I decided to read Robert Macfarlane’s Introduction extending to thirty-four pages, along with Shepherd’s Foreword – not something I normally do, but I felt it might give me a sense of how experts review books and authors introduce their work.
I have to admit to starting, restarting, dipping into and listening to The Living Mountain rather than it being a page turner for me. I struggled, I think initially, because I simply do not know the Cairngorms intimately enough to contextualise Shepherd’s writing. When I read, I like to visualise where I am, and while Shepherd’s vignettes of nature were compelling the wider landscape was lost. But something made me persevere and I think it was the sense that Shepherd clearly had a connection with the mountain which extended beyond its exterior representation and into its being. This was confirmed as I flipped through the pages of the final chapter entitled Being.
“It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.” (Shepherd 2011) p106).
I think the main reason I found the read difficult was that although I knew that Shepherd had referred to the being of the mountain, much of her writing, until the last chapter, was in fact, about sensory experience. However, on the final page she speaks of her journey from presence to reality. She speaks of the time in her childhood when she first climbed the slopes and came out above Glen Einich:
“Then I gulped the frosty air – I could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-stuck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank.” (Shepherd 2011) p107).
She describes her journey through sensory experience as follows:
“So my journey into an experience began. It was a journey always for fun, with no motive beyond that I wanted it. But at first, I was seeking only sensuous gratification – the sensation of height, the sensation of movement, the sensation of speed, the sensation of distance, the sensation of effort, the sensation of ease: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life. I was not interested in the mountain for itself.” (Shepherd 2011) p107).
And then the recognition of what she committed her whole life to:
“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 also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leaps out of the self that makes man like god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.” (Shepherd 2011) p108).
Robert Macfarlane who wrote the Introduction to the 2011 version, speaks of Shepherd’s writing as being mountain literature rather than mountaineering literature. She speaks of being on the mountain as like meeting an old friend and her time is spent as a pilgrim rather than the many who strive to conquer its peaks. As Macfarlane explains:
“The pilgrim contents herself always with looking along and inwards to mystery, where the mountaineer longs to look down and outwards onto total knowledge. (Macfarlane in Shepherd 2011 pxvii).
“For Shepherd, there was a continual traffic between the outer landscapes of the world and the inner landscapes of the spirit. . . So it is that her book investigates the relationships that exist between the material and the metaphorical ‘mountain’. She knew – as John Muir had written forty years earlier – that ‘going out . . . was really going in’. (Macfarlane in Shepherd 2011 pxxi).
Macfarlane speaks of reading The Living Mountain many times and it is one of those books that I will now dip into again and again. I am now clear that Shepherd’s pilgrimage will be instructive and insightful, as will Macfarlane’s Introduction, in accompanying my journey in search of Being as Being.
Shepherd, N. (2011). The Living Mountain. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.