Life Writing

Posted on 26th June 2015 by Svend McEwan-Brown

One of the most magical sentences I have read all year:

“When the ice-paws crisped round the stones in the burns and the ice-carrots that hang from the ledges, are loosened, and the freed ice floats down the river, it looks like masses of floating water lilies or bunching cauliflower heads.”

As an evocation of deep, wild winter it makes me shiver. Even if you ignore the meaning and simply roll the syllables round your tongue as a flow of sounds it has a remarkable icy power. It becomes a pungent musical experience – which may be why I respond to it so strongly: I am first and foremost a music person. Honestly, I am surprised no composer has responded to this book yet.

Open pretty much any page of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and you will find language as vivid and singular as that. There are over 100 of them (this is not a long book) on which she lays bare the vast wealth of experience she has through a lifetime’s exposure to the wildest wilds of Scotland. I know I will never share those experiences in actuality. The idea of sleeping under the skies, skinny-dipping in a freezing burn, stalking the moors in driving rain…. All of these make me glad of glazing, comfy chairs and coffee. I could no more sleep on a bare mountain than I could co-habit with otters and goshawks. But while I read her (or Helen Macdonald or Gavin Maxwell), she has me and makes me live those moments with the same fierce joy that possessed her.

This is why I love what the bookshops will call ‘nature writing’ so much – and why I urge anyone to try an event at our littoral programme this weekend.

Those ghastly two words ‘nature writing’ are yet less useful than ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ in conveying what reading one of the books might be like. This is writing about intense and real experience of Life – our lives, animal and plant life, the life of the seas and the rocks, the life of the planet. So, Life Writing I will call it. These books have the power to open your mind, eyes and ears to the world like no other partly because they are about real things – and those real things a connect with our daily experience in myriad ways. In this sense they have much in common with the exhortations of artists like David Hockney who asks us many to transform our lives simply by looking. Spend 5 minutes looking at a tree: to see that it is not green but 100 greens, that its life-cycle is written on its structure, that it bears its scars. This is not time wasted. Visit the worlds of any of our authors this weekend to see the world afresh: wonderful gifts.

Littoral Events run Saturday and Sunday in Crail and Cambo. Full details on our programme page.

Native pine forest at dawn in summer, Rothiemurchus Estate, Cairngorms National Park, Strathspey, Scotland, July 2001. Photograph © Laurie Campbell

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