David Robinson Reviews: Among The Summer Snows

PART OF THE World Environment ISSUE

‘Shepherd’s book is so close to what Nicholson is searching for: Scotland’s longest-lasting snow.’

In the aftermath of World Environment Day, David Robinson reviews Christopher Nicholson’s quest to find the elusive snows of Scotland’s summer. Tracing Among The Summer Snows’ lineage back to Nan Shepherd and her pioneering account of the Cairngorms in The Living Mountain, Robinson finds Nicholson’s restrained, yet still highly personal, exploration of nature, beauty and mortality in the twenty-first century as epic as the few snowbeds – some as big as icebergs – that survive in the Highlands today.

It’s a long while since I read a book that made me laugh and cry within just a few pages, that made me exasperated at one obvious connection its author hadn’t made, then left me humbled as he revealed a range of other interconnected  wonders I never knew about. Yet novelist Christopher Nicholson’s new non-fiction book Among The Summer Snows – published by newish imprint September Publishing in just over a week’s time – is indeed such a wrong-footing marvel of a book, and it caught me out perfectly.

This week, I hope you noticed, began with World Environment Day on Monday. So the publication of Among The Summer Snows seems particularly (as lawyers say) timeous. For what book could better encapsulate the UN initiative’s slogan – ‘Connecting People to Nature’ – than this one about a middle-aged Englishman’s quixotic quest for the longest-lasting snow patches in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a small subject, you think as you start reading the book, but written well it could be engaging.  What you don’t expect is that it will end up touching both death’s void, and love, and the beauty of the natural world at one and the same time and in a way that is all the more powerful for its restraint.

Nicholson had begun writing about the summer snows of Scotland ten years ago, but then his wife Kitty fell ill and the project fell into abeyance. This book, he promises, won’t be about grief, or at least not directly. And because he doesn’t dwell on his loss, the reader doesn’t either: instead Nicholson even lurches towards comedy in his sheer inarticulateness when a friend asks just exactly why he wants to spend the summer searching out white patches on Scottish mountains that could well be – even in July and August – be covered in clouds for days and even weeks at a time.

Is it, a friend asks, nostalgia? Because Nicholson belongs to that passing generation of sixty-something English people who adore this country, who first got drunk on the beauty of Scotland’s landscape rather than in the bars of Magaluf, who first found freedom and danger on Scottish mountainsides. No, he replies:  he doesn’t know why he wants to go summer snow-hunting, and maybe if he did he wouldn’t. Secretly, he knows how absurd a project it is, what with his dodgy leg, his orthotic insoles, and a back his surgeon warns him shouldn’t be put under strain.

Not that, you should understand, Among the Summer Snows is one of those books about nature that are as much about writer’s inner world as the natural one. There are a lot of books like that, many of them excellent, in the bookshops right now. In fact, if you want an idea for a PhD thesis, have this one for free: that contemporary Scottish nature writing is mainly female, and marked by a kind of emotional honesty a previous generation could never have imagined: step forward Amy Liptrot, Victoria Whitworth, Sarah Maitland, Kathleen Jamie, Linda Cracknell, and Esther Woolfson.

All of them, I imagine, will have read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Shepherd is one of those Scots (Rikki Fulton, Norman MacCaig – we could all make a list) about whom the English don’t know as much about as they ought. That’s a bit odd, given that English nature writer Robert MacFarlane never stops beating the drum for The Living Mountain as one of the finest books about the British landscape ever written. In Scotland, of course, we know he is right, and we rightly honour Nan Shepherd, who for over a year now has been looking back from new RBS £5 notes.

And this is where Among The Summer Snows began, just slightly, to exasperate me. Because here he is, on the Cairngorms, on a project which all his readers know is really going to be about tracking the evanescence of life (snow) against the rest of the natural world, and he is quoting practically everyone else who has ever written about snow, but there is no mention of Shepherd, the Zen mistress of the mountain whose sides he is searching. It’s like seeing a blind man wondering where the Braille books are kept in the library. You just want to point him in the right direction.

Because Shepherd’s book is so close to what Nicholson is searching for: Scotland’s longest-lasting snow, it turns out, is on An Garbh Choire of Braeriach, which in The Living Mountain she describes as ‘one of the most secret places of the range’.  There’s been snow there ever since 2006, says Nicholson, the closest this country has to perpetual snow. Shepherd could have told him that. ‘There was snow worth seeing in those old summers,’ she wrote. ‘I used to believe it was eternal snow, and I touched it with a feeling of awe.’ Then in the long hot summer of 1934 it vanished – everywhere “except a small patch in the innermost recess of the Garbh Choire of Braeriach. Antiquity has gone from our snow.’

As for Nicholson, he’s off again, tracking down snow patches that look (the book includes colour photos) like unmade beds of dirty coconut flesh, giant off-white corpses in gullies, or small ice tunnels full of blue light. And if there’s a weird beauty in the photos, there’s something similar about the facts about summer snow he tracks down. Here’s one – although like a snowy cornice on Garbh Choire, I’m not sure how much weight I can put on it. In 1769, it was reported that Sir Harry Munro was granted a deer forest on the side of Ben Wyvis by the monarch on condition of ‘delivering a snowball on any day of the year that it is demanded’. In midsummer, 2000, when the Queen visited Inverness, Hector Munro gathered a bucketful of snow on Ben Wyvis just in case. The Queen never asked.

I’m still smiling at that when he tells us a little bit about Kitty. She was, he says, a botanical artist, (she was actually one of the finest in the country: check out and after the cancer diagnosis, her work centred more on decay and regeneration.  Death and life. Snow sintering into ice, melting into soil. And that’s what all nature writing is about really, isn’t it? What we catch echoes of when people connect with nature. That there’s a dance we’re all part of, every living thing, but soon won’t be, and we try to catch its wonder while we can.

On his last day, looking across Nan Shepherd’s living mountain, thinking about his dead wife, the mist lifts and he catches a final glimpse of the snow on Garbh Choire. He wonders, as he walks away, whether ice is water pretending to be a rock. No, he realises, it’s trying to be a rock. Trying all the time and failing. And do rocks ever want to be water? Do they too ever want to melt?

He thinks of Burns:

Till all the seas gang dry, my dear
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands of life will run.

He never, I think, as I close the book, told us much about Kitty. No, I realise: he told us everything.

Among The Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson is published by September price £14.99 on 13 June. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is published by Canongate, price £6.99.

You can read an extract from The Living Mountain here on Books from Scotland.

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