comparative literature and lives, from Pops

The Living Mountain
Nan Shepherd (1945 / 1977)

Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life
Rachel Carson (1941 / 1952)


I want to celebrate early – and timeless – work from two remarkable women naturalists of the 20th century. This is not really book reviewing; it is tribute to these two writers’ noteworthy similarities and differences, and appreciation of their early, largely disregarded success. The books came to me unintentionally, separately, and coincidentally; that’s always a fun thing.

As shown in these books, both authors were naturalists in the purist sense: keen observers of the more-than-human milieu around them, with a literary voice enabling them to describe what they saw, which appeared so differently to them than most people. Humans rarely feature; they appear only occasionally as natural background to the author’s higher interest in place, or other inhabitants.

While both show an informed ecological understanding of what they observe, such insight is rarely explicit; they ‘teach’ by example. Both prefer to rely on literal and figurative senses as a narrative lens, and the result on these pages, while different in style, is surprisingly similar in tone, feeling and impact. There is a sophistication to their form that impresses, especially for its time. Carson embraced the term ‘poetic prose’, which certainly applies to both.

They lived during the same era, against a backdrop of both constraint and change for women. They wrote the two works cited here within the same decade (1935-45); publication of each book was at least partially affected by the war. There is no suggestion they knew of each other.

While both traveled internationally, they lived on different continents. The focus of their attention in the natural world rarely overlapped, even while the results of their inspiration bore similar fruit on the page. Carson was a committed author and trained biologist; Shepherd, always ‘only’ a writer, and more introspective. Early writing success met Carson, followed later by greater success and international impact; Shepherd’s writing was only fully appreciated late in life, and even then mostly limited to her region.


Nan Shepherd was born (1893) and lived always within walking distance of the Cairngorm massif in Scotland’s central highlands – and walk she did, across every ridge and through every valley of her cherished place. Always a poet, sometimes an essayist, she had a brief burst of minor publication before she finished writing The Living Mountain in 1945 at age 52.

For various reasons – post-war disruption, intervention by a mentor, some factors perhaps inexplicable – the book was not published. Only in 1977 was the original manuscript revived by the author and publisher (4 years before her death); it immediately gained attention regionally. Largely due to ‘discovery’ and ardent promotion by Robert Macfarlane, it has belatedly become a classic. The Scottish five-pound note now displays her image, with a quotation.

Shepherd’s subject here is explicitly The Living Mountain, which she embraced passionately her entire life. Her brief Foreword in 1977 testifies to her continued attention to that place. While the narrative draws from her experience over decades, it is organized into 12 chapter categories of her choosing, from Water, to Plants, to Being.

Her focus never strays beyond its boundary of geography, shaped by water. But her meaning for ‘the living mountain’ encompasses everything about it: rocks and water; clouds and winds; plants and insects; large and small; above ground and below; its impact on the psyche. Implicitly, this is an ecological view. Her language is intimate, lyrical and dense – all, matching her perception of the subject. Yet her voice is calming & humble, conveying her affinity for Buddhism. There is likely nothing else in print resembling her work here.

Macfarlane’s introduction in the 2011 edition runs to 28 pages including three pages of footnotes. This is a superlative essay in itself (of course, one might say), partially because Macfarlane himself roamed these hills as a youth, and even today. But mostly this is his own tribute to Shepherd, as we hear her on these pages. As he says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” I would agree, and say that about both books.


Rachel Carson was born more than a decade after Shepherd, in rural Pennsylvania. Even though she grew up land-locked her reading inspired an interest in the ocean. So it is unsurprising that the sea informed both her early interest in writing, and eventual degree in aquatic biology. Significantly, her early work in articles led to mentoring by a Dutch children’s author, who encouraged her simple, direct, descriptive writing style, which is so effective later.

Under the Sea Wind was her first book, published in 1941 at age 34. (Two subsequent books now comprise her ‘Sea Trilogy’: The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.) While initial publication met with critical success, sales and popularity were dampened by the war. When The Sea Around Us became a bestseller in 1951, the earlier book was rediscovered and the next year also became a bestseller.

Under the Sea Wind is organized into 15 chapters, divided 5-7-3 into three sections, or ‘Books.’ Each Book is a theme that ties together its chapters in loose narrative; yet all three also naturally connect in a general sense, and comprise a generic year’s cycle.

Carson’s sightline in this book covers the broad western hemisphere, especially the western Atlantic, encompassing ocean and sea; shoreline and river; marine and freshwater; birds and fish; whales and sand fleas. Yet, on a given page, her attention is particular species, and even individuals of a species, which she sometimes assigns a proper noun. One can imagine children of a certain maturity devouring some passages; and adults of a certain proclivity cherishing its entirety.

The magic of her ecological view is how her ‘narrative’ seamlessly and endlessly follows one organism to the next, taking as a thread a trophic food chain, or an expansive migration path, or intricate inter-species symbiosis. But she rarely resorts to such jargon, any global perspective, or stated scientific facts. She simply knits together, piece by piece, story by story, an appreciation of this connected web of life.


The relaxed pace; the embracing language; the sense of peacefulness amidst natural turbulence; the reassurance in understanding how things work – both books display these things, and commend themselves to sympathetic readers.

guest review: The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland by Nan Shepherd (introduction by Robert Macfarlane), from Pops

Months ago, back in August, my father came to visit me in my new home in West Virginia. One of our evenings was spent with my friends Doug and Melissa, down at the little brewery in their town, sharing stories and pints and a pizza. Among many other things, various author names were thrown about. Robert Macfarlane forms a meeting point for Pops and Doug. We finished up at their home, with a little casual live music from our host, and a book recommendation. My father returned home to Washington state and acted quickly. I received this email from him just a week or two later.

On Doug’s recommendation, I received this WWII-era book, lost and only first published in 1977: The Living Mountain, by a UK publisher, from Pacific Northwest provider ThriftBooks. This used copy is the 2011 edition with a 26-page introduction by Robert Macfarlane. Shepherd’s subject-homeland is the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, one of my favorite places from our visit, where we stayed a few days so I could take several mountain hikes, view Scots Pine recovery efforts and drink Cairngorm Brewery’s Black Gold Ale at the local pub with a view.

In 1977, The Guardian called it “the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain.” Their 2011 review says “This is sublime, in the 18th-century sense, when landscapes like these were terrifying. And she achieves it in language that is almost incantatory, like a spell…” I can’t wait.

Scots pines. photo credit: Pops.

Black Gold. photo credit: Pops.

Some three months later, I received this review.

The introduction here is by Robert Macfarlane, who nearly singlehandedly has led a revival of her works of poetry, fiction and this book. And today the Scottish 5-pound note displays her image, with a quotation.

As Macfarlane says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” Shepherd’s subject here is the Cairngorms: a massif, a group of peaks, a plateau – all those things, which she habitually refers to as the Mountain: an organism, an ecosystem, full of life, all its pieces intricately and inextricably linked. This place comprised her true life-long home, even as she traveled widely. She was obviously a committed and ambitious walker, in all weather; hers were no casual visits to the Mountain, and she often stayed overnight.

The Scottish author quietly lectured in English for Aberdeen College for most of her career. Eight years after writing four books in a burst, she wrote (and shelved) this one in 1945 at age 52. It was only published in 1977, inexplicably (although: Macfarlane notes the same year saw four other similar classics; again, a mystery). She died four years later.

Her language is simple, florid, passionate, and so unending it leaves one nearly breathless even if reading in silence, creating a sense of stream-of-consciousness in spite of typical narrative form. I was immediately deterred from any highlighting or marginalia; the prose is simply too dense with compelling description and notions. It is no surprise to learn she was a close reader of Buddhism; her sense of being one with the Mountain is complete: spiritually, physically, emotionally. Her ability to convey a deep and personal devotion to place challenges many others who embrace the same sense, and work hard at molding language to the task of saying so: Berry, Doyle, Sanders, Kingsnorth come to mind. Yet, reportedly, she never felt that task complete.

I was reassured all along knowing we have Macfarlane’s introduction to rely on; it’s an artful and meaningful essay in itself, and does justice to her work. He reports reading the book “perhaps a dozen times,” and his always capable language is informed by his own early-life passion for the same place, which I briefly visited as well. I only wish I had carried her slim, small volume with me when I was there, as both guide and inspiration.

What a lovely review, and strong endorsement! Thanks, Pops.

And for a postscript: Macfarlane’s 2013 Guardian article (with slideshow) about his recent visit to the Mountain, Shepherd always in mind, provides ample evidence of the magic.

reread: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (audio)

By coincidence, this book review was next in line when today’s date came up. But it feels perfectly appropriate for this gift-giving holiday, because Brian Doyle is a gift, and I think this novel is my favorite of his.

I have returned to my very first Brian Doyle experience with Martin Marten (originally reviewed here), because I miss him and love his work. Having enjoyed a few other audiobooks of his, I thought I’d try Travis Baldree’s narration.

It’s very good; I enjoyed the different voices for each character, from Maria to Dave to each of Dave’s parents, to Moon and Emma Jackson and Miss Moss and Mr. Douglas the trapper. I thought he preserved the sense of wonder and boundlessness that characterizes Doyle’s work. I found myself not thinking of the narration much, actually, and just living in the world of Martin Marten, and I think the disappearance of an art form’s container is often the highest compliment.

And the book is everything I remembered. As is said early in The Princess Bride, this book has everything it. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Well, there’s no fencing here, but there is death and birth and love and fighting and beginnings and endings and the easy connection of the two, and an un-wedding, and blizzards and springtimes and basketball and running and maps and trees and all the animals and plants and beings… Brian Doyle inspires lists like these; he writes in lists like these. He is all-encompassing, in the best and least pretentious way. For example, here is a paragraph that caught my eye this time around.

And deep mysteries too, things that no one could ever explain and in most cases no one ever knew or apprehended or discovered–a new species of snow flea mutating in a dark crevasse on Joel Palmer’s glacier; a blue bear born to two black ones but alive only for a day; a place where trees and bushes and ferns decided to intertwine and make a small green cottage complete with walls and a roof and a door; a cave with the bones of a creature eight feet tall inside; a pencil lost by Joel Palmer at nine thousand feet of elevation on the south side of the mountain, long ago encased in ice and now some twenty feet beneath the surface, waiting to be found in the year 2109 by a young woman named Yvon, who would be amazed that the pencil never wore out no matter how much she used it, as if it had patiently stored up words for two centuries; and much else, more than we could account even if this book never ended and its pages and pulses went on forever, and it was the longest book in the history of the world. Even then, it couldn’t catch more than scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote. And this is not even to consider the ancient slow stories of the rocks and their long argument with the lava inside the mountain and the seething and roiling miles beneath the mountain, all the way to the innermost core of the sphere, which might be a story of metallic heat so intense that to perceive it would be your final act in this form; another mystery.

A dear friend of mine, nearing the end of her MFA study, read this book on my recommendation and sent me a message that said simply, “my prose is lifeless.” Well, it’s not, but I know what she meant: Doyle’s just jangles with life. I know he is not for everyone. The above paragraph includes a single sentence fragment that is 198 words long. He gushes. But for those of us it works for, I think it works very well.

I wish I could go to live in one of Brian Doyle’s fictional towns. Although it does snow a lot there.

If you love the natural world and are charmed by the idea of not privileging any one species (ahem, humans) over all the rest; if you are excited by the many possibilities for joy in the world, big and small; if you love life, words, all kinds of critters, and even humans; if knowledge for its own sake thrills you; if you are prone to being pleased by lists and wonder–do give the novels of Brian Doyle a try. He has made this world a far better place.


Rating: there is no reason to amend my original 10 tomatoes.

Unforgettable Portraits by Rosamund Kidman Cox

Lions, tigers and bears–and more–light up the incandescent pages of this collection of stunning wildlife photography.

Unforgettable Portraits is a beautiful, large-format collection of images from several decades of the international Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Each stunning photo–close-ups and dioramas; elephants, leopards, ants and springtails–gets accompanying text explaining the species, the context, the photographer’s equipment and technique, with an emphasis on endangered species and climate change. Readers meet the Atlantic wolfish, the spotted-tailed quoll and the Namib Desert’s welwitschia, and learn that spirit bears have “a mutation of the same gene that gives rise to red hair in humans” and that the photographer must be part wildlife scientist to get these shots, designing blinds and lying in wait for days, weeks and longer.

These 70 stunning images, by more than 50 photographers from more than 20 countries, would make a wondrous gift for any lover of wildlife, strangeness and beauty.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2019 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 8 whiskers illuminated.

guest review: A Song for the River by Philip Connors, from Pops

Just a few lines, but good ones I think, from Pops about Philip Connors’s latest, which I originally reviewed here.

This week I finished reading this one. All the things you said, and probably more, as you also said. Really difficult reading sometimes (no, I have not read All the Wrong Places).

For me, it was very much an offering of lessons in seeking to fully embrace, process and find peace with loss – of so many different kinds. It’s a careful balance, between complete denial (mainstream versions of distraction) and over-thinking things into dark chasms of the soul. We both know people at the extremes and the wide expanse in between. Connors is indeed courageous to seek this balance ‘publicly’ – and well-equipped to give voice to the messy, insecure & fraught process. I am in awe.

Me, too, and always. I’m glad to hear you found the same. Phil, keep writing.

Good News by Edward Abbey

It has been too long since I got into some Ed Abbey. Good News follows The Brave Cowboy, in that it spends a little more time with old Jack Burns. This novel takes place in and around Phoenix, in a near future when political, economic, and other social systems have collapsed, leaving bands of people and individuals to fend for themselves. In “the city,” that takes the form of an army run by a nasty fascist leader known as The Chief. Guess how Jack Burns and his friends feel about this.

In the opening pages, Burns is accompanied by a Harvard-educated Hopi shaman named Sam. They will join up with a young man named Art, angry over the murder of his family and theft of their land (a la Fire on the Mountain), and eventually a beautiful barmaid. In the city, a small band of guerrilla resistance fighters, apparently largely made up of liberals from the university in town, harasses The Chief’s forces. It’s a very good-versus-evil story, without much interest in nuance. In classic Abbey style, the good guys indulge in a little fun sex and lots of good-natured shit-talking.

Some have called this a science-fiction novel, but I don’t agree. It’s set in the future (call it a not-too-distant future when this book was published in 1980; it feels quite like near future now, to some of us), but that does not sci-fi make. There’s no made-up technology to speak of. No, I’d call this a wacky Abbey satirical Western, maybe a bit picaresque. It speaks in absolutes. I was especially captivated by a four-and-a-half-page monologue by a Captain in The Chief’s army, rhapsodizing the past world she calls “the golden age.” Electricity, cars, neon signs, travel, sports, traffic, food, wine, a pill for everything, gadgets and televisions everywhere you looked… “You could drive your car anywhere. Anywhere! We had drive-in movies, drive-in banks, drive-in liquor stores, drive-in eateries, yes, my dear, eateries, charming term, we had eateries galore, people were always eating, eating, eating, oh it was gorgeous… the quickie marriage and the quickie divorce… there was always another partner waiting, by the pool, back at the condominium.” I can just imagine what fun Abbey had writing these pages.

Critics and readers generally agree that this is one of Abbey’s lesser novels. Kirkus panned it, cutely calling it “very small beer.” And I do find it to be a little less thrilling than some of the other very fine work he’s done, but that’s not the same as saying this is not a good book. I was at every point entertained; the pages kept turning; and for those of us who love and laugh along with Abbey, this is classic stuff, easily appreciated. Maybe that reviewer’s feeling that “[Abbey]’s farcical skills show considerable signs of wear and tear” and “the 1960s-ish attitudes have become shufflingly automatic” were sentiments of the moment; and, more likely, that reviewer was not among Abbey’s audience, not a sympathizer. Fair enough. Everything is not for everyone. I did find one reviewer who calls this book his favorite of Abbey’s. To each her own.

For those of us grinning at Abbey’s strange and curmudgeonly values and sense of humor, Good News is a worthwhile piece of the corpus. I was reminded of The Stand, The Walking Dead, and the Dark Tower series (especially as The Chief operates from a Tower that dominates the landscape and serves as symbolic). There’s also a little Escape From New York in the fantastical zaniness. Again, if you’ve bought into Abbey’s world, I absolutely recommend this one – for one thing, don’t you want to know what becomes of Jack Burns?? If you haven’t, give this a try; just don’t take it too seriously. Or maybe take it deathly seriously as a glimpse at our future. Eye of the beholder…


Rating: 7 piano tunes.

Chasing the Sun: How the Science of Sunlight Shapes Our Bodies and Minds by Linda Geddes

This broad study of the sun’s power over humankind, even in an age of electric lights and bright screens, is both absorbing and potentially life-changing.

Linda Geddes (Bumpology) illuminates the importance of one singular star in our human lives with Chasing the Sun: How the Science of Sunlight Shapes Our Bodies and Minds. The sun is life: allowing photosynthesis, warming the earth, providing solar power–it’s no wonder humans have long worshipped it. We have “assimilated starlight into the very fabric of our beings.”

People have resorted to the sun for medical purposes since early times, as well, and it is health and wellbeing that concerns Geddes in this lively, enlightening study. Circadian rhythms, her research reveals, are vital to many aspects of human life, governing blood pressure, body temperature, alertness, immune reactions, sleep cycles and quality and much more. “Almost half of our genes are under circadian control, including ones associated with every major illness investigated so far–including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, schizophrenia and obesity.” Shift work has recently been recognized as a probable carcinogen. In other words, the importance of sunlight to human existence can scarcely be overstated.

For this thoroughly researched investigation, Geddes consults history, international medicine, chronobiologists and NASA. She’s learned we get far too much artificial light and too brightly at night, while daytime interior lighting in most homes and offices is not nearly bright enough to simulate the sun’s power over our bodies. She also outlines light therapies for mental health issues, as well as for tuberculosis, and the special struggles and successes of populations at high latitudes, like Iceland. She speaks with fascinating people, like the man with non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder and the woman whose grandmother stuck to a strict meal schedule well into her 90s, and she visits the German “Chronocity” of Bad Kissingen, which advertises itself as “a place where internal time is as important as external time, and sleep is sacrosanct.”

While helpful to those interested in seasonal affective disorder or jet lag, this journey to the sun and back will certainly expose any reader to new concerns and marvels as well. Chasing the Sun offers many sobering lessons (sunlight and sleep cycles are life-and-death issues) and helpful tips (the utility of melatonin and vitamin D, and the importance of putting down that smartphone at least 30 minutes before bedtime). Geddes’s hopes for using what she’s learned, however, lean toward technological advances, not a return to older ways. This is also a riveting read, filled with characters, places, anecdotes and histories sure to fascinate. Geddes brings a sense of wonder to her work that is infectious, and makes scientific and medical concepts easy to understand through simple, serviceable prose. Caution: Chasing the Sun may inspire readers to try eating by candlelight and waking with the sun.


This review originally ran in the August 27, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 excited submariners.
%d bloggers like this: