Trailblazing Scottish Mountaineer and Poet Nan Shepherd on the Transcendent Rewards of Walking and What Makes for an Ideal Walking Companion
By Maria Popova
To place one foot in front of the other in a steady rhythm is to allow self and world to cohere, to set the mind itself into motion. We walk for different reasons and to different ends — for Thoreau, every walk was “a sort of crusade”; for artist Maira Kalman, it is “the glory of life.” “Nature’s particular gift to the walker,” Kenneth Grahame wrote in his splendid 1913 manifesto for walking as creative fuel, “is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive.”
That suprasensitivity is what the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) explores with uncommonly lyrical insight throughout The Living Mountain (public library) — her exquisite forgotten inquiry into the interconnectedness of nature and our relationship to it.
Reverencing the increasingly endangered silence of nature, Shepherd considers what makes for an ideal walking companion:
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 in 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. To “make conversation,” however, is ruinous, to speak may be superfluous. I have it from a gaunt elderly man, a “lang tangle o’ a chiel,” with high cheek bones and hollow cheeks, product of a hill farm though himself a civil servant, that when he goes on the hill with chatterers, he “could see them to an ill place.” I have walked myself with brilliant young people whose talk, entertaining, witty and incessant, yet left me weary and dispirited, because the hill did not speak. This does not imply that the only good talk on a hill is about the hill. All sorts of themes may be lit up from within by contact with it, as they are by contact with another mind, and so discussion may be salted. Yet to listen is better than to speak.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s conviction that “never to get lost is not to live” and echoes Kenneth Grahame’s assertion that “the best sort of walk is the one on which it doesn’t matter twopence whether you get anywhere at all,” Shepherd adds:
The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain — not in Keats’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 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.
With an eye to those transcendent moments in hiking when “the body may be said to think [and] each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness,” Shepherd writes:
These moments come… most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the “still centre” of being… 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. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.
Complement this particular fragment of Shepherd’s wholly magnificent The Living Mountain with Robert Walser on the art of walking, Thoreau on the spirit of sauntering, and Rebecca Solnit on how walking vitalizes the mind.
Published April 18, 2018