Canongate Canons, 2011, 154pp
Reviewed by June Raymond
The Guardian critic described this as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’ and I am inclined to agree. It is a tiny volume, hardly more than 100 pages of A5 and it describes one person’s experience of the Cairngorm mountains. Nan Shepherd, a lecturer in English at Aberdeen University, fell in love with the mountain which she could see from her childhood home. As an adult she walked the mountains many times until she learnt to understand them with all her being. She writes about them in beautiful, precise and vivid prose and so much clarity of observation that as one reads one begins to see and experience the mountains oneself. Her descriptions use every one of the senses: sight, hearing, touch and smell. She describes the elements water and ice, air and storm, earth and rock. She knows the plants, the birds and animals and the people who live on the Cairngorms and experiences the terror and harshness of the mountains as well as their beauty.
This book was written during the second war long before Thomas Berry and the environmentalists were writing and she understood deeply what we are only learning to understand now. She experiences the unity of the natural world and the interdependence of every part of the whole. ‘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. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird – all are one.’ And then sleeping there she has the experience of being part of the mountain herself, ‘as tranquil as the stones, rooted far down in their immobility’. And finally Nan Shepherd describes those fleeting moments in which she walks into ‘pure being’. She says ‘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.’
After reading this book I began to observe the natural world with far greater awareness and sensitivity even if it were simply noticing the precise colours in a cloud. Moreover it takes us beyond mere enjoyment of nature into the possibility of new knowledge of ourselves and a deeper and much more profound connection with the Earth of which we are part.