The blooming of summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in archaeology, birding, birds, coasts, crofting, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, landscape photography, nature writing, rare birds, Scotland, summer, Summer Solstice, wilderness, wildflowers, wildlife, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The opulence of confinement light and the determination of dandelions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shielding and shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Earth Day.

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The “Great Confinement” and the coming of Spring

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

Diary excerpt, Wednesday February 12th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Cocooning. Into the Great Confinement

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

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

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

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

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

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Procession to late autumn

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Abundance

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~

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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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.

 

Posted in beaches, clouds, coasts, encounters with wildlife, environment, landscape photography, nature, nature writing, photography, Scotland, sea, Skye, storm, weather, wilderness, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in clouds, coasts, environment, experiencing nature, photography, Scotland, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments