The procession of light and colour

Each Monday for a little over six months nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison enchanted listeners with her podcast https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/ “The Stubborn Light of Things”*. At the end of September, I was thrilled to join her with a few words about this incredible country I call home. North West Scotland is a windy place and after several attempts to record outdoors I eventually retreated inside. The final recording was made with doors and windows closed, thoughts just spilling out as they often do.

My very first attempt, which included a lot of laughter as well as wind noise, was made as I walked along the track that runs from my front door to the sea. I wanted to describe the physical geography of this place, its shape and powerful presence and explain to potential listeners about the impact it has on my life. I had hoped, especially for Melissa, to capture the sounds made by the squadrons of geese that had been flying overhead for some time, the boisterous gangs of oystercatchers on the shore and maybe, just maybe an eagle. It is always busy and noisy here, with sheep and cattle comings and goings, with tractors, pigs, ponies and chickens, birds whisking back and forth, and of course, the sounds of the Red River and almost permanently present sea breeze. But on the day of recording it was just too windy, too noisy and time was short.

The walk I wanted to capture is one I do every day and, because I cannot climb the mountains just now, one that has become a talisman, influencing my perspectives on this place, and one that is a palliative for well-being. It is a walk from the back door along a track running between our croft and a large peat bog to the cliff-top edge by the sea. From there the little track turns north down the steep slope and before heading down I always pause to watch the waves and wildlife, try to figure out what the wind intends to bring to us and drink in the light. At this spot our small valley and the mountains of Torridon are at my back, the sea and wind in my face.

This part of Wester Ross is made from Britain’s oldest rocks, some more than 2 billion years old, overlain by multiple layers of climate and ecological history and by the stories of peoples who have come and gone over millennia. Ours are the most recent and thinnest of all these tales, the uppermost part of a palimpsest, yet they continue to be profoundly influenced by this living landscape and by the slow inexorable passage of ‘deep time’.

My home sits within an ‘edgeland’, a complex coastal zone like no other, habitat-rich and full of life. It is a place of motion and turbulence, shifting light and altered space, of transience, transmission and longing.

Out to the west the sea is also fringed by ancient rock. The horizon is an undulating silhouette created by what appears to be an almost continuous chain of islands – the Inner and Outer Hebrides – from Rona, Raasay and Skye all the way to the northern tip of Lewis. The view from croft and cliff is therefore created from great complexities of rock and water that have come together again and again over millions of years. To me the Minch is a great bowl whose edges and rims are formed from mainland mountains and islands and unimaginable expanses of time. It is a construct that holds me fast. It captures light and colour and magnifies and transmits both beyond its limits.

From my vantage point, I can watch the sun setting across the western rim of the bowl. Throughout the year the position of sunset changes, processing back and forth along the island-horizon from mid-winter to mid-summer. The summer solstice sun falls away into the sea just off the northern end of the Isle of Lewis and at the winter solstice dips behind the low hills between the Cuillin and Trotternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye. In spring and autumn equinoctial sunsets lie between the northern tip of Skye and the Uists.

The solar year is mapped out along ancient rock silhouettes whose island shapes are as well defined as the angles and lines on a sextant. As the year wanes we long for light most of all, grieving a little each day as it constricts. But watching sunsets move swiftly along the outer edges of this space back and forth, year in and year out, I see the light as powerful, stubborn and magical, an elemental force pitched against darkness of every kind. Even at its most constricted, the light from the sun brings great joy and colours so rich and deep they remain imprinted on the mind for days to come.

Of course, not every day brings a sunset clear enough to pinpoint to a particular peak or valley because the majority of our ‘weather’ also comes from the west. Above the line of islands, the towering cumulonimbi of great storms building out in the Atlantic are often visible. We can watch them travel towards us and assess the coming weather from the types of clouds growing beyond the Hebrides or pouring in over the Trotternish.

From the little vantage point the relationship between sea and sky in this space is laid bare. It is a relationship that is volatile, filled with energy, colour, sound and scent. I get caught up in it and feel part of it. No two days are the same. The vibrant colours are interchangeable, reactionary and animate. They feed off each other, they are intertwined and irrepressible even on the bleakest of dark winter days. At times, it is hard to recognise anything other than colour; the rest of the world falls away because of the limitless variety and intensity of hue and chroma, and because of the powerful interplay of light and shadow.

Seen from this particular spot the elemental exchanges between air, water and earth are unlike anything I have ever encountered before, even on mountain summits. Perhaps it is partly because, in my shielded and relatively immobilised state, I am measuring the changes more carefully and acknowledging more deeply the emotions they arouse in these Covid-19 times. And yet I can’t help feeling that I am not alone when I stand at the edge of the cliff, wind-whipped, eyes watering and skin stinging. There seem to be ghosts all around, the spirits of those who have stood here over millennia watching the sun’s passage, calculating, measuring, trying to decipher its meaning or their own relationships to the heavens, or merely enjoying the light and colour as I do. I often wonder whether they marked their conclusions on antler, wood or stone. In all likelihood their tales have become layered in the peat or carried off by the wind in the same way mine are dissolved in digital space.

I now think that even if I had been able to obtain a suitable recording from the cliff and tried to explain what it feels like to live here on this edge of the world, even the slightest breeze would have masked the voices of my ghostly companions. But I could have rejoiced in the light of the autumn equinox, described the colours of the sea and explained about the procession of the sun. And maybe you wouldn’t have believed any of it.

*If you have missed the beautiful podcast “The Stubborn Light of Things” you can listen to all twenty seven, half hour episodes here:

https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/

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Lessons from grandmothers

It is quieter on the croft this week. After the noise and bustle of hay-making meadows are hushed. The cut sections are greening quickly but the margins along riverbanks, springs and ditches and around patches of scrub and trees, are tall and golden. They are busy too, quietly busy with birds and insects seeking food and shelter.

Colours of autumn are popping up from soft greens and yellows; bracken is turning from sugary green to copper, rowan leaves are crimping and rusting and yellow pennies are falling from the birches. After the headiness of recent weeks even the cheerful, bee-filled drenches of heather are losing colour and brightness, fading into dusky pinks and lavenders.

Skies have been full with fast-moving pillows of grey mostly from the south and west, carrying showers and rainbows to herald the onset of autumn, and where latterly our days were filled with vivid, lancing light, sunrises now speak of change. Quite how the south-flying birds cope I’m not sure. They fly with stoicism and determination, driven by the urgency of instinct. We are all heading into the “Great (Covid) Unknown” and for me the billowing winds and deepening autumn colours highlight the steady, internal nagging sensation that all is not well. I am trying to find the stoicism and determination seen in wildlife. It has been winnowed away, like it has for so many, but carry on we must.

The switch from warm summer weather to cool blustery showers was abrupt. A few weeks ago the first squadrons of geese caused me to blink with surprise, they were much earlier than last year, but this week I’m regularly accompanied by their voices and beating wings.

The “Great Confinement” followed by a summer busy with tourists kept me away from the mountains, just as it kept me away from family. I can see the Torridon ranges from home. Flashes of autumn colour mixed with cloud-shrouds alter their mood and change perspectives but they are a solid and reliable backcloth to life here.Their great age and strength are tangible and reliable. In the lower hills that stretch their arms out protectively on either side of our little valley, autumn can be seen creeping down towards the sea. Even these lesser slopes exude innate power and longevity. There is comfort to be had in rock and peat.

For some time, I have been restless, longing for mountains and to feel the winds coming off the ‘tops’. I can’t climb the greater hills just now but to walk about their feet and under their brooding faces is both joy and blessing. On the croft the air is still plump-full with perfumes of heather, myrtle, drying grasses and the last blooms of dog-rose. Salt and iodine blow up from the shore, occasionally with aromas I associate with much deeper seas. But mountains taste and smell quite differently. Even at low level the crispness of rock, pine, moss and running water feels rich and redolent of height.

Such scents become proxies for the high peaks whose remoteness my mind’s eye can forage from remembered climbs. I imagine looking down at myself, trundling along in the lower places, just as eagle might watch a creature too small and slow to bother with. I know the heights and long for them, but contentment would come from exploring their roots.

I walked, with husband and dog, along a broad estate track running lochside past moorland vegetation and then under mixed pine and birch woodland. Tussock grasses were singed with orange and contrasted sharply with the lingering purples of heather and scabious. The wind was lively. Clouds ran swiftly between the great hills, gusts scooted across the small loch churning surface waters. We sat under a grand old Scots pine with a flask of coffee and watched as showers billowed and rippled like the flowing manes of galloping horses.

Tiny worlds of moss and lichen covered the lower trunk. I looked up to the mountains and back to the complex and delicate forms of silent micro-habitats, then back again to undulating towers of rain. The same shapes and patterns were present in both: flutes, circles, dendrites, each mirrored fractals of the others. All interconnected, mutually reliant, tied by threads we cannot see or sense.

A few days later we walked up a newly installed ‘hydro-road’ so I could reach deeper into hidden, remoter valleys between high peaks. I chafed mentally at not walking the familiar trail that runs almost parallel but at much higher altitude for it is a lovely route. No doubt I would have grumbled at the sight of the hydro-road below yet I could see that the hydro-scheme builders have done a reasonable job. The structure that houses turbines and all the necessary gear is partly hidden under a great artificial slope of rock, peat and moorland vegetation, cleverly designed to mimic the hillside carved out by diggers and bulldozers. As you move through the valley it vanishes entirely from view.

Where Scots pine woodland was lost to the road, young native trees have been planted. Several large areas of ancient woodland have been preserved and here enormous grandmother trees nourish the youngsters. Threaded throughout the old growth and the new were many tiny trees, seeded from the woodland’s heart. Nature working in tandem with engineering.

So much wonderful scientific research attests to the role played by grandparent trees, about the invisible threads that bind ancient to young. The connections are real and measurable, physical and chemical. As we sat watching the wind play in the leaves and sunlight chase shadows on Slioch, the great mountain beyond the valley, I thought of my own role as grandmother, about my invisible ties to our grandchildren: ‘Zoom’ gatherings, telephone calls, photographs, messages, cards, gifts and letters. I wished then for tree-like tangible, physical connections, threads with form beyond the simple contacts of 2-D audio-visuals. Every day I long to be physically connected, rooted in their worlds, passing on stories, songs and wisdom (such as I have) to the wee ones, just as the grandmother trees do for their younger companions. Don’t we all wish for the material connection, to use all our physical senses, just as trees do? But patience is a long game, one well-rehearsed and practised by these grand old trees. I could learn much from such calm resilience.

Higher, by a small dam and fencing, there are scars still, but everywhere are signs of healing. Great moss-clad boulders left untouched by the construction works attest to design and engineering sensitivity to both landscape and ecology. Patches of exposed peat are sprouting with life. And above the sound of waterfalls, in the relaxed shade of more enormous ancient pines, the drone of dragonflies and bees, and diligent busyness of birdsong whispered of recovery.

People have been modifying this mountainous country for millennia. These are anthropogenic landscapes. Yet not all human activity is destructive, we can work successfully with nature as long as we understand we are as much a part of the natural world as the mosses and lichens, deer grass and dragonflies. And while those lives may seem fleeting and small, trees will outlive us by centuries and the hydro-works will eventually vanish. It is quite overwhelming, to think of how this place might look in one hundred years – one or two skeletons of grandfather and grandmother trees among a throng of younger individuals – what was once a broad ‘road’ covered by a deep blanket of vegetation – familiar mountains ushering in the autumn colours.

I wonder if, through the minds and hearts of our ‘little people’, our legacy will be as enduring.

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Hay harvesting and cocoons made of meadows

If you were to ask me to explain why harvesting hay brings so much joy, I don’t think I could, although I have some deep-seated happy childhood memories of helping my maternal grandfather on his Lancashire farm. This year, even more than last, a bubbling excitement rose as soon as the tractor began its work in our riverside meadows. Before harvest began, I pottered through the days watching insects and birds coming and going, in and out of tall grasses, sedges and wildflowers. I became meadow-rooted myself, finding nourishment in soil and sun. Since early spring I have tried to identify and count the succession of species as they have grown, bloomed and faded. And all through the ‘Great Confinement’ and late summer I wove the thickening density and rising, sun-seeking richness into a cocoon, a comfort quilt, and felt lucky to be surrounded by so much life.

Our crofts comprise a wide range of habitats but alongside the Red River, the ‘hay meadows’ are flat. They often flood during winter storms because the river is extremely dynamic and can rise more than two metres above normal flow levels. Flood waters deposit fine sediments full of minerals and organic matter derived from surrounding peat-covered sandstone hills enriching the soils. In summer the meadows dry out beautifully and plant growth is profuse and swift.

This summer I have spent a fair bit of time lying down in the grass peering at the complexity held within. Life in all its full and energetic glory stretches down deep into the ground and high into the air. What we see at the surface in the thin envelope of greenery is only part of the story; so much is invisble to our eyes. The meadows remind me of the New Guinea montane rainforest I studied as a young geographer. There are tall stems like tree trunks, creepers and climbers, big leaves, decomposing vegetable matter, seeds dropping, insects leaping or flitting from plant to plant. It is warm, moist, dark and fecund. There is an ‘inside’ sound, almost out of reach yet definitely present. The crown is bright and colourful, flickering with emerging insects, crackling with seeds and stems knocking against each other. These are the tunes of life and earth and light and scent.  Even forty years on I can remember the feelings generated by the deep greenery of New Guinea in which I was not an individual but a fragment of an interconnected whole, the living biosphere stretching from heaven to underworld.

In the middle of the croft there is a big stone next to an old strainer post that affords good views of mountains and meadows, or over the sea to the Outer Isles. It is a good place to watch the comings and goings from shore to river to field to woodland. The day before harvest I watched cloud shadows surfing the flanks of Baosbheinn and charms of goldfinches creating the same arcing shapes over the croft. August days had been mostly bright and clear-eyed with gentle winds that twisted and turned, uncertain of where they wanted to go. Sunlight played hopscotch along the river, jumping over stones and bouncing from tree trunks in angular dazzling glisks of gold and silver. Light breezes caught warmth and light from the sun and did a good job of drying everything, soil, plants and paths. The time had come to begin the hay cut.

The large-scale tractors and cutting machinery that harvest silage and hay up and down this part of Wester Ross cannot cope with the small convoluted areas of Red River Croft so three young brothers from nearby Opinan come with their smaller, more agile gear. A few days after the cutting, the boys came to ‘tedd’ the hay into ‘windrows’, piling up the drying sweetness. Last year they used an old baling machine to create small rectangular bales but this year a rapidly changing forecast threatened heavy rain and wind. Help came from Red Point Farm and large round bales were produced by machinery more than twice my height in a speedy and efficient gathering.

There is nothing quite like the aroma of meadows freshly cut. Vanilla essence, overtopped by chamomile and bergamot perhaps, but even that does not come close. Each turning of the cut hay produces a little more perfume until grasses and flowers have only hints of green and smell like the head of a new born baby. On the morning after the cut, hay was spread out roughly in thin rows like contours on a map and its fragrances swirled around the valley. In the cool golden air, I sat again on the boulder-seat and watched hundreds and hundreds of small birds picking at insects and seeds, goldfinches, pipits, larks and many others. They were so intent on feeding they ignored me, and dog who roamed quietly among them, and the sparrowhawks who sailed over us all. It was strange to see so many birds together, their songs reduced to such quiet whispers and murmurings, their feathers reflecting the honey-infused light. They were joined by dragonflies, iridescent and spotted with colour. One after another they settled onto the drying grasses and did not move, perhaps as intoxicated by the scents as me.

Here and there small patches of hay were strewn about, missed by the big baler. I don’t remember hay being left when my grandfather worked his fields with his shire horses and age-old gear. But maybe my memory is retelling the story, images from my childhood cut and baled too.

Plenty of ground on the croft remains uncut and is still filled with life. Dense swathes of scabious, knapweed, vetch, red clover, sneezewort, chamomile and meadowsweet are flowering; the many varieties of grass, sedge and rush stand tall despite odd spells of heavy rain and wind but they will be dropping soon.

Throughout the margins, using clever design and architecture, are funnel-shaped nests of large spiders. Every metre or so, there is one and then another. Each is unique but all have a basic structure made from three or four tall sturdy stems of grass and vetch held together by fine powerful threads. Sitting inside is a round-bellied spider. The spiders appear to have mimicked vetch whose tendrils curl around and grasp the stems of other species holding them tightly as they all grow. The meadows have enabled every individual spider to create a cocoon. I imagine my own cocoon to have a similar shape and be made of sweet-smelling hay.

The end of summer has come in a blockbuster extravaganza: blue-glazed skies, laminated sea, greens so desperate to display their inner zest and zing they almost out-compete the blues. From the tip of Skye to Longa Island the horizon shimmers. Even if I try to shade my eyes, the dazzle is too much and the Outer Hebrides shrink.

The swallows that breed here in summer have gone. But this morning down on the lower croft I paused to watch a lone flyer, a migrant heading south, swooping and swerving. The swallow flew around me, a vortex of colour and wing-dart. Round and round he chased insects disturbed by my passage. The circles grew smaller and smaller until I stood inside a cone of air created by his wings, another cocoon. Then a stronger gust, filled with light, blew through us both. He raised himself higher and higher and vanished.

We must travel into autumn now and prepare for all it will bring. Summer here has been a transition period from the ‘Great Confinement’ into the ‘Great Unknown’. Autumn and winter now look like an old map with ‘Unexplored Territory’ written across empty spaces.

But there is hope. It lies in leaf-drop, seeds, fungi and decay. The new year is already being written into the soils, next year’s hay harvest is carefully being catalogued and stored in the earth. A library for the future. Across the croft I can already feel the joy.

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From mountain to meadow, crag to cranefly

Today a wall of heat shimmers between mountains and croft. What has for months looked solid and strong, that great rock fortress of Torridon, now wavers with flashing uncertainty and stippled hesitancy. We have been shielded from the coronavirus by these mountains to our east and by the sea to our west, in a cocoon made from ancient geology, salt water and remote spaces. But as tourists flock to the Highlands, understandably so after the long and punishing ‘Great Confinement’, the configurations of land- and sea-scapes no longer feel like a protective framework for our lives, they appear to stammer and stutter with unknowing and confusion. It is all about perception of course. To those of us who live here, everywhere feels busy, everyone seems carefree and unafraid of any virus. We have come out of a lockdown that was quiet and empty to a post-first-wave-coronavirus-world that seems bolder, brighter, noisier; people who have never camped or visited the North West Highlands are thronging to the beaches and into the mountains, enjoying these magnificent remote spaces.

I am lucky to live at the coastal edge of this mountainous country. And I am happy to admit that my thoughts, fears, hopes and longings are often corralled and supported by the ancient rock, wildlife and water; this place feeds my soul and lifts me up, it nourishes me. The mountain views (east) or sea and island views (west) are panoramic and endorphin-fuelling. Although I cannot climb them just now I imagine the summit ridges in this humid heat and breathe deeply remembering the muscle-burning efforts required. The views from such heights will be permeable on days like this, fluid even; haze will brush away line, shape and solidity, just as watercolour paints do when they run across paper and pencil lines. Yet mountains as grand as these exaggerate extremes; hot becomes hotter, sunny becomes dazzling, gusts become gales, water sources shrink and vanish under stone and turf.

Today my husband has gone to climb An Teallach with friends. I can match his pace and efforts in my mind’s eye and feel the joy and deeply spiritual moment that comes on a summit as you emerge from the cloud and leave earth behind. Down here by the sea I am aware Baosbheinn sits watching me, his grand and wizardly presence feels benign and comforting.  

Yet for a few minutes, basking in the warm sun, I’m glad I cannot walk fast. Every step through the croft raises small clouds of insects. Over summer wildflowers have been steadily growing up through the grasses, sedges and rushes, stretching onwards to the sun, offering their blooms to insects and birds. The density of growth is mutually supportive; thin delicate filigree twists and twines, up, through and around, in purple, pink, white, yellow and blue, paint-splashes of colour across the canvass of greens.

Insects throng. I’m afraid of trampling the bugs I can see and crushing the ones I can’t. I sit and in one small square of meadow count thirty craneflies. I have read they only live for a few weeks so every delicate dance I witness could be that individual’s last. It is upsetting, that single quick thought of so much dying when the whole meadow still seems so full of life. This must be how our frail human lives appear to the great trees in ancient woodlands; fragile, superficial, easily damaged. Or how we all appear to mountains.

Almost all the crofts in the coastal ‘townships’ here are large square fields. There’s a long history behind their shapes and layouts but today many are owned or managed by tenants of the Gairloch Estate. Where crofts comprise simple squares, they are often cut for silage in July by crofters who take on the collective community task using large machinery. But although our two crofts are also simple in outline, they contain complex mosaics of different habitats that make the use of big machinery almost impossible. So they will be cut for hay in the coming weeks by young crofters from nearby Opinan using an old tractor, cutting machine and baler used by their grandparents long before they were born.

The meadows are so flower rich and diverse that we are hoping for good nutritious hay but the weather must play its part. This older, traditional method of harvesting animal food for the winter months depends on warm, dry days while fields used for silage can be cut in damp weather. There are benefits and hazards to both methods. Traditional hay cutting supports the longevity of insect and bird populations. There is no plastic wrapping and it ensures the maturing herbage has time to drop seeds to the ground’s surface where they become part of the natural ‘seed bank’ of the soil, ready for the years to come. But it is weather dependent. Last year there was so much rain in August and early September we could only cut the hay and then bring cattle on to eat their fill. It was simply too wet to dry, stack and bale. I am more hopeful for this year.

It is a joy to watch the insects especially now the birds have fallen quiet. Most of the ambient noise comes from humming and droning. On the low hills around South Erradale the heather is coming into bloom. Bell heathers (Erica species) have been flowering since early July but now the common ling (Calluna vulgaris) is purpling the hills and bogs. One patch of heather on the croft is carpeted with bees; the flowers are an underlay to the buzzing. It is a hardy clump and I can’t do much damage walking by whereas with every step through the grasses there’s a risk I might dislodge or squish life.

Just as I marvel at the variety of flies (there are so many different wing and body shapes, colours, leg lengths and see-through wing patterns) I spy other insects jumping stem to stem. This is the first time I have spied grasshoppers on the croft. I sit down again to watch. I can make out three types but no matter how hard I try to catch them on camera either they jump away or slither down deeper into the thick grasses. The largest is mottled brown, even its eyes are dun coloured; another appears to have green leg stripes and a green face; the smallest is entirely green and I am not even sure if it is a grasshopper. I think again of how much I do not know or understand or maybe have forgotten.  I am in awe of insect nerds. But in spite of each risky step one thing is certain, if the fields had been cut in July all this insect abundance would have diminished.

I wander on keeping my eyes open for more grasshoppers. A photograph comes through on my phone from the summit of An Teallach. I was right, my husband is above the cloud and below the blues of heaven. But he carried my heart up there with him, up high onto this great mountain of mind and soul.

Around me the sward reaches to my thighs; chamomile, knapweeds, hogweed, meadowsweet, purple and yellow vetches, scentless mayweeds, the fields are variegated with colours and forms; sedges, rushes, at least a dozen grass species, their delicate flowers already set with seed and nodding gently as the air wafts between them. Dozens of white butterflies with blue-black bodies rise and fall and thread themselves together as if stitched by invisible hands. There are browns and smaller blues, hundreds of tiny moths, some white, some cream, others, smaller still, are brown and beige. I have no idea of the species or the best way to count them but this I do know, the sheer volume and variety this year is greater than ever before. We will need an expert to help name them. I feel stupid and ignorant and remind myself of all those who rightly lament the losses and cry out in frustration and warning: if we cannot name these creatures, these organisms who live alongside us in these precious spaces, they will be truly lost for good.

In the drier areas the last patches of yellow rattle live up to the name. The seeds pods are percussion instruments driven by the breeze. I realise that the whole croft is drumming and tapping and humming. There is not much time left for this orchestra to play. A new concert will begin once the hay is cut.

For the first time this year the scent of myrtle is overwritten by other perfumes; chamomile, sweet grasses, heather and, at the edge of the little patch of woodland, lemon pine. If I close my eyes, I could be fooled into thinking I was in the Mediterranean walking through maquis.

The warm weather has also brought the first autumnal light. (Why do August days often seem to ply me with melancholy?) Late afternoon lighting comes to the early mornings. Gone are the crisp pastel hues of spring dawns and early summer evenings, the world is gold-tinted, the air thick and redolent of dripping honey and mead, somnolent and heady. In clear weather the blue-bright middle hours of day return to full summer, crystalline and vivid. Now each morning whispers of autumn. By increments the summer is failing.

I am glad the fields are yet to be cut not simply for the insects but because the corncrakes are still singing. They will leave soon for Africa but they can carry on hiding among the nodding grasses and wildflowers for a little while longer. And even if the ‘boys’ come to cut in the next few days there are plenty of patches over the river that neither tractor not cutter can reach and they will all, grasshoppers and corncrakes, find refuge.

By a strange trick of light, the mountain peaks now look closer. We have been free from the coronavirus for so long in this part of Wester Ross we are collectively holding our breath as we wonder about the impacts of the large numbers of visitors. But watching the heat shimmer across Baosbheinn’s flanks accompanied by the persistent thrumming of life all around me, I shrug off my own anxiety. There stand billion-year-old rock giants that have survived eons of change, including two million years of alternating glaciations and warming. In comparison my life is as fleeting and microscopic as a virus. Yet it is shocking to think what damage collective activity can do, viruses to people, people to land.

Wisps of cloud are beginning to form along the distant ridge crests. Swallows dive and skim across the meadow in front of me. A butterfly lands on my arm and briefly caresses my bare skin. Mountain to meadow, crag to cranefly, life is swirling in a grand vortex. There is no hierarchy here, only mutual wonder at the interconnectedness of it all.

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The blooming of summer

Billy Connelly once famously said that Scotland has only two seasons, “June and Winter”, but the reality is very different. Just as the Japanese divide the year into twenty-four sekki (seasons) which are then subdivided further into three ko, a Highland year has a multiplicity of micro-seasons, many occurring within a single day. The mid-June sekki in Japan is ‘Geshi’ (summer solstice) with delightful ko names including ayame hana saku (Irises bloom), but our midsummer is as beautiful and blessed with as much if not more variety.

On the croft and surrounding moorland wildflowers bloom in a regular sequence; some then vanish in the growing sward so quickly that if you are not careful, they are gone before you have had time to enjoy them.

In the long warm days of June, our meadows, hedges and woodlands begin to catch up with the blooming of wildflowers further south, but it is always an impatient and slightly uneasy wait for me, tinged with jealousy. I have been anxiously looking out for the first orchids since late May, jealous of the meadow-flowers and frothy flower-filled hedgerows already in bloom in southern England, even though I know we are at least three weeks behind. But nevertheless, I have wandered the croft peering into tufts and clumps hoping and willing the turf into action.

Then, suddenly, after a 48-hour period of rain and warm winds, came a burst of insect life, synchronous with the rapid greening of crofts, peatbogs and moorland, and part of the rich, dense partnership that is our living green envelope. And very quickly, the green swards were flecked with flowers.

While the turf was still quite short, heath bedstraw, tormentil and heath milkwort prickled the ground with white, yellow and blue. To see the milkwort, whose flowers are delicate and tiny, you must bend down and take your time; then when you have seen one, the whole place seems sewn together with stitches of deep blue. Soon the bedstraw froths over the edges of paths and walls and tormentil flickers among the low-growth young heathers and tufts of grass.

During the first dry days of June pale pink orchids began to push up through the short grasses on one of the steep banks on the croft. It had been so dry for weeks but still they came, rank-upon-rank of bold spears, and between them, in small patches of bare earth, hundreds of small holes, the front doors of emerging solitary bees.

But after the rains, the fields were transformed. Growth was tangible and almost visible. Standing still for a few moments I felt certain I could hear as well as see the burgeoning life.

Last year, the delicate cream blooms of the lesser butterfly orchid appeared in one old patch of meadow. I counted eight individuals. This year there are dozens; they have spread out across the fields into a variety of micro-habitats and are flourishing.

On the surrounding peatland, pale pink cuckoo flowers are now beginning to fade, overwhelmed by dense carpets of white. Bog-cottons are blooming more than ever this year, like ballerinas in the sea breezes, snow-white by day, red-gold at sunset and sunrise, and ghost-silver in the short hours of night.

Bird’s-foot-trefoil is thriving too. In the dunes at Opinan it mixes with wild thyme, an enduring palette of Scottish colours, royal gold and purple. On the croft it blooms on old stone heaps and walls with stonecrop and thrift whose seeds must have been blown up from the rocky shore in the autumn gales. In the ditches and wet flushes, regiments of yellow flag-iris waltz with pink-skirted ragged robin, while on patches of peat, sitting atop the old river terraces, sundews stud the mounds of Sphagnum moss in socially distanced, small shielded groups.

This is the ‘simmer dim’, when our most flower-filled days lead up to and out of the summer solstice, when the nights are not dark but almost white and it is possible to walk about without a torch. Thick, sleep-inducing, heady scents of dog-rose and myrtle rise up through the sunshine but at the dimming of the day and in the short middle-night the land itself exudes such perfumes that the living earth is a presence in its own right. I feel more open than ever to the existence of a closely interconnected biosphere that operates in quite different time frames to our own and I am just one tiny fragment of this greater whole, one human, whose life is no more or no less important than the tiny blue blooms of milkwort and the glistening sundew.

The ‘Great Confinement’ has been accompanied by astonishingly fine weather. From the first weeks of lockdown until this week and our first tentative (Scottish) unlocking, apart from a brief return of winter to the mountains in May and a swift staccato run of Atlantic storms, the days have passed in a flurry of brightness and warmth. While the pandemic has subdued so many of us inside, outside the natural world has bloomed with colour, light, scent and sound. Everything has seemed larger, brighter, noisier and more perfumed.

This strangely prolonged lovely weather has been driven by continental weather systems whose mainly easterly flow of air has kept Atlantic lows far out to the west. Beyond the Outer Hebrides those rain-bearing distant clouds have helped create beautiful sunsets; the gentle breezes have calmed and smoothed the sea. Colours have been deeper and richer; some sunsets have fizzed like fireworks, others have slowly pulsed with red heat like the ‘a’a and pahoehoe lavas of Hawaii. We have walked out most evenings to watch the sun sink down over the Minches and islands and during the last week, from our South Erradale vantage point, it has been setting over the northern half of Lewis, almost at its solstitial position beyond the Point of Ness.

There is a cluster of rocks on a nearby hill that sit strangely in the wilder moorlands of heather, tussock grasses and boulders. They are not listed in any archaeological inventory but they are particularly intriguing especially when viewed in relation to the Cuillin on Skye and the sunsets in the west. At this time of year, I’m lured back again and again. I can’t help but link them to the solstices, both in winter and in summer. Just fancy, I know. I am sure an expert in megaliths would quickly denounce these notions as absurd but I enjoy the companionship of rock and deep time in this place anyway; the stones seem to be telling me stories as good as any in the books at home.

The benign conditions blowing in from the east and lack of human visitors due to lockdown have benefitted birdlife. Along the shore and on the beach at Opinan there are ringed plovers, pied wagtails, dunlin, sand pipers, rock pipits and oystercatchers in much greater numbers than in years past. They seem emboldened too. When I have gone down to the sea-log-seat I have been largely ignored; when I have waded into the sea, they have flown about my head uncaring. And once again I have felt a deep sense of companionship with the non-human world.

During the ‘Great Confinement’ there have been no human visitors to South Erradale either. Our valley has been quiet in terms of vehicular noise but loud and busy with exuberant and extravagant birdsong from our full-time residents and regular migrants. But two weeks ago, a small bird with a black head and a body as hotly yellow as gorse flowers landed in the garden. His back and shoulders shone with tints of our sunsets and his wing feathers were coloured and striped like the strange rocks on the hill. After consulting Twitter, birders confirmed his identity; he was a ‘Black-headed Bunting’ who should have been in Iran or Croatia, not in the fringes of north-west Europe.

This beautiful wee creature had come all the way from his winter feeding grounds in India to us, blown into our world with the warming winds in time for the summer solstice. We can add a new Highland ko to a new Highland sekki: “black-headed bunting flashes” in our “sunsets like fireworks”.

Posted in archaeology, birding, birds, coasts, crofting, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, landscape photography, nature writing, rare birds, Scotland, summer, Summer Solstice, wilderness, wildflowers, wildlife, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The opulence of confinement light and the determination of dandelions

Our dry weather continues. A few feeble showers have passed through occasionally overnight so the track to the sea remains dustily hard. The ground is unusually desiccated, the soil crumbly; it is the kind of dryness that would be found in limestone or chalk territory not in the land of peatbogs, lochs and cool temperate rainforests. Winds are cold but it is possible to find a sheltered spot and be warmed thoroughly by the sun. After the intensity of bog myrtle other scents are coming to the fore. I can smell the greening of the fields and a few special places are almost Mediterranean, filled with pine and citrus, dry earth, herbs and ozone, mixed together by the intense bright light.

On one of the high banks above the small floodplain there is an old plank on top of two even older tree stumps. My husband made this wee seat for me in the shelter of gorse bushes and a fence woven from wire and living willow. Sitting there I can see the sea and over the Inner Sound to Skye, and when my eyes are not scanning the horizon or gazing up at the passing clouds, I can watch the wildlife comings and goings across the fields below and along the riverbank. It is a warm quiet spot, hidden from everything and everyone (apart from my neighbour who waves at me from her own semi-hidden seat among the flowers of her beautiful garden two fields away).

The gorse bushes are coming into bloom now. On their sunny sheltered sides I can smell coconut and sun-cream, on windy sides all I can sniff-taste is marzipan. Every single flower is a furnace of yellow, and in the full midday sun it becomes hard to distinguish the shape and form of each individual flower.

There are other yellow flowers too, including marsh marigolds and dandelions. The marigolds are a symbol of Beltane here and are found in abundance now in wet flushes and ditches.

Dandelions are defiantly, brightly growing wherever they please. Some dandelions grow vigorously in good soil, others strive in deprivation and hardness, and it is impossible not to marvel at their tenacity. Little wonder they spread out from their original homelands across the globe. I recently listened (belatedly) to Robin Wall Kimmerer in conversation with Robert Macfarlane (link below), and now each time I see a dandelion I think of them as “global citizens” and “medicine for the land”. They are ubiquitous and their ability to draw up nutrients and water from deep in the ground explains their success in places of deficit but also just how beneficial they can be. That they are covered in insects at the moment seems to be a bonus; they are vital for emerging bees in this part of the country where the fullness of spring is much later to arrive than in the rest of the UK. As Kimmerer says, we should be celebrating them the world over.

Above and around us the skies are crystal clear and starkly bright in spite of relatively high humidity. Going out necessitates dark glasses and a peaked cap pulled low. The light is opulent, joyously, densely opulent. It is full of mirth and boldness. It dances on the sea and skims up the river. Even under the net of branches provided by an old riverbank birch, flashing pennies of light make my eyes water.

There are stories from towns and cities about the emergence of wildlife during the Great Confinement, creatures that hitherto kept to the shadows away from the busyness of human activities coming out into the fullness of the day. It is no different here. Although we are in a relatively remote corner of the UK, we are locked down too and traffic is almost non-existent, just croft (farm) vehicles to-ing and fro-ing between fields and byres. Even they seem quieter, a little more subdued than normal. But the deer have become much bolder. At this time of year they are usually heading up into the mountains, but instead they are regularly raiding the crofts. They have ignored my ribbon-frilled strands along the fences protecting our vegetables and have jumped the gate into my neighbour’s garden, a route they would normally not dare.

But in the ‘quiet’ of lockdown I have seen a few different animal behaviours, ones that I, at any rate, have not observed here before. A few days ago I watched a female sparrow hawk lifting up and down as she followed the river. She seemed to loop along the length of the river in shallow arcs, each loop/arc a few metres in length and a couple of metres into the air. At least a dozen times she vanished below the level of riverbank vegetation. Was she fishing? I think so. And yesterday as I sat on the shore watching oystercatchers trip up and down barnacle-crusted and winkle-coated boulders, a cuckoo passed by flying low and parallel to the sea. I have never seen a cuckoo down there before. He (I think) was close enough for me to admire his storm-cloud-coloured plumage. The shore and coastal meadows are very busy with small birds nesting or preparing to nest so perhaps he was scouting out potential hosts for the coming days.

The broodiness and impetus to mate must be all-consuming. I marvel at the fortitude and determination to have young, to keep singing, build nests and feed young. The dawn chorus bursts open the day; the evening chorus settles the night. Birds sing with full voices and hearts from the earliest pre-dawn shivering of light that emerges from the north-eastern hills above Erradale until the last ribbons of tangerine and turquoise along the north-west horizon over the Minches. They seem impelled by the light and lengthening days. Only under the soundless pop of rapidly emerging stars do they fall quiet.

For almost all of our Highland ‘Great Confinement’ so far the weather has been dry, the light kaleidoscopic and incandescent, the airs jam-packed with birdsong. The position of the setting sun has travelled from the Quiraing on northern tip of Skye along the ridge-back of Hebridean islands as far as the hill country north of An Cliseam on Harris. The apparent procession of sunset is rapid and in the recent good weather we have been able to watch the sun’s progress through skies flushing with orange, apricot, peach and satsuma, with cochineal, scarlet and plum, and with amber, coral and garnet. At times the calm sea at sunset has been as smooth as highly polished swirls of agate, at others it has flickered with bursts of citrine and opal.

From the piercing intensity of early mornings to late afternoon sumptuousness, and on to the lavish indulgences of sunsets the light has been full-bodied and precious. (This may yet turn out to be our summer!) The sun has burned brightly and defiantly, as yellow as the gorse flowers, as yellow as the marsh marigolds and as determined as the dandelions.

These are our confinement skies and in this time of pared-back living they envelop the days with opulence. This year’s spring light has filled the weeks and spaces left by loved ones and has brought promises of renewal, restoration, rebirth and regrowth, and more than any other of our Wester Ross springs, has brought hope for the future.

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The lovely discussion between Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane can be found here:

https://zoom.us/rec/play/upcoJO-o-G83H9PHuASDCvZ7W461Ka6s13cW__FcyEznVSECYQb1M-YaZeQf8YZvSfkJysYZq_rmeooG?startTime=1588273130000

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Shielding and shelter

There are wriggling tadpoles in small pools across the bog next to our croft but in the last few dry days water levels have dropped and their living spaces have shrunk. A rescue attempt will be made shortly, buckets and plastic bowls will do until the rains return and the pools are recharged. This often happens; sharp April showers interspersed with sharper drying under a bright, fierce spring sun. Shelter provided by the bog pools comes and goes; the lives of tadpoles are dependent upon the height of the water table in the bog and on the amount of rainfall. It might seem precarious but even after dry spells such as the current one, frogs and toads seem to flourish, sheltered and shielded by the living, breathing, functioning of the wild peat bog.

Where rain provides for some sunny dry weather delivers in other ways. There is one plant that thrives on wet ground yet in the warming air of this spring the scent of bog myrtle (Myrica gale) is released. The perfume is sensuous and spicy. Myrtle flowers open as bright orange stars on peatland still draped in the burnt umber of winter. But as the sun warms the surface of the bog perfume spreads out like butter on hot toast.

Myrica gale has a scent like no other. It has accompanied me through childhood and into my adult working life, is part of my ancient Irish heritage and a significant component of the remote landscapes I love so much. It gives me joy and comfort. Everywhere I go the scent-cells in my nose and throat test the air for its presence. A strange sense of belonging is held within its molecules; I feel at ‘home’ when its perfumes wrap around my body. And when I first smell it, I know winter is truly banished.

My bedroom window is open in the hope Myrica’s incense will infect my pandemic dreams and drive away subliminal aromas of hospitals and shake the notions of sheltering (hiding?) from Covid-19 out of my brain. (We have nursed so many of the older generation in recent years that the particular smells of hospital corridors, wards, hand sanitising and care homes are an uncomfortably strong dream memory.) And so I have picked a bunch of woody stems, each with a cascade of small buds and tentatively open flowers already shedding bright yellow pollen; even though the stems might be accompanied by an early rousing of midges, I’ve placed the little vase by my bedside.

The aroma is cathedral-scale frankincense. Once, long ago, in Notre Dame de Paris we opened the doors and stepped into the middle of high mass. The great windows drenched the congregation in rainbows, iridescent colours swirled about in the mist of incense. Strangely, although overawed like all visitors by the grand architecture, the singing and powerful rituals I was more overwhelmed by nostalgia; the coloured perfumes took me back to the rainbows and mists and thick scents of the wild peatlands I had explored as a child.

Here in Wester Ross the bog next to our home shows few signs of wakening apart from tadpoles in the pools and Myrica gale flowers but across the croft itself new green growth is piercing the thick bleached mats of old grass. Where the low riverside fields were cut for hay sunlight plays across the greening; it seems to thicken as I watch. There are worm casts everywhere; the subsurface faunal and fungal activity is now in full swing in the rapidly warming soil. And just now a lizard warmed himself in the sun no more than a footstep away.

Many of the dung piles left in situ over winter show signs of beetle busyness although a few small heaps are rain-bleached untouched and lifeless lumps. Prise the active heaps apart and in the slightly warmer granulated fine tilth there are worms, beetles and other insects, and new livid shoots of grass and herbs. They are small ‘shelter cities’ that have survived the direst cold and wettest floods and will go on to not only harbour new life but seed and enrich their surroundings.

Beyond the fields the sky is radiant. There are no contrails and now I wonder whether some of Scotland’s pastel-gauze skies were partly due to the sheer volume of trans-Atlantic flights passing over the Highlands. That there can be such deeply rich blues seems incredible: the deep turquoise of glacial ice and florescent blues of an iceberg’s subsea mass, the ‘irtyu’ of ancient Egypt, the lapis lazuli of Pharoahs’ masks, the blue faience of grave goods, blues that carry us through time and space into remote realms of myth and legend and our deepest past or remotest wildernesses. There were never such blues when I was growing up; my industrial hometown skies were murky with smokes and foul-smelling miasmas.

But this ultra-clear, ultra-blue sky of our pandemically confined world is even more remarkable. It shows us how very thin our precious atmosphere really is; when air pollution has sunk away, particulates from jet planes, traffic and industry have settled to the ground, what we see is the arching blueness of heaven, with the very same level of clarity that our forbears and remote ancestors would have seen. No wonder the Egyptian Pharaohs wanted to surround themselves in blue, wear adornments of lapis and turquoise and paint the insides of their tombs with deep star-studded navy and cobalt. Heaven is just there, almost within reach; the blues of shelter, shielding and sanctuary.

In this beautifully warm dry spell of spring weather the cuckoos have arrived home. They are over a week early. And skimming over the Red River, the first of the returning sand martins. This small remote small valley is shielded by a great arc of mountains to the north, east and south, and by the sea to the west. There is a mixture of rough grazing, hay meadows, woodland and scrub managed by crofters without pesticides and herbicides, little fertiliser apart from animal dung, seaweeds, organic mulches and the slow natural accumulation of organic matter. There are multiple habitats for a great range of birds and many of the smaller ones living here are ‘hosts’ to cuckoo young. Without these shielded semi-wilded natural habitats there would be no cuckoos in Erradale, they and other species are protected by both the remoteness of this place and by its geographical character and complex history.

The valley, mountains and sea are sheltering me too. With an official ‘shielded’ label I am supposed to stay within certain confines but I am incredibly lucky for ‘home’ has ample space for safe roaming. Just as the cuckoos find peace and space and succour and safety in this sparsely populated, semi-wilded place, so do I.

Beyond the mountain wall grief grows palpably; and here we too are acutely aware of the terrible losses. I yearn desperately for my children and grandchildren but know that for now they are safe. I find shielding, constancy and strength in the mountains and ancient rock, the sea brings me joy and lightness of heart, the skies gift me energy, and the winds bring stories and songs from far away and awaken memories of happy days before the Great Confinement. And when I weaken and falter, and I do, often, the scent of bog-myrtle swaddles me, a comfort blanket made of joy and peace.

Happy Earth Day.

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The “Great Confinement” and the coming of Spring

1. To Torridon, BGC (before the “Great Confinement”)

Diary excerpt, Wednesday February 12th.

I watched the river plunging through our lower fields from the attic window. It was black and foam flecked; periodically wavelets slushed out across the field. The winter meadow-motley is grey and sodden, everything on the croft seems subdued, but for a short time out west, beyond the river valley and across the sea, the Trotternish (on Skye) was arrayed in hot molten gold, lit by the setting sun. A single thunderhead built quickly overhead and looked just like a textbook diagram. The uppermost ‘overshoot’ clouds were cauliflower shaped and rose in time with every in-taken breath. (Ha! I could have been blowing them up myself!) The ‘flanking line’ was a deep-purple swift-moving mass and crossed the Inner Sound swiftly. Underneath the crisply outlined, gold-rimmed anvil a shower cascaded onto the Old Man of Storr. I immediately thought of the visitors who would be scurrying down the steep path back to their cars and wondered how many managed to beat the cloud-burst? In between us the sea glowed, a vibrant turquoise green, its deep waters holding as much energy as the livid sky.

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That pulsing mass of cloud was the last vestige of one of several storms, large and disruptive enough to be named by the Met Office but for us just one more in the relentless rush of smaller storms over winter. I have watched the weather from my attic cocoon for a large part of winter and it has often matched my mood. For a long time I have been hamstrung by a strange repeating painful attack on my immune system, reduced to relying on medicine and to walking with a stick. To go from mountain readiness to a state of reduced confinement has been tough. The crisped and bleached tufts of grass, brittle grey husks of heather and feeble strands of smoky sunlight that riddled the winter riverbanks describe me perfectly.

All of January bubbled and fretted with wet windy grimness and intermittent fleeting brightness. We were coldly, bitterly, noisily bar-coded by light and dark, and here by the sea, relentlessly flayed by cold salted gusts and icy gales. Yet even through the worst weather the birds sang. Over the shrillest, loudest 60 mph squalls sparrow gangs maintained a crescendo of noise from hedge to hedge, out-singing the wind-songs. But by mid-February the days grew noticeably longer, light reaching meaningfully into the darkness, wriggling into the cold and wet, working its magic.

One of the earliest sign of spring in this hyperboreal high country is often seen in the high glens and hills rather than in the sheltered spots: boulders covered by micro-forests of mosses, bleached and bound throughout the winter, begin to green. They show up on hill slopes looking pert and confident, like bright new buttons on an old woolly jumper. In the huddled patches of woodland birch trees begin to blush, their outer branches, purple in the depths of winter, turning rusty as life begins to course through sapwood underneath the bark.

In between the storms and before news of the global pandemic really began to bite we went on a trip to Torridon. Although we can see the Torridon mountains every day from home, a trip to this familiar and much-loved walking and climbing territory in the heart of high mountain country is special. For the first time in months I laced my boots and with two sticks shuffled up Coire Mhic Nobuill. We were lucky; I was helped along by a gentling wind, crisp air and bright light. Oxygen sang in my blood vessels. I felt like a newly awakened silver birch.

Coire Mhic Nobuil from across Loch Torridon. Left to right: Beinn Alligin (Tom na Gruigaich, Sgurr Mhor and the Horns of Alligin), Beinn Dearg, Liathach.

The path winds beside the river and up through Scots pine woodland. Holly is regenerating here, and in the dappled light was Christmassy and shiny. Great slabs of rock also glowed pea-green, their mossy coats chlorophyll rich and soaking up the sunlight. Each deep breath was filled with the rich scent of pine, moss and peat. I sent my husband on. He and dog galloped away, glad to be running freely in the pristine air

As the trees thin the valley opens out. A rock gorge runs straight and deep where the river has cut along a geological fault zone. The river itself was invisible but a mist filled with water-song sluiced up over the heather. Over millennia the river has sought out weaknesses in the Torridonian sandstone. Its route is almost straight apart from a few right angled turns where ancient faults shifted and split in the remote past. But in places, through enormous slabs of rock, jointed and bedded in distinctive near-horizontal layers, the river has carved some small but beautiful waterfalls. Here and there lone birch and holly trees have found protection from grazers in the steep cliffs, rock-crevices and tumbling cascades.

On either side of the valley, and rearing up, are some of Scotland’s most fearsome and beautiful mountains: to the right (north) Liathach, topped by one of the most daunting and spectacular ridge scrambles in the country; to the left the long massif of Beinn Alligin whose summits include Tom na Gruigaich, Sgurr Mor and the ‘Horns’ of Alligin; and ahead of me as I walked, the runnelled bulwark of Beinn Dearg.

The sweet cold air was both salve and soother. High light cloud, as delicate as antique needle lace, shifted above us. All the peaks were smothered in grey tulle. Now and then gusts of wind ran over the ridges and the mist billowed like a wedding veil revealing glimpses of buttresses. For a few minutes an optimistic band of blue appeared, shiny bright as if polished, and then high thin pale grey gauze once again began to filter the sunlight.

I stopped by a large rock close to the river and looked back along my route. It has been so long since I walked uphill. The view blurred but in that minute of almost-wallowing dog hurtled into me and denied the tears.

Hugging dog in this cold, rich peace I thought of our small croft away on the other side of these great rock ramparts. Beside me Allt Mhic Nobuill ran clear and diamond-bright, a sharp contrast to Abhain Dearg (the Red River) which for weeks has churned darkly through the croft fields. It will be a long recovery from the squelch and mud. Winter water levels in the Erradale Valley can flux quite dramatically and quickly; meadows flood then drain, on a repeating cycle every few days throughout the winter. But the Red River’s waters will clear and light will dance again on the surface as the days lengthen.

Abhain Dearg spills down from the western fringes of the Torridon hills. Throughout the winter, the great peaks gaze at us from beneath their mantles of snow or halos of cloud. They are deeply connected to our croft by both geology and hydrology. They are omni-present, and I feel a profound sense of belonging; they are my companions along with the sea, sky, river and meadows.

Dog and I sat by the river for a little longer savouring the hard embrace of high mountains, breathing in deeply, supping their energy and drinking in the light, finding solace in the scent of rock and water, until it was time to head back. Walking down was more difficult than walking up. It should have been easier, right? I concentrated on pacing: step, look forwards at the view, step, look down at the rocks (so many geological treasures), step, pause to look at the mosses; step, listen to the river. Repeat. Back among the trees the light had changed again, a coppery tint hinted at the change of weather to come but said nothing of the coming storm.

2. Cocooning. Into the Great Confinement

Since that walk the world has changed. Countries across the globe fight the COVID-19 pandemic and desperately try to save lives. Optimism about my own state of health that had grown and blossomed in the gentle quiet of Coire Mhic Nobuill, under the calm embrace of the great mountain peaks, fragmented. But although immunocompromised, and at greater risk than many, I am lucky. I can walk freely on the croft (there are many jobs to do), along the riverbank and our short stretch of wild coast. We have grand open views from both attic and fields and they bring such joy and solace in times of grief and pain.

My family are all dispersed, safe but locked down in Paris, London and Manchester, each with their clutch of small children. I wish I could have them all here, keep them all safe, wrap them up. It is hard to accept that I cannot do the mothering, the cocooning and caring, and cannot reassure them that all will be well because I don’t know what will happen and don’t have any answers. But technology will keep us connected, sifting the love from the fear, enabling us to share our worries and our laughter. The mountains have taught me to be patient, the sea how to be joyful, the sky how to bring light into the day, and our small croft teaches me again and again that life will find a way in spite of everything.

In the coming months I hope little whispers of calm and light from this relatively remote place will help the children. Spring is coming at last to the Highlands though winter lingers in pockets here and there. Birdsong is louder and brighter than ever. Skylarks rise up and almost burst open with song. There is frogspawn in the bog pools, flies dance over the ditches, there are catkins on the riverbank trees and green shoots are appearing in the meadows like needles, stitching the fabric of ground together.

Although I cannot walk in the hills, I know they are watching me, just as I watch them. They send us tales of the high places down the burns and streams and into our Red River. I wait on the riverbank and listen for news. Hope blooms with the coming spring and soon the myrtle will be in flower and the whole landscape here will be filled with incense, and prayers.

I hope you can find joy and strength in Spring too, listening to the birdsong from your window or watching clouds scud by. And perhaps, like my children, you might find a tiny bit of extra solace in images and words from Wester Ross.

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Procession to late autumn

From Red River Croft it is possible track the procession of sunsets over the calendrical year, solstice to solstice. Across the Inner Sound the midwinter sun descends quickly behind the undulating hills below Skye’s Old Man of Storr while in midsummer it vanishes into the sea just off the northern tip of Lewis. If I turn my back to the sea sunrises ply back and forth from the empty hills and boglands beyond Erradale at the winter solstice, along the multitudinous silhouetted summits of Torridon and on to Meal Ruadh, the long sloping hill overlooking our small valley, where the sun halts briefly for midsummer.

It astonishes me even now, having watched countless sunsets, photographing them when conditions permit, to see the solar year play out in this way. It has the semblance of a blessing, a ‘gift from the gods’. That I am able to follow the motion of the year feels wondrous, miraculous even.

There has never been anything like this in my life before. I live in a bowl crafted from some of Britain’s most ancient geologies, a basin rimmed by the serrations of rocky peaks, islands and sea, illuminated by the workings of the cosmos, and I keep wondering why the valley is not full of megalithic stone structures like Stonehenge. If I can see the solar year sweep around me then surely the ancients did. I suspect they did mark the changing positions of solstice sunrises and sunsets, and precession of the equinoxes, but in the intervening millennia the loss of forest and soils, growth of peat and more recent enhanced soil degradation and intensive grazing has all but removed any marker stones from view. At the very least they have been moved by natural erosive forces, or used in buildings and by the constant winnowing action of cloven hooves. Perhaps there are some that remain hidden still, buried within the deeper swathes of uncut blanket peat.

At the autumn equinox the last red hot embers of the setting sun flare just north of the Quiraing on Skye, behind the low-lying northern hills and fields around Balmaqueen on the Trotternish peninsula, if my map figuring is correct. This year the trickery of light and playfulness of atmospheric conditions during a relatively benign spell of weather brought purple floating islands and pirate galleons shimmering in peach schnapps, rose wine and essence of lavender.

But since then the north has been beset by wind and rain and intermittent days of autumnal colour. In the weeks leading up to the rut evidence of the night-time forays of deer were scattered across the fields; patches of meadow vegetation that had been left uncut were flattened by their bed-making. On both sides of the Red River, high on the bench-like slopes of the Erradale valley, the rut eventually began and seemed more frenetic than in years past. It has been loud, hoarse, violent; occasionally one or two stags wandered down to crofter’s fields in the middle of the day to graze on remnant growth, for the rich grasses and sweet herbs that would replenish calories lost in battle.

 

Overhead the skies have been skewered and stitched by groups of geese flying south and the last rowan berries have been stolen. And yet our hedges burst with the chatter of sparrows. The din is uplifting and energising. The shouting and squabbling rises above the noise from gales and tractors.

Down in the small patch of woodland next to the ‘lower’ meadow, the chicken coop has attracted a female sparrowhawk. She deftly flies in and out hunting the unwary small birds who persistently go after hen food. She is beautiful and safe from us but I cannot help but think of the traps set for other birds of prey across our nation’s uplands; in some of the photographs I’ve seen they look just like our chicken run and coop. One morning we heard a thumping noise as we worked by the old byre and realised that she had got stuck. Having flown in through the open half-door she could not get out because she was fooled by the two old PVC corrugated roof sheets and was trying for the brighter light. We opened the byre door fully and went in from another door to encourage her out. With a swift fierce glare of outrage she escaped.

The byre has a large round bale of straw mostly used as bedding for the old ponies in the depths of winter. But all across the bale were smoke-grey feathers, the sole remains of a collared dove. Clearly the sparrowhawk had been in before and found her way out without our ‘help’, with her prey expertly dispatched and a full belly.

Byre, woodland and surrounding fields have been busy: chickens passing freely and enjoying the ‘right-to-roam’, Iron Age boars wallowing and rooting. And for a short time a small herd of cattle came from Opinan to trim the fields a little more. The bull met the boars with mutual interest and reserved respect, the chickens dashed happily between the legs of heifers and calves, and the old ponies glowered because they wanted to graze by the byre.

Three calves were born while the herd enjoyed its holiday on Red River Croft. It was lovely to have MacKenzie cattle once again on ancient MacKenzie ground but now they have returned to Opinan. The pigs have gone too, their clearance work complete. The old Shetlands have reclaimed the ground and strut about with pleasure eating as fast as they can. They know winter is not far away and will fuel up as much as possible, in peace, without the distraction of cattle and boars, flicking their tails at the chickens.

And they are right. Up on the mountain tops the first snows have arrived, blown down through the Minches in great white billowing sheets, stippled with rainbows. We taste winter in the air in spite of the golden sunsets and rainbows.

 

Posted in archaeology, Autumn, Autumnal equinox, birds, coasts, crofting, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, nature, nature writing, Scotland, Skye, weather, wilderness, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Abundance

It is late August and the morning is fierce with light. Westwards the Outer Isles are floating in a blue haze, their familiar shapes swollen yet indistinct. I am roaming the croft fields with a bag and a walking stick. The bag is for ragwort, the stick to seek out ankle-breaking old ditches that have all but vanished under the abundant summer growth. This year ragwort has appeared for the first time on our croft though its clusters of bright yellow flowers are threaded along main roads across the Highlands. I want to pull it up before it sets seed and before the main fields are cut for hay, and before the old Shetland ponies return to graze.

All around me is abundance. Growth is waist high and saturated after days of heavy rain and water soaks my jeans above my wellies. Everywhere are late summer bloomers, scabious so dense they merge into purple mist, myriad grasses their seed-heads nodding, yellow and purple vetches in tangles as deep as jungle vines. Some species have returned with a second flowering, bright red clover, mayweed and hogweed, while others are flushed with colour and heavy with seed. Sorrels stand tall on stems of crimson, their seeded tops point skywards like rusted spears left to mark the fallen on an ancient battlefield. And the pale dried remnants of midsummer blooms rattle and whisper messages of hope for the future as their seeds scatter.

It is hard work wading through the thick tangles.  I feel I’m swimming through wind-whipped waist-high waves of plant-life, gulping scented air as if I might submerge with every step-stroke and drown in the abundance to become part of the meadow.

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Forty years ago this very month I returned home from the tropics utterly changed, my perspectives on the natural world transformed, eyes were opened by the sheer profusion of life in high mountain jungles that were, in many areas then, untouched by the human activity. Papua New Guinea is an island straddling the equator north of Australia. Lying on the ‘Ring of Fire’ it is tectonically unstable and in the late 1970s its remote interior remained difficult to access. So topographically extreme and so dense was the montane forest cover of New Guinea that it had only been possible to travel to the central mountain ranges since the late 1950s.  For tens of centuries the interior had been deemed inaccessible; it was unmapped and unexplored, and for very good reason.

But people did live there, in small sustainable communities. They were reliant on the forests for hunting and gathering the materials needed for life and yet they also created small ‘gardens’ to grow crops such as sweet potato. For a time, as part of my doctoral research, I was taught about the sheer abundance of living organisms, about their deep and complex interconnections and how living in harmony with such beings required a wholly different approach to the ‘Western’ way of life I had been born to.

For scale, look at the person in the bottom right hand corner.

Tropical rainforests are filled with uncountable numbers of insects and fungi, gloriously tall trees and rich, dense undergrowth. They throb with luxuriant life; the sense of living energy is overwhelming. Walking through the ‘jungle’ is both humbling and awe-inspiring. In 1979 I was lucky to have a teacher from whom I learned that the forest was alive, an entity in its own right, connected to soil, water and air by deeply mutually supportive, symbiotic relationships. I was taught that the abundance was self fulfilling. Care for the forest and we nurture ourselves.

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Forty years on and in this small place where trees are few, insects are rising up with each step. Roaming gangs of small birds hurtle down into the thick meadow growth and then lift up to sit on the wires. Up, down, up, down; they weave and thread themselves through the tumbles of honey-coloured air. Glints of gold and white strike out from their bodies as they twist over and over; up and down, up and down. For a few minutes I sit on an enormous old stone that marks the corner of a much older field and helps to keep a strainer post in place. The boulder was probably left by retreating ice, part of great swathes of glacial debris that line the sides of the Erradale valley. The positioning of the post was probably fortuitous, aided by the presence of the great slab of sandstone. I sit on the rock and lean my back against the post. Dog comes to sit at my feet. He is virtually hidden in the grasses while I peer out over the flower tops to watch the birds.

A dragon fly dances past. Behind me and higher than the post a steep bank rises, peat covered. The boulder-seat and post also mark the edge of an ancient river terrace capped by more than two metres of peat. The entire bank is awash with “Devil’s Bit” scabious. Blue and purple flowers on thin strong stems dance and nod; higher still are the fuschia pink and mauve blooms of bell heather and ling. The flowers sway in the breeze and hum with bees.

But it is the birds I watch. They ignore my presence and dog is motionless, made drowsy by humming and the thick cloying scents. The bird’s songs are joyous and busy. One crowd descends into thick grasses and vanishes. Then another, and another. A gust of wind blows the top of my hair and the birds all rise up, three groups coalescing and sewn together by the light.

Sitting there I am again reminded of New Guinea, of the fecundity of that forest long ago. I think about how much carbon was stored within it, how much life was there, unnamed, unknown, unrecognised, and how I had felt its presence, its sentience. And now, in these small meadows, I have become a part of the flow of life here.

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I am a poor botanist and have used the same few plant identification books since my undergraduate student days. I know more about the microscopic forms of these plants, the shapes of their pollen and spores, the microtopography of their lives. There is as much variety and beauty in the minute as in the colourful blooms and leaves.

This summer I have managed to identify more than 70 flowering plants growing in the fields. My list does not include grasses, sedges, rushes; I will need help to ID those. The structure of the flowering meadows is akin to that of a tropical forest; there are distinct bands from the flowering tops to the layers of soil chock-full of roots and fungi. And all of them are brimming with insect life. Across the croft there are a multitude of different micro-habitats, from the peat beds to the dry steep river terraces, from wet flushes and springs to the sandy flood meadows by the largest river meander. Unlike most other local crofts that are square and relatively uniform these fields are complex and varied both in physiognomy and habitat-type, and create a great patchwork of plant and insect communities. Running through them, dividing yet binding them is the Red River (Abhain Dearg) whose riverbanks are thick and plush with deep growth. The whole effect is one of complexity and variety, colour and abundance, just as in the forests of New Guinea.

I stand up, pulled by unseen forces and the ever-present songs of the west. To my right, the bog-grasses that crown the high banks of ancient peat are turning gold and beyond, in the upper ‘parc’, the Shetland pony’s mane is tinted with autumn.

 

I head down through the deep vegetation unable to fight the currents of energy as they run towards the rippling thicknesses of distant blues.

Storm skies and a bounding sea are calling me down to the sea, always down to the sea.

 

Posted in birds, crofting, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, meadows, nature, Scotland, summer, wildflowers, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments