Outside the wind is blowing fierce and cold, sweeping thick greyness across the Minch to hurl icy showers hard against the windows.
The mountains are snow-clad and the Red River has over-topped its banks. A new burn has appeared where flood waters have chosen to ignore the ditches, dancing across the fields to join the river.
It is a wild day, a “nearly winter” day. Autumn is being quickly ushered out on the coat-tails of Atlantic storms which have no concern for the last golden leaf, the meadow birds or writer’s fingers. But they do bring the word ‘wild’ to mind.
In print and social media ‘wild’ is used daily and in many different ways. At the same time reconnecting with nature is seen as important, necessary even, for physical and mental health and well-being. Experts also describe children as having more problems because they are so connected to built and electronic worlds at the expense of the natural. “Go wild” they say. And now a fierce debate on the economic value of nature has begun with big hitters firing loud opening salvos.
But amidst the soup of opinion the meanings of many words associated with nature (wild, wildlife and wilderness) become confused. And, I must confess, much of this muddled usage mirrors my own. How easy it is to say we love the wild when we do not really think about what it means. After all, there is little true wilderness, lands untouched by people, left in Britain. How many millions head for the hills to walk and climb believing that they are participating in a real encounter with wilderness? How many, professing to love nature, support wildlife charities, walk the moors and woodlands or run the fells, are unsure or uneasy with the new concept of ‘rewilding’? I do it myself. I look out at the magnificent Torridon mountains and this landscape with little sign of human activity and call it wild. Point me to these hills and I’ll quickly call it all wilderness. But then I stop and think and see the whole vista as something else entirely. Beautiful, yes. Breathtaking, yes. Awe-inspiring, yes. A true wilderness?
I wrote briefly some time ago about finding and experiencing true wilderness, or at least a brief brush with what is the real essence of wildness for me (https://notesfromasmallcroftbythesea.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/an-easter-pausing-and-springs-arrival/).
I am still of the same mind today: true wilderness is only found here and there and when you come into contact with it the wild feels dangerous, other worldly, visceral and difficult to explain. For me it is a sensation that makes the mind and body tingle as nerve endings vibrate in resonance with what seems to be altogether ‘other’ senses. Spiritual? I don’t know. Some may call it that. And yet for me it feels feral, a definite physical response to the deepest recognition from within myself, perhaps even at the cellular level, that one is in the wild, or has had a close encounter.
I first met with this deep sense of the wild as a child on family holidays to Borth in mid-Wales. As soon as we could, usually on our first evening after a very long car journey, my mother would take us on a walk while my father returned home to pick up my grandparents. Surprisingly, this pather was not across the road to the beach but a long circular walk into the open countryside behind the village. I need to say for those who don’t know, Borth was then a single narrow street of houses built upon a huge shingle spit with the beach sands and waters of Cardigan Bay to the West and the enormous, wild raised-bog land of Cors Fochno to the east, all surrounded by the hills of Ceredigion. Our first evening foray would take us behind the houses, across the railway running from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth and over a field or two to an old church. Built on a small rocky knoll, it seemed to float like a little ship above grassy waves. From the church the path then caught up with the banks of the River Leri and led us along ancient levees further and further away from houses and fields and closer to the bog. Some of the excitement and mystery of course came from mother’s tales of the ancients, heroes of the Mabinogion, drowned landscapes and stories of folk who had vanished on Cors Fochno attempting to find a way to cross it. Tall tales or not, the feelings of excitement also grew as we walked deeper and deeper into the tall reeds and grasses that grew alongside the river. There always came a point when the rooftops of Borth became so small they looked like a row of dolls houses. Then, smaller still, like a row of teeth in an ancient lower jaw bone. At some point there was a transition, like a niggle of disquiet, as if I had stepped through an invisible doorway into another world. All sounds of the sea or cars on the road or even the infrequent trains on the track slipped away. Occasional birdsong rose up from the reeds. Now and then the river itself gurgled and chattered though mostly its deep-brown peaty water slipped quietly past, like a russet shiny-silk ribbon silently wavering and undulating. As we explored, looking at the wild flowers and grasses, or the occasional beetle that crossed the path, or watched the shimmering dragonflies as they skipped about, the sensation of change or otherness would grow. The dome of the bog came closer and closer. I remember a strong feeling would grow: that if we went on we would not be able to return to the real world of holiday on the sands, buckets and spades, donkey rides and ice cream. The world had changed for me, spinning on its axis, so that if I looked at the distant village it was like a reflection in a mirror or a glimpse of outside space through the stained glass window of a chapel. As the noise from Borth vanished, some sounds were enhanced: the tick-tocking of touching reed stems, the shushing of grasses, the crackle of insect wings. Other senses too were enhanced: I could smell the rising scent of bog myrtle and earth, see the flashes of sun between the flower spikes of rush and reed, and taste the sweetness of the air itself. Time slowed. That to me, all those years ago, was my ‘wild’. My invisible safety rope to ordinary life severed in spite of the presence of my mother and my sister, releasing instincts so utterly different that I became part of the wild itself. Or so it seemed to me then, and is to this day whenever the wild comes brushing past: the tingle, the anticipation, the recognition, the stepping through…
I look for that same sensation of wild now, decades on, and find it still, often in unexpected and surprising places. Occasionally it comes on mountain tops or remote valleys. Mostly it arrives on the back of a gale accompanied by singing waves on a stretch of coast, or in a woodland of whispering, ancient trees, and of course, time and time again on a remote peat bog. Pathless places, some small, some great, where the remnant vestiges of human life cannot be seen.
But sometimes, even on a familiar path, the wild comes to you. And over the last week or two, amidst the storm winds and thrashing waves which have tossed beach boulders hither and thither, torn branches from trees and flattened fences, the reminders of wilderness and of a raw and brutal ‘wild’ have been have been thrust vividly under my nose.
A sheep, a seal and a porpoise. All three met their ends somehow in the narrow coastal zone of steep heathered cliff, lichen covered rocks and thrashing, foamy seas and came to rest on our shore, close to the now very familiar path to the beach, to lie among the shining boulders and cobbles, sea wrack, kelp, flotsam and jetsam. First the sheep: an old ewe I think, ear tags long lost, coat bedraggled and grey, her old hooves distorted from years of rock scrambling and soaking. Then came a young seal and lastly a porpoise, also a juvenile. Each one a reminder of how fragile life is in the wild, how vicious existence can be in the raw elemental places of the world. Gradually though, like an offering from one species to another, or one part of the wilderness to another, each was consumed in a frenzy of feeding until only wool or bones or teeth remained.
Every time I passed the carcasses the recognisable forms had diminished, until at last, one by one, they were subsumed back into the wild, either as pieces gathered and reclaimed by the sea, swallowed by the stones and sands, or absorbed by those needing calories. What creature, in the cold winds and ice, would turn down such offerings? But the appearance of death along the shore did not give me the frisson of ‘wild’ as I had experienced it as a child nor as I have described it since. The wild came in the form of a sea eagle, and the ensuing quasi-ritual of hierarchical banqueting etiquette.
On one of our early morning traipses down from the croft to the shore, dog and me spotted a spiraling vortex of birds of many kinds: black-backed, herring and common gulls, a horde of hooded crows, several buzzards flying higher than the rest, all shouting and shrieking. I immediately thought it must be the breakfast kerfuffle over one of the carcasses and I was right. I stopped and then crouched low, slowly making my way down the little cliff with my dog close to my bent knees and stooping back. He knew this strange business required as much stealth as we could both manage. Suddenly, as I neared the edge of the machair where the grasses meet the beach cobbles, up from the sheep carcass ahead of me rose an enormous bird. With a powerful whoosh of feathers a sea eagle swept over my head making us both drop down lower, me onto my hands and knees, dog flat on his belly, eyes wide open in shock, both of us surprised at the strong gust of air from his wings. With utter disdain the magnificent creature rose up over the cliff and away. Immediately, a cacophony began as other birds, many seeming almost as large as the eagle to my startled mind, began to fight over who should next feed on the remains.
Later, there was no sign of any bird, all was calm, the body considerably reduced, rib cage visible, skull sockets empty, teeth gum-less. All around the carcass the boulders and cobbles were painted with droppings, white splashes cast about in a large circle whose diameter was at least two metres. It was like a strange piece of abstract art. As the sea eagle fed, other birds had waited, their impatience and anxiety left behind in the form of white daubs and splatters, while overhead others, more nervous perhaps, screeched. Now the sheep’s remains, with its ring of graffiti, looked more like the shrine of a saint whose carefully placed and reverential votive church candles had splashed their pallid molten-wax hither and thither.
I felt the wild again that day. I saw the urgent need driving the living to feed on the dead. When I had dropped down, kneeling, so humbled by the scornful disregard in the eagle’s eye and in his thrusting wings, every cell and nerve ending had jingled, just as they had when I was a small child on the edge of Cors Fochno half a century ago.