The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf
The Living Mountain by Nan Sheperd
Nan Sheperd was born in 1893 in Cults which is now part of Aberdeen. She lived in the same house for most of her life which since 2017 has had a commemorative plaque outside. Like me, Nan went to Aberdeen University, graduating in 1915, 80 years before I went. She went on, also like me, to be a teacher. Though unlike me, she taught teachers, employed at Aberdeen College of Education until her retirement in 1956. She wrote poetry, three novels in a similar style to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and many essays. However, her most famous work, a short non-fiction book lay in a drawer for thirty years, Nan only publishing it four years before her death.
“To feel heather under the feet after long abstinence is one of the dearest joys I know.”
This book, The Living Mountain, was written in the latter part of World War II and thankfully saw the light of day in the glorious year that was 1977. This was quite a year. It brought the release of three of the top eight biggest selling albums of all time. It was the year of the Queen’s jubilee. Star Wars rose and the plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd tragically fell. It was also the year of my birth, three months after the death of Elvis, who weirdly died a year younger than I am now.
The Living Mountain is centred specifically in the Cairngorms and is a celebration of the mountain range; but this book is much more than that. It is perhaps easier to say what it is not. The Living Mountain is not a book about summiting. It is not a book about peaks, speed or victory. This is a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage even, and a fresh take on writing about mountains that is unconcerned with the more masculine pastime of conquering. There is more than one way of climbing a mountain.
”Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
Nan really explores this landscape, and she recognises the details and subtleties of the entire area, a range that is older than the Alps and the Himalayas. She looks upon the plateau of the Cairngorms as a whole, not individual mountains but one, with many tops. I love this idea, one that Nan called the Total Mountain. And unlike every other mountain, you do not look up at the peak, but look downwards, into the chasms and depths from the plateau itself.
The book is divided into chapters that reflect features of the mountain experience. It includes chapters on water, snow, plants and wildlife but also on man, on the senses and what Nan calls Being. It deserves its place amongst Walden and A Sand County Almanac as one of the world’s greatest books on the outdoors, and as a sacred text of Last Wolf.
“Man might be a thousand years away.”
One of my favourite sections is on Life: Plants and I love the descriptions of the various smells you might become acquainted with in the Cairngorms. Smell is important to my memory and sense of place and I can understand why she covers it. I can be taken away to a Highland loch or forest, a deserted winter beach or the summer Tuscan countryside with one aroma. Nan compares smells on the mountain to scones baking and jam on the boil.
In this same chapter she also laments the mass cutting of trees for the war effort, which began in the Napoleonic era and includes two, very recent at the time, world wars. She highlights the fact you can see how far up the mountain the tree line used to go. I suspect it is even much lower now than it was in 1945.
“So simply to look on anything such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.”
This is a factual book; a record or diary even of everyday detail in the Cairngorms. It includes a lot of ecology: it is sold as a celebration, but is mostly a meditation. The spirituality in this book is the reason it is a lifelong influence on Last Wolf. It feels closer to a Buddhist text rather than a book on mountaineering and it is this that makes it transcend and shine through in its unadulterated joy of the Cairngorms. Her descriptions of the flight of swifts are as sublime as those of the eagles; stags sing with tenor and sometimes bass voices.
This Zen like quality to the outdoors is something that has been written about before on this weary road to Word Mountain and no doubt will crop up many times on this journey. When we walk into the mountains, we walk into ourselves. We have “walked out of the body and onto the mountain” and are “a manifestation of its total life.” This is a beautifully written book that deserves far more recognition than it gets. I’ve read it many times and I know I’ll read it many more. The Living Mountain is the preeminent spiritual inspiration on Last Wolf.
Currently listening to: The new track from Wolves in the Throne Room.