Sepia, silver and gold: transition to autumn

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  Close to the sea-log-seat, for the first time in weeks, human footprints have been replaced by otter tracks and bird trails.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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Elemental Colours and Inner Sounds (Water Colours II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Corncrakes and a sea swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The tumbling of summer and midge mayhem

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fire and fury (and cuckoos)

On Saturday morning a surprise landed on the lawn as I knelt gardening. A cuckoo, his livery as blue as the waters of the Inner Sound rippling with currents of platinum-grey and violet, his abdomen a striped T-shirt. His “Cu-ckoo” was keen and loud and his wings were thrust downwards as if steadying himself. Within minutes a swarm of small birds erupted from the hedges and trees and began to hurl themselves at him. That unusually close visitation was the third in a week. The cuckoo wobbled and flew off, discouraged by the thronging aggression. This spring the Erradale valley is bouncing with two-tone cuckoo song; there are more cuckoos here than in previous years and they certainly seem much bolder, searching for suitable nests in gardens and field margins close to our house, something else I have not seen before. Apart from one or two days of downpours over recent weeks our weather has been dry and bright, and the light breezes have been “Cu-ckoo” filled, with ripples of repeating echoes. As the cuckoo departed a willow warbler, atop a spike of spruce in one of the hedges, began to sing, with relief perhaps.

The current spell of hot weather comes after months of dry intense cold so the ground is crisp and dusty. Even the Sphagnum hummocks on the peat bog next to Red River croft have desiccated to pale crusty cushions. Bog pools have dried up, though here and there are patches of dark, wet peat overhung with heather and cotton grasses, and fringed with sundews. The same cannot be said for the blanket peat up on the hills. There the heather, dwarf shrubs and tussock grasses are parched and friable, and so we fear fire. Uncontrolled wildfires destroy nests, chicks and eggs, insects, lizards, small mammals, soil fauna, peat, and the very soil itself.

Down here in the valley  sand martins are searing back and forth over the lower fields creating routes that are formula-1 race tracks through the warm air. They too are here in greater numbers than before. But sadly there are fewer swallows than last year. I am holding my breath, anxious; reports on social media are recording their late arrival around the country and I hope that more of ‘our’ swallows will find their way home. The byre door has been open for some weeks now, waiting.

The last few months have been a peculiar mixture of ridiculous cold and scintillating warmth. Like the late swallows, I am late updating my blog. The sluicing out of winter flashed by amidst a potpourri of activity on the croft, interspersed with family visits and a writing schedule that has brimmed with scientific papers, a piece or two for the journal Elementum and a wee book project. Excuses, excuses, excuses; but here we are, and the croft, sitting as it does inside a hidden and enchanting little space, is as busy as ever.

Winter’s end was cathartic and searing, ice-cold and dry days brushed snow and hail across my face, wrought crystal in the pools and ditches and fringed the Red River with ruffs of ice. For much longer than usual the ground was iron-hard. But one of the wonders of nature is that so much abundant life can be released after such prolonged and permanent cold in a place that usually experiences only intermittent freezing. Early on in February one or two days sang with warmth and promise, and over melting ditch waters, spirals of insects rose in spare beams of sunlight. But the cold returned so swiftly that they were frozen in mid-air and blew away, tumbling along with the strangely fine, near-microscopic flakes of snow.

Eventually temperatures began to rise and the colours reminiscent of the frozen Arctic and drifting icebergs were replaced by rich seams and drapes of royal blue and sapphire. In the clear clean air and under cloudless skies I was wind-burnt, sunburnt, and salted. And the ground warmed quickly.

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Spring erupted suddenly, blooming with life. Waves of yellow followed swiftly one after the other: daffodils, primroses and cowslips, dandelions, celandines and marsh marigolds, and the fierce mustard yellow of gorse bloom. Now meadow buttercups and bird’s foot trefoil flowers are opening in the full sun. The ice-cold pale-dun croft meadows were over-painted in glossy green in just a few days. Warmth flushed life into every nook and cranny. And as our nights constricted rapidly the dawn chorus came with a sudden aromatic discharge of sap, myrtle, lemon and peat.

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Two temporary residents came to stay with us in March. Hector and Duncan, pigs belonging to our neighbours, have been rooting and digging in a small section of the top field. Their job has been to open up the ground to make it easier for us to turn over the earth and ready it for planting, for the top embankment field is too weak to support the weight of a tractor and the ground is too stony for a rotavator. And they have succeeded to some degree, churning their snouts about to rip open the dense matt of vegetation. As they plodded around gangs of small birds flew in to feed on the open soil, rustles of skylarks, pipits and other meadow birds as well as capers of robins, song thrushes and blackbirds.

Now we are only three weeks from the summer solstice. I can hardly believe it. The heat is astonishing. The good weather has brought many tourists and the main roads and tourist beaches are busy. Hector and Duncan need to be hosed down and the meadow birds come for the water in the pig-trough as well as the insect pickings. But the dryness mixed with increased visitor pressure has also brought catastrophe. Fires, begun by careless campers, began to rage yesterday at Diabeg by the Torridon mountains, at Lochcarron and on Skye. Firecrews and locals have been battling the blazes now for more than 24 hours but they have spread, fanned by the gentle winds and exacerbated by the tinder-dry ground.

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Our valley runs ESE to WNW, the very same direction as the winds and for most of yesterday and all through the night we were blanketed in smoke. It smells of peat, so the fires are not simply skimming across the heathland and woodland, they are deep and therefore almost impossible to control. All I can think about are the nesting birds: snipe, curlew, dunlin, red-throated divers, and all the insects, including dragon flies and spiders that will have perished. As fires spread they also burn the uppermost layers of peat and the living mosses that create it, so destroying the chance of peatland recovery. Peat takes thousands of years to accumulate, a centimetre every ten years or so, hill-soil even longer. As the fires burn, soil and peat lost to the atmosphere as smoke and miniscule fragments of charcoal, represents centuries of lost landscape history. And it is utterly heartbreaking for a palaeogeographer who uses peat to unravel the past.

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Of course crofters deliberately burn heathers in a practice called ‘muirburn’, but it usually takes place before the main nesting season and is controlled so that ‘deep’ fires cannot take hold. There are mistakes, some of them deliberate, but by and large most muirburns are carefully managed. This is a practice that, coupled with grazing by deer and sheep, has kept large parts of the Highlands treeless for generations. Where it has been over-used land becomes degraded, peatland is lost and soils thinned, and erosion becomes commonplace in heavy rainfall. Worse, the degraded ground loses its flora and fauna, its ‘seed bank’ and populations of microfauna and fungi. Once lost, they are almost impossible to ‘regrow’. And so many of the glens are silent, and bereft of insects they become emptied of birds.

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So the current wildfires are making me angry as well as despairing. There has already been so much loss in this wild country: wildlife, habitats, soil. Roaming in the hills at times feels like a walk through the missing, the ghosts of landscapes long since vanished, though the clues to their former existence are there if you look closely.

I must go out again to see how the smokes are moving. The wind will change direction later and we must be prepared for fires spreading over Maol Ruadh from Diabeg and down into the Erradale valley.

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Winter blues and the magic of light

So much happens in midwinter, not just the mayhem of a family Christmas but out there, beyond the walls and windows, down by the shore, in the fields and in the woods. Apart from the preternatural (and for me much needed) stillness at this year’s winter solstice late December and early January have bubbled and rippled with light and energy.

Early in December Storm Caroline swept across northern Britain. It is usual to experience hurricane force winds here and rather more unusual for such storms to severely impact the south. Often our November to February calendar is a chequer board of change: dark squares for wet and windy Atlantic weather systems, light squares for polar Arctic air masses. The former burst with storms, turbulent squalls and wild seas, the latter with glacial clear calm and sub-zero temperatures. The stormy westerlies cause havoc along coasts and sea lanes and dangerous, unstable conditions in the mountains. But the northerly air, flowing thick with cold and dense with snow cloud, brings mountaineers out in force. (Oh! What delight as new footprints crunch into pristine snow!)

Caroline was a colourful storm; she brought great heaps of purple and orange cloud, livid green seas and enormous aquamarine waves. She remodelled our beaches and wantonly threw mounds of sea weed, rope, plastic debris, tree branches and boulders all about the shore paths, and then topped everything with tall pillars of coffee-coloured foam. All the usual way-markers vanished. The sea bellowed, the air yowled. Though storm-days were largely sunless both the sea and sky pulsed with energy and power of their own; the Inner Sound glowed with phosphorescence and streamers of coruscating light, then it would fall dark as the atmosphere rumbled and loured with pulsing colour.

As Storm Caroline moved east her tail dragged air from the far north bringing legions of high clouds, grey bottomed, gold-topped, heavy with snow and ice. Many showers failed to reach the ground and were instead swept up to immeasurable heights; others, thunderous and rainbow-edged, dropped snow on our beaches even as bright green waves tried to sweep it all away.

 

Some cloud banks were so low and dense they mirrored the inky-blue waters of the Minches, and sandwiched between the bands of indigo, slivers of icy air ran bright and clear all the way to the snow-covered Outer Hebrides. On the Trotternish of Skye streaks of Christmas light decorated the Old Man of Storr in gold tinsel and silver lametta.

But now and then the sun shone in the rarefied air of high pale luminous skies and we paused to let the weak warmth caress our faces, and then turned to let it warm our backs. The Shetland ponies followed patches of sun around the fields, eyes half closed in pleasure, breath steaming. Strangely, on cloudy days, during the darkening hours after sunset, the mountain snowfields glowed, and although the low lying hills and coastal croftlands were slate grey and splattered with dark shadows of soot and charcoal, we could still see by the glimmering snow-light from Baosbheinn, Beinn Dearg, Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Tom na Gruagaich.

Solstice day itself was calm and pastel. Sunrise was marked with a cup of strong tea, late afternoon by a pather around Red Point. Seen from the hilltop viewing point high above the shore, the Inner Sound swings between Applecross and the islands Raasay and Rona; Loch Torridon stretches inland towards Diabeg and the ramparts of Torridon; Skye’s Cuillin peaks and Trotternish ridges are an undulating backcloth in whose clefts and gullies the winter solstice sun finally sets.

Sunset that day was hazy and diffident beyond the sea; grey, mustard-yellow and rosy vapours spread slowly and were reflected in the water. I enjoyed a momentary pause to sit on a bench that overlooks the Point and to reflect on the solstice in peace and think, as I always do, about my mum who died at midwinter, years ago. Below me on the beach my family continued to run and play in the fading light, their laughter rising up now and again through the quiet and stillness. As the sun sank further into grey shadow I breathed in the pale lavender light and tiny grains of ice and felt then as much a part of the natural world as the grassy turf and lichen spotted rock and hopping meadow pipits and swooping sea birds. As I breathed out I watched my warmed mist-breath mingle with the purple cold, and vanish.

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There was so much noise, light, food and happy companionship over Christmas that I almost missed the quiet addition of a few millimetres of additional light that follow the midwinter solstice. But on a cold morning that basted by dull aluminium-grey clouds, a pale narrow beam alighted on a wafting cobweb. And I realised that amidst all the wrapping, decorating and cooking there had been shiftings and movings in the wilder world. Looking out across the fields I saw that light from the rising sun, yet to break cover, had indeed slid almost unmeasured along the silhouette of Meall Ruadh from its solstice position.

Meall Ruadh is a miles long hill and shaped like the curved back of a red deer. It borders our small crofting hamlet, protecting us from southerly gales, and runs from a high cliffed edge by the sea to meet the Torridon mountains in the east. From Red River Croft the junction between Meall Ruadh and Tom na Gruagaich appears as a V-shaped cleft, although in reality there are a series of knobbly hills and crags there. The midwinter solstice sun rises over the smooth flanks of Meall Ruadh but by the middle of January it has reached the cleft, and beams of light begin to track along my bedroom wall.

That wafting cobweb whispered of Christmas endings and family partings; there was clearing up and cleaning to do, but I took comfort from the thought that the extra minutes of daylight caught in the web heralded changes to come. The landscape might look and feel quiet, ‘Nature’ may seem to be sleeping, but already there is noise in our hedges, flickering in the gorse and rushes and bluster in the kelp piles by the shore.

This early January is a strange one. The new month arrived storm-less though with cold north winds, snow and ice, but as they swung around to the east they brought a batch of extraordinary blue days and golden clouds that glowed from within or as if back-lit by lamps, all bookended by fierce red dawns and livid rainbow coloured sunsets. These days were so full of blue and gold and silver magic that each breath in became a gulp of fairy dust and selkie song, breathing out an orison to the living world.

After months of gales and rain followed by heavy snow it has been so very welcome, this crisp freezing spell, and in the calm cold the ground has gradually dried and solidified. Walking across frozen peatland is noisy, like crunching along a gravel path. Sphagnum tops are rigid with ice. Their tiny filaments are mostly made of water so their rigidity holds even my weight as I step on their pale mounds. The fields are no longer quagmires through which I struggle in wellies; iced paths and tracks make for easier walks and the colours of dry rock and stone, no longer black with slick wetness, are bright and cheerful.

On the embankment in the top meadow today I looked carefully at the pitted frozen ground. In summer the slope was pricked with hundreds of small holes, millimetres in diameter, the homes of solitary bees; in autumn I had wondered how their eggs could survive water-logging for the turf leaked and oozed continuously; now in winter I wonder at their ability to survive the repeated freezing and whether ice encrusts the hibernating eggs in their pollen-lined nests. This same steep slope in summer is also carpeted with orchids and their seeds too must be waiting patiently in the grit and frozen earth.

But change is coming, cloud is building from the west, the stillness of morning has given way to a swirling wind. Above me hooded crows are quietly chattering, they chunner and maunder rather than raucously shout.  And just by the hedge the sharp spears of snowdrops have thrust upwards through the ice-bound ground. What prompts their spark into life? I wonder if somehow, after the solstice, light penetrated the soil and sent a secret signal to their slumbering cells or made a cobweb dance.

I’m certain the crows know the nature of the secret signal; they look smug, and taunt me with tales of spring.

 

 

Posted in birds, Christmas, clouds, coasts, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, family, ice, landforms, landscape, landscape photography, midwinter, mountains, nature, nature writing, north winds, peatbogs, photography, Rainbows, Scotland, sea, Skye, snow, solstice, storm, Storms, thunder, Trotternish, weather, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

North winds, ice veils and winter loss

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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