Natasha Coleman (Swansea University) and Hannah Budge (Newcastle University)
Nan Shepherd’s spirited title The Living Mountain arcs towards a modern era of environmental catastrophe, world crises and deep need for re-connection to the natural world, whilst hovering in the controversial territory of timeless depictions of elements and landscapes.
Living Mountain is the memoir of Shepherd’s embodied experiences within the Cairngorms, encapsulating its breathtaking beauty and harshness. This is a text beloved by all manner of folk who wish to encounter the Cairngorms, as Robert MacFarlane (2011) recounts, Shepherd’s work comes without “siege and assult” nor the desire to conqueror which resides in much mountaineering literature (p. xvi). The book has seen a resurgence in interest in recent years, not least as Covid-19 lockdowns took hold.
The 100-page manuscript tucked neatly in Shepherd’s desk for over 30 years (first published in 1977), illustrates the importance of the natural world, our place within it and the need to (re)connect.
Far from passive, Living Mountain highlights the reciprocative relationship Shepherd shared with the Cairngorms; from the elements to regresses, plateaus to plants and people. As Shepherd explains it, she goes out to the mountains “to be with [them] as one visits a friend” (p. 21).
This blog post is inspired by discussions raised during our February 2022 RGRG Reading Group session. During this session we traced several lines of thought, discussing how Living Mountain can inform our own worlds and work, including:
· Representation of place
· The contentious rural idyll
· Growing role of social media in place experience & representation
· Everyday encounters
· Embodied experience
· Social prescription of nature
Social media, relational rurals and representation of place
A theme we spent time unpacking during this reading group was representation and how Shepherd’s work may assist us in further considering more-than-representation approaches.
The Cairngorms at present, like many rural ‘hotspots’, is facing an influx of visitors and new rural dwellers, with estimates of annual visitor figures soaring at 2 million and a 126% increase in property searches within the region (Rightmove, STEAM). With such a boom comes benefits of increased income to such areas, as well as pitfalls encountered in light of these influxes. These issues include; rejected countryside codes, livestock and livelihood disturbances leading to ever strained services and with insufficient policies and protocol to deal with such influxes.
During the reading group, we discussed the part played by literature, film and increasingly social media in fuelling these surges, with often partially represented and idealised reproduction of such rural spaces. We discussed the follies and dangers that can be sidestepped by partial representation within discourses. Despite almost all of us feeling captivated by Shepherd’s work and even having planned trips as a direct result of reading Living Mountain, we concluded that these follies and dangers were not true of Shepherd’s work. Shepherd does not shy away, as she puts it, from the “forceful and gnarled personalities” of such mountains, which can ultimately result in peril if not treated with the utmost respect (p.72).
This leads us to think about how we as Geographers can counter some of the flaws of pure representational considerations of places depicted through the lens of social media and beyond. Following the session Natasha probed deeper into social media, discovering a whole raft of accounts providing ‘grassroot depictions’ which open up depictions of the ‘less glamorous and everyday realities’ of rural landscape and living (Riley & Robertson, 2021):
Examples of ‘Grassroot’ Blogs & Accounts to Explore
@armadalefarm: A hill farmer depicting her life alongside the animals and people of Armadale.
@howemill: Realities of Regenerative Agriculture on a Scottish farm.
@HI_voices: Provides stories & photography from a different Highland and Island voice each week.
@ScotGamekeepers: unites gamekeepers, stalkers, ghillies, wildlife managers and rangers, sharing their role in the countryside.
Each of these accounts provided an idea of what rural living is like in the Scottish Highlands and Islands without shying away from the seemingly mundane nor visceral harshness such places can encapture.
Overall, we found Shepherd’s work and modern counterparts can give a renewed interest to place and with this the place agencies, omission, realities and enchantments that come with rural existence (Shucksmith, 2018). We too can learn to dig deeper and consider what we may discover from repeating encounters, rather than rushing for more, as Shepherd’s herself puts it, much can be learnt from “going round [the plateau] like a dog in circles” (p.21).
Connection to wider Rural Geography
This book connects to the wider rural geography in several ways. It highlights bodily encounters and how one’s body reacts to being in the mountains. Within the text, the author speaks of how at night-time whilst lying in bed, she squirms at the thought of the dangerous places and walks she has taken throughout her explorations. However, when on the mountains itself, Shepherd reveals a feeling connecting her body to the mountains she climbs, “as I penetrate more deeply into the mountains, the more I penetrate into my own” (p.228).
A further connection with a growing body of literature that was discussed by the reading group, which we reflected was evident not just in geography but in medical studies, is the social prescribing of nature. Shepherd highlights in the book that during her times out in nature and in the mountains, she has ‘moments of perfect clarity’, when the world reveals itself to her (p.216). This contemporary idea of nature is one which can be seen as therapeutic, for example, the NHS currently trialling the prescription of nature walks for those with mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. Being outside in the countryside, walking in fresh air and connecting to nature, has proven to be a healer, with positive impacts for peoples mental health. The group connected how this fitted in with the current debate surrounding the accessibility of the countryside. For instance, putting in stone paving to enable and/or concrete paths to allow more users to walk up hills, can be seen as controversial. Some may view it as detracting from the natural environment, however ensuring the countryside is for everyone and accessible to all, was seen by the group as an important factor.
To close, Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’ was a book, albeit a short one, which all members of the reading group relished. Shepherd’s work is a thought-provoking piece that continues to reasonate with current debates surrounding nature and the countryside. Although well ahead of its time when written, the book has stood the test of time, and will continue to provide a testament of how the living mountains should be admired and respected.
With thanks to reading group members & those who contributed examples of ‘grassroots’ encounters across the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
Cairngorms National Park (2020) More people love the Cairngorms National Park as it ‘re-opens’., Available at https://cairngorms.co.uk/people-love-cairngorms-national-park-re-opens/ (Accessed 11th March 2022).
Macaulay, S. (2020) More than a million tourists flocked to Cairngorms between July and September, new figures show., https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/highlands-islands/2704879/more-than-a-million-tourists-flocked-to-cairngorms-between-july-and-september-new-figures-show/ (Accessed 11th March 2022).
Rightmove (2020) Why are so many buyers escaping to the country?., Available at https://www.rightmove.co.uk/news/articles/property-news/escape-to-the-country (Accessed 11th March 2022).
Riley, M., & Robertson, B. (2021). #farming365 – Exploring farmers’ social media use and the (re)presentation of farming lives. Journal of Rural Studies, 87, 99–111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2021.08.028
Shepherd, N., Macfarlane, R., & Winterson, J. (2011). The Living Mountain (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Canongate Books.