Comfortably Numb

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Published on: 11/10/21 8:49 AM

Book review: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

`The most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength…the mysteries in its movement…(the way) it slips out of holes in the earth like the ancient snake.`


To read THE LIVING MOUNTAIN (Canongate UK Books) is to go climbing Scotland`s Cairngorms with author Nan Shepherd, to walk the high plateau and admire moss, lichen, sedge, clumps of pink Silene, bell heather, alpine milk-vetch  and ling; to look down at brilliant tarns; to stand at heights above which clouds slowly pass; to hear the sound of burns brisk or languid; to sit out and survive blizzards, gales where one can hear the air shattering itself on rock,  as well as swift and deadly mists; to stare entranced at the mountains when they are washed an opulent blue with rain in the air; to learn how storms can wake the hidden fire of lightening, electric  flickers, the Aurora Borealis itself.

To watch the scurrying of crested tits, the graceful flight of a peregrine falcon or a Golden Eagle, both seeming to be three times its size while hovering in the air; to startle at the yodeling of deer.

The Cairngorm Mountains, in Shepherd`s words,  are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water.  My body is at its best in the rarer air of the heights and communicates its elation to the mind, says Shepherd, a frequent climber all her life.

Shepherd did not like the word `glamourize` attached to her bellowed mountains but truth to tell, there is more than a touch of something magical in her book.

This meditation on mountains is as rewarding a read as Peter Mathiessen`s  The Snow Leopard. It is, as Robert Macfarlane says in his Introduction, a place-paean, a reflection of how mind and mountain interact.

I like it that I can lie in bed and read a book on mountain climbing, says Jeanette  Winterson in her Afterword. So do all of us, which is what makes The Living Mountain a wonderful work of mountain literature.

Related Links:

Book review: Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane

Book review: Becoming A Mountain by Stephen Alter

Book review: Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Book review: The Mountain: My Time on Everest by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts

Book review: Wild Himalaya by Stephen Alter

Book review: Show Me A Mountain by Kerry Young

Guest column: Time to create a personal beyul


book reviewCairngorm Mountainsmeditation on mountainsmountain climbingNan ShepherdScotlandThe Living Mountain

Sheila Kumar • November 10, 2021

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