the living mountain
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Book 19 of 2017, Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain, published in 1977 when she was an old woman, thirty years after she had written it & been told, "You'll never find a publisher for that."
The kind of book that is so good, so luminous, each sentence so exquisite - to open the book at random: "So I looked slowly across the Coire Loch, and began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills. I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see."
It's about a lifetime in the Caingorms, a mountain range quite far north in Scotland.
Scottish mountains, at 1200m or so, sound trivial to people who know the Alps, or the American 14,000-footers - but in the winter the wind comes down from the Arctic and the Caingorms are the first thing it meets, and Shepherd tells of a walk on a day the temperature in Braemar village is -2°F, and how the snow can linger in the corries all year round. And how fit young men die in the disorientation of a whiteout, and how their bodies aren't found until March.
It is not entirely a human landscape, up there on the plateau. It is something else.
It is an astonishingly alert and yes, sensual book. Robert Macfarlane's introduction notes that she was writing at the same time Merlau-Ponty was coming up with 'The Phenomenology of Perception' (1945), but yet "her philosophical conclusions concerning colour perception, touch and embodied knowledge now read as arrestingly similar."
You may have noticed that my reading pace has sped up lately. I read this book three weeks ago, tired, overworked, not having written anything this year. It felt like a lifeline to an intellectual, imaginative space that was mine, not my job's. Like a blast of chill mountain air, a reminder of the outside. I've rarely needed a book like I needed this one.
Let me just leave you with this, from Macfarlane's intro: "In the mountains, she writes, a life of the senses is lived so purely that 'the body may be said to think'."
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