“It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age,” Shepherd writes in 1947 and 58 years later it is an observation which couldn’t feel more true, and is astonishing in the way it reminds us that whatever the era the demand for human progress outstrips our sensation of time. Yet this entirely book is about timelessness, about one woman’s brief, if long by human terms, relationship with a mountain range, the Cairngorms of Scotland. It is a slender book, yet somehow packed with wisdom and beauty. It contains a life, a life lived slow and in harmony with an environment which is hazardous and fulfilling simultaneously.
The book doesn’t follow a linear narrative, but rather meanders in a series of connections: chapters on the plateau, on groups of walkers, on the influence of water, frost and snow. As the words flow, you begin to build up a sense of the mountains, their power and structure, their danger and their beauty, the ways in which they can surprise even the seasoned walker, taking lives in a sudden freeze. That Shepherd has a total respect and love for the mountains is apparent, there is a sense that they are the gift that kept giving through the course of her life and the book is her gift to the rest of us, sharing her experience and her observations.
Not surprisingly the subject of silence, a subject which is becoming a favourite of mine, is one which Shepherd covers in some depth. As she explains here, taken from two separate sections:
“The presence of another person does not detract from, but enhances, the silence, if the other is the right sort of hill companion. The perfect hill companion is the one whose identity is for the time being merged into that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be. Then such speech as arises is part of a common life and cannot be alien.”
“Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity. The senses must be used. For the ear, the most vital thing that can be listened to here is silence. To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time.”
This is something I’ve found myself thinking about a great deal recently: the difference between chatter and conversation, how silence can be more companionable than speech. We fill our lives with sound, but fail to hear anything. Shepherd’s words draw it out so clearly. And there’s a reverence to her language, a joy which is quiet and profound. She describes the mountain so beautifully, from her nights sleeping under the stars to the walks swathed in sudden fog, the changes in perspective, the hidden lochs, the people she encounters, the wildlife. It is a stunningly beautiful book which concludes, perhaps not surprisingly, in something approaching a zen Buddhist philosophy, as she describes here:
“It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”