Lent 2022 A Saint a Day for Lent Day 36

Day 36 6th April Nan Shepherd

Anna Shepherd, known as Nan, was born in 1893 in Cults, now a suburb of Aberdeen. She lived there, in the same house, for almost all of her life. The only time she lived away from her family home was when she moved to a nursing home shortly before her death in 1981, at the age of 88. Nan was by all accounts a remarkable person, who was certainly a trailblazer for women who were born at the end of the Victorian period. She received a good education, went on to university and lived life on her own terms. She was much loved by those who knew her, and was as much at home in middle class company with all its finery as she was with the working class country folk around her. She was a teacher, lecturing at the Aberdeen college of education, and was particularly concerned with giving young women every chance to make independent and educated choices in life. Nan wrote three novels in the 1930’s that are well regarded, depicting the lives of women in small Scottish communities in changing times. She also wrote poetry that was influenced by her love of the Grampian landscape and the Cairngorm mountains. Her greatest love in life was hill walking, which is reflected in her wonderful, and now classic, book “The Living Mountain”. Nan wrote it in the 1940’s, but chose not to have the book published until the latter part of her life, in 1977. It is almost like she knew that it would bring her celebrity status which, being a woman who enjoyed solitude and her privacy, she would certainly have wanted to avoid. Since her death she has been commemorated on a new series of £5 notes by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2016.
It was upon reading this book that I began to explore more about her life, and is why I chose her to be a part of these reflections. Her descriptions of the Cairngorm mountains are so alive and vivid, and her relationship to them was almost mystical. She saw hill walking as a spiritual experience, and describes how, after hours of walking, something would open up within the still centre of her being. She is certainly one of Nature’s saints and is one of those rare people who show us how the Divine is uniquely accessed through spending time in wild places.
Nan wrote that we should spend enough time in the hills, by rivers, mountains, sea, forest and meadow to hear them speak to us. She is vital reminder that God speaks to us through the wonder of creation, and that walking, sitting, working, or exploring in nature is a valid form of prayer.

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From Nan Shepherd’s wonderful book: The Living Mountain

Mountain flowers look inexpressibly delicate; their stems are slender, their blossoms fragile; but burrow a little into the soil and roots of timeless endurance are found. Squat or stingy, like lumps of dead wood or bits of sinew, they conserve beneath the soil the vital energy of the plant. Even when all the upper growth is stripped – burned or frosted or withered away – these knots of life are everywhere. There is no time, nor season, when the mountain is not alive with them. Or if the root has perished, living seeds are in the soil, ready to begin the cycle of life afresh. Nowhere more than here is life proven invincible. Everything is against it but it pays no heed.

Scent – fragrance perfume – is very much pertinent to the theme of life, for it is largely a by-product of the process of living….. The smells I smell are of life, plant or animal. Even the good smell of earth, one of the best smells in the world, is a smell of life, because it is the activity of bacteria in it that sets up this smell. Plants then, as they go through the business of living emit odours. Some, like the honey scents of flowers are an added allurement to insects…. but in other cases – as the fir trees – the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself. When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life itself that is entering. I draw life in through the delicate hairs of my nostrils.

Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges the rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing…. it is a journey into being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountains life, I penetrate also in to my own. I am not out of myself, but in myself….this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.