Review: 'The Living Mountain' by Nan Shepherd, narrated by Tilda Swinton
Original Pub. Date: 10/27/1977
Audible release: 5/28/2019
In this masterpiece of nature writing, beautifully narrated by Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton, Nan Shepherd describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. There she encounters a world that can be breathtakingly beautiful at times and shockingly harsh at others. Her intense, poetic prose explores and records the rocks, rivers, creatures and hidden aspects of this remarkable landscape.
Shepherd spent a lifetime in search of the ‘essential nature’ of the Cairngorms; her quest led her to write this classic meditation on the magnificence of mountains, and on our imaginative relationship with the wild world around us. Composed during the Second World War, the manuscript of The Living Mountain lay untouched for more than 30 years before it was finally published.
Throughout my teens, my family and I would spend every summer in the French Alps hiking. It was a time when there was a lot going on, family-wise, and looking back I can see how the mountains became an escape. Away from people, high above everything else, every one walking at their own pace but sharing the excitement of reaching the top together. Since so many of us live bustling, urban lives, it can be hard to find the time for that escape and it is a kind of privilege as well. Over the past 5 years, living in China, I wasn't able to join my family and I began to miss not just the time with them but also the feeling of freedom that being in nature brings. Not to sound like a cliché Hallmark card, but it is good for the human soul to be in nature, to let the buzz of emails and notifications fade away and to just be. One of my favourite passages in The Living Mountain sees Shepherd describe the coordination that strikes up between the mountains and her body, something I recognize from my own hiking experiences. You become aware, in tune, with your surroundings to the point where your feet eventually know where the next safe step is. Once, while hiking, my sister and I suddenly jumped apart in time for a boulder to thunder between us. Had we now been in the moment with the mountain, we might not have heard or felt it coming. Knowing I can trust my own body and my own instincts is one of the vital experiences I have taken into everyday life from my times in the Alps, and it is something I wish everyone to have.
There are absolutely stunning scenes in The Living Mountain, during which Shepherd brings you right into her experiences with her. In one she describes wading through a loch and suddenly finding herself a step away from an abyss, not shocked but definitely in awe. At other times she describes the fear of the rapidly descending mist or the thrill of encountering wild life. In all these moments her language is so precise and stripped back that it never feels like she's going for easy awe. Instead her own love and passion for the Cairngorm mountains and the animals and people that inhabit it shines through and infects the reader/listener. Shepherd never underestimates the mountains and through her care you do come to see them as a living being, a thing that blooms and withers, that gives and takes away, that surprises and hides.
Apparently the manuscript for The Living Mountain lingered in a cupboard for decades until it was finally published in 1977. I can see how a book that is both as personal and meandering as this one might seem unpublishable. But it is exactly for those qualities that I'm so glad it is out there now. Written during the Second World War, the War, as Robert Macfarlane brilliantly puts it in his introduction, lingers like a cloud over her experiences, but it never dims the beauty Shepherd finds. Her writing in this book is clear and precise, full of care and passion but never overwhelming. This is a meandering book, one that zooms in on details and then takes a bird's eye view in the next breath. This is captured brilliantly by Tilda Swinton's narration, which is calm and measured, but full of a quiet passion and zeal. Whether all the Scottish pronunciations are up to par I couldn't say, but Swinton does strike me as the perfect person to bring to life mountains as polar and alive as the Cairngorms. I also greatly enjoyed the afterword by Jeannete Winterson, although I do believe it was narrated by Robert Macfarlane.
I give this book...