Robert Macfarlane is a perceptive writer, and there is no better proof of this than the soaring, comprehensive, inspiring introduction he has written for a recent edition of Nan Shepherd’s nature writing classic, The Living Mountain, which Macfarlane praises as worthy of keeping company with Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Macfarlane notes Shepherd’s close and patient observation, her descriptions of how that observation can be warped by the environment, her preference for just being in the mountains, rather than conquering them, and her physical, rather than merely intellectual or emotional, reaction to the landscape.
Indeed, when she is looking Shepherd notices everything – colours, shadows, textures. She spends two pages describing the various patterns freezing water makes. But she also notes the illusions of the mountains – the way the air can distort distances, the way mist and snow obscures and highlights. She describes how the mind shifts in its perceptions, that looking is not merely a matter of eyesight. And she shows how being in the natural world brings alive our bodies, which Macfarlane suggests is becoming more critical as many of us live somewhat removed from nature.