4 June 2020

Lockdown Library #6


by Rick T.

4 June 2020

Today's Lockdown Library recommendation comes from the Project's Administrative Assistant Sarah Plint who shares one of her favourie books, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are”, a friend posted on Facebook.Mason Cooley’s quote started me thinking.Where would I like to go...?

I’m walking steadily uphill.The well-trod peaty path deadens the sounds of my boots.I can smell bracken and sheep whilst a skylark busily sings overhead as I cross the open moor to the fells.Higher up the air is cooler, a raven croaks as it turns on the thermals above the tops.The wind whistles in the crags that drop steeply into a slate lined tarn that shines brilliant blue in the sun. A soporific feeling overwhelms me after sandwiches eaten in the lee of a rock where rough grasses tickle the backs of my knees and surprising bright yellow tormentil burst from the seemingly barren earth.I continue on the stony path to the summit cairn to survey the view and from where everyday cares seem smaller with altitude.Then back to the valley, through the quarry workings and copper mines, a landscape shaped by us, and wonder at how the fells have shaped those of us who are lucky enough to know them.They are constant and ancient yet ever changing.

I’m lucky.Having grown up in the Lake District, a walk into the fells, its sights, sounds and sensations, are imprinted on my brain; it is part of me.This armchair reverie reminded me of a slim volume that struck a particular chord, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.The perfect companion in these times when we can only walk on the hills in our minds.

Written at the close of the Second World War, Nan Shepherd was advised that publication of The Living Mountain would prove difficult and after one rejection, she put the manuscript away in a drawer until 1977.She notes in the foreword that, “now, an old woman, I begin tidying out my possessions and reading it again I realise that the tale of my traffic with a mountain is as valid today as it was then”.We should be grateful that she changed her mind as her love for the Cairngorms leaps from its pages and gives us a magnificent piece of nature writing.

It is not a tale of mountaineering, although she admits to feeling exhilaration at reaching the summits, but it is the story of her quest to know its “essential nature”, a distillation of her journeys into and around the mountain and everything she has experienced there.The reader is transported into this often inhospitable yet always astonishing environment and can sense its sights, sounds and smells, experience the light, learn about its plants, birds and animals and its relationship with man.The book is presented in twelve chapters that impart her detailed and deep knowledge of the mountain and how it has brought her to an understanding of herself, “to know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain”.The perfect antithesis to current circumstances.

She writes beautifully on the Golden Eagle, “the great spiral of his ascent, rising coil over coil in slow symmetry, has in its movement all the amplitude of space.And when he has sored to the top his bent, there comes the level flight as far as the eye can follow, straight, clean and effortless as breathing.The wings hardly move, now and then perhaps a lazy flap as though a cyclist, free-wheeling on a gentle slope, turned the crank a time or two.The bird seems to float, but to float with a direct and undeviating force.It is only when one remarks that he is floating up-wind that the magnitude of that force becomes apparent”.

During lockdown my daily exercise has taken me through fields on the edge of the Lammermuirs.Skylarks have been busy since the first warm days of spring and they’ve since been joined by lapwing and curlew.Nan Shepherd notes that “to see the Golden Eagle at close quarters requires knowledge and patience – though sometimes it may be a gift”.Wouldn’t it be great if we could add this gift to the sights and sounds of the Rolling Hills o’ the Borders?In the meantime, I can walk with Nan Shepherd and look forward to being able to get a bit of altitude for a better view on life.