The Living Mountain

Evening of January 8, 2019

A range of quotes from throughout Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain.

Haste can do nothing with these hills

I know its depth, though not in feet.

The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain – not in Keat’s sense. Beginners, not unnaturally, do the same – I did myself. They want the startling view, the horrid pinnacle – sips of beer and tea instead of milk. Yet often the mountains 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.

Like all profound mysteries, [water] is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.

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…

Like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp edge of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of the intellect as well as the surge of emotion.

Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin – that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension. I find I have a naive faith in my scientist friends – they are such jolly people, they wouldn’t fib to me unnecessarily, and their stories make the world so interesting. But my imagination boggles at this. I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower – that is harder. It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done.

It is tantalising to see something unusual, but not its ending.

These crofts and farms and gamekeepers’ cottages breed men of character. They are individualists, gritty, tough, thrown, intelligent, full of prejudice, with strange kinks and a salted sense of humour. Life here is hard and astringent, but it seldom kills grace in the soul. The best of them are people of many skills, inventive at supplying their needs, knowledgable on their own ground and interested in a number of things outside it. They are not servile but avoid angering the laird; upright, though ‘the Birkie up yonder’ comes near enough to the thought most of them hold of God; hospitable, but never ‘senseless civil’, keeping a cool sense of proportion over what matters: though there are exceptions, to be sure, as where wouldn’t there be? – a man who ‘wouldna part wi’ a yowie (fir cone) off his run”, or a woman who has ‘put her eyes on my lustre jug’, or again a generosity that will have sugar in your cup whether you want it or not, ‘to take the wildness off the tea’…Life has not much margin here.

To draw your water from the well, not even a pump between you and its sparkling transparency, to break the sticks you have gathered from the wood and build your fire and set your pot upon it – there is a deep pervasive satisfaction in these simple acts. Whether you give it conscious thought or not, you are touching life, and something within you knows it. A sense of profound contentment floods me as I stoop to dip the pail. But I am aware all the same that by so living i am slowing down the temp of life; if I had to do these things every day and all the time I should be shutting the door on other activities and interests; and I can understand why the young people resent it.

An unfortunate proportion want white-collar occupations, and lose their parents’ many-sidedness. For the young are like the old, various as human nature has always been, and will go on being, and life up here is full of loves, hates, jealousies, tendernesses, loyalties and betrayals, like anywhere else, and a great deal of plain humdrum happiness.

…just seeing, not bedevilled with thought, but living in the clear simplicity of the senses.

…wholly true, although I could not swear to it in court.

…and because I can’t be sure it haunts me for a long time.

Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element.

…our habitual vision of things i not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again.

How can I number the worlds to which my eye gives me entry? – the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know.

It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.

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.

Here then may be lived a life of the sense so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation.

The thing to be known grows with the knowing.

I am not out of myself, but in myself.

…love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge.

  • There are many ways to see things if only we look closer.
  • Nothing is as it seems, no one sense can comprehend an entire thing.
  • Sometimes the best way to understand something is with a sense we wouldn’t normally use to understand it.
  • Truth is one perspective.