May I whisper to you? Of colours in a winter storm, of the songs and light within?
January is done and I am wish-wandering in the snows of Sgùrr Mhòr, the highest peak of Beinn Alligin in the Torridons. The mountain has three main parts – Sgùrr Mhòr, the ‘Horns’ and Tom na Gruagaich. From my home in South Erradale they appear as a ruffled wall and together with Baosbheinn, Beinn Eighe and Beinn Dearg form a barrier to the rest of the world. They are my guardians and protectors, a permanence made from deep time and long, slow yet continual change.
Today as I write the sky above is sharp and clear, a duck-egg blue running into deep turquoise. But the mountains are swathed in mist, as if delicate shawls made of chiffon and silk have been draped about them. There must be a temperature inversion, mist formed from the purest cold caught by an invisible layer of warmer air. Faint yet resolute smears of pale lavender mark the shadowy places among the peaks, so their well-known forms are decipherable, even with the silver-white swirls around their shoulders.
These are dreamscapes, these mountains of the mind and spirit, and for much of the month they have been gentled under thick snow and pale light, turning a creamy-violet under the moon. Once, in the midday winter’s light, only shadows confirmed their presence because the lines of silhouette and horizon had all but vanished in the whitening.
Snow has come and gone here by the sea, retreating to the hills when salt winds blew down the Minch. January has been very cold. Lochans and bog-pools have frozen, fingers of ice growing in the larger lochs and along the Red River. Eagles have ranged low, seeking food in the sheltered spaces of our valley where wildlife huddles.
For a few days, even seaweeds along the shore froze. Fragile life, conserved in silver ice and lit by the golden light of morning. Rimed, caught in time, almost in a moment of surprise, by thin tubes of ice, needles and crowns of thorns, all tiny, fragile creations.
Such calm days are transitory here so this pellucid sharpness becomes a temporary refuge in a turbulent world. Even a whiff of an idea or whispered prayer is transformed into frozen crystals that drift out across the waves. I seem to add shards of ice with every breath.
For the first two weeks of January, we went south into a covid-secure care bubble for the birth of our sixth grandchild, a wee boy. And while we were inside the joyful, tiring domain of the new-born, toddler and nursing mother, the world outside froze in time and space. Snow lay deeply on the ground in Cheshire as well as in the Highlands and I was unaware of the extra minutes of daylight, wrapped up in a warm baby-bubble. For a time, I failed to absorb news of growing numbers of infected and dead – all those happy Christmas and New Year family reunions destroyed now by loss.
Once back home, great squalls began to blow down the Minch. Cold winds sang laments for the dead. Towering swift-moving clouds dragged long curling snow and hail showers like the flowing tails of galloping horses. The sea changed colour from deep aquamarine to spectral olive-green.
In the setting sun, storm clouds looked feverish. One evening we walked on the hill overlooking South Erradale. My fingers froze in the bitter gusting wind, my cheeks red raw, but it was worth it. I envied the sheep their thick wool coats. The kaleidoscope-sky darkened and deepened to vibrant petrol blues and iolite. I remembered that iolite, a gemstone, has a peculiar property, plechromism; it can appear dark blue viewed on one side but yellow or orange when looked at from another. The squalls and thunderclouds running past the setting sun seemed to be made from it, changing colour and intensity as I watched.
I thought about the energy and power in these storm clouds, about the exchange of light, water and chemistry and how earth’s systems continue despite everything we do. My grandchildren have been born into a world of storms, metaphorical and physical. Climate change, the stuff I have studied and researched, will be their lived experiences. But I realised, as a thick blanket of curdled orange cloud moved swiftly over my head, that if they are lucky and stay fit and well, they could live to see the start of the twenty second century.
While I was cuddling the latest arrival into our family, I snatched a few minutes here and there to continue reading Andri Snær Magnason’s book “On Time and Water”. He made me sit up and consider the lives of my family, how I can stretch intergenerational experience back into the nineteenth century via my grandparents (born in the 1890s) and now, potentially as far forward as the early 2100s with the grandchildren. In my head I can spin around and glance back and forth over more than two hundred years and cross three millennial New Year’s Eves; I am their pivot point. I know how climate and environments have changed since my grandfather was born but what does the future hold for the youngest and newest family members? Will even greater storms track down the Minch then? What will global temperatures be? What lives will these children lead? What will happen between now and the end of this century? Fierce weather, huge and powerful storms perhaps. Imagine the colours. We are all as fragile as the needle-tubes of ice riming seaweed.
I am a January baby, born in a blizzard at home on a wild winter’s day when the chimney of my parent’s house was blown down. I was a gripey baby and, tucked in with blankets, was left to grizzle and grumble in the pram until lulled by the wind. That was the “done-thing” then, though my poor mother must have been desperate to have regularly kept my pram outside in deep winter. So I am a storm-lover. Whether or not those deep memories of being warm while listening to howls from the wind are from baby-hood or from other times I cannot say, but I do love wild weather. Perhaps my grandchildren need to hear stories of wildness and change in preparation for what is to come. We will sit in an imaginary pram and hear the wind shriek and firestorms rage.
The squally weather passed and intense cold returned – bright, blue-diamond days with ice on the sandy shore and mountains thick with marshmallow-pink snow at day’s end. In the settled brightness, there are hints of spring in the valley but winter holds fast to the peaks. On the hedge-tops, sparrow gangs pause and raise their heads to the sun. Like me they sense warmth in the yellow rays of light. Their voices are responding to the lengthening days. In between moments of sun worship they are increasingly noisy and squabble for food on the feeders. And the first blackbird songs are emerging through the frost. Minute by minute we are heading to spring but there are weeks of drama to come. There is a certainty and constancy to the running wildness – calm – wildness – calm, and in the flicker-flashing of winter back and forth along the Minch, and up and down to the mountains.
So, shall I whisper to you, of colours in a winter storm, of the songs and light within? Look, if you dare. You can see their promises of spring despite the bone-chilling wind, and beyond, to the futures-past of families gone and those yet to come.