Each morning I take a short walk across the croft, along a rough track and down the cliff, following a narrow trail by the shore and along to a nearby sandy beach. Dog dashes back and forth gathering bits of flotsam and jetsam. Depending on wind direction, we can be buffeted at the lip of the cliff but find a bit of shelter as we descend, or it is impossible and unsafe to carry on and we get blown back and find respite in the fields. And yet it sorts things out, this walk, winds or no. In howling gales and roaring rains I become almost deaf and thus mind-cleansed; when skies are azure and aqua-seas are still, the calm clarity of this space spreads me out and any cares or concerns dissipate in the blueness.
The short walk is such a small thing and yet it is deeply settling. We don’t ever hurry. Pathering, my mother called it: an aimless pottering along to see what’s what, who is about, who has passed along the path before, taking time to notice and see and listen. Poddling, according to my grandfather. Every day brings newness; colour, light, sound, scent; cloud type, wind direction; views to the Isles, or inland to the mountains; birds on the beach, deer on the hill, and what has been brought to shore by overnight tides. And it good for mind and body, to pather or poddle a trail, so my mother said.
This is a track made by sheep, deer, dog and human. Some sheep belong to crofts a few kilometres away and one small ‘gang’ regularly saunter along, nimbly hopping between or over boulders to seek out the greenest shoots, and occasionally wandering onto the boulder strewn shore to nibble at fresh seaweed, unafraid of dog and me.
Around us, there is a ‘lowness’ to the place just now. The land is waiting for Spring warmth. Growth is yet to gather momentum. So, while tufted grasses remain bleached blonde, dark heathers gnarled and grizzled to burnt umber, and remnants of russet bracken fronds are carelessly strewn about in glowing clumps, I try to spot the meandering trails of creatures, large and small. Boulders splashed with centuries-old, many-coloured lichens, peek out from the winter-thin, motley blanket of vegetation. It is easy to pick a way across such knobbled lowness and easier to see who has travelled this way before me. And while I pather, seeking the signs of other wanderers, glancing now and then out to sea, a gentle, internal calm builds until thoughts and cares simply spill out and spiral away on draughts of air.
Paths, human footpaths, are few in this wild country of the north. Many great hill climbs begin on stalker’s route to high hunting grounds and then disappear into lofty spaces, necessitating compass, map and navigator’s skill. Along the coast, paths lead easily and readily to the sea where they pass through dune and machair, but need agile care where they squirm along cliff tops, around geos and across peaty hollows. Some tracks are ancient routes, created in harder times when drovers impelled their beasts east and south. But in these pre-equinoctal days, before the soil is warmed, Liliputian pathways appear everywhere: between rocks and tussocks, thrusting under fences and through walls, they are highways and low-ways for creatures trying to avoid the crystal clear gaze of the avian hunter.
At this time of year the surrounding moorland appears honeycombed by patterns of dark and light. There are trails where boots can tread, transient byways that will vanish when spring arrives and new growth blooms. It is easier now for raptors to spot the scurriers as they dash between overhangs of pre-leaf knot and gnarl. In the grasslands, where bleached and sodden tangles have been beaten down by snows and rain, other secret ways may be spied: neat, spiralled forms, like entrances to dew-covered, spider-webbed fairy dens. Tiny round, hobbit-holes, little more than a finger’s width, are thresholds to under-grass by-ways. They are not open to the sky, but have roofs of woven grass.
Each day, through the early morning airs, gulls gather and bustle, shouting greetings and gossip along the river valley’s shelter and, following the river, fly across the croft to the shore. Their pre-breakfast arguments are blaring and rowdy. They follow the same route to the sea like a “school run” and gather on the glistening sands or bouncing waves, all the while shrieking and clamouring; adults in their brightness, youngsters in frowzy browns and greys. A head count? A school for seagulls? When business is done, register complete, news attended to, up they soar to follow other, imperceptible pathways, and dog and me are left to simply watch and wonder.
Back in our garden at hedgerow base, and easier to decipher, is a hole several inches in diameter. It is a pine marten’s entrance and exit to our garden, to feasts dropped by careless table feeders and most especially, to the fat balls hanging in a small wire cage. It is a reminder of the tenacious, determined and at times desperate daily searching for food and shelter that drives the creation of all the tiny trails and larger pathways in the landscape.
My trail walking is free of such basic needs and has not deeply driven essential purpose. But by pathering I can send my thoughts away, on high breezes or tossed into spindrift. It allows a joyous, essential cleansing of the mind and awakens the senses. That in itself is purpose enough.