Wild meetings and mirages

A heron-grey early dawn. Through my open window wet scented air slipped in. It smelled wonderful. After days of heat that has bleached bog mosses and sucked moisture from soil, the rain was very welcome. Scents slicked over my tongue like wine.

Overnight, low rolling clouds shed diffuse mist rather than heavy rain and predicted thunderstorms were vague beyond mountaintops. Our Red River is prone to flooding especially when downpours follow on from drought. Water levels can rise by more than two metres when burns and river meet to drain the hills; flood-waters often spill out across our fields before cascading down the narrow bottleneck that is the waterfall to the sea. Though when I check I can see no evidence of flood debris across the lower meadows.

But after fourteen hours of rain fields and machair have begun to surge with growth. At last, orchids are sending up flower spikes and there is such a promise of blooming colours threading though green turf that I make a note to myself to return later with a Flora and my lists from last year. On the horizon, compressed by bands of silver and pewter cloud, a narrow band of pale forget-me-not blue sky streaked with lemon light promises fair weather later.

Before the arrival of rain the whole week had been hot. Days ended in opaque sunsets filled with vibrant hues yet smudged and smeared with growing humidity and the promise of change. Colours bled into each other so that the evening skies seemed blurred like rainbows.

Mid-afternoon heat has been fierce, the air clotted with moisture. The fields have flickered with zephyrs and glinting steam. Across our valley competing cuckoos, subtly different in tone and musical note, have sung brightly though not in unison, resulting in joyful choruses of Andean pan pipes. And sky larks have filled the spaces above my head with garlands of continuous trilling.  Nearby bogland has shimmered strangely with motorway-tarmac heat-haze and wavering mirages: mounds of Sphagnum moss became desert dunes, peat cuttings were railway embankments, tufts of grasses ballroom dancers. But as I could hear curlews calling and breathe in incense of bog-myrtle, the mirages vaporised.

On the day before the predicted deluge, when forecasts had warned of flood risks, I pathered along the riverbank looking down at the shining crimson and vermillion stones as they were being washed by the shallow water. Shimmering, they were transformed into the scales of a snake curling through meadow grasses. As I walked, slowly because it was so hot, my mind emptied. Here the scent of dry, red earth was strong, even overwhelming the myrtle. A few metres from the eastern corner of the field I stopped and looked up. There, by the fence on the same narrow trail, stood a stag; he was staring directly at me. I wondered how long he had watched my slow, stuttering approach. I had been completely unaware of him. Dog was running around the field behind me chasing a scent. He too had not seen the stag so I guessed the beautiful creature must have been still and vigilant for many minutes. I continued to step forwards, very slowly, all the time holding his gaze. When I was a few metres away I stopped again.

Deer don’t normally come down onto the crofts in late spring and summer, and especially not during the warmest times of day; they tend to come raiding in the cool of late evening, during the night or before dawn. So I was surprised to see the stag and his unusual behaviour and calm demeanour. For some time neither of us moved, our eyes locked. I wondered what he was thinking or feeling. I was downwind of him so he probably could not smell my sun cream or sweat. I have often heard their eyes described as ‘limpid pools’ but in those minutes I thought they looked like polished stones. Years ago, in New Guinea, I was given two stone axe heads. One had been dug up from a swamp by an archaeologist I worked with and was more than 12,000 years old; the other was newly made ready to be fitted into a wooden handle. Both were created from obsidian, each with resonating streaks of deep red and green. They were highly polished and lustrous and shone with life; they were a precious gift, given by ‘Stone Age’ people who had great skill and craft. The axe heads seemed to be imbued with the power of volcanoes and tribal ritual, and on that hot afternoon in our field I felt the same essence of life and power in the eyes of the stag.

Since coming to live here I have had several encounters with creatures whose lives mostly pass beyond reach, hidden from view, although we know they are there in the wilderness. I have been most affected by meetings with larger animals though I am no less interested in or excited by the smallest. But true encounters when some sort of exchange takes place, where the wild creature has needed immense strength and courage to make a gesture of recognition (a stare, a pace forward, a swoop over my head), and knowing instinctively that humans can mean danger, are exhilarating and life affirming, and deeply intimate. They remind me, weak modern human that I am, of the remote and implacable wilds.

The following morning we were late to the shore. It was very warm again. Skye and sea and sky were cobalt blue and radiant yet I could not see the Outer Hebrides. There was a salted heaviness in the air. In the calm slick waters a hundred or more seabirds floated; they were picking casually at tiny debris refloated by high tide and ignored us as we walked past.

On the beach we met with lovely people we have slowly come to know, learning a little more of their lives with each visit. We watched as their small dog, Corrie, swam gamely after her red ball. Other new friends arrived, making the most of the delicious warm balm of morning with their dog, Diggery. He seemed to prefer stones and he danced about in the red sands barking at them. Dog was torn between ball and stones, between Corrie and Diggery.

The human conversation was happy and carefree, just like the day. We stood by the otter-watch beach-seat and I laughed and told tales of dark winter storms when no voices can be heard above the shrieking winds and it is hard to stand up straight. But we all enjoyed the softness of the scented air and the mutual unspoken acknowledgement that we have, in that space, a shared peace that nothing can disturb.

I returned to the same spot yesterday evening. Dog and me had the beach to ourselves apart from clans of dunlin and sanderlings, two curlews and a pair of ringed plovers. The light was pearlescent and opaque.

The beach sands were dimpled and puckered by the passage of many feet and decorated with scraps of crisping seaweeds, shells and small stones. They still held the remnants of yesterday’s meetings and doggy-diggings. Among the divots, and criss-crossing over our human footprints, were deer and otter tracks. At some point they must have passed by this corner of the beach and perhaps as they paused to take in the sea view, they had caught remnant scents of humans and dogs, and had hurried on.

Sitting with Dog at my feet I watched the plovers run back and forth, their orange legs blurring, their voices gently piping, adding their delicate footprints to the jumble of others. They did not seem alarmed by our presence at all. As the sun continued to sink the sands began to turn from ash blonde to ochre and dun, the colours of a lioness. One of the plovers paused, and for fleeting moment caught my eye just as the stag had done, before disappearing between two large stones at the back of the beach just a few feet away from us.

Then I spotted, secreted safely in a sandy hollow, three newly hatched chicks, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of having been allowed inside their space.

In a week when grief and horror came calling, meeting the stag reminded me of many things: the wonders of the natural world, New Guinea, wilderness, wild creatures, and how we interact with them. And now these tiny new lives filled me with renewed hope and joy; here they were, surviving on a small beach that for a short while had been busy with visitors, dogs and activity, while we for the most part did not know we had come so close to the wild.

Overhead the sky began to fill with rainbow-colours; a waxing crescent moon sparkled and the ringed plovers called out in farewell as Dog and I headed for home.

About Annie O'Garra Worsley

Hello there. I'm a mother, grandmother, writer, crofter & Professor of Physical Geography specialising in ‘environmental change'. I live on a smallholding known as a 'croft'. The croft is close to the sea and surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the NW Highlands. I was a fulltime mother, then a full-time academic living and working in north-west England. In 2013 we decided to try and live a smaller, simpler, wilder life in the remote mountain and coastal landscapes of Wester Ross. When I was a young researcher, I spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea living with indigenous communities there. They taught me about the interconnectedness and sacredness of the living world. After having my four children I worked in universities continuing my research and teaching students about environments, landform processes and landscape change. Eventually, after 12 years, I moved away from the rigours of scientific writing, rediscovered my wilder self and turned to nature non-fiction writing. My work has been published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I have essays in several editions of the highly acclaimed journal ‘Elementum’, each one partnered with artworks by contemporary artists. I also still work with former colleagues and publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place which will be published by Harper Collins.
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3 Responses to Wild meetings and mirages

  1. So lovely, Annie. Thank you. Just now I’m indoors, so this has been a tiny bit of very helpful Nature inspiration to tide me over til I’m outside in the greening. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gail says:

    My goodness, the colours are simply glorious.


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