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.

 

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

Sinuosity

In April the land burned. Cold snow showers that had bundled together under cloud-bands of steel grey and ink in late March were swept aside by penetrating blue skies, fierce light and desiccating wind. The air was bright, dry and crisp. April rushed in and overtopped the last stranglehold of winter like erupting breakers in a high storm tide.

Snow continued to hold fast on the summits but the coastal margins were incandescent, mirror tiles reflecting halogen lamps, all retina-searing, eye-watering blues and whites tempered only by the slow gentle greening of our low hills and meadows and by pale yellow effervescences on willow, birch, alder and hazel. Sunsets were turmeric-stained smears on rose-pink tablecloths, sunrises as bold as market stalls filled with neat rows of red chillies, strawberries and plums. The sea was calm, the air calmer still. Birdsong was ripe and rowdy in the hours before the sun rose over Baosbheinn but at dusk even sea bird voices were hushed by the soft peach-skin glow of fading light.

Tides moved between the days like silk drawn slowly over skin. Even under grey skies the sea was wave-less, the atmosphere rainless. And then at the end of April fires broke out on the hills. Some grew from unguarded muirburn, others from unmanned camp fires; some, it is thought, blossomed from the careless disposal of cigarettes. All smoked, flamed and spread because the ground was preternaturally dry. The largest and fiercest fire here in coastal Wester Ross ran across swathes of the Gairloch Estate and even now its cause is still unknown. It gripped the steep, heathered slopes of ‘The Miniatures’ and leapt the main road into Gairloch threatening power supplies and access. It lasted for three days and turned the hillsides to black ash, burning young pines and birch and combusting ancient soils. Only the gullies and hollows filled with mature mixed deciduous woodland escaped the worst for the high relative humidity and deeper, wetter moss-covered soils under their dense canopies rebuffed the flames.

Though we were miles from the fires, yellow and brown smokes filled our nostrils and darkened our hearts. All I could think about was the loss of wildlife, nesting birds and burrowing insects, the ruination of soil structure and vital microscopic colonies of fungi and bacteria. At a time when perceptions of loss in the natural world are expanding and concerns about potential extinctions growing these fires felt particularly savage and almost personal. Yet down in South Erradale light and life bloomed in the mustard-yellow gorse. In the dry warmth almond and coconut scents overwhelmed the tang of charcoal while joy (and hope) flitted around us in the exuberant voices of small birds and rippling hum of emerging insects.

There were days of summer heat too, strange and unsettling for a month usually spliced with snow and hail. The paths dried; I walked about in old trainers rather than wellies. Meadow turf was pale and brittle, crunching underfoot just as it had done when January enclosed us all in ice. As cuckoos arrived the bog pools continued to shrink. I gathered frogspawn with my neighbour to put in her old bathtub and wait out the ‘dry’. Sand martins returned to the river bank; I worried about their food supplies because after the initial bloom of insect life it seemed to vanish just as quickly.

In May grey rains came, firm as dark pewter or layered like silver tissue paper. The seashore glowed under the heavy skies. After so much dry light, the solidity of wet and cold felt wrong. We grumbled, the old Shetland ponies were miserable, our neighbour’s new lambs shuddered.

Late spring in the north requires a subtle combination of moisture and warmth to bring greening and abundance; we had excess water but no heating. The soils in our fields and moorland peats need to warm up to enable the full rushing bloom of leaf, stem and root. Brighter days did tumble in from the west, in a cyanometer’s colour-coding of blue, but still there was no real, bone-reaching warmth. Then swallows began to appear, not in their usual groups but singly. One poor bird simply fell out of the air by the front door, its feathers bedraggled though still shimmering with colour and iridescence. How it had died was a mystery, perhaps it was exhausted after battling gales and relentless rain. For days I watched the skies hoping others would return. I buried the tiny body in our ‘top’ meadow.

Sunsets blurred with ribbons of deep lilac and soot-grey as the distant cloud of oncoming rains built beyond the westernmost reaches of the Hebrides. Far off flickers of sunshine and hints of heat were bedevilled by mists, tepid light and brimming burns. On some days high pale azure skies were streaked by feathers and streamers of cirrus cloud that whispered of summer but were not strong enough to keep the weather of the north Atlantic at bay, and they did not last long. Cuckoo song rippled around the valley, skylarks rose, the volume of small meadow-bird song grew despite the poor weather, and yet the overwhelming feeling was that all was not well. Dark words of vanished swallows and missing swifts came to us from the south. I was troubled and kept my eyes on the skies. I tried to count the number of cuckoo voices, worried that many had not returned to the valley.

The topsy-turvy upending of weather norms was unnerving; blame it on the extreme sinuosity of the ‘Jet stream’ said the forecasters. Sinuous is too gentle a word to describe the upheavals. March, April and May have been upended, their days shuffled like a deck of cards, succumbing to an altered world. Is this ‘sinuosity’ a sign of greater changes to come? If so, I am fearful. The natural world has not been swift to respond to this modified spring. How many species live on the brink of disaster here I could not say. There are more questions in my notebooks than comments. And yet May passed, hiccupping towards summer, cold and unforgiving, challenging the normal vernal rhythms and confronting the ability of wildlife to cope.

June arrived bringing a subtle warming but just not enough for us to call it summer. We still need layers of warm clothes and to light a fire in the evening. For a time the wind blew crossly from the north east and blasted our young vegetables with cold so their leaves yellowed in shock. But now, in spite of the wind, the longer hours of daylight have begun to work their magic and at last the ground is warming and the croft is beginning to flourish. Growth is discernible; it has scent and such colour changes as to give the impression that each meadow is singularly alive and pulses with energy.

Everything is reinvigorated. While the south remains cool and wet, we are cool and bright. Where I find a shelter from the wind the sun seeps into my bones. Pausing from the work that must be done so I can turn my face up to the warmth I find I’m accompanied by dozens of small birds feeding their young in the same patches of sunlight.

‘Spring’ growth is a few weeks behind because of April’s cold and May’s rain but finally the fields are thickening with lush growth. Orchids spear the greenery. They are everywhere. I am almost afraid to walk out over the fields for fear of trampling flower spikes yet to burst into colour. And there are new species of orchid this year: dozens of ‘Butterfly’ orchids, creamy and fragrant.

And best of all, this morning as I walked through the fields, stepping carefully to avoid crushing the orchids, insects rose up, moths, craneflies, lacewings and myriad others. Tumbling down, riding sinuous waves of light and sweet scents and almost caressing the orchid flowers, came swallows, desperate to feed.

 

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One hour, one shower, altered perspective.

Along this small frisk of marginal land, sandwiched between high mountains and deep sea, an old path has been re-established by our footsteps. For me it has become a prayer walk, a cleansing-of-the-mind pather, from croft home to sandy beach via a very old route called the “seaweed path”. As it descends diagonally down the low cliff the track has disintegrated in places though it was once wide enough for a pony and cart. It was used by crofters for access to the shore so they could harvest kelp and other species for use as fertiliser on the fields. Much of the original route is now criss-crossed by the braided streams of otter runs and deer trails that flow between patches of machair and rocky outcrops but the clever use of edging stones can still be seen poking out of the green turf here and there. I am accompanied always by Dram-the-dog and often by my husband striding ahead, his extra twelve inches of height stretching out in the long lopes of a mountain man.

One day this week I set out, a forecast of ‘showers from the north’ fresh in my mind. From the cliff top I could see a rivière of showers running along the Hebridean horizon, each one pleating with the high points of Lewis and Harris and eventually swirling across the Quiraing on Skye. I watched for a while getting the measure of their speed and direction, and then set off towards Opinan. With a low tide the beach sands were sloped and as smooth as a newly plastered wall. There were no footprints or animal trails. At the far end of the bay a cluster of ringed plovers riddled back and forth in between scraps and wisps of bladderwrack, chasing wavelets.

In the relative shelter of this small curve of coast the sea was calm and shone as if newly polished. Further out wave crests were curling upwards in the winds. To the north beyond the westernmost tip of Longa Island, a band of grey was fragmenting with short, broad rainbows that seemed to grow as I watched. A rogue shower had broken off from the Hebridean necklace and was heading towards us, growing quickly, driven counter intuitively and in contrast to the main plough of storm-clouds. Its outlying thrusts quickly expanded high over my head.

The outer edges of this rotating mass of cloud were radiant and below its centre the sea transformed from steely-blue to pale yellow-green milk, flattening and glowing more as the colour changed. The ‘storm-cell’ churned with energy. Trails of rain or snow emanating from its outer edges were now immediately drawn back inwards. There was no sound and no wind, only a deep, bone-aching chill as if the physical properties of this singular cloud (temperature, rotation, precipitation) were its own and unconnected to any aspects of the surrounding atmosphere.

The gelid air quite was still and yet despite the apparent atmospheric and oceanic motion before me, I could hear nothing, and sense nothing but the dimensionless cold. An alternative universe was presented in the bright reflective sea and gleaming wet sands; up became down, east flipped west, and under turned over. A portal to a mirror-world had opened and we had stepped through, dog and me, dissolving into another space and time. And I realised in that moment just how little of my earthly home I truly know and understand, for all my years of living.

The still-flat sea became a mirror reflecting the cloud’s shape, density and internal luminosity.  It appeared to have a life and creaturely purpose all of its own, moving at running speed and trailing behind it another space in which all traces of the sea’s opaque biliousness vanished in a sweep of blue, silver, white and grey. Gradually the distant chain of showers moving through the Hebrides began to reappear until they too were reflected in the newly gleaming surface of the water.

 

 

The storm-cloud ran away, the flat calm disintegrated. The whole sequence of arrival and dispersal lasted only an hour yet in that short space of time it seemed that atmosphere and ocean had engaged in a very particular conversation, one so utterly removed from my own small, human mind that I simply could not comprehend it other than to recognise that some kind of communion had taken place.

Our sun flared and restored colours, scents and sounds; the air warmed. Dog dashed into the returning waves. Sea birds yelled at one another and I followed the cluster of ringed plovers as they began once more to peep and run about.

I stepped up from the sands onto the bright green grasses over which midges danced, their wings catching the yellow warmth of the morning sun and headed home.

 

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Sepia, silver and gold: transition to autumn

At last, after a very busy summer, tourist numbers are tailing off.  The main beaches closer to Gairloch are still dimpled with people-trails but locally Opinan’s sands have been washed clear by showers, divots smoothed by the high tides. Now there is a line to mark the margin between land and sea; on one side the sand is patted and stippled by showers, on the other, wave-brushed to the smoothness of a plastered wall.  Close to the sea-log-seat, for the first time in weeks, human footprints have been replaced by otter tracks and bird trails. This morning they were crisp and purposeful, cutting across the sands from the water’s edge to where small burns, swollen by recent rain, chivvy new gullies down through the dunes.

The weather has changed. Sunlight breathes with brightness still but is rinsed with henna, while patches of purple heather on surrounding hills are dusted in ground ginger. At times the air is so full of moisture the world appears faded and worn as if in an old sepia photograph, almost colourless yet with hints of yellow like drifting tobacco smoke.

Great showers pile in from the south-west, then north-west; winds shift in direction, back and forth; light spills out in great rivers or slips between sheets of cloud. One afternoon the sky seemed to toy with the sea and, for a few minutes, created a vista of such potency that I wished I had filmed it. Just one photograph captured a sliver of magic. From pale grey banks of cloud ‘God’s rays’ arrowed left and right but at the centre a thick, viscous light, shimmering and strong, flowed downwards like molten metal poured from a metallurgist’s crucible. The impression of decanting and spilling lasted some minutes and the sensation of motion was so powerful that I thought the sea would be entirely filled with liquid silver and palest gold.

 

Such high, broad, wide vistas, where sea and sky are inseparable even when distant horizons seems clear and well-defined, where atmosphere is never uncoupled from ocean, are why I love this place. To understand their communion, their common language, is almost impossible; the swiftness of their exchanges defeats me even as I listen and watch.

Horizons here are changeable, malleable and often nebulous, and not defined by sharp lines or stark angles. They are swirling, curling melees of interlocking shapes and shadows, at times vague and blurry, at others crisply pleated with the Outer Isles. And yet the overall effect is of gentle brush strokes that bleed watercolour paints from side to side along horizontal planes. (I wonder  at times how important this broad laterality is to my sense of belonging.)

In late July I was in New York, my first visit to Manhattan, en route to a family wedding in Ohio, and we enjoyed a short time craning our necks to peer up at or lean out of the edges of tall buildings.  The contrast to home was spectacular and exhilarating; the city bewitched us with its energy and vibrant colours. New York throbs with noise; it is growing and swelling with movement and energy and so it feels alive though not in an organic way like a mountain or forest. At street level the pinnacles and towers feel inhuman and unreceptive; from their heights the flow of traffic and people below are soundless and remote. The city was a film set, a computer game, a synthetic matrix of brick and glass, all vertical lines, sharp angles and strong shapes, and yet at its heart were the people we met, warm, generous and friendly.

From New York we hurried on to Ohio, to flatter landscapes, big skies and a panoply of greens. There the verdant semi-rural suburban landscapes are enriched further by dense pockets of woodland. Even in the gardens of our hosts there were so many tree species it was not difficult to imagine the old forests that would have covered great swathes of this part of America before the pioneer settlers came. I asked about the trees I could not identify; there are many more than in our small islands, over 100 species in Ohio alone, but the relative paucity here in the UK is to be expected. Post glacial spread of forest from continental Europe into Britain began only 11,000 years ago and when sea level rose to create our islands no further forest advance was possible. So tree-species diversity is much lower than continental-scale North America and Europe; Britain is, in biogeographical terms, relatively young. It was fascinating and a reminder of the richness of global forests and how precious our native British woodlands are.

And I loved the tree names; among the dozens of varieties of oak, willow, ash and pine were cottonwood, quaking aspen, sassafras, sweetgum, chinkepin-oak, ironwood, hackberry, buckeye, tamarack, hickory and loblolly-pine. I wanted to wander among them and feel their bark and learn more about their leaves, fruit, nuts and life cycles, and what creatures lived in the woods or on the trees, and what their Indian (Shawnee) names were.

From Ohio we travelled to the shores of Lake Michigan for a few days of rest. Here the woodlands felt more jumbled and complex, and less constrained by development in the pockets of wilderness of local state parks. There were beaches and footpaths that snaked and curled through woodland from Saugatuk on Lake Kalamazoo to the dune coast of the greater lake. Along the trail Monarch butterflies rested and caterpillars chomped on mayweed; there were giant ants and black squirrels, cardinal birds in crimson coats and strange voices in the deeper dark under the tree canopy.

At Michigan’s shore the woodland gave way to a wide, bright horizon; the lake itself was edged by frills of waves and broad swathes of fine, pale yellow sands or steep cliffed sand banks. The ‘Great Lake’ is enormous, more than 10,000km2 larger than the Irish Sea. Its expansive salt-less nature was difficult to grasp in spite of holiday-makers swimming and sun-bathing, paddling and eating ice-creams. Quite why it made me feel that way I could not begin to explain. And at Holland beach, the largest we visited, was a red lighthouse marking a waterway busy with boats of all shapes and sizes that dashed in and out from the open water. It reminded me of Amity in the film ‘Jaws’. And then I thought of Nantucket, Captain Ahab, Ishmael and Moby Dick and much larger deeper oceanic things.

Back home it took a while to disentangle thoughts and feelings from jet-lag. Our new American family were happy folk and full of love and the strong feelings of companionship have not dwindled with the passing days. But several times my dreams were of huge dark forests filled with crimson-coated fairies who led me down old Indian trails to talk to ancient trees about their lost kin in. Heading out after returning home I felt guilty among the trees in our own little patch of woodland, thinking about all the great individuals that must once have lived here.

But now the colours of autumn are threading through everything, along the shore, above and below water, in the fields and up on the hills. The green grasses of late summer are tipped with copper, and in between patches of still-purple heathers the slopes have been washed in bronze and gold. Yet the atmosphere is silvery, flushing with gentle light and warm winds. There are clouds of small birds roaming the humid air, they rise up here and descend there, picking at the fruits, seeds and insects.

Just now a horde of goldfinches landed all around me in the long grasses of our top field. They were like tattered flecks of Christmas wrapping paper, all shiny gold, silver and red and they clustered noisily, chattering away, their voices full of stippled and unreadable words, like the crowds on the streets of New York.

 

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Elemental Colours and Inner Sounds (Water Colours II)

I wrote last year about the Inner Sound and the Minch, stretches of sea between Wester Ross on the Scottish mainland and the Hebrides: https://notesfromasmallcroftbythesea.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/water-colours/

Red River Croft looks out over them both but especially where they meet, one running into the other, where the currents ply back and forth with moon tides and tseasons. I am a lover of mountains and forests, coasts and peat-bogs, and have walked, worked, taught and researched in these environments. I can spin a yarn or two about geo-environmental stuff but I have fallen under a spell, cast by the Inner Sound and amplified and stretched by the wilder waters of the Minch. It has become a strange and inexplicable thing, a symptom of some inner madness perhaps, a yearning for something that cannot be explained in terms of the geoscience I know.

I want to see the sea, watch its every mood, its changing light and tempo, and its sounds and songs as they roll up from the shore. Every chance I get I head out across the fields and down the track to the cliff top. If I cannot go for some reason I will steal as many glances through the windows of our wee home as possible. There are times, in dreams and in waking, when I am certain the sea is calling my name.

What fascinates me most is the interplay of water, air and light. Changes flush through hour by hour while colours, scents and sounds blend and separate. I could watch all day until frozen with cold and torn by hail, or numb with a light-induced headache or bitten by midges. The sea and sky seem as one to me; they exchange energy and power, light and dark, and mould each other in their own likenesses. On occasions I cannot tell them apart and feel as though I am being swept up and absorbed into a single colour or a rainbow of sound.

I think the elementals of this space are pouring themselves deep inside me, replacing all the hormones of womanhood that once made me shine. Ice cold salted winds in midwinter abrade the skin on my face, snow soothes the raw cleanliness. Red heat at summer sunsets gives me the healthy glow of a twenty year old, and I bloom just as I did in pregnancy. Colours merge into sounds in reverse synaesthesia as if the seas are telling stories or chanting hymns. My heart beats like the waves pounding the shore and pushes the volatile aromatics around my arteries and veins. And I can almost see the threads of energy emerging from wave crests or running clouds and entering through the tips of my fingers.

No two days are the same. Each has a different story to tell, new colours and sounds and tastes.

And so I have continued to take pictures. The ones below are wholly undoctored and capture only a brief moment. In most cases the photographs contain no mainland, island or human construct, and often no horizon. They are simply the colours of particular days. When I look at them now I try to remember what I was feeling or thinking at the time but as the hues and tones fix on page or screen I am overwhelmed by the remembered smell of the sea and sound of the wind, and not by any human concept or notion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Corncrakes and a sea swim

I was a lucky academic; some of my ‘in-the-field’ teaching and research took place in the Mediterranean, and long hot day of geo-fieldwork was often rewarded with a cool beer. Picture this: a glass, chilled for hours in a fridge and so impossibly thick with condensation that nothing could be seen inside it. Ah, the sweet, hard-earned bliss.

Yesterday, along our Wester Ross shore, was a chilled-glass sort of morning, coated with fine silver droplets. I could have been inside a misted up glass peering at the world outside. It felt as if nothing and no-one else existed and that Dram-the-dog and me were the only ones left alive. We walked through a space emptied of all sound and movement; nothing from the sea, nothing from bees, birds or sheep, or from the grasses and meadow flowers, and nothing from the usually noisy sands and gravels on the beach. Complete stillness.

We reached the sea-log-seat and sat, surrounded only by silence. We waited, watching. Dram-the-dog was alert. And then, from small hollows in the sands ringed plovers emerged and ran about. They piped and called out to the quiet, and were answered by other voices along the beach. As we watched they rose to fill the space with their songs. Our approaching rough and careless noise had perhaps discomforted them; we must have sounded so very LOUD in the fridge-chill mists of morning.

Back home and the seamless voiles and grey lace began to tatter. I could not feel a wind but I could see one, a grey and charcoal smudged-breeze above us. Dark shapes ran over the low hill by a friend’s house, as if ink had been splashed carelessly on a tablecloth. The contrast to our weeks and weeks of bright blue, yellow and green could not have been greater.

Since the middle of May our whole valley and surrounding mountains, the waters of the Minch and Inner Sound and the skies above have been fierce with colour, as thickly and richly laden with pigment as a painting by one of the grandchildren.

The summer nights have been swimming by, with waves of perfume rippling between our fingers. And occasionally, even when the light blue breezes faltered, the valley was so thick with scent it was quite impossible to breathe in air, we simply drowned in it. Each morning I have put on an overcoat made from volatile organic compounds exuded by pine and myrtle and other plants in the heat. As June ended even the moon found it difficult to rise up through the molecules of perfume; it lifted slowly in the east like a hot air balloon and settled into the west as a lone jellyfish in calm water.

As the hot spell of weather continued across the croft insects and birds clustered in patches of shade but in late evening and early morning, they rose together in clouds. Such dry heat and bright light drives off the midges, but they lurk in patches of cool shade, biding their time.

This year the unusually prolonged spell of warmth has brought horseflies (Tabanus bovinus) in huge numbers. They persecute the ponies and swoop down on me, finding bite-sites as fast as I can swat them away. On one hot afternoon I photographed an enormous insect, its body length about 4cm, almost as long and wide as my thumb. It flew noisily and landed on a large rock nearby. Later I asked ‘Twitter’ for help and a knowledgeable friend said “Tabanus sudeticus, the giant horsefly”, a species I had never seen before.  I react badly to bites and shuddered at the thought that such a creature might require my old woman’s blood, but the biting females are loud as they approach so with luck I will only have to put up with the less painful bites of the dun coloured common ‘clegs’.

Occasionally I was unable to sleep in the steamy white nights of the simmer dim. But one clear day ended in a fire and brimstone glower to the north and we walked out to sip the cool sweet air. To my amazement and great joy an unusual sound crept up from the meadows, wrapped in scent. It was a noise like finger nails scraping along the edge of a comb. And then there were replies, back and forth in the long grasses below us. Corncrakes! This was the first time I had heard their ‘singing’ and according to our neighbours they have not been seen or heard here in the Erradale valley for decades. But now they have returned, encouraged by the reduction in grazing intensity and different types of meadow management.

Despite the last few days of light mist and gentle showers the river is reduced to thin red strings of water that weave a complicated riddle through stones and boulders. The Red River waterfall, normally so full of swagger and laughter, has become a silvery squirm over rock steps running between enormous mounds of cemented rust, the great sandstone steps usually coverd by foaming cascades.

The ditches are bone-dry, bog pools crusted like burnt toast. Even the lower croft meadows seem parched but scrape away the crisped turf and there is moisture in the soil. More orchids have bloomed in the top paddock (the pàirce) and swaddled the steep embankment next to the garden. We have deliberately kept both parcels of ground free from grazers to give the orchids a chance to flower and set seed, and at last they have succeeded despite the ‘drought’. Some plants appear to thrive even in the dryness. In the vegetable-herb garden Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) has flourished despite our ardent weeding between the rows of beans. But it is beautiful plant with flowers that match our sunsets so I cannot pull them all out. And in the gravels of the garden paths tree seedlings have begun to sprout: birch, hazel, rowan, ash, willow and Scot’s pine. The gravels trap moisture and organic matter underneath providing an ideal tree nursery and one by one I am potting them up to grow on until they are ready to be planted out on the croft.

On the hottest days, we swam in the sea, slowly entering the turquoise water until accustomed to the cold. But the clegs pursued us even there and so I swam with a T-shirt, sun-hat and sunglasses like an old granny. Fish riddled by, flashing with silver-green and blue, and slowly the numbing cold was replaced by effervescing joy trilling up and down my body from toe to scalp. The whole effect was of champagne. I was a sunburned strawberry in a glass of bubbly.

Clear seawater played tricks with the sunlight. Waves created patches of stars and drew strange lines and curves below the surface. There were glimpses of other worlds, minute Saharan dune fields and sand-tornadoes. Beyond our turquoise swimming pool, the Inner Sound crackled with light. Instead of wave sound I was certain I could hear fireworks, the sound of sunshine striking the surface of the sea.

But now the crackling heat has cooled. For the first time in a few weeks there is a tangible darkening between midnight and two. We are speeding away from the summer solstice and the simmer dim is shrinking. But today a sweet salty breeze is running across the fields, tickling the old Shetland ponies into action. Greenery is furred with moisture and I can almost hear sap moving up stems and flushing through leaves as the living world is refreshed, just as I was in the clear blue waters of the Inner Sound.

 

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The tumbling of summer and midge mayhem

The recent spell of weather was unusual and impressive: four weeks without rain, four weeks of bright clear skies and sunshine, and four weeks of heat, real Mediterranean-style heat. Warm air whispered of far-away places while slow moving currents scribed curlicues of azure-blue on seas of moonstone and chalcedony. In the long still evenings rooibos tea poured out of the sky-dome and filled up the Inner Sound. It has been so quiet in recent weeks, both Inner Sound and Minches have been breathless and blue, while the hills and croft meadows crisped and curled, and footpaths turned to dust.

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P1010094We are just days from the summer solstice so the dawn pipers call us into wakefulness before 3am.  June days end slowly and late, in a long quiet glide of insect sparkle and batwings and the rich perfumes of peat bog and meadow. Heated myrtle zest and pine resin give way to the syrup of warm soil as the last lingering sun-glow vanishes around ten thirty, firstly in a seam of turmeric, then in smears of celeste and zaffre. But eventually even these colours dissipate, yet the sky shines as if layered with chrome and pewter. It is now possible to walk without a torch even after midnight, and it feels like a walk through ghosts that are cool and solid.

 

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For a time I thought the heat would stay even longer. But overnight summer was scrunched into a crumpled ball of tissue paper by an unseasonal early storm. ‘Hector’ rolled in and now every hollow is filled with water and the fields are steaming. For a time my world constricted and I could not see the hills for the furiously running bands of rain though I could still hear the salt-crusted voices of the sea. The rough weather ran in from the south-west overnight and by morning the old Shetland ponies looked bedraggled and surprised as I struggled with unruly buckets in the gusts. Cindy gave me a hard stare. She seemed to be blaming me for her disturbed night and storm-soaking. There is plenty of grass but because the ponies are so old they need some extra vitamins and nutrients. They have their summer coats now but after a prolonged soaking and partial blow-dry their body-hair was crimped, like a certain brand of crisps, and their manes had expanded into thick fluff.

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Here in the North-West deeper ground retains a lot of moisture even in summer heat so shrubs and trees have flowered profusely in the hot weather. But during the storm the air surrounding the house and garden was a maelstrom filled with unexpected debris and surfed by birds. Swallows and sand martins pierced the waves of turbulence. All around the croft cascades of bright yellow broom blossom mingled with shreds of pine needles. Gusts tore at our hedges, trees and long grasses and ripped insects from their leafy moorings. The mayhem and chaos released a deluge of warmth and moisture filled with the thick aromas of wet earth and plant juice.

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I have been worrying about the state of things, about what is happening in the natural world. Reports from across the country and further afield note and lament declining numbers of insects and birds. And this spring and summer certainly feel different, as if some unnameable thing has come to pass, though I cannot identify what it is. I am no natural historian; I do know about geo-stuff and how landscapes form and function and new skills are slowly being absorbed, but this talk of insect population crashes and missing swallows, swifts and sea-birds is disturbing. All through the gloriously sunny weather, as family and friends have come and gone, I have watched the shore and our croft fields. There has been a noticeable lack of birds, particularly sea-birds. We have seen occasional gannets diving and the low level fly-pasts of shags and cormorants. And yes, there are oystercatchers, dunlin, common sandpipers and ringed plovers, but their numbers are low. I have counted six bonxies skimming along the coast one after the other and hooded crows in noisy clusters on the low cliffs. But in the skies above the croft there are very few swallows. None are nesting in our old byre (it has more than a dozen cupped nests, still waiting) though one pair fly in and out all the time so I am still hopeful. Other meadow birds seem to be fine: sand martins are plentiful, and pipits, skylarks and willow warblers, together with the usual garden birds, are in full voice, and boisterous. On one hot afternoon a sea eagle flew overhead, as if slowly swimming through the syrup-thick air, his beak and feet as yellow as the meadow buttercups, his tail as white as the moon. The air was so congealed with the scent of bog myrtle that I wondered if he was floating on an invisible blanket of perfume rather than heat.

P1000595I do not know what is causing some species to suffer while others muddle on. Bees here are abundant; crane flies, dragon flies and myriad small flies dance over the meadow grasses and garden flowers. In the ‘top field’ embankment, dust-dry over the last few weeks, are thousands of small holes that housed solitary bees. I have counted more this year than ever before. So here, at least, the problem is not a lack of insects. On the same bank, normally covered with orchids by the end of May, the turf was thin and bone-dry but the heavy storm rains have brought a sudden orchid blooming.

The storm caused damage down at the local beach. Yesterday morning I went down the cliff as usual with Dram (our dog) and as we approached the shore I could see several gulls and oystercatchers sheltering by the sea-log-seat. Overnight the high tide coincided with the strongest north-westerlies and left piles of debris along the sands. Ringed plovers had been nesting in their favourite spots but the storm-assisted tide had wreaked havoc. One nest with eggs was completely buried by sands and gravels, another with hatchlings washed away. Two plover parents looked war-weary and bedraggled yet they seemed happy to allow dog and me to sit close by and watch as they preened. Other parents were luckier: oystercatchers and common sandpipers, though also ruffled by the gales, have nested where there is more protection from the highest waves and strongest gusts.

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The losses due to wild weather though sad are somehow more palatable than those caused by simple human carelessness or callousness. And yet, such unusual weather systems may be a sign of greater changes in the atmosphere and oceans caused by our collective activity at the global scale. The feeling that whole earth systems are shifting and becoming relatively unbalanced is hard to ignore and I feel a rising internal anger at so many implacable denials that trouble has begun to arrive at our doorsteps.

The showery weather has lingered and I have not heard the cuckoos for a few days. They seem to have left us a little earlier than last year. But as the sun breaks through the clouds I can see swallows skimming the fields as insects begin to rise. There are ripples of light filling the air over Skye and it is impossible to tell whether they are rain showers lit from behind or beams of sunlight cast downwards through a cuckoo-coloured cloud-duvet. More showers are raking the Shiant islands while behind them Harris is splashed with cream light. I can imagine the noise of bees in the machair and the warm air there, while the cliffs of the Shiants are washed by sea-bird tears.

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On this side of the green-blue Minch fields are accessorized with small pom-poms of bright white cotton grass. They wobble and bobble in the stiff breeze and the effect is of an old cushion so worn that the stuffing is coming out between the threads of green and yellow. I once filled a small vase with a bunch of ‘cottons’. They lasted for weeks but one day a throng of midges emerged; what signalled to them to leave the soft protection of cotton I will never know but it rates alongside my blooms of midge-laden bog myrtle as one of my less sensible attempts to prettify the house.

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Of course, this is the Highlands, and the heavy rain brought by Storm Hector has encouraged an earlier-than-usual explosion of midges. Wind is their only enemy when we are beset by cloud. And so a salt breeze, while it flicks broom blossoms about, flattens my young bean shoots and forces the bog cotton grasses to dance, will carry off the blood-sucking wee beasties.

They are the price to be paid for being able to sup the deliciously perfumed and pristine air that wafts up from the sea and across the bog, and for living inside this wild and wonderful place.

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