed at the end of her life, but a feeling and recognition of being in the mountain that she was able to enjoy for a further thirty years.
Her journey too, had been through an appreciation of the sensory world. She lived in a beautiful part of the country but was able to permeate the veil of perception to form a greater affinity with her local area. Her understanding and recognition of being was formed out of repeatedly treading the same path, spending reflective time in inhospitable places, and finally piecing together a deeper understanding and recognition – using all her senses, not just seeing, but listening, smelling and feeling the mountain. As, the contemporary writer, Robert Macfarlane wrote in his Introduction to The Living Mountain:
“Shepherd was a localist of the best kind: she came to know her chosen place closely, but that closeness served to intensify rather than to limit her vision.” (Macfarlane in Shepherd (1977 px).
Macfarlane tries to describe The Living Mountain, with some self-confessed difficulty. He questions, for example, whether it is “a philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge” (pxiv). Finally, he sums his reading of the book as follows:
“The language of the book is weathered in both senses: filled with different kinds of climate, but also the result of decades of contact with ‘the elementals’. Tonally, it is with ‘surges[s] of emotion’, and generically by the commingling of field-note, memoir, natural history and philosophical meditation. It is both exhilaratingly materialist – thrilled by the alterity of the Cairngorm granite, by a mountain-world which ‘does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself’ – and almost animist in its account of how mind and mountain interact.” (Macfarlane in Shepherd 1977 p xiv).
Shepherd was not a competitive or summit-seeking walker. She was someone who tramped across the landscape, over and across it, time after time and ultimately into the mountain.
This is journey I wish to take through my photography, through a local landscape, and like Shepherd, searching for deep knowledge rather than broad knowledge in the hope that I can recognise and then record the essence of Skye. In many ways my research, is a leap into the dark, a leap of faith that something lies behind the veil of perception. . .
Shepherd, N. (1977). The Living Mountain. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.