A Playful Exercise in Creating an Adventure Nature Narrative Continuum: Seeking a Nan Moment
Fellow outdoor educator Simon Beames recently told me that, when guiding in the Cairngorm Mountains, his students have fun saying, “I’m going over there for a Nan moment.”
Obviously, this is an inside joke. I know it to be one rich in meaning and one I, and some of my students far from the Cairgorm’s Scottish Highlands, can easily relate to. Let me help you get in on the fun too. In fact, this essay will be entirely grounded in hoping you will join the Nan moment club—the Nan Shepherd club—so to speak, or at least understand Nan and other nature writers like her within the larger context of the relationship between humans and nature and the interplay surrounding the adventure and nature narrative.
Here are examples from Nan:
No one had told me I should find swifts on the mountain. Eagles and ptarmigan, yes: but that first sight of the mad, joyous aboundon of the swift over and over the very edge of the precipice shocked me with a thrill of elation. All that volley of speed, those convolutions of delight, to catch a few flies! The discrepancy between purpose and performance made me laugh aloud—a laugh that gave the same feeling of release as though I had been dancing for a long time. (pg 60)
Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Fresh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless but essential body. (pg 106)
My own students in the Canadian Shield, as canoeists, were more inclined to know P.G. Downes and celebrate “having a little P.G. moment.” Or, a Sigurd moment, for Sigurd Olson. In winter, it would have been, “I’m going off over there for an Elliott Merrick moment.”
I’ll always remember the student who brought Elliott Merrick’s True North (1933), on our winter snowshoe trip. He pulled out the book to share a passage but had trouble finding it because he had nearly 50 sticky tabs marking various excerpts. His enthusiasm for book passages rendered him near useless at retrieving the right one when he needed it. I’m certain part of his adventure quest for that winter trip was to have an Elliott moment.
Likely this passage by Elliott Merrick was among those many tabs:
Travelling on a track like this is perpetual romance for me. This stump right here, this birch, this snowed-up brook; no, it is not these; it is on and on and forever on through the bright white wilderness and shadowed trees… Something keeps calling, on and on to the farthest ridges that lean against the sky. And I am convinced that it is not just fancy. It is real and concrete. It is happiness, calling, “Come and take me if you are strong enough.”
These writers capture the “look at this place through me” narrative; or even the “insider trending toward knowing a deeply poetic view” narrative. Nan Shepherd’s 1977 book (that was actually written in 1945), The Living Mountain, is one such narrative. The author writes of a quest for an insider presence for place-responsive readers anywhere. She is writing about her quest to understand her beloved home terrain, the Cairngorms. And make no mistake about it: it is an adventure and travel, nature and travel narrative.
To have a Nan moment—or a P.G. or Sig or Elliott moment—is to seek activity and stillness and action and a calm that advances that challenging quest for the fleeting (evolving towards long-term) insider view. There will be physicality and there will be meditation. There is action and reflection: active reflection. I am reminded of Norwegian scholar/activist Sigmund Kvaloy Setreng saying to me once; “the worst thing you can do to a person is take away their inner complexity.” Helping students “have a Nan or Sigurd moment is drawing out inner complexity.
There can be ghost moments—Nan moments when you receive that insider view and feel a part of something much larger than yourself. Naturalist John Livingston called this “being part of a greater enterprise.” Philosopher Arne Naess called it “Self-realization.” The ‘s’ is capitalized for Naess to denote the connectivity and conviviality of this Self in relation. Again, it is fleeting—ghost-like—but it grows with the time on task of being in the wildness. I liken it to those times when you receive a burst of love energy in a relationship—expanded; hard to put into words but powerful to the spirit.
Personally, starting back in high school when I first read Sigurd Olson’s The Lonely Land (1961), I saw the merit in this type of adventure quest. When asked by journalists at trips end for adventure stories from the canoe trip, Sigurd writes:
“We tried to satisfy them all but somehow our answers sounded flat and innocuous. There was really nothing we had done that was exciting or that would make a good story, no hairbreadth escapes or great dangers, nothing but a daily succession of adventures of the spirit, the sort of thing that could not make headlines. They had expected something sensational, but nothing we gave them sounded good.” (pg 271)
I kept seeking such literature, always best when in keeping with regions I would travel next or hoped to travel in some foreseeable future. I wanted to travel well, to dwell well, and that meant listening and acting in Sigurd’s way. I realized that the more I’d learn, the less I’d know and that this is something to embrace, not shy away from. Adventure narratives and nature writing would teach me this. But there were other literatures on this path for me. The poet Keats called this humbling presence of mind negative capability. The spiritual writer Krishnamurti called it negative awareness.
Robert Perkins 1983 book, Against Straight Lines: Alone in Labrador, comes to mind with passages aplenty that follow along with this soul-expanding trend in negativity:
How to look at the whole of things, all the facts, not through some system’s eyes or some preconceived notion? How to hold the whole picture, not just a fragment of it? How to keep it in focus and not let it boil away into some lopsided intellectual schema? How to keep it outside straight lines?
Knowledge was not my territory. I wanted mine to be all the formless, vague, unspecified stuff that lives before and after the facts. It’s what gives facts their life. It’s difficult being attracted to the inexpressible, or less expressible, yet I can’t remain speechless. To colonize that territory remains my goal. I hold suspect any ‘path’, even my own. What I hope to find stands outside, alive, moving, changing. (pg 147)
As an Outdoor Educator at the University of Alberta and then McMaster University, I shared “look-at-this-place-through-me” insider adventure narratives. I used Nan Shepherd, Sigurd Olson, and all of the above texts mentioned so far while on the trail and in course reading lists. Sigurd’s Reflections from the North Country (1976) and P.G.’s Sleeping Island (1943), were, for a time, textbooks in a course that involved a nine-day canoe trip. I was seeking Nan and P.G. moments for myself, but also, for my students. And like Simon Beames, whom I mentioned at the outset of this paper, I was thrilled to see students get it! Simon in 1990 being among them.
There is a certain zest for life on the trail that comes with the inside-view adventure quest. The trips would really gel if we were all, guide and student, on the same page, so to speak. I wanted for myself and my students the same: those Nan moments, fleeting and spectre-like and sentient that exposed an echoing land of relationality with all beings. These are big aspirations.
It is a big adventure amidst and beyond the usual physical venturing which is a huge part of Nan’s inspired hiking and my canoeing and portaging and camping with P.G. Downes and Sigurd Olson. But physicality, particularly the rhythmic activeness of repetitive movement in walking, paddling, skiing—this is only part of it.
At the one end of a continuum, you have the above-mentioned narratives. (See figure 1). At the other end of the continuum, you have the bravado narratives. They are the “look-at-me-you-can’t-do-this” grunt and grit and sensationalized adventure narratives. They pit humans against nature, as opposed to existing alongside it; within it. These narratives are often all physicality and ego. I am reminded of a hike in the Rockies at Lake O’hara. I noticed other hikers coming up the trail to us. They stopped and quickly removed warming jackets. Now, in T-shirts they began doing bicep curls with large stones. I didn’t notice what happened next. As I descended to them, I asked what the sudden weight training was all about. Answer: “It was to beef up our muscles for an Instagram post.”
You can still read Canadian paddle “wilderness” narratives that claim discovery of empty places to an audience that seems to not know better or who seems to enjoy the simple bravado tale. And you can read of day-in, day-out struggle devoid of much or any knowledge of the place of the conquest. For some, the land is empty. For others, it echoes. For some, the place of adventure is an arena to exercise one’s ego. For others, the adventure is one of drawing out one’s inner complexity. Outside or inside.
Culturally, we should get past the “outside” view messaging. But admittedly, this end of the continuum sells well. Still, experienced canoe travellers are often gob smacked by these bravado books. Such narratives appear to command a certain attention and I trust will always be with us despite the fact that 1) the wilderness view is misguided. Canada is a peopled place, often more peopled in its remote places then than now. It is simply disrespectful to indigenous cultures and settler travellers to suggest otherwise. And 2) these bravado narratives, to be brief, offer overt impressive physicality, perhaps skill (perhaps not), and mental toughness and resilience but little else. After the message to just “go for it”, I wonder what is left. In the extreme outsider end of the continuum I am playfully suggesting (I say playful to mask sounding too judgemental) that I just don’t get it. But again, it feels misguided—like those guys bicep curling rocks to bolster their muscles for their Instagram photo.
More important than my personal opinion or tastes, the messaging of literature at the bravado-egocentric end of the continuum is not what we need, culturally. Beyond misguided, it feels dishonest to me. Hence, I write.
The in-betweens in the continuum between the “you can’t do this narrative” and the “look-at-this place-through me” narrative are interesting but I hesitate to indulge too much in this because once I depart from that bravado-outside narratives, I can enjoy examples from all along this playful adventure narrative continuum—a continuum that is only created to show the strong distinctions between the far reaches of either end. I’m itching to return to Nan.
The bravado adventure narrative is, I suggest, a dominant category. But there are blendings of personal tales woven into studies of a place. Kamil Pecher’s Lonely Voyage (1978) is one such example. He shares a wealth of history along the Churchill River but also acknowledges that he is lonely. He concludes: “Should some of my readers cherish the idea of travelling alone in the wilderness, I have these words of advice: don’t do it. It’s stupid and hazardous.”
The best of these sorts of adventure narratives, which say, “look-at-me: you can do this”, showcase an individual’s reflections and struggles and triumphs in travel, usually within some daunting endurance experience. There is also humility in these narratives, where the writers acknowledge that what makes them interesting is the journey. Honesty is also a trademark of this genre. T.A. Loeffler’’s heart-wrenching, More Than A Mountain: One Woman’s Everest (2008) is a fine example. As readers, we are with T.A. supporting and gaining ever more investment in her as she struggles with what we later discover is giardia, a parasite that causes chronic fatigue and diarrhea while also struggling to summit Mt. Everest. She is always saying to us, “you can do this”—this being Everest, or whatever your own personal Everest is: just take one step at a time. It’s a great read because the reader gets to know her and she is eminently likeable. I can easily imagine travelers having “T.A. moments.”
Another, more recent example is Anders Morley’s This Land of Snow: A Journey Across the North in Winter (2020). Anders isn’t 100% sure why he is travelling by ski from Prince Rupert, B.C. toward the east as far as he can go. He gets to Swan River, northwest of Winnipeg. He experiences a sense of life crisis in complacency with his congested life in Italy and is compelled to open wild spaces to travel. He enjoys getting to know the folks he meets along his convoluted trail of logging roads, lake travel and community trails.
Similarly to T.A., he seems to invite people to get to know him in his narrative and, again like T.A., we learn something of ourselves, about travel itself and about the place and its people along Anders’ intriguing route. T.A. loves mountaineering, Anders loves to glide on skis. It isn’t bravado that is exercised. Rather, he is issuing an invitation to come along with him and learn.
There are plenty of canoe tripping examples as well. The Family Canoe Trip: A Unique Approach to Family Canoeing by The Shepardsons (1985) is a compelling narrative that encourages the reader to observe the authors and follow suit. They paddle over three May to August years from their home in New Hampshire to Fort Yukon, Alaska on the Yukon River. It isn’t until page 187 near The Pas, Manitoba that we learn that Tina (age 9) is, given the heat, “particularly hot and miserable…She wears a body brace for her scoliosis.”
Tripping 6000 miles with scoliosis isn’t the surprise here: it not being mentioned until Manitoba is. I also love this understated line from page 183. “Strength and endurance cannot be hoarded indefinitely. It is use them or lose them, and today we used them.” Suffice it to say, this is not a bravado narrative. The trip warrants one but it is not as the story is experienced. You can do this, is writ large here.
I also must mention the “After Franklin” long-essay in Our Nature (1986) by Bil Gilbert. Gilbert and fellow travellers slowly realize that while carefully following the Franklin expedition up the Yellowknife River and down the Coppermile River, they were not the officer writers of the trip but the men doing the lion’s share of the labour. It was an epiphany of sorts. They notice they had covered the same 120 miles in three weeks to Franklin’s 13 days and that for the voyageurs, hired as labouring canoe men, “the hardships of the polar expedition were only marginally more severe than those they experienced routinely.”
Gilbert and his men were modern travellers, exhausted and, “In trying to travel with ghosts, we had fallen into bad company,” He adds, “We are in trouble…and had begun to appreciate that Franklin was inclined to treat portage problems casually because he did so little work on them. We are the men he is talking about…setting to the heart of the matter.”
The narrative they are following is not written by the men doing the work. It is the same route up river on the Yellowknife but the wrong book. They came to realize they were not having the fun they’d expected but they did gain a rich insight into the officers and the labourmen. This is an unusual narrative, because it suggests you can do what they are doing, but if you do, you’ll be doing it wrong. There are few Nan moments here.
Closer on the adventure travel and nature writing narrative of the “look at this place through me” with Nan Shepherd serving us an example at an end of the continuum, is the narrative that also focuses on place, ecology and heritage. Here the self is an ever lesser story for a burgeoning place-responsive awareness. The reader follows the travelling observer, who is both knowledgeable and curious. There are struggles and triumphs but they are downplayed as if they are just part of the place: part of the way to be here. I easily confuse myself by separating categories in the middle of the continuum. It is blurry but I do feel the categories exist.
A few other lesser-ego, more eco travel adventure narratives that come to my mind are Dave Oleson’s Kinds of Winter: Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories (2014) and Peter Browning’s The Last Wilderness (1975). Here are two passages from Oleson:
It came to me, finally, late that day—the sense of rhythm I had been craving. The journey was my entire world, and it was good and I was grateful. That state of mind is so elusive, and consciously striving for it only pushes it further away. It comes on its own when and if it will. As I did my chores that evening and the sun slid below the high ridge to the west-southwest, an unusual colour tinged the pink-and-orange sky. It was—and I had to look for a long time to confirm this—a delicate green, like the green of a new birch leaf, just edging the plumes of cirrus cloud. It was the same ethereal green as the aurora borealis, but it appeared to be a part of the sunset’s spectrum, not a twilight showing of the aurora. I smiled about it later, thinking, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” and imagining what a green sky might portend for a sailor on a stormy passage. (pg 41)
I did not want to emerge from the trip with my mind calcified into battle mode. Deep down, I knew that Ma Nature didn’t give a hoot whether I lived or died or froze in the dark. The trip had underscored that view of things, and it is a stance that serves a traveller well in the Arctic, out at sea, or high in the mountains—anywhere that the north wind feels like the truth. Still waffling between world views, I went into the tent, lit up Mr. Coleman, and pulled the flap-zipper down on the black sky full of stars. After dinner I read by flashlight. “In winter, warmth equates all virtue,” Thoreau reminded me. Bang on, Henry. (pg 49)
And from Peter Browning:
In just five days we had so radically changed our physical environment and so drastically altered our activities, interests, and entire mode of life that there was no logical connection between what we were doing then and what went before. Our existence in the bush was real—immediate, tangible, completely engrossing. Our former lives, with their strange, inanimate surroundings, seemed composed of nightmare and fantasy. Already we referred to that place whence we had come as “the Outside.” It was we who were on the inside—in contact with and inside of reality. When we called up memories of mechanized, urban life, we invariably found ourselves making scurrilous jokes and then laughing uproariously at our own wit. It seemed to be the only conceivable way to react to an image of existence that, when viewed from the wilderness, was so strange and grotesque as to make us wonder what diseased imagination had produced it. And this after only five days! By the time we got to the Outside again we would be even more mused than Rip Van Winkle. (23)
These are passages that guide us towards an insider understanding of the world. More eco than ego. They edge us toward an inspired place to be when on the trail or waterways. I suppose for some it might seem like navel gazing at some end of a continuum. For others, they represent an adventure quest of the spirit. And when the writing is of Nan Shepherd quality, one can be moved to those ghost-like, love burst moments of relationality. From Nan:
“To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”
I return to the Nan moment—the Sigurd moment, or whatever kind of moment you may have that offers that insider perspective of inspiration and aspiration on the trail. I hope you have your own source, in any case. If not, try Nan or Sigurd or P.G. or Elliott. Allow them to become part of your life on a first name basis as Simon and I have done for ourselves and our students. These moments and this literature can push us toward an ecology of mind where we can honour the integrity of the place—the place seen through you, with you losing you, even a bit. Know you are trending yourself toward an inner complexity—a Self realization. Many of our writers and philosophers are trying to tell us that this reflection is what we need personally and culturally. I think they are right.