The tumbling of summer and midge mayhem

The recent spell of weather was unusual and impressive: four weeks without rain, four weeks of bright clear skies and sunshine, and four weeks of heat, real Mediterranean-style heat. Warm air whispered of far-away places while slow moving currents scribed curlicues of azure-blue on seas of moonstone and chalcedony. In the long still evenings rooibos tea poured out of the sky-dome and filled up the Inner Sound. It has been so quiet in recent weeks, both Inner Sound and Minches have been breathless and blue, while the hills and croft meadows crisped and curled, and footpaths turned to dust.

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P1010094We are just days from the summer solstice so the dawn pipers call us into wakefulness before 3am.  June days end slowly and late, in a long quiet glide of insect sparkle and batwings and the rich perfumes of peat bog and meadow. Heated myrtle zest and pine resin give way to the syrup of warm soil as the last lingering sun-glow vanishes around ten thirty, firstly in a seam of turmeric, then in smears of celeste and zaffre. But eventually even these colours dissipate, yet the sky shines as if layered with chrome and pewter. It is now possible to walk without a torch even after midnight, and it feels like a walk through ghosts that are cool and solid.

 

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For a time I thought the heat would stay even longer. But overnight summer was scrunched into a crumpled ball of tissue paper by an unseasonal early storm. ‘Hector’ rolled in and now every hollow is filled with water and the fields are steaming. For a time my world constricted and I could not see the hills for the furiously running bands of rain though I could still hear the salt-crusted voices of the sea. The rough weather ran in from the south-west overnight and by morning the old Shetland ponies looked bedraggled and surprised as I struggled with unruly buckets in the gusts. Cindy gave me a hard stare. She seemed to be blaming me for her disturbed night and storm-soaking. There is plenty of grass but because the ponies are so old they need some extra vitamins and nutrients. They have their summer coats now but after a prolonged soaking and partial blow-dry their body-hair was crimped, like a certain brand of crisps, and their manes had expanded into thick fluff.

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Here in the North-West deeper ground retains a lot of moisture even in summer heat so shrubs and trees have flowered profusely in the hot weather. But during the storm the air surrounding the house and garden was a maelstrom filled with unexpected debris and surfed by birds. Swallows and sand martins pierced the waves of turbulence. All around the croft cascades of bright yellow broom blossom mingled with shreds of pine needles. Gusts tore at our hedges, trees and long grasses and ripped insects from their leafy moorings. The mayhem and chaos released a deluge of warmth and moisture filled with the thick aromas of wet earth and plant juice.

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I have been worrying about the state of things, about what is happening in the natural world. Reports from across the country and further afield note and lament declining numbers of insects and birds. And this spring and summer certainly feel different, as if some unnameable thing has come to pass, though I cannot identify what it is. I am no natural historian; I do know about geo-stuff and how landscapes form and function and new skills are slowly being absorbed, but this talk of insect population crashes and missing swallows, swifts and sea-birds is disturbing. All through the gloriously sunny weather, as family and friends have come and gone, I have watched the shore and our croft fields. There has been a noticeable lack of birds, particularly sea-birds. We have seen occasional gannets diving and the low level fly-pasts of shags and cormorants. And yes, there are oystercatchers, dunlin, common sandpipers and ringed plovers, but their numbers are low. I have counted six bonxies skimming along the coast one after the other and hooded crows in noisy clusters on the low cliffs. But in the skies above the croft there are very few swallows. None are nesting in our old byre (it has more than a dozen cupped nests, still waiting) though one pair fly in and out all the time so I am still hopeful. Other meadow birds seem to be fine: sand martins are plentiful, and pipits, skylarks and willow warblers, together with the usual garden birds, are in full voice, and boisterous. On one hot afternoon a sea eagle flew overhead, as if slowly swimming through the syrup-thick air, his beak and feet as yellow as the meadow buttercups, his tail as white as the moon. The air was so congealed with the scent of bog myrtle that I wondered if he was floating on an invisible blanket of perfume rather than heat.

P1000595I do not know what is causing some species to suffer while others muddle on. Bees here are abundant; crane flies, dragon flies and myriad small flies dance over the meadow grasses and garden flowers. In the ‘top field’ embankment, dust-dry over the last few weeks, are thousands of small holes that housed solitary bees. I have counted more this year than ever before. So here, at least, the problem is not a lack of insects. On the same bank, normally covered with orchids by the end of May, the turf was thin and bone-dry but the heavy storm rains have brought a sudden orchid blooming.

The storm caused damage down at the local beach. Yesterday morning I went down the cliff as usual with Dram (our dog) and as we approached the shore I could see several gulls and oystercatchers sheltering by the sea-log-seat. Overnight the high tide coincided with the strongest north-westerlies and left piles of debris along the sands. Ringed plovers had been nesting in their favourite spots but the storm-assisted tide had wreaked havoc. One nest with eggs was completely buried by sands and gravels, another with hatchlings washed away. Two plover parents looked war-weary and bedraggled yet they seemed happy to allow dog and me to sit close by and watch as they preened. Other parents were luckier: oystercatchers and common sandpipers, though also ruffled by the gales, have nested where there is more protection from the highest waves and strongest gusts.

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The losses due to wild weather though sad are somehow more palatable than those caused by simple human carelessness or callousness. And yet, such unusual weather systems may be a sign of greater changes in the atmosphere and oceans caused by our collective activity at the global scale. The feeling that whole earth systems are shifting and becoming relatively unbalanced is hard to ignore and I feel a rising internal anger at so many implacable denials that trouble has begun to arrive at our doorsteps.

The showery weather has lingered and I have not heard the cuckoos for a few days. They seem to have left us a little earlier than last year. But as the sun breaks through the clouds I can see swallows skimming the fields as insects begin to rise. There are ripples of light filling the air over Skye and it is impossible to tell whether they are rain showers lit from behind or beams of sunlight cast downwards through a cuckoo-coloured cloud-duvet. More showers are raking the Shiant islands while behind them Harris is splashed with cream light. I can imagine the noise of bees in the machair and the warm air there, while the cliffs of the Shiants are washed by sea-bird tears.

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On this side of the green-blue Minch fields are accessorized with small pom-poms of bright white cotton grass. They wobble and bobble in the stiff breeze and the effect is of an old cushion so worn that the stuffing is coming out between the threads of green and yellow. I once filled a small vase with a bunch of ‘cottons’. They lasted for weeks but one day a throng of midges emerged; what signalled to them to leave the soft protection of cotton I will never know but it rates alongside my blooms of midge-laden bog myrtle as one of my less sensible attempts to prettify the house.

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Of course, this is the Highlands, and the heavy rain brought by Storm Hector has encouraged an earlier-than-usual explosion of midges. Wind is their only enemy when we are beset by cloud. And so a salt breeze, while it flicks broom blossoms about, flattens my young bean shoots and forces the bog cotton grasses to dance, will carry off the blood-sucking wee beasties.

They are the price to be paid for being able to sup the deliciously perfumed and pristine air that wafts up from the sea and across the bog, and for living inside this wild and wonderful place.

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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.
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