Our summer is flitting in and out of sight. Here for a few minutes then gone again, and in its vanishing comes an onslaught: winter, autumn, spring. All the seasons in one day. I think there are more seasons than we have fingers for, more even than we can imagine, and they rush hither and thither across the hours and across the croft. (Can we find new names for these turbulences and fluctuations?) To wear layers or not to wear layers? Wellie boots are the norm: fields and hill paths are sodden, river levels bounce up and down, ditches are full and bubbling, and everywhere is squelchy, oozing, with tiny pools and puddles mirroring the sky like pieces of fractured window glass. But this wild landscape gradually soaks it all up; the swirling mists or torrential downpours, sunshine, heat, rainbow, snow, hail. Our woodlands are rainforests, cool temperate rainforests say the textbooks, rich and mysterious, draped with pale grey-green beards and fragrant tendrils of ivy, clematis and honeysuckle. And across our seemingly bare hills, stripped of trees, lies a deep blanket of sponge, equally mystifying, and as great a treasure as any majestic rainforest.
Peat. In places metres deep, in parts only a thin scraping. The north is swathed in peat; it has smothered history, changed history and recorded it. People have used it for fuel, to sustain growing gardens and to bury objects, and people. And I love it. A deeply embedded genetic heritage, out of Ireland, may be responsible enhanced perhaps by a personal tapestry of family holidays in wild Scotland and peaty Pennine fieldwork with students…
Deep peat boglands, drenched in Atlantic rains, can consume everything, eventually: plants, animals, insects, buildings, walls, boulders, fences, paths. As organic matter dies then decomposes it turns into brown and rusty black gloop topped by a multi-coloured, fibrous, glowing carpet of Sphagnum moss, herbs, heathers, bog myrtle, sedges and grasses. This living blanket absorbs and assimilates, transforms then preserves, ingesting and digesting anything that lingers or falters nearby, only to reveal them now and then like dangerous secrets or hard won trophies.
Some peat is carbon black with rusty nodules and occasionally studded with glittering opalescent gems: the long dead carapaces of beetles, luminescent, vitriol green or ultra-violet, shimmering and tiny. Some peat is cow-dung brown, dull and thick, in which tiny corpse pieces of plants are visible, ages old. Where exposed in hags or cuttings, peatlands can yield their secrets, like snippets of ancient stories, or ages-old, long-lost songs and wild lives lived: the remnants of the great forests of Caledon, huge trunks or roots of Scot’s Pine and Oak; large boulders, whose symmetry is too ordered, too well marshalled to be natural, the stones of old walls, field boundaries, brochs or burial cairns.
Peat is thick and dark, and, filled with water, wobbles as you stride across it. How the surface carpet of plant life holds weight when ‘down below’ is so gelatinous, is a marvel. But this living, breathing carpet-blanket is strong, dense, matted and fibrous; it is brightly variegated and appears as though crusted with gems, each hand sewn onto mounds and cushions of soft plumpness. From afar it is vivid and vibrant, russet and dun in winter, lime and jade in spring, eyebright yellow in summer, purple and bronze in autumn; close to, the variegation is psychedelic. Plant life appears otherworldly, weird in forms and functions, miniature, adapted to the Atlantic weather systems of drenching windiness, and able to create its own micro-climate; sundews, creeping herbs, grasses with ‘breathing tubes’, scented dwarf shrubs, all the while soaking up water, air, nutrients, voices, songs, memories.
Among the heather and mossy cushions tiny yellow stars twinkle: tormentil (though no torment is found in their yellow cheerfulness so bright against the violets, greens and browns) and tall, stately, sulphur yellows of bog asphodel. Burrow down and delicate bog rosemary tendrils trail, carefully, purposefully it would seem. In the wetness, Sphagnum moss pillows are soft and springy, cochineal and crimson, corn-gold, straw blond, spring green, and glistening with tiny droplets of water. Rootless, it grows up towards sunlight, to rain and mist, capturing carbon, retaining water, infused with magic, a medicinal friend. And all across this boggy peatland, just as the summer rains soak like bathwater on a sponge, I fancy the stories, songs and myths of lives lived here in the wild edges of the world are also mopped up, steadily, ruthlessly.
Here and there are pools of still, black, peaty water; some are tiny, fairy filled, no bigger than a plate; others are treacherous, hidden by heathery overhangs or grassy tussocks, deep enough to swallow whole sheep or trap unwary cattle, or people. And threaded through it all are little paths made by the wanderings of generations of creatures large and small, following signposts unrecognisable to human senses, yet way-marked, identified and remembered by instinct and need.
Walking onto the hill peat or along the valley bogs is a journey into the past, into old songs and stories of peoples long gone. Their voices and lives are remembered in the names of rocks and crags, lochans and burns, and in the peat itself. Such histories there are! Peat becomes an archive, a natural library of the landscape, recorded not in pen and ink but in the very fabric of its being.
Once, this great wilderness was tree covered. Thousands of years of cutting, then burning and grazing have reduced the great and ancient forests to small, treasured remnants. But where peat is cut or where it has eroded naturally, remains of long vanished woodlands can be found: tree roots, trunks and branches, some still with axe marks. Scot’s pine and oak, roots embalmed and blackened, some millennia old, yield tales of ancient times and seem to sing mournful songs of their own, of loss and sadness, but also of remembered happiness, of stretching young limbs and leaves to primeval airs, and sunshine.
To look out across these boggy blankets, to carefully pick a path, and follow an animal trail between hummock and hollow, to squish across cushions of rubies, gold and bronze, is a time traveler’s step into the magic of myth and legend, and a storyteller’s stride into ancient songs and chronicles.
And what is loveliest of all? Oh the heady and soul-comforting scent of bog myrtle anointing everything. It fills the mind and body with a fragrance so redolent of opulence that it can only be matched by the gem studded, moss cushions of Sphagnum.
A peatland blanket, a carpet in Nature’s cathedral.