Nan Shepherd: An Early Geopoet by James McCarthy
The Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture 2017
Heriot Watt University, 18th November 2017
I’m honoured to be asked to give this inaugural lecture in memory of Tony McManus, who was crucial in the establishment of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.
Although I never knew Nan Shepherd personally, I feel a strong association with her not only through her own writings, but also because of my own connections to the area she wrote about, and I hope you will indulge me in my use of her forename throughout what follows in this talk.
Nan is the first woman writer to grace a Scottish banknote. On this Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note she is looking like a Greek heroine, with a very distinctive band round her forehead. A lifelong friend tells the true story of how Nan, (the least vain of women who never went to a hairdresser in her life) decided as a young woman to have her portrait taken at a local photography studio for some unknown reason. She spotted a length of photographer’s film lying on a table, picked it up, wrapped it round her head, and stuck a brooch on it, to create unwittingly a Wagnerian princess look. As her friend said, ‘The one vanity project of her entire life is now her public image.’ That quite forceful image however belies her natural reticence and modesty. The banknote quotes Nan’s insightful words:
‘But the struggle between frost and running water
Is not quickly over
The battle fluctuates and at the point of fluctuation
Between the motion of water and the immobility of frost
Strange and beautiful forms are evolved.’
I first encountered Nan Shepherd in the relatively recent writings of the landscape writer and broadcaster Robert Macfarlane – and was quite captivated. It was he who identified two seminal ideas in Nan’s writing on mountains: ‘We don’t walk up a mountain, but into it’, and secondly that ‘we must abandon the summit as the organising principle of mountains.’ She was in good company with that other unrecognised geopoet, (before the term was invented) John Muir, who said that ‘going out is actually going in.’ It was Macfarlane, among others, who also claimed that Nan coveted knowledge and willingly suffered privations (witness her arduous treks into the mountains in all weathers) in the pursuit of learning. But she was also a person of passions and lived life with gusto, represented by the quote outside the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.’ Macfarlane, author and acclaimed landscape afficianado claimed that her major poetic work In the Cairngorms was one of the most brilliant works of landscape literature … ‘no one has written as well as Shepherd about what it feels like to be in the mountains.’ Almost all her poetry hymns the combination of nature and intellect, while In the Cairngorms is like her novels in the sense of the mind’s own fineness, passionately engaged with the vastness, beauty and ultimate indifference of rock, water, light and air.
Nan lived all her long life between 1893 and 1981 in Peterculter outside Aberdeen and was proud of this association with the north-east of Scotland. After several years as a student in Aberdeen, I have come to terms with an impression of deep parochialism in the culture of this area, now considerably diminished by the advent of the North Sea oil industry – as one wag had it – ‘A day oot o’ Aiberdeen is a day oot o’ life’. She was an Aberdeen University graduate who maintained a close link with her alma mater throughout her life. Born to a middle-class family, she nevertheless developed a remarkable insight into the life and language of the poor farming communities of the rural hinterland, described, often through dialogue in the local vernacular, in her three novels. Published in the short period between 1928 and 1933, they are now recognised as significant contributions to the Scottish literary renaissance of that time, set in the small communities of north-east Scotland – a largely unrecognised precursor of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much lauded Sunset Song.
She was a pioneer in women’s writing in Scotland, focussing especially on their struggle to escape a patriarchal society. Jessie Kesson attributed her own start in a distinguished writing career to Shepherd’s advice and encouragement: Kesson said that Nan possessed ‘a grace of the soul’ expressed in discretion and reticence. But she was also a valued confidante of Hugh McDiarmid, Neil Gunn, and many other literary figures. It was Gunn who thought that her now most acclaimed work, The Living Mountain would not appeal to publishers. Nan herself describes the writing of this work in the last years of World War II as ‘my secret place of ease’. Barely recognised in her own lifetime, she was in fact a major contributor to Scottish Modernist literature.
In that lifetime, she was best known for her novels which, using the local dialect with great facility, told the story of strong, uneducated country women of all ages, attempting to swim against the tide of convention, and using as a backdrop, the life of these women, interwoven with memorable descriptions of the landscape and weather of north-east Scotland. What is particularity interesting is that, drawing on the same environment, she wrote her novels several years before Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair and Sunset Song, referred to previously, which largely eclipsed Shepherd’s earlier work on similar themes. She was also very much ahead of her time in tackling feminist issues and became an inspiring model for her largely female students. She has been favourably compared to Virginia Woolf and, according to a recent winner of the Wainwright prize, Amy Liptrot, her novels were ‘vast modernist works, multi-perspectival and exploratory’ – and yet she was living and working far from the mainly male literary establishment, from which she was largely excluded. It was the same author who said ‘It’s the deep knowledge, attentiveness and space given to things that often might be dismissed…that’s what makes it a beautiful thing to think of Nan out walking by herself or with other scientist and writer friends, getting to know the hills… she is a role model of how I would like my life to be.’
Nan was a charismatic teacher of English – she has been described by one student as having a spell-binding teaching talent – and took a feminist approach in her lectures years ahead of her time, initially at the Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers (subsequently to become the Aberdeen College of Education) throughout her working life. She encouraged her students to embrace the wider world, but not to despise their often impoverished backgrounds and to constantly seek fresh knowledge – a topic reiterated in her novels around her country heroines. But in keeping with the title of this talk, I want to focus on her non-fiction, even if she regarded poetry, such as that in her work In the Cairngorms, as the purest of all forms of writing.
A dauntless hill walker, she organised trips for her students into the nearby Cairngorms, introducing them to the geology and natural history of the largest area of subarctic environment in Britain, with all its wonders. It was my former colleague, Dr. Grant Roger, who introduced Nan to the botanical riches of the massif. But it was Grant’s sister, Sheila Roger, who came to know Nan most intimately: as the young child of a neighbour, she recalled lying on Nan’s bed, being read to by Nan and encouraged to take an interest in everything around her (Nan remained unmarried throughout her life, although her poetry obliquely suggests a doomed love affair.) Later Grant and Sheila were to make many expeditions into the Cairngorms with Nan and accompanied her on trips to Europe.
Nan was known for her emphasis on getting to know the geology and natural history of particular areas such as the Cairngorms. She had a deep kinship with nature, a spiritual connection which had a Buddhist outlook as a pilgrimage into being. Her influence on her students can be gauged by the number who, often established in one-teacher schools from Galloway to the Northern Isles, invited her to stay with them.
It was in 1934 that she published In the Cairngorms, a paean in poetry to the mountains with which she so closely identified – but also expressing her own personal loves and anguished longings. She worked long and hard on her poetry – a form which she claimed ‘offered glimpses of the burning heart of all life.’
But the style of the later The Living Mountain is at once austerely intellectual and passionately felt – it is knowledge rather than feeling that seems to be Nan Shepherd’s route to the sublime, said Roderick Watson. She comes to the conclusion that the ‘living mountain’ lives because of our conscious engagement with it…. ‘as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate more deeply into my own…I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.’ Only recently, approaching my 82nd year, have I come to appreciate this insight, which converts such writing from a mere literary talent to something of a quite different order of importance in reflecting a deeper level of life experience, especially in relation to the natural world. It is nothing if not about life itself. The mountain landscape apart, she is particularly entranced by water – from the stillness and clarity of Loch Avon to the Highland torrents. In the very first lines of In the Cairngorms, she declaims:
‘Oh, burnie with the glass-like shiver, singing over stone’
– which come very close to the theme of Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts i.e. the flow of a natural stream reflecting, in accordance with the great Chinese philosophers, the spontaneous harmony of an interdependent universe going its own way. Alan Watts said: ‘The water, all moisture, transpires from the earth, streams, rivers, …the moisture is returned, as dew, as rain – a marvellous cycle: ocean to the upper air, a living interaction…’ While Herman Hesse continued this theme, with his deep immersion in Chinese philosophy in crossing the watershed of the Alps: …‘the small pool which touches my shoes runs downwards towards the north, its waters come at last into distant seas. But the small snowdrift close beside it trickles towards the south …but all the waters of the world find another again…’
It was her last work, The Living Mountain, published in 1977, having lain unregarded in a drawer from the 1940s, that establishes her as an original geopoet for its extraordinary deep and personal identification with the natural environment – a meditational work with Zen-like undertones. The title of this work absolutely encapsulates Nan’s approach to the mountain landscape. Abjuring the predominately male preoccupation with conquering summits, she described her stravaiging into her beloved mountain range as a journey into Being. I use the word into very deliberately as it expresses both the outward and the inward journey, while not neglecting the sensual pleasure of the body’s response to activity, especially energetic walking. It has resonances with Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation, in which, in Macfarlane’s words, she refined her philosophy. ‘The mountain does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.’ said Nan. Ali Smith describes The Living Mountain as ‘an enlightened fusion of philosophy and reportage of the form and force of life everywhere in the beloved landscape’. It is now recognised as a masterpiece, amongst the greatest works of nature writing to come out of Britain. Ali Smith together with the poet Kathleen Jamie have both acclaimed Nan’s works. The publisher Canongate has reissued her works and recently sold 45,000 copies of The Living Mountain, while the rights in China have gone for the largest amount ever paid for one of her books.
The emphasis which Watson places on Nan’s intimate knowledge of the ecology of the Cairngorm environment, its geology, animals and plants, is exemplified by her comment on, for example, one of my own favourite plants, juniper – she says
‘(it) is secretive with its scent. It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it now and then to renew the spice.’
She lived on her own terms, unafraid to walk the hills without destination, but allowing her senses to respond to every sight or sound which she experienced – what she described as ‘the elementals.’ She made a habit of sleeping out of doors on her own among the high tops.
‘I have slept in the open as early as May…there is an art in waking. I must come fully awake, and open my eyes without having moved. Once, sleeping in the daytime, I jerked awake, to find that a young blackbird …had been walking along my leg and elsewhere ten yards away from me a red deer is feeding in the dawn light. He moves without a sound. The world is entirely still….he looks at me, his nostrils twitch, we look at each other…’
In Macfarlane’s words, she entered a geopoetic quest and philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge. There was no difference between body and mind in the sensing of textures and surfaces of rocks, wind and water and her interactions with wildlife be they plants, animals or birds.
I can recall two comparable personal experiences which approximate to Nan’s own. The first was when, as a young schoolboy, I crossed the River Tay from my home town of Dundee into Fife and simply started walking. A wood on a hill slope looked inviting for my sandwich lunch and I wandered to the skyline on one of those rare days when there was a slight breeze, but the sky was springtime blue. There had been some recent felling of the Scots Pine and a cut stump provided a convenient seat. The only sound was the wind bending the tops of the trees, but the early warmth of the sun brought out the aromatic fragrance of the needles which I had never smelt before. The rough-edged lozenges on the salmon-pink bark formed endless patterns of light and shade. Beyond the crowns of the trees, I could see the patches of sunlit sky. There came a point where I could not distinguish that sky from the scent of the conifers, from the wind on my cheek, or the bark scales in front of me on the felled logs – they were all gloriously one.
I was deliciously intoxicated with this world, transported by a sense of clean beauty which could not be grasped and which could not have come in company. I was aware of myself and of the trees and everything else in my surroundings, but without any space intervening – a feeling of both peace and jubilation, together with a deep sense of belonging to this scene.
More than 20 years ago, I found myself on one of the last undeveloped stretches of the Maine coast in USA, south of Acadia. This was The Country of the Pointed Firs so beautifully delineated by Sarah Orne Jowett in the dying years of the 19th century. Living in a remote lighthouse, I was carrying out a commission from the US National Park Service to investigate a potentially contentious proposal to create a new national park on this coast. After a late night writing up notes, my head still buzzing with all the conflicting issues involved, I rose very early for a run through the nearby coastal woods. There was an old Indian trail that skirted the cliffs. A deep morning mist intermittently shrouded both the cliffs and the forest of spruce, fir, birch and cedar which reached down to the shore around inlets. Elsewhere, the jagged black and grey rocks were barren except for orange lichens which reflected a splash of colour. The woods themselves were carpeted with velvety emerald mosses below an understorey of low woody shrubs. The silence and the damp air were a tonic to the body and the brain. With a path that gently undulated and wound its way round the clifftops, I soon recovered from the first minutes of awkward stumbling over roots and found an easier rhythmic stride. Along the trail, there was evidence of moose and black bear.
Occasionally the mist rose above the woods to reveal a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy, in the distance, with its spectacular tides. There was an ethereal atmosphere – a combination of windlessness and calm sea, only seen in gaps between the trees, while the suspended cobwebs glistening with morning dew, created their own ghostly miasma. I felt my running was good and almost effortless on the spongy mat of the trail. My own breath, in this morning cold, was creating miniature grey clouds. I could hear my breathing, but I became aware of something that sounded like an echo to my left which I could not identify. I kept going, enjoying the exhilarating rhythm of running, but increasingly aware that my passage through the silent woods was punctuated by a parallel movement to seaward. Just the noise similar to that expellation of the cleansing breath of a Tai Chi exercise, when you are encouraged to make a natural ‘whooshing!’. Unable to see clearly through the undulating coastal mist, the low whistling seemed to keep pace with my own progress, an almost eerie reflection of my momentum, rising and falling. The half-closed mind clicked. Whales!
Through the trees and the mist, nothing could be seen of the creatures. But with my ears now attuned, and my remembrance of reading of the several species of cetaceans which ploughed down this quiet sound, I was in no doubt. I could hear them but, pounding over the moss, could they hear me? Whatever, their need for air and my own seemed to create an umbilical cord across woods and water, both of us floating in our distinct but united worlds, moving down the coast.
In the last chapter of The Living Mountain, appropriately entitled ‘Being’, Nan describes a childhood experience not dissimilar from my own in that Fife pinewood. She says:
‘I set out on my journey in pure love. It began in childhood, when the stormy violet of a gully on the back of Sgoran Dubh, at which I used to gaze from a shoulder of the Monadhliaths, haunted my dreams. That gully, with its floating, its almost tangible ultramarine, thirled me for life to the mountain. Climbing Cairngorms was then for me a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished. Certainly not children. It was still legendary on the October day, blue, cold, and brilliant after heavy snow, when I climbed Creag Dhubh above Loch an Eilean, alone and expectant. I climbed like a child stealing apples, with a fearful look behind. The Cairngorms were forbidden country – this was the nearest I had come to them; I was delectably excited. But how near to them I was coming I could not guess, as I toiled up the last slope and came out above Glen Einich. Then I gulped the frosty air – and could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-struck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank. I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms…’
Some of us have experienced and remembered that early elation.
In 1940, Nan wrote to Neil Gunn:
‘To apprehend things, walking on a hill, seeing the light change, being aware, using the whole of one’s body to instruct the spirit – yes, that is a secret life one has and knows others have. But to be able to share it, and thro’ words…it dissolves one’s being, I am no longer myself, but a part of a life beyond myself.’
Gillian Carter, writing about Nan’s domestic landscape, said ‘The fully embodied engagement with a specific landscape, the dissolving of one’s being, and the transgression of the boundary between the self and other, all operate in The Living Mountain.’ One eminent reviewer stated unequivocally that it was the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain. The closing words of that work epitomise Nan’s insight:
‘The purported objectivity of science is shown to be less than the subjective, embodied involvement – every reality that matters to human beings, is a reality of the mind. Through living in it, the landscape becomes part of us, just as we are part of it.’
Where the landscape in her fiction shows the possibilities of freedom for her characters, both male and female, it does the same in The Living Mountain for the self. In my own work as a professional conservationist within an organisation which prided itself on its scientific objectivity, I could not allow the poetic and the philosophical to intrude into the papers I prepared for sceptical committees. I now realise that this constraint allowed me to see only one part of the picture and perhaps the minor part. Macfarlane, a writer of the greatest sensitivity to the Highland landscape, described The Living Mountain as a sensual exploration of the area and claimed that it had quite altered his vision of this mountain range, which he had previously known intimately. It has quite altered mine.