It is late August and the morning is fierce with light. Westwards the Outer Isles are floating in a blue haze, their familiar shapes swollen yet indistinct. I am roaming the croft fields with a bag and a walking stick. The bag is for ragwort, the stick to seek out ankle-breaking old ditches that have all but vanished under the abundant summer growth. This year ragwort has appeared for the first time on our croft though its clusters of bright yellow flowers are threaded along main roads across the Highlands. I want to pull it up before it sets seed and before the main fields are cut for hay, and before the old Shetland ponies return to graze.
All around me is abundance. Growth is waist high and saturated after days of heavy rain and water soaks my jeans above my wellies. Everywhere are late summer bloomers, scabious so dense they merge into purple mist, myriad grasses their seed-heads nodding, yellow and purple vetches in tangles as deep as jungle vines. Some species have returned with a second flowering, bright red clover, mayweed and hogweed, while others are flushed with colour and heavy with seed. Sorrels stand tall on stems of crimson, their seeded tops point skywards like rusted spears left to mark the fallen on an ancient battlefield. And the pale dried remnants of midsummer blooms rattle and whisper messages of hope for the future as their seeds scatter.
It is hard work wading through the thick tangles. I feel I’m swimming through wind-whipped waist-high waves of plant-life, gulping scented air as if I might submerge with every step-stroke and drown in the abundance to become part of the meadow.
Forty years ago this very month I returned home from the tropics utterly changed, my perspectives on the natural world transformed, eyes were opened by the sheer profusion of life in high mountain jungles that were, in many areas then, untouched by the human activity. Papua New Guinea is an island straddling the equator north of Australia. Lying on the ‘Ring of Fire’ it is tectonically unstable and in the late 1970s its remote interior remained difficult to access. So topographically extreme and so dense was the montane forest cover of New Guinea that it had only been possible to travel to the central mountain ranges since the late 1950s. For tens of centuries the interior had been deemed inaccessible; it was unmapped and unexplored, and for very good reason.
But people did live there, in small sustainable communities. They were reliant on the forests for hunting and gathering the materials needed for life and yet they also created small ‘gardens’ to grow crops such as sweet potato. For a time, as part of my doctoral research, I was taught about the sheer abundance of living organisms, about their deep and complex interconnections and how living in harmony with such beings required a wholly different approach to the ‘Western’ way of life I had been born to.
Tropical rainforests are filled with uncountable numbers of insects and fungi, gloriously tall trees and rich, dense undergrowth. They throb with luxuriant life; the sense of living energy is overwhelming. Walking through the ‘jungle’ is both humbling and awe-inspiring. In 1979 I was lucky to have a teacher from whom I learned that the forest was alive, an entity in its own right, connected to soil, water and air by deeply mutually supportive, symbiotic relationships. I was taught that the abundance was self fulfilling. Care for the forest and we nurture ourselves.
Forty years on and in this small place where trees are few, insects are rising up with each step. Roaming gangs of small birds hurtle down into the thick meadow growth and then lift up to sit on the wires. Up, down, up, down; they weave and thread themselves through the tumbles of honey-coloured air. Glints of gold and white strike out from their bodies as they twist over and over; up and down, up and down. For a few minutes I sit on an enormous old stone that marks the corner of a much older field and helps to keep a strainer post in place. The boulder was probably left by retreating ice, part of great swathes of glacial debris that line the sides of the Erradale valley. The positioning of the post was probably fortuitous, aided by the presence of the great slab of sandstone. I sit on the rock and lean my back against the post. Dog comes to sit at my feet. He is virtually hidden in the grasses while I peer out over the flower tops to watch the birds.
A dragon fly dances past. Behind me and higher than the post a steep bank rises, peat covered. The boulder-seat and post also mark the edge of an ancient river terrace capped by more than two metres of peat. The entire bank is awash with “Devil’s Bit” scabious. Blue and purple flowers on thin strong stems dance and nod; higher still are the fuschia pink and mauve blooms of bell heather and ling. The flowers sway in the breeze and hum with bees.
But it is the birds I watch. They ignore my presence and dog is motionless, made drowsy by humming and the thick cloying scents. The bird’s songs are joyous and busy. One crowd descends into thick grasses and vanishes. Then another, and another. A gust of wind blows the top of my hair and the birds all rise up, three groups coalescing and sewn together by the light.
Sitting there I am again reminded of New Guinea, of the fecundity of that forest long ago. I think about how much carbon was stored within it, how much life was there, unnamed, unknown, unrecognised, and how I had felt its presence, its sentience. And now, in these small meadows, I have become a part of the flow of life here.
I am a poor botanist and have used the same few plant identification books since my undergraduate student days. I know more about the microscopic forms of these plants, the shapes of their pollen and spores, the microtopography of their lives. There is as much variety and beauty in the minute as in the colourful blooms and leaves.
This summer I have managed to identify more than 70 flowering plants growing in the fields. My list does not include grasses, sedges, rushes; I will need help to ID those. The structure of the flowering meadows is akin to that of a tropical forest; there are distinct bands from the flowering tops to the layers of soil chock-full of roots and fungi. And all of them are brimming with insect life. Across the croft there are a multitude of different micro-habitats, from the peat beds to the dry steep river terraces, from wet flushes and springs to the sandy flood meadows by the largest river meander. Unlike most other local crofts that are square and relatively uniform these fields are complex and varied both in physiognomy and habitat-type, and create a great patchwork of plant and insect communities. Running through them, dividing yet binding them is the Red River (Abhain Dearg) whose riverbanks are thick and plush with deep growth. The whole effect is one of complexity and variety, colour and abundance, just as in the forests of New Guinea.
I stand up, pulled by unseen forces and the ever-present songs of the west. To my right, the bog-grasses that crown the high banks of ancient peat are turning gold and beyond, in the upper ‘parc’, the Shetland pony’s mane is tinted with autumn.
I head down through the deep vegetation unable to fight the currents of energy as they run towards the rippling thicknesses of distant blues.
Storm skies and a bounding sea are calling me down to the sea, always down to the sea.