Winter darkness is always threaded with light

Winter still stretches out ahead in a long slow arc. Occasionally it feels like travelling on a motorway through a wet, dark night, headlights on full. Beyond the limits of pale beams nothing can be seen even though we know the asphalt carries on and on. It is wearisome, that kind of travelling. And at times deep winter is tiring; the lack of brightness makes eyelids droop. But, creep by slow creep, days are lengthening.

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From an upstairs north-facing window, on one day of fierce winds, I paused. Aha! Light: swimming across Lonemore in a tiger-stripe band of yellow against the wind-burned brown moor. Clouds were rushing in, bumping into one another and piling up, skyscraper-high. Sunlight broke through and poured lemon juice over Meall Imireach’s last remaining icing-white snows. Flash by stepping flash brightness flickered here and simmered there, and in a few minutes of watching, was chased away, again and again, by peach and lavender bands of cloud. There seemed to be the promise of warmth in one, ice in the other. But light is returning.

In the low light of midwinter it can be hard to see colour in the landscape. Before the stormy days last week the sea surface rippled gently like a Victorian ball gown. Among my tubes of paint I found one called ‘Davy’s Gray’, a greenish-grey with a mysterious name, perfect for a bolt of satin. The internet told me it is made from powdered slate, created for an artist who lived three centuries ago. There were other greys: ‘Cadet grey’ for the uniforms of the Confederate Army; the ‘Cinereous Grey’ of rock ash; ‘Battleship Grey’ to rustproof ships of war. I found (and loved) ‘Marengo Grey’, named for Napoleon’s famous war horse and the colour of wet asphalt, and I thought again about the long road of deep winter still to come.

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But this morning there was light on the hills in little glisters so blinding they made me blink and squint, and more blue in the curls of grey. I baked a cake the colour of rich bitter chocolate like deep bog peat and I remembered how, hand in hand with my mother, I would go out in the dark to see the moon. Years later, I did the same with my first born, singing a nursery rhyme about a man named Aiken Drum who lived on it, and then again and again with all four little ones.

There is no orange murk from street lights here, only small lights twinkling now and again from scattered croft houses. Walk away from the yellow warmth at my open door and to the croft fields and I am confronted at first by a solid wall of blackness. But a midwinter night has light threaded through it; it is never wholly pitch-dark. Even when stars are invisible behind a blanket of cloud water glows in spectral green. The sea is smeared with gentle bioflourescence as if phytoplankton, angler fish with their strange lamps, eels and glowing jellyfish have swum up from the deeps not knowing where the ocean ended and the sky began. And the Abhain Dearg becomes a mother-of-pearl ribbon-river decorating the deep dark velvet of winter whose nap is lustrous and heavy.

Now light comes earlier each morning and is washed away a few minutes later at day’s end. I can walk about torch-less at 4.30pm. Even on dreich days filled with smudges of rain and banks of sea mist, when sunlight cannot penetrate the thick, dense rolling pillows of greyness there is an earthly glow around us. The gleam of light is most profound and intense at the coast and comes from every bit of sand, rock, sea-weed, lichen, tree bark, waving grass and water. This earth-based light is rich and eye-watering and more than makes up for lack of yellow sunlight.

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Animals and birds reflect it too. Rock pipits hopping on the rocky shore or ringed plovers paddling and running up and down the sands are brighter somehow with flickers and flashes of feathers that seem more like war-paint. The old Shetland ponies look bright-eyed, their shaggy manes and tails appear groomed even when they are snagged with gorse or grass; white sheep seem newly bathed and doused in talcum powder, black sheep are buffed and shining with boot polish. Even the hooded crows, swooping slowly as they hunt appear dressed in fine dun Harris tweed waistcoats and capes of black twill. And dog, roaming the sands, glows like polished jet.

In the high mountains snow has come and gone several times in recent weeks. The peaks are grim and grey for now; their lower slopes glower in burnt umber and pale ochre where wind-burned heather and stunted clumps of tough grass wait for spring. Mountain hares, brightly white, must be struggling to hide from raptors on the snowless slopes and deer roam down among the crofts foraging and stripping bark from trees wherever they can. The Red River has over-topped its banks three times in as many weeks in rushing, sediment-filled foaming outbursts but there are fish in there: every so often in the darkening at day’s end a flicker of silver in the cola-coloured water betrays them.

And then there are the fish bones left by otter at the gatepost. My new neighbour has no problems poaching river trout or with the dark.

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About Annie O'G Worsley

I'm a mum of four, gran, writer, crofter & Professor of 'Environmental Change'. I now live on a small farm (known as a croft) by the sea in a place surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the Scottish NW Highlands. I was a full-time academic, a geographer, but I decided to go feral and follow my dream of living a smaller, simpler, wilder life. I have always loved wild places. As a child I was inspired by tales of Trader Horn (my great-great-great uncle Alfred Aloysius Smith) told to me by my mother. Trader Horn spent his life wandering, mostly in Africa. I too, love stravaiging (Gaelic for wandering) and spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea as a young researcher, living with tribes there. Although I spent years researching and teaching university students about environments, processes and habitats, I am discovering much, much more exploring the wilds around me. In moving away from scientific writing, I have rediscovered my wilder self and have a much deeper, truer understanding of nature than I ever had before. My work is published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place. I continue to write academic papers with my research colleagues but I am developing new skills including landscape photography and painting. And of course, I still love to wander.
This entry was posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, otters, river, sea, snow, storm, wilderness, wildlife, winter, winter weather and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Winter darkness is always threaded with light

  1. A Small Country Living says:

    [J+D] Fabulous writing. So evocative. This is why winter is good. Good for our bodies (rest) good for our souls (thought) good for creativity (time). This is why we need our winters!! Annie, thank you so much!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Pingback: Glowing dark and 50 shades of grey | A Small Country Living in the Outer Hebrides

  3. Sandra says:

    Stunning. And gratifying. One of the things I noticed when first wandering the lanes in our newly-adopted county was how the colours glow in dull light – something that had escaped my notice in more crowded places. You have captured it in a manner that is beyond me for now but we share a little of what is needed in order to appreciate such things – identified by Jonathan and Denise in their comment above… time. A beautiful piece of writing. Thank you 🙂

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  4. Beautiful. Thanks too to J&D for sharing. If it’s the same Abhain Dearg, I’ve blogged about it also (though the reference in that particular post was, less poetically, about calling in to the distillery before starting my day’s work). It’s great to picture where (I think) you are.

    I’m a migratory weaver, hugely inspired by Scottish and Hebridean landscapes, light, lifestyle and cloth, so your evocative desciption in a language akin to my own intrigues and enchants. (I also left academia for something wilder!)

    Perhaps our paths could cross on my next visit.

    Meantime warm greetings and thanks from SW Ireland.

    Eloïse

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Eloïse,
      Thank you for your very kind words.
      I live in a small crofting township called South Erradale which is just south of Gairloch on the coast of Wester Ross.
      The Abhain Dearg is much older name of the River Erradale that runs down from the Torridon mountains to the sea and through our croft fields. Is it the same river you know?

      It is a wild life here though yours sounds wilder. Just the phrase ‘migratory weaver’ is enchanting and fascinating!
      All the Celtic west coasts have extraordinary light and landscapes, myths and legends don’t they.
      I am originally an O’Garra, so a daughter of Ireland, and I hope you are enjoying your time there.

      Keep in touch!

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      • Hi again Annie, thanks, and forgive my delay. Well, no, I was thinking of the Red River on the Isle of Lewis, but now you say it I should have recognised your rocks: my aunt lived at Second Coast just east of Gairloch and loved it (she’s now further north). I guess you’re fairly near Melonudrigle (which I can’t remember how to spell). I thought O’Garra must be Irish. All amazing places, how lovely! Love to keep in touch. Eloïse

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  5. alisondunlop says:

    Beautiful and inspiring, as always, Annie!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. MrsB_inthehills says:

    Such beautiful, dreamy writing. Wonderful stuff, thank you

    Liked by 2 people

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