“Something moves between me and it. Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.” Nan Shepherd, in The Living Mountain.
The Living Mountain is a small book, written somewhere in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s, despite the author’s previous success with three fiction titles. It’s a meditation on the Cairngorms, a hymn of praise and love to the mountains and the life of the mountains. Beautifully written, truly poetic, it’s about what happens when you get over the simple lust for the summit and start engaging with the land. I’m not a mountain person at all, I belong to the hills and valleys, but the sense of being changed by the landscape, of becoming part of it, and becoming more yourself by walking – that all made a lot of sense to me.
I bought The Grampian Quartet (cover to the left, includes The Living Mountain) simply because Robert MacFarlane refers to it so frequently in his books. I’m fast becoming a dedicated MacFarlane fan and wanted to see why he was so in love with these books. I have not been disappointed.
The three novels – The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and A Pass in the Grampians are all short books originally published individually. They have romantic elements, but defy the habits of romance fiction. All three centre on the adventures of a young female lead coming into her own sense of self, but around those central characters, a whole host of other people gather. In many ways it’s the background people I find really draw me into these stories. There are a lot of vignettes illuminating the lives of women who are not young romantic female leads. The lonely realities of widowhood, the hard labour of working women, the misfits, the aging, the disappointed – all too real, and seldom otherwise represented. In all three stories, the landscape itself is a real presence. A sense of place permeates everything.
At the moment I’m trying to learn how to better write about the land, and my experience of landscape. I’m curious to see how other authors express their own relationship with place. Reading about Scottish mountains makes an interesting contrast with Laurie Lee and Adam Horovitz writing of the valleys of Stroud, and with Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiosis writing down the local folk tales of Gloucestershire, and Alan Pillbeam writing local landscape history. There are many ways into a landscape, and I keep looking for my own path.
More about Nan Shepherd here – http://www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk/makars/shepard/shepherd.pdf