It is quieter on the croft this week. After the noise and bustle of hay-making meadows are hushed. The cut sections are greening quickly but the margins along riverbanks, springs and ditches and around patches of scrub and trees, are tall and golden. They are busy too, quietly busy with birds and insects seeking food and shelter.
Colours of autumn are popping up from soft greens and yellows; bracken is turning from sugary green to copper, rowan leaves are crimping and rusting and yellow pennies are falling from the birches. After the headiness of recent weeks even the cheerful, bee-filled drenches of heather are losing colour and brightness, fading into dusky pinks and lavenders.
Skies have been full with fast-moving pillows of grey mostly from the south and west, carrying showers and rainbows to herald the onset of autumn, and where latterly our days were filled with vivid, lancing light, sunrises now speak of change. Quite how the south-flying birds cope I’m not sure. They fly with stoicism and determination, driven by the urgency of instinct. We are all heading into the “Great (Covid) Unknown” and for me the billowing winds and deepening autumn colours highlight the steady, internal nagging sensation that all is not well. I am trying to find the stoicism and determination seen in wildlife. It has been winnowed away, like it has for so many, but carry on we must.
The switch from warm summer weather to cool blustery showers was abrupt. A few weeks ago the first squadrons of geese caused me to blink with surprise, they were much earlier than last year, but this week I’m regularly accompanied by their voices and beating wings.
The “Great Confinement” followed by a summer busy with tourists kept me away from the mountains, just as it kept me away from family. I can see the Torridon ranges from home. Flashes of autumn colour mixed with cloud-shrouds alter their mood and change perspectives but they are a solid and reliable backcloth to life here.Their great age and strength are tangible and reliable. In the lower hills that stretch their arms out protectively on either side of our little valley, autumn can be seen creeping down towards the sea. Even these lesser slopes exude innate power and longevity. There is comfort to be had in rock and peat.
For some time, I have been restless, longing for mountains and to feel the winds coming off the ‘tops’. I can’t climb the greater hills just now but to walk about their feet and under their brooding faces is both joy and blessing. On the croft the air is still plump-full with perfumes of heather, myrtle, drying grasses and the last blooms of dog-rose. Salt and iodine blow up from the shore, occasionally with aromas I associate with much deeper seas. But mountains taste and smell quite differently. Even at low level the crispness of rock, pine, moss and running water feels rich and redolent of height.
Such scents become proxies for the high peaks whose remoteness my mind’s eye can forage from remembered climbs. I imagine looking down at myself, trundling along in the lower places, just as eagle might watch a creature too small and slow to bother with. I know the heights and long for them, but contentment would come from exploring their roots.
I walked, with husband and dog, along a broad estate track running lochside past moorland vegetation and then under mixed pine and birch woodland. Tussock grasses were singed with orange and contrasted sharply with the lingering purples of heather and scabious. The wind was lively. Clouds ran swiftly between the great hills, gusts scooted across the small loch churning surface waters. We sat under a grand old Scots pine with a flask of coffee and watched as showers billowed and rippled like the flowing manes of galloping horses.
Tiny worlds of moss and lichen covered the lower trunk. I looked up to the mountains and back to the complex and delicate forms of silent micro-habitats, then back again to undulating towers of rain. The same shapes and patterns were present in both: flutes, circles, dendrites, each mirrored fractals of the others. All interconnected, mutually reliant, tied by threads we cannot see or sense.
A few days later we walked up a newly installed ‘hydro-road’ so I could reach deeper into hidden, remoter valleys between high peaks. I chafed mentally at not walking the familiar trail that runs almost parallel but at much higher altitude for it is a lovely route. No doubt I would have grumbled at the sight of the hydro-road below yet I could see that the hydro-scheme builders have done a reasonable job. The structure that houses turbines and all the necessary gear is partly hidden under a great artificial slope of rock, peat and moorland vegetation, cleverly designed to mimic the hillside carved out by diggers and bulldozers. As you move through the valley it vanishes entirely from view.
Where Scots pine woodland was lost to the road, young native trees have been planted. Several large areas of ancient woodland have been preserved and here enormous grandmother trees nourish the youngsters. Threaded throughout the old growth and the new were many tiny trees, seeded from the woodland’s heart. Nature working in tandem with engineering.
So much wonderful scientific research attests to the role played by grandparent trees, about the invisible threads that bind ancient to young. The connections are real and measurable, physical and chemical. As we sat watching the wind play in the leaves and sunlight chase shadows on Slioch, the great mountain beyond the valley, I thought of my own role as grandmother, about my invisible ties to our grandchildren: ‘Zoom’ gatherings, telephone calls, photographs, messages, cards, gifts and letters. I wished then for tree-like tangible, physical connections, threads with form beyond the simple contacts of 2-D audio-visuals. Every day I long to be physically connected, rooted in their worlds, passing on stories, songs and wisdom (such as I have) to the wee ones, just as the grandmother trees do for their younger companions. Don’t we all wish for the material connection, to use all our physical senses, just as trees do? But patience is a long game, one well-rehearsed and practised by these grand old trees. I could learn much from such calm resilience.
Higher, by a small dam and fencing, there are scars still, but everywhere are signs of healing. Great moss-clad boulders left untouched by the construction works attest to design and engineering sensitivity to both landscape and ecology. Patches of exposed peat are sprouting with life. And above the sound of waterfalls, in the relaxed shade of more enormous ancient pines, the drone of dragonflies and bees, and diligent busyness of birdsong whispered of recovery.
People have been modifying this mountainous country for millennia. These are anthropogenic landscapes. Yet not all human activity is destructive, we can work successfully with nature as long as we understand we are as much a part of the natural world as the mosses and lichens, deer grass and dragonflies. And while those lives may seem fleeting and small, trees will outlive us by centuries and the hydro-works will eventually vanish. It is quite overwhelming, to think of how this place might look in one hundred years – one or two skeletons of grandfather and grandmother trees among a throng of younger individuals – what was once a broad ‘road’ covered by a deep blanket of vegetation – familiar mountains ushering in the autumn colours.
I wonder if, through the minds and hearts of our ‘little people’, our legacy will be as enduring.