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.

 

 

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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.

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Swallows, ghosts and purple rain

Our run of sassy, warm and sunny May weather ended in a flurry of sharp showers and midge mists. With the addition of moisture after weeks of dryness everywhere is sappy, buzzing and busy, especially in the croft fields. Even the surrounding hills that are bare of trees are greening now.

Winds, blowing hard over the last few days, brought rolls of bright blue, white and pearl-grey clouds across the Minch. Trundling on through the mountains they thickened, becoming violet and ink-blue bands that stained peaks and slopes darkly purple.

At the coast we missed the very heaviest downpours. Yet dry ground has been wetted enough to encourage plant growth. Once or twice I was certain the fine rain didn’t actually reach the fields but was swept up with the breezes, spritzing my face as it sluiced by.

Even with the showers daylight has been so fiercely bright that I have still needed sun glasses and sun-cream. From the garden one afternoon I could see white horses galloping through a field of aqua and a glinting Trotternish edged in silver and, feeling the pull of the sea, I set off for the shore. The Inner Sound glowed, resembling a cathedral stained-glass window with light pouring through; somehow it seemed to be lit from within and not by the sun.

There were people and dogs on our sandy beach, holiday-makers as well as locals, enticed by the sunny warmth and bouncing waves. Dog was puzzled, we usually have this place to ourselves, but we walked our grassy, downhill path anyway and headed for the shore. Salt and moisture filled the lower atmosphere adding to the silver dazzle. Scouring gusts of wind by the water’s edge were loud and exhilarating; it was like being prickled with millions of tiny silver needles. I felt grounded and in tune with the pulse and rhythm of the waves, the heat of the sun and the cold buffeting wind. Yet even with my feet firmly on the sand came a sensation of sky-diving through silver and gold. The waves were brightly turquoise or they shimmered opaquely like moonstone; all were topped with crests of royal icing. Dog danced in and out of the sea and I wanted to go in too.

Aware of others coming onto the beach I retraced my steps. Some of the sand was so smooth it looked as though had been skimmed by a skilled plasterer. There were rippling pools, sand on one edge, cobbles and stones on the other. Voluptuous wave forms were everywhere: in the sea, rocks, sands, shells, seaweeds and clouds, and even the storm-gifted branches I have added to our log seat. There is so much of the feminine in the natural world.

I turned away from the glinting water and went up to the log to sit and watch. Dog lay down in the warm sand. A family walked slowly along; a small child, parents and another adult with a walking stick, a grandparent perhaps. A choke caught in my throat. Memories came flooding in, washing up and down in waves. This little scene could have been a replay of one of my own holidays with our youngsters, my parents in tow; such happy days, so fleeting and so very, very bright. I watched as the small child tottered back and forth picking up shells, seaweed and handfuls of sand. There is a picture of me somewhere with my own mother doing exactly the same thing on a beach a long time ago. I could lay it out next to photographs of our children and grandchildren, and with others of my grandparents, sepia children themselves, and trace in them all the instinctive intergenerational love of the sea and shore on bright, wild and windy days.

In the evening, I headed once more down the track, drawn to the sea by still ghosting memories stirred up during the afternoon. The brightness had sailed into the west, sunset was not far away. Dog raced ahead. The tide was high and the sun was sinking quickly. At the shore I stopped to listen to dunlins. Their cluster calls were loud and in unison; they sounded like the distant roar of a football crowd heard several street blocks from a stadium. The birds were scavenging mounds of titian and orange seaweed dried and shrivelled by sunlight. They saw us and lifted up in teams. I tried to count them and failed, thinking there were three or four groups, each of twenty birds, but they swooped back and forth so quickly that I couldn’t really tell. At the edge of the machair I sat down on a boulder still warm from the day’s heat, dog beside me. The birds soon returned to the largest mounds of kelp closest to us. We were as still as we could be. The seaweeds glowed in the last rays of sunlight. Other birds joined the dunlins: sanderlings, ringed plovers, a few turnstones, rock pipits and wagtails, and the air was still and quiet for a few moments as they all picked at the debris.

Behind me stonechats piped and rattled from fence posts. Then the gusting winds seemed to sift swallows out of the air and they tumbled and spilled across the slopes and along the shore. Despite the heat and flame in the sky the air was cold. As I stood up and turned for home, birds scattered in a piping rush. I walked back upslope; the grassy turf path, though well used, was thick and lush. As my feet trampled and knocked the grasses and sedges tiny twisting clouds rose up like miniature dust devils in a desert. Lace wings, moths and other insects, disturbed by my passage, were visible in the low angled evening light, their wings glimmering. Swallows began to dive even lower and swoop past me at knee height, feasting, and in the last embers of sunlight they turned blood red. The whole narrow trail was a crimson artery filled with coursing life.

For a few moments I felt part of the swimming stream of nature and, family photographs in mind, had the sudden sense I was walking home with ghosts as well as with swallows.

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Cuckoo blues

Our high-sky, Mediterranean-bright spell of dry weather has ended in a shimmer of pearly light and cool lavender breezes. The last few days have blown change in at our windows and doors and brought silver mists and gentle dampness woven through with cuckoo calls. After the dryness it has been refreshing. The ground is parched in places and there have been wildfires in some parts of the Highlands. Moisture is welcome but so far there has too little to make a difference to the fields.

For a few days dawn vapours rose into clouds and melded with sea waters though still the rain did not come. Now the winds have swung slowly and gently back to the west lifting once smooth waves into slow-rolling creases and crests and sending a salty tang to mingle with the incense of bog myrtle and gently showering . Clouds have fractured the bright May sunshine, clear skies have become burnished with silver, the piercing sun an alabaster light.

On the bog by the croft ‘hummocks’ and ‘lawns’ of Sphagnum moss have been bleached by desiccating sunlight though some patches have retained wetness and colour where their surfaces are protected by overhangs of heather. Now and again, from mist-full boggy hollows, grassy tussocks and clumps of heather, flies, moths and butterflies have risen in small clouds, flickering. And in the woodlands where trees are sprouting quickly and greenly, moisture, retained by hairy lichens and thick leaf mould, has made under-canopy spaces feel dense and heady.

In early May mistiness the dawn chorus seems louder than ever. As with light, perhaps sounds bounce from droplet to droplet magnifying voices. One bird has begun to out-sing even larks and song thrushes: the calm, smoothly measured two-note-calls of cuckoos spear through the frenetic hullabaloo of other voices and darting flight. Yet even they are chased, mobbed by feisty gangs of meadow pipits and other small birds. I watched as one cuckoo, sitting on a telegraph wire, was repeatedly ‘bombed’ by small birds trying to drive him from his perch; he simply shrugged his wings. Cuckoos will be here in our valley for a few weeks, ignoring the sea and higher hills and mountains in favour of crofts, gardens, patches of woodland, hedges and bogland.

I, however, cannot ignore the sea’s daily call and yesterday morning walked as usual over the fields towards the shore. The horizon had vanished and I watched the slow swirl of soundless currents sliding into mists. For a few minutes I felt suspended, as if in between worlds, with no gravity to keep me anchored. My face was cooled by moisture caught on eyelashes and cheeks, and tiny droplets clung, sparkling, to my cotton shirt.  Then dog nudged my hand and we walked onwards, down the path to the beach.

On the sands ringed plovers ran back and forth following the waves as they sloshed in and out. Beyond them I watched three white darts crying raucously as they tumbled down to the sea and up again. Terns, I think, though they had not a stitch of black anywhere. Their wings were long, thin and sharp, as finely crafted as paper birds made by a master of Japanese origami. Further out to sea gannets were diving, powerful and streamlined like Concorde. Then I realised that another pair of birds were skimming over the low waves, one following the other then, curving over the rocky shore at one end of the beach, returned along the sands and out across the sea. They seemed to billow and twist around each other, ribbon dancing and weaving about an invisible maypole, repeating their short route again and again. I wondered if this was a courtship flight; it lasted for fifteen minutes or more and I wondered how they would have any energy left to mate.

Standing on the rocks was a lone turnstone, still in his winter coat, his head turning as he too watched the other birds. Then a whimbrel landed, and another; they called out their gentle melody and calmly settled wing feathers. They were hurried on by a noisily piping group of oystercatchers: brrrrrrrrreepapeepapeepapeepeepeep they sang, their red eyes, red legs and red beaks fierce against the blue sea and rusty rocks.

The water was forget-me-not blue and turquoise. Waves were sand-filled at their breaking edges and as they sluiced away lacy trails of salts and fine sediments formed in the water. Each wave left behind its own distinctive, rippling mark in the sands, rimmed with shell fragments. Because the tide was going out some of the waves grew tall but did not break; they merely collapsed in a pale and milky swash. As they rolled up and curled over they seemed to gather in birdsong with each great shush. I heard a distant cuckoo then, and felt certain a wave had scooped up its paired notes, perhaps as a gift for a selkie.

I returned to the cliff-top again in the evening. Sea and sky were blended together in blue silk and pale grey satin. The horizon slipped away just as it had earlier in the day but kept returning with smudges and smears of indigo islands.

I could see the Trotternish as a broad band of Prussian-blue painted on canvas. Water currents were moving gently left to right, south to north; the sea was a spill of oil paints mixing slowly, swirled about by an invisible brush.


Once again I heard a far-off cuckoo call and thought of their blue and pewter plumage shimmering like the sea. The moonstone and quicksilver waters whispered in reply: a selkie’s song of longing and desire.

Posted in coasts, environment, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, nature writing, photography, sea, Spring, Uncategorized, walking, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments