North winds, ice veils and winter loss

Southerly winds at this time of year often seem angry. To reach us here they must be funnelled through the narrows between Skye’s Cuillin mountains and the heights of Knoydart to then sweep past Applecross. Bursting from confinement at the mouth of the Inner Sound they release pent up energy, often bellowing like stags at the rut, and they ladle water across the landscape. The ground is sodden, small birds fly about in tattered snippets, and deer are on the move, heading out of the high snows down to coastal crofts.

But when north winds blow, the atmosphere becomes so altered that the tall towers of grey cloud and rolling bands of showers from compass points between south and west are often replaced by arctic blues. Moisture content, high ice, light diffraction and deflection coupled with light-charged and transformed seas create broad swathes of colour akin to the above-water and below-surface glacial blues of icebergs. The cold becomes a palpable entity then, something to push against. The diffuse greyness of salted, gusting winds and battleship-greys of the Minch waters vanish as surgings of ice-veils and rainbows roar through the gap between the north-eastern fringes of the Outer Hebrides and the mainland.

 

For a few days last week sea and sky matched each other with paired displays of deep, penetrating light and colour: lapis lazuli and turquoise, lavender and moonstone, mother-of-pearl and alabaster-white. Everywhere gleamed with beautiful yet brutal rawness, but the arctic air also brought mayhem: savage gusts hurled diamond-blue shards of ice, waves tossed salt-grit up the cliffs, and torrents of snow or hail flowed across the hills in horse-tail-herds. This vicious northerly flow has been unusually relentless for November, but now and again there were a few strange periods of relative quiet when cloud cover fragmented allowing the sun to shine through.

Though this morning’s winds had eased a little they were much, much colder. Out across the Minch skies were still laden with shower clouds, some shedding snow across the Hebrides, others tracking closer to the mainland. At times the updraughting air was so violent and fast it took with it the hail and snow it had just released. Down became up as showers defied gravity.

On beach sands wetted by retreating waves, an inverse reflected world returned showers downwards. The stormy waters were firstly the colour of the legendary Blue Men of the Minch and then of burnished cooking pots. As the morning light strengthened it spilled out from under soot-grey cumulus clouds to pour across the Trotternish peninsula. The Old Man of Storr turned from silver to gold.

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I am now at my desk looking north out across bogland smothered in post-sunset purple-greys. The northerly wind is yowling around the house and from the window in the last light of day I can also see the sea. It is a strange colour but I cannot quite put my finger on what is going on nor describe exactly what shade it is. Overhead the sky is almost charcoal grey yet the water glows with spectral light. I get up and move rooms to see what is happening in the south; there the sky is a Dijon-mustard yellow underneath the main blanket of darkening cloud. It reminds me of old daguerreotype images treated with gold-chloride to add warmth. From this south-facing window the sea appears crumpled like crushed tin-foil, then as pale wave crests appear it begins to tear apart. For some reason I am unnerved, this landscape and seascape I know so well now looks brutal, and inhuman.

And how cold it is, and how different from the gilded views of the morning; and how cold I feel looking at that harsh sea and strange light. I turn back to the attic space I’m using as an office (my summer-house-writing-shed is just too icy). I still do not turn on a light because I can see by the sharp glow coming off the snow-covered hills; they become whiter still as the sky continues to curl and shrivel like burnt paper. There is an ethereal luminosity about the place, beautiful yet somehow alien. For some strange reason, and for the first time, I feel uncoupled from the landscape.

I think about dying. There is news of death from everywhere; in Eqypt, a mass bombing;  fleeing refugees from Myanmar; from Argentina, submariners lost in the deeps; and from an adjacent outstretch of land here in Wester Ross, at Applecross, a man of the sea, much loved by his community, lost to the waters of the Inner Sound. His empty boat grounded near his home, so he must have fallen overboard. Everyone is thinking of his family. Many of Gairloch’s boats joined in the sea-searches, and others patrolled the rugged coasts in the hope of finding him safe but stranded. I did not know him but knew his blog and enjoyed his words; his love of landscape and sense of place shone out from his writing.

I can almost taste the bitter cold and feel it pressing against the window now as even the snow-glow dims. Though I love it I feel angry with the sea, and troubled, my spirit pockmarked by ice and spume, and sorrow for the lost fisherman. The Inner Sound has an internal magic and beauty all of its own but now it feels fickle and dangerous, despite the colours and music of its waters, and the overarching skies filled with rainbows and sunsets.

I am no mariner, and get sick as soon as I step on a ship. My husband takes me in his small boat and we slip slowly around the Gair Loch between the skerries and islands of Badachro and Sheildaig to enjoy the altered perspectives of where we live, but I know my limits. So the men of the ocean and coastal waters, the creel-men and scallop divers and deep-sea fishermen, are much admired for their skills and toughness, their beautiful charts and wind knowledge, and understanding of waves and currents.

All I can do is dip my toes in the breaking waves and soak up the spray from the safety of solid ground and enjoy what a sun-dazzling summer sea can do for my inner peace. And in truth I know that despite misgivings about death at sea, a scouring onshore northerly ice-wind with its great billowing curtains of snow and hail and its freezing noise and ice-berg light, will always lift my spirits.

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Alasdair Macleod was a fisherman of Applecross. His creel boat, Varuna, was found on rocks north of Applecross Bay on Monday 20th of November. His blog on Applecross, about fishing, community and life in remote coastal Wester Ross, was a heartfelt and lovely read, and filled with photographs of his beautiful homeland.

He is still lost to the winter waters of the Inner Sound.

 

 

 

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Posted in death, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, landscape photography, nature, nature writing, Scotland, sea, Skye, snow, storm, weather, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Whale bones and wintry wilds

Snow appeared on our mountain tops with the back-turning of clocks, just as it usually does, so now days are constricted, confined at each end by swift sunrises and swifter sunsets. Each incremental diurnal shortening can almost be tasted. To catch dawn-dusk colours with a camera requires a nimble exit from the house and a dash to the top field.

November is a fickle month. Gusting winds from the west bring tall charcoal-grey towers loaded with rain, from the north and east come sharp, needle-thin zephyrs that moan as they spit ice and hail while southerlies drive waves of cloud that break across the hills and flash in bar-codes of alternating light and dark.

This is a tumbling, erratic time of year. Although birches begin shedding leaves before any other Highland trees, they are the last to fully give them up. Gradually, snow-white and silver trunks gleam as beams of light reach down deeper into the forests; with leaf-fall the branches are no longer summer russet-brown but are revealed in their truest winter plum-purples. For a time some leaves still cling tightly to the outer edges of each tree so birch woodlands shimmer with the last remaining yellows of autumn. Then in a single day of twisting winds they will fly and for a time the air will effervesce with lemons and oranges. Finally, when the last leaf has vanished, the bare birch-woods will gleam and become silver crowns tipped with gems of dark charoite resting on burnished beds of heather, bilberry and myrtle. Regardless of snow on the high peaks or gales from the west, it is this last magical leaf-flight that truly heralds winter for me.

Our croft fields are sodden. As I walk out and head to the shore the turf oozes water. There has been little respite from torrential rain since early September and now storm winds bring hail and snow so the burns and river run high, breaking their banks and sending sheets of cola-coloured water across our lower meadows. Today the Red River sparkles with silver and jet as cold, frenzied waves rush down to the sea.

At the cliff edge it is almost impossible to stand up straight. High above there are cloud-towers fringed with livid light by a sun trying to restore some heat to the world. Now and again, as gales tear at roaming gangs of cumulonimbus, lustrous beams strike the mountains or flash across the sea. Quickly though the miles-high vertical clouds regroup and soar taller still, foaming and fomenting and bringing with them the threat of thunder, snow and hail. More noise, more deafening sound, is hurled ashore out-shouting wave-break and spreading spume and froth.  I cannot hear the sea-birds or even the wallop of waves as they thump down onto the beach. Everything seems made of sound, even the colours of land and sea, even my heartbeat and breathing. Wind sound, cloud sound; white, blue-grey, charcoal-black curtains; a sea of crumpled tinfoil; a rough and jaggy day of squalls.

And then, for a few moments I am able to stand upright as a rainbow races towards the shore. It explodes in a maelstrom of eye-blinding salt and grit. Violet to green, yellow to red.

There is less violence back at the croft. Birdsong fills the hedges that enclose house and garden and I keep trying (and mostly failing) to identify all the visitors by their voices; some are quarrelsome, others wistful. Robins, wrens, tits and song thrushes are boldest, unafraid of cats, pine martens or dog, quick to the bird table and feeders. Down in the byre there are raiding parties to the storage bins; tell-tale tiny droppings give away mouse-routes from stone wall to door to hay, and this morning there is one small spraint left by a curious otter. I put out feed for the two ancient Shetland ponies that need extra nutrients to combat the cold. And then I hear a familiar call, despite the noise of the wind; high overhead, more like fairy tale dragon than bird, an eagle swims smoothly and confidently despite the parrying gusts.

All across the croft and shore plantlife is battered and bleached of summer colour. What avoided being shredded by gales has been flattened by downpours. This matted, tangled net of vegetation protects underlying soils and peat, cushions of moss cloak tree stumps, boulders and stone walls, and writhes of bramble and whin provide little patches of shelter. The landscape is clothed in an ochre, russet and umber carpet. But here and there, dotted about, are bright spots of vivid green. Crowned often with pink spraint, the nutrient-enriched grass mounds mark strategic locations of ottery passage, and at this time of year they stand out, proud and tall, some as much as a metre in diameter. The largest are old beyond telling, otter kingdom boundary markers that have probably been used for countless generations.

The wet wild weather of recent weeks has not bothered the otters. On one scarp that runs down to the shore from an unused cliff-top croft is a muddy channel, slick with brown water. It is so smoothed by repeated otter-belly sliding it resembles an old, well-used children’s slide in a city park.

But the storm winds have brought death to our shore. A young minke whale was washed up by the September equinox high tide, its body battered and broken, flippers and tail lost, great scars along its side. What killed it will never be known. For a time, the carcass provided food for many: different types of birds, insects and other carrion eaters. Now only a few bones remain scattered here and there along the shingle shore, tangled up in seaweed and rope. No doubt the winter will bring other deaths. Only the very tough and canny will survive the seasonal tempests and hurricane force winds.

The cetacean’s bones are big and beautiful, and almost too human in form, so I feel its loss deeply.  I have retrieved a few vertebrae as keepsakes of the whale and the stormy seas that brought it to our shore.

They will be a reminder of the fragility of a life in the wilds, not least my own.

 

 

 

Posted in birds, bones, coasts, death, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, nature writing, otters, photography, Scotland, sea, Storms, Uncategorized, walking, weather, whales, wilderness, wildlife, wildlife encounters, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Limestone homecoming and olive trees

For a few years I took groups of university students to Mallorca. It was both a privilege and a pleasure; hard work but great fun. Through fieldwork we investigated the island’s mountain and coastal landscapes and tried to piece together the natural and anthropogenic factors that contribute to their very particular character. Now with UNESCO World Heritage status, the high mountains and rugged coasts of the Serra de Tramuntana are remarkable and beautifully wild, yet they have a long history of human occupation. The limestone geology has exerted considerable structural control on landforms, soils and vegetation resulting in a unique landscape of serrated mountains and deep gorges. Over thousands of years people built stone terraces, complex water management systems, villages and steep footpaths; they managed woodlands and created groves of olive, citrus, almond and carob. Coupled with the Mediterranean climate it is a heady combination, a sensory salpicón.

Our recent family holiday retreat (from Scotland’s damp winds and cold grey squalls) thus came as a blessing, a most welcome return visit. The contrast with Wester Ross could not have been greater: dry September heat and long days of sunshine squeezed resinous scents of pine and lemon from crisp leaves and wrung essences of Earth herself from rust-red and ochre soils. Fluted columns and serrated edges of limestone puncture the maquis and garrigue covered slopes while great bulbous overhangs and crags are stained by iron rich residues that testify to the movement of unseen water.

Over the past week I had not realised how much I missed limestone. Apart from the odd strangely weathered erratic abandoned by ice thousands of years ago there is no limestone near my Highland home. And yet it is a rock I know and love. From the great ramparts of Dun Aengus on the Arran Isles of western Ireland to the clinted and gryked platforms of north Lancashire, limestone induces a rather special and familiar sense of place. Stepping onto it feels comfortable, as if the rock actually knows me, more than I know it. From time to time I wonder if it recognises a long-standing legacy of association with limestone that is tucked away, inside my genetic coding. The O’Garras/O’Garas are from western Ireland’s limestone territory so that may partly explain it; they in turn, so it is thought, came with sea farers from the Mediterranean limestone regions. And in Spain there is even a village called Ogarrio.

So to be in Mallorca amongst the karst and olive groves is akin to a homecoming. Remembering happy fieldtrips with students studying the enormous ancient terraces, weird rillenkaren rock formations and strange plants, reinforces that feeling. There is much to be gained from books and in lectures but nothing compares to finding things out ‘in the field’. To see student faces light up with new found understanding and a delight that matched my own was one of the greatest pleasures of teaching. Limestone and happiness! The relationship I have with Mallorca and with limestone is therefore a complex, multi-layered affair, rather like the geology itself, and of course, those incredible terraces.

The Tramuntana range is home to forests of Holm Oak, Aleppo Pine and scented, resinous scrub as well as the geologic formations that would grace any fantasy novel or fairy tale. Some of the woodlands are very old; descriptions of oak woods and terracing in the Lluc basin appear in Roman texts. And so to encounter an ancient tree is to meet with an organism that knows things. But even expertise accumulated by years of study and research is humbled in the presence of a living entity that was elderly when King James I of Aragon (Jaume el Conqueridor) recaptured Palma in 1229. There are olive trees in the Serra de Tramuntana more than 1000 years old, many could be more than double that. They have survived on the high terraces because these places have been managed by people for thousands of years. Olives and olive oil production is at least 8000 years old (the pollen grains of domesticated olive appear in the sedimentary records from that time) and so it is highly likely that the process of domestication began long before that.

 

Every opportunity to see and touch (and hug) ancient olive trees feels like a blessing. Their gnarled and knotted bark ripples with the passage of time; the twisted roots and branches are testament to their understanding of and intimacy with rock, water and air; they are creatures of the elementals; they commune with the very fundamental essences of Earth herself, and with deep time. And yet they are also creatures of a human world; they need to be cared for, to have rock walls and water channels carefully engineered to ensure longevity and vitality. Therefore, just as communities know and understand olive groves, the trees also have close bonds with people and, I like to think, with their stories. Walk up through the ancient terraces of Lluc, pause now and then to listen to mountain breezes shuffling the leaves and you will hear voices from the remote past. They are stored in the curling, crinkled bark and if you sit for a while with your back to an olive’s trunk the storytelling emerges. Run your hands up and down its ‘skin’ and the living essence merges with your own. Before long heart and mind will be captivated and then you too will want to walk amongst them again and again.

After being reunited with the ancient olives and terraces of the Serra de Tramuntana much of our holiday was spent by the sea.

 

 

The world is very different when viewed through the eyes of a five month old baby girl. But she experienced for the first time the vivid pinks of bougainvillea and bright oranges and yellows of the bean trefoil, and the dazzling blues of sea, sky and pool. She watched the tramuntana wind blow through the trees and vine leaves and heard the waves lap the pale dun sandy shore at Formentor. Will she remember the colours, scents and sounds? Maybe. Perhaps many years in the future she will step onto a Mediterranean island and it will feel like a homecoming of sorts, and she will remember breathing in the rich, dry air of the olive groves as she was carried by her grandmother.

Now I am home. Through the window I can see that the land has been burnished in the short time I was away. Grasses have been dipped in copper, heather blooms in pewter. Pale gold pennies from silver birches float in the wind and orange larch needles blanket the roadside. Beyond the croft the sea is the colour of Mallorcan limestone, waves are crested and fluted like rillenkaren, and I am sure that the salted air has just blown faint scents of lemon, olive and red earth in through the open door.

 

 

Posted in archaeology, beaches, Formentor, karst, limestone, Lluc, Mallorca, Mediterranean, Mediterranean holidays, Mediterranean vegetation, olive groves, olive trees, rillenkaren, Serra de Tramuntana, terraces, university teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Dog biscuits, ravens and the end of summer

Over the last few days high tides and a scouring north westerly wind whipped up coffee coloured foam and piled it high. Gusts carried salt and globules of froth to stick on my cheeks and glasses. Gone are the sand castles of summer holiday-makers; instead there are fragile, unstable towers wobbling and shivering, heaps of rust and green seaweed and a few abandoned pieces of wood, blackened by the campfires of visitors. Sadly this is no golden September or ‘Indian summer’ but a feisty re-churning of the weather systems that brought alternating sunshine and showers to Wester Ross through the whole of August. And while hurricanes sweep through the western Atlantic the changeable weather here is just a small reminder of how atmospheric and ocean dynamics control so much of our lives.

As dog and I pathered along the coast path and down to the beach this morning, Skye and the Outer Hebrides slowly emerged from a dull grey shapeless horizon. Rolling clouds began to fracture, gradually uncovering pale turquoise and peachy patches of clear sky. In the gaps between showers I could see houses on Skye, and for a few moments the stripes of Kilt Rock, some 14 miles away across the Inner Sound, gleamed before disappearing in pale haze.

Water is still streaming down the hillsides finding new routes to the sea after all the heavy rain. As Dog and I reached the shore-path a solitary otter slithered and splashed along one of the rivulets, slinking under a fence and between boulders. He stopped, caught my eye and then dashed into the waves. A few seconds later he surfaced and floated on his back looking directly at us. Dog began nosing amongst the seaweed and rocks but the otter took no notice; instead he watched me, until perhaps satisfied that I was not going to interfere with his crabbing, he rolled over and vanished into the waves.

As the otter disappeared a cawing noise swirled about somewhere. Looking about I missed any final glances of ottery curiosity that may have emerged from the water but then spied three ravens flying along the cliff edge. They may have been looking for creatures driven out from their holes by the pouring waters or hiding under tufts of heather. I held a dog biscuit in my outstretched hand wondering if that would entice them nearer. The largest raven flew back and began to circle above us; he cawed loudly and looked down, seeming to inspect what I offered him. And then the other two joined in, also curious. I have not seen ravens on this small stretch of coast before and for me the encounter was ‘a first’. They flew close until Dog realised I held one of his treats and came to sit next to me.  I watched as the ravens flew away over the hill while Dog waited patiently for his biscuit.

The overt boldness of birds and otter is the surest sign that summer is over, that the holiday season has ended. Our small beach has been busier than ever this year reflecting the large increases in tourist visitors to the Highlands that many are reporting. Family and friends have been coming to visit thick and fast for most of July and August, so our croft too has been a busy place.

These two months in the Highlands are usually characterised by a mixture of sunshine and showers, heather bloom and biting midges. And for almost all of August vigorous showers swept in from the west flowing swiftly behind thick ruffles of indigo and grey cloud. None lasted long; they were interrupted by brighter spells and occasionally by several consecutive days of sunny warmth and dazzling light.

Despite increased rainfall the air has been thick with sweets scents of heather, myrtle and juicy grass-growth, and with buzzing bees. Dragon flies, damsel flies and other long-winged and brightly coloured insects danced over bog pools and ditches and skipped along the river; and in the warm, moist conditions wild flowers have bloomed especially along the river bank.

The coast has glowed with rich, ripe colour in wet spells: russet beaches, aquamarine seas and purple-blue clouds.

Warm and shower-free days blinked brightly with azure waters, lemon and turquoise skies and apricot sands. When clouds and sunshine followed on quickly from one another the sea appeared to be diamond crusted, the sky made of jet and tourmaline.

On the beach, whether wet or dry, the squeals and excitement of children merged with the sounds of singing waves and boisterous sea breezes, and for a time otter and seabird footprints were replaced by various digging and castle-building enterprises.

 

Now the evidence of creaturely activity is all around us again: footprints, spraint, nibbled crab’s legs, mysterious holes in heather and grass, droppings on rocks, bent stems and muddy scrapings. And once again it is the voices of wilder things that spread out across the landscape and come knocking at my door.

Normal service has been resumed.

 

 

Posted in beaches, birds, coasts, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, holidays, landscape, nature, otters, photography, Scotland, sea, Skye, summer, wilderness, wildlife, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Talks-walking, eye-blindings and wild spraintings

July is a month of flickering, in and out, up and down. Heat and searing light give way to cooler silvery days filled with midges and mists, the latter gently spreading diamonds on leaves and flowers, in and out, up and down. Look closely and a pristine copy of the world appears in each spherule of water. Then as temperatures rise invisible ribbons of perfume waft through layers of steam and every once in a while they are so thick I’m sure I glimpse a rainbow tendril or two. The urge to stop and breathe them in as slowly as possible, savouring the taste and feeling the essence of life seep deep inside, is almost impossible to ignore. For few brief moments sweet scented energy passes from alveoli into arteries and mixes joy with red blood. And like a drug, I can’t get enough of it.

Bright sunshine and heat have brought fierce blue skies so deep and clear that the very edges of space have seemed tantalisingly close. At other times humidity has been so great that even from our ‘top field’ the cliff edge has vanished along with the horizons between sea and sky and mountain that I know are there. Through the dazzling light it has been difficult to focus on anything without wearing cap and sunglasses. And threaded between the billowing waves of moisture, clouds of insect wings have captured sunlight, flashing and glinting, and adding to my eye-watery blindings.

Reduced by the heat and almost hidden by greenery the Red River has trickled slowly over stones and rocky waterfalls creating an underwater world of glowing treasures: nuggets of gold and gemstones of garnet, beryl, ruby and citrine.

The farm tracks are dry, yet there has been a lot of rain and the river has risen and fallen several times in response to cloudbursts. Water flow, bound up in dense and luxuriant plant growth, soaks more slowly into peat and soil so the riverbanks have not yet been overtopped nor the ‘wet’ meadows flooded. Our fields are filled with colour and hum with life as the nodding grasses, sedges and wildflowers of every hue have responded to the alternating heat and moisture.

On damp days the land is draped in a bolt of silver and green cloth, as though St Brigid had travelled from ancient Ireland and spread her cloak across everything. Not even the high peaks are immune to her magic.

The growth of living biomass has been so great that my little daily pather around our fields is now marked by a narrow flattened ‘trail’, just two welly boots wide. It drops firstly down through our little patch of woodland, past the byre and out onto the lower flood meadows where it snakes along by the riverbank and around the margins of ditches; up then onto the peat bank, crossing back and forth over the (otter) burn and higher still to the drier ‘top field’. From here it passes through another gate onto the track that leads to the sea.

This route is so very familiar; its intimacies, each stone, stem and trickle of water, every nook and cranny, are known and loved. Some of this land I own and some of it I pass over and through each day. I feel a deep attachment to this place and a growing sense of ownership for the parts I don’t have a legal claim to. It is both a responsibility for and a belonging to, something the Welsh call ‘cynefin’, and a sensation I have not felt since being in New Guinea. But it may be even stronger than that. I am beginning to think the land now owns me.

Just as the trail has become a definite mark on the landscape it has been seared on my brain. What started out as a habit has almost become ritual; and I am beginning to sense reciprocity in my passing by, that nature is responding to me. As an intimate form of contact with this place, the walk is not destructive but at times constructive, through tiny acts of placing a shell here or a stone there, and in the response of plants to my trampling. Wildlife no longer flees from dog and me. The whole landscape is scribed with a mass of comings and goings, of people and animals, both wild and domestic, and by the passage of wind and water, so if I were to draw them out as a map it would look like an elephant’s skin, criss-crossed with lines, folds and creases.

While pathering I’ve placed stones, beautiful in their colours and stripes or glittering with crystal shards, on fence posts or by the trailside; we have decorated our sea-log bench with shells and dried bladderwrack and gathered curling pieces of drift wood to build a back-rest; I have woven grasses and rushes and twisted lengths of fishing ropes around wire fencing and collected sea glass to make mosaics on the rocks. In these small ways I’m leaving my mark at least for a time, until the wind or water moves them on, or a holiday-maker wants wood for a camp fire or mementoes of a wilder time.

Wester Ross artist Lynn Bennet-Mackenzie, currently ‘in residence’ at Inverewe gardens, uses materials gathered on walks as artefacts for her creative interactions with nature and wilderness, and in her instalments that punctuate yet deeply empathise and resonate with the land.  Lynn is inspirational and her work rightly provokes strong reaction to landscape and notions of wildness. Occasionally I try to ‘arrange’ my little treasures into cohesive forms but whatever patterns or shapes emerge I’m convinced they have no meaning other than in the very act of placing them in a particular space. And I am no artist. I am sprainting like an otter, leaving my ‘treasures’ as tiny marks inside this place.

We have had friends to stay over the last few days. It has been a joyous though poignant time for one of our happy band is seriously ill. We were ‘talks-walking’ (thank you Robert Macfarlane*) and our meanderings were slow and gentle, our conversations and laughter energetic and loud. They had not visited the North West Highlands before so each turn of a corner brought fresh gasps and many musings about landscape scale in this wild country. As physical scientists we had long discussions about climate and environmental change and the methods we have all used together to try and elucidate the mysteries of the remoter past, and on how we try to navigate the relationships between people and nature. They stravaiged past the spraint mounds of otters and over my little treasured leavings, their faces raised to view wild seascapes and grand mountain vistas. And I realised then that my very particular path, this especially familiar route, has itself become so subsumed into the landscape that its delicate details and secrets and artistry are all but invisible to others.

Perhaps I am scientist no longer? I’m marking my territory in ways that only creatures of the wilds would see, or an artist might understand.

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*Robert Macfarlane on Twitter:

Word of the day: “talks-walking” – poet Robert Frost’s term for wandering & conversing convivially in company (with Edward Thomas). @RobGMacfarlane July 22nd 2017

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Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie, Artist-in-Residence, Inverewe Gardens, Wester Ross

http://lynnbmack.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/extraordinary.html

Posted in art, artists, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, nature writing, otters, photography, river, Scotland, sea, walking, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Midsummer

Imagine, if you will, standing in front of a marble wall. It is smooth and cool to the touch and although the overall impression is pale and white, on closer inspection it appears flecked and veined with different colours. The more you look, the more detail you see: granular histories of formation and distant tales of its crafting. Yet you cannot see through it and even though you might know what it encloses, it is impossible to see anything other than the gentle flow of energy contained within the stone itself.

The week leading up to the summer solstice was a marble wall. No horizons between sea and sky, mountains hidden, river heard though not seen and only a green glow in the immediate foreground where damp meadows and hedges glittered with water droplets, sap and juice. A stiff breeze accompanied the low swirling mists yet despite their churning the vapours and steams clung tenaciously to hill, hedge and home. Now and again a shot of bright light pierced the deep thick quilted sky but there has been little or no sign of mountain peaks, they have all remained encased in alabaster and marble.

My walk to the shore was akin to walking a high peak above the white clouds of a temperature inversion; of stepping carefully along a ridge, uncertain of one’s footing but knowing that a misplaced stride could mean a fall. The edge of the green, sheep-trimmed meadows adjacent to shore gave the same sense of weightlessness as the edge of a great cloud-filled void.

Birdsong was the saviour. Through dawn mists sea and shore birds continued to sing and pick over the decaying kelp strewn like bunting over boulders. And in our croft fields larks have risen, striving to ignore and overcome the fogs, disappearing from view now and again, still singing.

This year there are more stonechats and wheatears than ever before. Every other fence post or tall clump of heather has a proud songster. I am not sure why numbers seem to have increased so dramatically but perhaps our very mild spring has been a factor. What is also mysterious is how very similar their songs are. I have repeatedly misinterpreted their calls. Recordings available on the internet tell me there should be differences, but here they seem to mimic each other, both calling out with a characteristic “sweep chac chac”. I have watched and listened and yet they all keep repeating the same joyful and proud chorus. Croft, cliff and shore bustle with their busyness.

Just metres away the dunlin gangs I had thought would carry on and fly north have stayed; food supplies must be sufficient, potential nest sites suitable. The enormous quantities of seaweeds that have been brought ashore have been slowly decomposing supplying food for insects and crustaceans and thus for growing numbers of birds. And they have delivered a nutrient base for plants. Greenery is emerging in between the cobbles. New land is being created; the machair is extending, enriched by seaweed and shells.

In spite of the rolling banks of violet, grey and silver clouds light seeps through for more than eighteen hours each day. Even when the sun drops beyond the Point of Ness on Lewis, the ‘night’ is not dark. It is entirely possible to walk without a torch.

Shetlanders call this the ‘simmer dim’, the summer twilight, and in Wester Ross we do not fall much short of it. As the post sunset neon colours fade other lights flicker in and out of peripheral vision. During middle-night hours the world is silver and grey, sounds are amplified, and the perfumes of earth and living greenery are intense and intoxicating. The sweetness of myrrh and frankincense, corralled and kept low by shimmering mistiness, seeps out from the bogland and mixes with salted caramel rising from the shore. Breathe out and breath becomes mist, breathe in and you absorb the scented spirit of the place. Walking through the simmer dim is how I imagine a ghost moves: almost formless yet bound up with energy, silver and ivory, translucent and gossamer.

On solstice eve the sun returned; at last. I had almost forgotten the fluted details of Baosbheinn’s steep scree slopes and pointed hat peak lost in the mists. Even the low hills of Meall Ruadh and Cnoc an Fhuarain are back, greener than ever. In my sudden surprise at seeing shadows cast on the wall by the reassembled sun, blue skies and scudding cotton wool clouds, I remembered how close we had come to the solstice, and so quickly.

I hurried out through the croft fields to enjoy the warmth and light; with each step on the green living world my feet squeaked and I laughed at the sheer sappy juiciness of it all. Everything flickered like mirror tiles. Beyond the croft the sea was aflame with molten silver and gold and so, with Dog galloping happily along, I made straight for the sea. With each stride through the long grass pale froth appeared. It transformed into clouds of tiny moths disturbed by our passing and by the rising wind. Thin gusts shook the rushes and bushes and flashed across the grasses and wild flowers. Swallows swooped low to feed on the wing.

 

The midsummer’s eve sunset was hazy and rich. I tried to clear my eyes by squinting, thinking the blurring was mine. A high fine bank of cloud was moving swiftly in, flowing like spilt wine. Everything with wings was in the air. The machair below the cliff seemed to be rippling with insects and birds, scent and birdsong.

Later, I went to bed wondering about the solstice dawn and whether Stonehenge would be lucky this year. I woke at 2.30 prodded into wakefulness by the song thrush at the window. The silver-grey was beginning to blush with pink and mauve. Soon shapes began to coalesce and I could see that clouds were running through the sky in banded currents. As sunrise approached those to the north were painted in broad brush strokes of orange, carmine and violet. On the Baosbheinn a formless haze of rose-pink began to rust.

Sunrise over the hills was sudden and brief; it slipped though the line of thickening cloud and deeply shadowed hill of Cnoc an Fhuarain and quietly flared.

The longest day had begun and I was already tired. I wondered how songbirds keep on singing for almost twenty one hours. They do not simply mark the sunrise and sunset, they fill the voids for more than an hour at each end of the day with joy; they greet the coming light and salute its fading. Their tiny hearts are greater than mine.

And now, towards the end of the longest day, our wild Highland home is once more bathed in silver, the fire has flown into the northern sky, and still the birds sing.

Posted in birds, coasts, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, Midsummer, nature, solstice, Summer Solstice | 7 Comments

Wild meetings and mirages

A heron-grey early dawn. Through my open window wet scented air slipped in. It smelled wonderful. After days of heat that has bleached bog mosses and sucked moisture from soil, the rain was very welcome. Scents slicked over my tongue like wine.

Overnight, low rolling clouds shed diffuse mist rather than heavy rain and predicted thunderstorms were vague beyond mountaintops. Our Red River is prone to flooding especially when downpours follow on from drought. Water levels can rise by more than two metres when burns and river meet to drain the hills; flood-waters often spill out across our fields before cascading down the narrow bottleneck that is the waterfall to the sea. Though when I check I can see no evidence of flood debris across the lower meadows.

But after fourteen hours of rain fields and machair have begun to surge with growth. At last, orchids are sending up flower spikes and there is such a promise of blooming colours threading though green turf that I make a note to myself to return later with a Flora and my lists from last year. On the horizon, compressed by bands of silver and pewter cloud, a narrow band of pale forget-me-not blue sky streaked with lemon light promises fair weather later.

Before the arrival of rain the whole week had been hot. Days ended in opaque sunsets filled with vibrant hues yet smudged and smeared with growing humidity and the promise of change. Colours bled into each other so that the evening skies seemed blurred like rainbows.

Mid-afternoon heat has been fierce, the air clotted with moisture. The fields have flickered with zephyrs and glinting steam. Across our valley competing cuckoos, subtly different in tone and musical note, have sung brightly though not in unison, resulting in joyful choruses of Andean pan pipes. And sky larks have filled the spaces above my head with garlands of continuous trilling.  Nearby bogland has shimmered strangely with motorway-tarmac heat-haze and wavering mirages: mounds of Sphagnum moss became desert dunes, peat cuttings were railway embankments, tufts of grasses ballroom dancers. But as I could hear curlews calling and breathe in incense of bog-myrtle, the mirages vaporised.

On the day before the predicted deluge, when forecasts had warned of flood risks, I pathered along the riverbank looking down at the shining crimson and vermillion stones as they were being washed by the shallow water. Shimmering, they were transformed into the scales of a snake curling through meadow grasses. As I walked, slowly because it was so hot, my mind emptied. Here the scent of dry, red earth was strong, even overwhelming the myrtle. A few metres from the eastern corner of the field I stopped and looked up. There, by the fence on the same narrow trail, stood a stag; he was staring directly at me. I wondered how long he had watched my slow, stuttering approach. I had been completely unaware of him. Dog was running around the field behind me chasing a scent. He too had not seen the stag so I guessed the beautiful creature must have been still and vigilant for many minutes. I continued to step forwards, very slowly, all the time holding his gaze. When I was a few metres away I stopped again.

Deer don’t normally come down onto the crofts in late spring and summer, and especially not during the warmest times of day; they tend to come raiding in the cool of late evening, during the night or before dawn. So I was surprised to see the stag and his unusual behaviour and calm demeanour. For some time neither of us moved, our eyes locked. I wondered what he was thinking or feeling. I was downwind of him so he probably could not smell my sun cream or sweat. I have often heard their eyes described as ‘limpid pools’ but in those minutes I thought they looked like polished stones. Years ago, in New Guinea, I was given two stone axe heads. One had been dug up from a swamp by an archaeologist I worked with and was more than 12,000 years old; the other was newly made ready to be fitted into a wooden handle. Both were created from obsidian, each with resonating streaks of deep red and green. They were highly polished and lustrous and shone with life; they were a precious gift, given by ‘Stone Age’ people who had great skill and craft. The axe heads seemed to be imbued with the power of volcanoes and tribal ritual, and on that hot afternoon in our field I felt the same essence of life and power in the eyes of the stag.

Since coming to live here I have had several encounters with creatures whose lives mostly pass beyond reach, hidden from view, although we know they are there in the wilderness. I have been most affected by meetings with larger animals though I am no less interested in or excited by the smallest. But true encounters when some sort of exchange takes place, where the wild creature has needed immense strength and courage to make a gesture of recognition (a stare, a pace forward, a swoop over my head), and knowing instinctively that humans can mean danger, are exhilarating and life affirming, and deeply intimate. They remind me, weak modern human that I am, of the remote and implacable wilds.

The following morning we were late to the shore. It was very warm again. Skye and sea and sky were cobalt blue and radiant yet I could not see the Outer Hebrides. There was a salted heaviness in the air. In the calm slick waters a hundred or more seabirds floated; they were picking casually at tiny debris refloated by high tide and ignored us as we walked past.

On the beach we met with lovely people we have slowly come to know, learning a little more of their lives with each visit. We watched as their small dog, Corrie, swam gamely after her red ball. Other new friends arrived, making the most of the delicious warm balm of morning with their dog, Diggery. He seemed to prefer stones and he danced about in the red sands barking at them. Dog was torn between ball and stones, between Corrie and Diggery.

The human conversation was happy and carefree, just like the day. We stood by the otter-watch beach-seat and I laughed and told tales of dark winter storms when no voices can be heard above the shrieking winds and it is hard to stand up straight. But we all enjoyed the softness of the scented air and the mutual unspoken acknowledgement that we have, in that space, a shared peace that nothing can disturb.

I returned to the same spot yesterday evening. Dog and me had the beach to ourselves apart from clans of dunlin and sanderlings, two curlews and a pair of ringed plovers. The light was pearlescent and opaque.

The beach sands were dimpled and puckered by the passage of many feet and decorated with scraps of crisping seaweeds, shells and small stones. They still held the remnants of yesterday’s meetings and doggy-diggings. Among the divots, and criss-crossing over our human footprints, were deer and otter tracks. At some point they must have passed by this corner of the beach and perhaps as they paused to take in the sea view, they had caught remnant scents of humans and dogs, and had hurried on.

Sitting with Dog at my feet I watched the plovers run back and forth, their orange legs blurring, their voices gently piping, adding their delicate footprints to the jumble of others. They did not seem alarmed by our presence at all. As the sun continued to sink the sands began to turn from ash blonde to ochre and dun, the colours of a lioness. One of the plovers paused, and for fleeting moment caught my eye just as the stag had done, before disappearing between two large stones at the back of the beach just a few feet away from us.

Then I spotted, secreted safely in a sandy hollow, three newly hatched chicks, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of having been allowed inside their space.

In a week when grief and horror came calling, meeting the stag reminded me of many things: the wonders of the natural world, New Guinea, wilderness, wild creatures, and how we interact with them. And now these tiny new lives filled me with renewed hope and joy; here they were, surviving on a small beach that for a short while had been busy with visitors, dogs and activity, while we for the most part did not know we had come so close to the wild.

Overhead the sky began to fill with rainbow-colours; a waxing crescent moon sparkled and the ringed plovers called out in farewell as Dog and I headed for home.

Posted in beaches, birds, coasts, encounters with wildlife, environment, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments