Walking Nan Shepherd’s Mountain
Writer and prolific walker (and godlike Lama of the Twitter-verse1) Robert Macfarlane is in the middle of a virtual group reading of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. I found this book for the first time (via Robert) last year and loved it — concise, a tight journey up and through a place I’ve never visited, the Cairngorms in Scotland.
The Cairngorms are not formidable peaks:
Given clear air, and the unending daylight of a Northern summer, there is not one of the summits but can be reached by a moderately strong walker without distress. A strong walker will take a couple of summits. Circus walkers will plant flags on all six summits in a matter of fourteen hours.
Circus walkers! I wonder how one rises into that walking sphere. I feel like I may have touched it, if only for a second last year:
I think that impulse to go on forever, the feeling of the impossibility of growing tired, of having legs that would never give out, of being able to lift the 11kg pack on my back up another 300+ flights of stairs (which is what the day ended up at), was a proxy for gratitude, of being grateful for the health that authorized this weird gorilla dance, that permitted this day of walking and all the other days, too.
But the difficulty or lack thereof doesn’t matter. For Nan:
To pit oneself merely against other players, and make a race of it, is to reduce to the level of a game what is essentially an experience.
And yet — though the Cairngorms aren’t technically challenging, they aren’t all “easy.” But given the right dazzle of step (that “floating feeling” as I’ve called it), you achieve feyness, a unique strain of mountain satori (Yamabushi?) perhaps; more Nan:
But there is a phenomenon associated with this feyness of which I must confess a knowledge. Often, in my bed at home, I have remembered the places I have run lightly over with no sense of fear, and have gone cold to think of them. It seems to me then that I could never go back; my fear unmans me, horror is in my mouth. Yet when I go back, the same leap of the spirit carries me up. God or no god, I am fey again.
There have been moments where I’ve been too fey, and its been my (almost) downfall. From last year, writing about one of the tougher parts of the Kii Peninsula:
The sassa was thick. I was tired. It was twilight and the sky enthralled. I didn’t watch my step. Suddenly I was flying over the edge.
All I remember is that I knew this was the end. A sort of: Huh, that’s dumb, kind of full-body sensation of Darwinism in action. Everything — legs, torso, left arm — was off the path, over the edge, falling backwards towards the very pointy rock garden below. But I reached out, instinctively, with my right arm. At that very part of the path, there happened to be a thick root of a nearby tree jutting out. Perfectly shaped, perfectly sized for my gloved hand to grab it. I was carrying a full pack and the momentum of all of my weight going over the edge was almost enough for me to lose my grip. But I didn’t. And I hung there — a true Indy Jones moment — for five, ten seconds. The sense of a dumb death lingered. Those were ten very opulent seconds.
I pulled myself up. Looked down. And, shaking with adrenaline, caught up with my friend.
I returned to the same spot six months later. Passing without incident. The memory of that moment doesn’t bring “horror” to my mouth, but it does remind me that every steps needs to be deliberate, and a loosening of the wrong tension is the foundation for slips.
What’s great about Nan’s book is just how well observed it is:
I listened to the waterfall until I no longer heard it.
I know that stillness, and this simple line brings it back.
Nan notes the interiority of mountains, too:
And what an interior! the boulder-strewn plain, the silent shining loch, the black overhang of its precipice, the drop to Loch Avon and the soaring barricade of Cairn Gorm beyond, and on every side, except where we had entered, towering mountain walls.
My note in the margin reads: *Annapurna basecamp! *
Her description of walking through a cloud is of a kinship with the writing of Annie Dillard; Nan:
Nothing. The whiteness was perhaps thicker. It was horrible to stand and stare into that pot of whiteness. The path went on. And now to the side of us there was a ghastlier white, spreading and swallowing even the grey-brown earth our minds had stood on. We had come to the snow. A white as of non-life. That cloud, like others inside which I have walked, was wet but not wetting. It did not wet us till, almost at the summit.
“Wet but not wetting.
It did not wet us till,
almost at the summit.”
The rhythm of this line — like a sequence of Cairngorm peaks themselves. (Or so I imagine.)
The book is split into chapters: Water, Frost, Air and Light, Man, Sleep, and more.
From Air, astutely:
The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings.
And on the disparity between eye memory and body memory:
But it amazed me to find how unfamiliar I was with that path. I had followed it times without number, yet now, when my eyes were in my feet, I did not know its bumps and holes, nor where the trickles of water crossed it, nor where it rose and fell. It astonished me that my memory was so much in the eye and so little in the feet,
Nan makes note of the tenacity of life in unforgiving places, landing at:
I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower—that is harder.
Reminding me of oft contrasted objects: the Roman Colosseum and the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie. The Colosseum standing as is for a few thousand years, the shrine at Ise, established around the same time but rebuilt every 20 years for a thousand+ years. One is less imaginable than the other; one of rock, one of life?
As so many of us are desk-bound for the foreseeable future, it’s worth considering this opportunity to walk through literature. I find the experience of reading to be the closest experience to actually doing the walking itself. And, eventually, this will lift, and — eventually — we’ll get back into the mountains with fresh eyes.
As Nan describes, there are limits to memory and therefore transitively, too, words:
Water so clear cannot be imagined, but must be seen. One must go back, and back again, to look at it, for in the interval memory refuses to recreate its brightness.
What a strange interval we now inhabit. Let’s make the most of its strangeness, preparing our minds once again to walk — maybe even as circus walkers — back to that dazzle of being and light.
Until next week,
“I’ve somehow found myself on the tiny island of Ogijima in the Setouchi Sea where I work remotely as a freelance video journalist and make a point to walk the circumference of the island once a day. The majority of terraced gardens that once covered the island have been mostly neglected and the trees are taking over but it’s conspicuously not old-growth forest. On yesterday’s walk at dusk I spotted four wild boar — they swim here from other islands in the summer and then have to navigate the array of traps set out to capture them. I’ve married a walker; my wife Junko walked from Washington DC to San Francisco back in 2001 over six months. “
“Walks these days are mostly of two kinds: commuting and connecting with my little girl. My walk to the train and back is enough time to say a Rosary and enjoy the birds. My walks with the youngster are punctuated by frequent stops to collect fallen leaves and inspect snails. Both variants keep me linked to the important things in life. “
(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)
I mean, seriously, he is unflappable, a kindness spigot, the most gracious and patient online persona I know; he draws from a well of such tweet-warmth that I can only assume some soul was sold at some crossroads to achieve this water-parting transcendence. And follower ascendance! From 0 to 100k in no time. It’s like Lit Twitter was a desert and Robert came with a swimming pool on his back. I think often: Would Robert tweet this? ↩︎