Mediating a Mountain—some thoughts on Nan Shepherd and Elise Wortley
After some years of exploring nature writing through actual material practices (e.g., that time we framed up Thoreau’s house using only the tools he could have used “Building Thoreau’s House”), I was gratified to read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways where he encountered Edward Thomas’s poetry by following the paths he had walked. It seems a simple, even obvious, move, but it is one at some distance from much academic writing which tends to comment on other writing. Macfarlane’s approach provides real insight. Thinking back to Walden and our woodworking, it is surprising how few pages Thoreau devotes to actually building his house even though, as we learned, felling those “arrowy pines,” squaring them with an axe, and joining the resultant beams with mortise and tenon joints is incredibly time-consuming (at least for 21st century novices). Walden became a radically different book for us after that experience. It is not surprising that I found myself drawn to the work of Elise Wortley—Woman with Altitude—who studies famous women walkers (e.g., Nan Shepherd and Alexandra David-Neel) by walking their paths with period clothes and equipment. I’ve had the opportunity to trek in the Himalayas though not David-Neel’s path (and I walked with 21st century gear). I’ve also have had a good wander around the Cairngorms and have long thought Shepherd’s Living Mountain is perhaps the best nature writing ever (pace Thoreau).
Usually mediating nature—those mountains—involves movement between text and path, that well-worn distinction between word and thing, a jump that has always troubled me as it seems so stark, a vertiginous abyss between the material world and our sometimes feeble efforts to refashion it with words. Wortley, with her unusual strategy—along with her filmmaking friend from Wilderness Scotland (Rupert Shanks) who made a short film of her Nan Shepherd research—helps show how what seems an abyss is actually a series of short leaps, almost like crossing a creek (or burn) by stepping from stone to stone. https://vimeo.com/368036090
The short film depicts (and is) a range of incremental mediations, showing many material practices that are part and parcel of what we think of as mediation. The first and obvious strategy is Wortley’s voiceover. She does not speak in her own voice; instead she reads passages from The Living Mountain. At one point she is filmed sitting by the path reading from a tattered paperback copy. The filmmaker integrates images of her walk in the Cairngorms with passages from the text. The viewer is treated with a panorama of the rough peaks of that massif while Wortley/Shepherd exclaim “one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty.” The film links closely image and text— very much in the tradition of nature documentary, but that by itself replicates the binaries of word/world, or here image/world.
It is within the action of the film that mediating the mountain gets interesting. Along with the book, another printed text appears— a well-worn topo map (I’m guessing a UK ordnance survey). Again, a distant (scale of miles) representation, but for trekkers, a bit more. They learn to see the subtleties of contour, elevation gain and loss directly correlated to the image the Cairngorms themselves (on a clear day) produce. Those topographic lines are not just seen, but are also felt; they are embodied at a glance by the experienced hiker. Discussing the beauty she encounters, Wortley/Shepherd notes, “A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see.” Here the film shifts from cartography to aesthetics but the two are of a piece. The mountain forms need to be there for the aesthetically inclined eye to find beauty, but they also must be there to confirm the topography represented by maps, seen by eyes, and felt through feet.
The opening scenes, perhaps unintentionally, raise this point. The camera focuses not so much on Wortley in relation to the mountain, but instead on her feet following a rocky path. This of course calls attention to her period attire—she wears a hand-sewn pair of leather boots—handsome, but a far cry from the comfort and stability demanded by today’s trekkers. Something more is going on in this opening scene— another form of mediation makes an appearance that begins to re-articulate the word/world gap. For Wortley (along with so many Cairngorm walkers), the mountain is first felt through feet. The leather soles of her boots are a media form. Sure, eyes and images are important, but so are those feet and all the small muscles in her knees, ankles, and hips, each teaching the terrain in a way more intimate than graphic representation.
In his introduction to the most recent edition of The Living Mountain, Robert Macfarlane calls attention to the similarity of parts of the book with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. One section Wortley chooses to read up on the mountain that day is perhaps the best example. But I have a nagging suspicion that phenomenology with its concern with “consciousness of” the material world can only go so far in understanding Shepherd’s mediation of the mountain. As we will see in a moment, she references consciousness, but as Shepherd states and Wortley’s research reveals, the mountain becomes something you enter into, not become conscious of. There seems in this layered mediation, something that evades conscious apprehension. Here Macfarlane rightly signals Merleau-Ponty’s as a phenomenology that would accommodate this broadened sense of mediation, and yet to me, it seems she is doing a bit more here, that her experience of the mountain is somehow more elemental than the phenomenological.
Wortley’s boots on that path show that experience—even the experience of reading nature writing—is worked out in the middle, not on the endpoints of a polarity of mind/world or text/object. Shepherd and Wortley understand well the in-between. Many modern walkers— particularly those “quants” with fitbits —measure their movement by specific geographic or numerical goals. They live beginnings and ends. In contrast, The Living Mountain is always in the middle, the milieu. Even structurally, the book works through chapters (often elemental) and does not narrate a temporal sequence. Indeed, I think one characteristic of the best nature writing is a de-emphasis of narrative. As Shepherd says early in the book (and Wortley repeats at the beginning of the film): “Yet often the mountain 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.”
Wortley’s shoes mediate the material world while the path she follows mediates both the mountain and generations of Scottish walkers. The path the film features prominently is both physical and graphic. It is a history of feet and a mark on a map and on the ground—here is a line, follow it! (Footpaths). And it is also a history. Once while walking down the southwest side of Cairn Lochan on my way to Ben MacDui, I looked off to the west and could see in the distance Ben Nevis. An older man stood on the path looking in the same direction. He said he had been walking the massif for over fifty years and there were few days when Ben Nevis appeared. At first I was struck by the visual privilege I had been given that day, but then I realized how his fifty years was very much part of the line I was tracing. Paths are communal and require the ongoing presence of feet to remain clear, open, and legible—to continue to produce meaning. I was talking with a long-term contributor to that knowledge and a source of that mark.
Although the film only makes glancing reference to it (and Wortley’s boots skillfully avoid it), water is a medium Shepherd explores at length (air gets the full treatment as well). Early in the chapter entitled “Water,” she invokes communication: “Water is speaking.” Of course it is easy to mention babbling brooks (or in her vernacular, burns), but Shepherd’s speaking water is not soporific. It too, like the path, is full of meaning (both interpreted and felt); its sounds guide the walker on her way through those peaks and vales:
“The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes—the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.”
Through sheer repetition over years of wandering the Cairngorms, Shepherd learns to listen to the sounds literally pouring from the mountain, to distinguish various and complex messages. For Shepherd, water as a medium is the message.
Not just sound, Cairngorm water is also taste and a touch that engenders a sense of embodiment: “This water from the granite is cold. To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch.” In The Living Mountain, water is a source of physical satiation but also a signal of alarm: “Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me.” Her’s is an interesting fear, one sometimes felt by walkers who encounter what feels to be the purely elemental, that which is devoid of mediation and provokes a thrill, perhaps even the nausea of the sublime (Water). But rather than framing such an encounter as beyond media or prior to it, Shepherd makes mediation itself elemental. Before words, before images, there is water—pure media. In the above quotation, she is regarding water, later she directly encounters it when attempting to ford a rain-swollen burn: “For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” Yes, in Shepherd’s world the water speaks.
A body that has learned to fear the strength of the water becomes for Shepherd and Wortley a way into the mountain. Unlike Emerson, a founder of American nature writing, Shepherd’s nature does not symbolize some higher, transcendental power, but instead is, in its very materiality, what we access directly by being in it. She refuses a figure of speech that abstracts—pointing elsewhere—and instead is resolute in pointing toward the experience of the flesh in and of that mountain as meaning in itself, as first writing. Wortley reads at length from The Living Mountain:
“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. 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.”
Like her elemental water, Shepherd’s walking is itself a mediation of her essential body—one that does not stop at the skin, but is made and made meaningful (at the same time) by its and the mountain’s inter-worlding. Her “walking out of the body” is no transcendence, nor is it spiritual in a traditional sense. Nor is it some abstract oneness. Rather it is the aggregate that walkers sometimes experience—the sense of being as there, in all its messy, multiple, plural immediacy. And let’s not forget, immediacy’s etymological root is media.
The film then turns to Shepherd’s phenomenological aesthetics, one that rejects the spectatorial for the immersive—an embodied plunge into a wider, worldly body found through walking (Brutal Beauty). Wortley reads from her copy of the book—the one that has clearly spent time on the mountain itself, absorbing its blows—directly addressing the problem of beauty in a way that reframes or at least points in a direction different from Immanuel Kant’s formulation:
“Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead.”
What intrigues me is Shepherd’s notion of “matter impregnated with mind” which seems to re-inscribe any number of traditional binarisms, ones that the book (and the film) are working against. Mind and consciousness are barely categories in this text except as effects of the ongoing unfolding of experience of the mountains and its elementals. She introduces beauty as a category—how could she not?—only to ignore traditional notions of unity, symmetry, balance, etc., to embrace a processual immersion of sights, sounds, smells, and bodies—the “confusion” of being in and with the mountain.
In the immediately following passage, Shepherd turns from aesthetics to ontology, though I think she purposely elides the distinction: “It [a living spirit] is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. 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.” With this Shepherd brings the last binarism—being/nonbeing— back into the middle, giving new meaning to the notion of love (and I think representing the love Wortley is expressing in her taking on a version of Shepherd’s sense of being). Being-in-with-the mountain is the subject of the entire book but she gets there by walking into it, in those hand sewn leather boots and homespun clothes, not seeking transcendence or abstraction but instead a sense of the admixture of being and non-being in a “continuous creative act.” From that perspective, Shepherd is more Whiteheadian than phenomenological. The sentence “Man has no other reason for his existence” is not so much existential—a way of framing individual being (an impulse to demarcate self)—as it is a celebration of our minor selves in the milieu of “the vastness of non-being” which is, as she has been saying all along, the source of the material being that produces meaning, mediates self as mountain. It is a nature “writ” (lived) large.
T. Hugh Crawford