Corncrakes and a sea swim

I was a lucky academic; some of my ‘in-the-field’ teaching and research took place in the Mediterranean, and long hot day of geo-fieldwork was often rewarded with a cool beer. Picture this: a glass, chilled for hours in a fridge and so impossibly thick with condensation that nothing could be seen inside it. Ah, the sweet, hard-earned bliss.

Yesterday, along our Wester Ross shore, was a chilled-glass sort of morning, coated with fine silver droplets. I could have been inside a misted up glass peering at the world outside. It felt as if nothing and no-one else existed and that Dram-the-dog and me were the only ones left alive. We walked through a space emptied of all sound and movement; nothing from the sea, nothing from bees, birds or sheep, or from the grasses and meadow flowers, and nothing from the usually noisy sands and gravels on the beach. Complete stillness.

We reached the sea-log-seat and sat, surrounded only by silence. We waited, watching. Dram-the-dog was alert. And then, from small hollows in the sands ringed plovers emerged and ran about. They piped and called out to the quiet, and were answered by other voices along the beach. As we watched they rose to fill the space with their songs. Our approaching rough and careless noise had perhaps discomforted them; we must have sounded so very LOUD in the fridge-chill mists of morning.

Back home and the seamless voiles and grey lace began to tatter. I could not feel a wind but I could see one, a grey and charcoal smudged-breeze above us. Dark shapes ran over the low hill by a friend’s house, as if ink had been splashed carelessly on a tablecloth. The contrast to our weeks and weeks of bright blue, yellow and green could not have been greater.

Since the middle of May our whole valley and surrounding mountains, the waters of the Minch and Inner Sound and the skies above have been fierce with colour, as thickly and richly laden with pigment as a painting by one of the grandchildren.

The summer nights have been swimming by, with waves of perfume rippling between our fingers. And occasionally, even when the light blue breezes faltered, the valley was so thick with scent it was quite impossible to breathe in air, we simply drowned in it. Each morning I have put on an overcoat made from volatile organic compounds exuded by pine and myrtle and other plants in the heat. As June ended even the moon found it difficult to rise up through the molecules of perfume; it lifted slowly in the east like a hot air balloon and settled into the west as a lone jellyfish in calm water.

As the hot spell of weather continued across the croft insects and birds clustered in patches of shade but in late evening and early morning, they rose together in clouds. Such dry heat and bright light drives off the midges, but they lurk in patches of cool shade, biding their time.

This year the unusually prolonged spell of warmth has brought horseflies (Tabanus bovinus) in huge numbers. They persecute the ponies and swoop down on me, finding bite-sites as fast as I can swat them away. On one hot afternoon I photographed an enormous insect, its body length about 4cm, almost as long and wide as my thumb. It flew noisily and landed on a large rock nearby. Later I asked ‘Twitter’ for help and a knowledgeable friend said “Tabanus sudeticus, the giant horsefly”, a species I had never seen before.  I react badly to bites and shuddered at the thought that such a creature might require my old woman’s blood, but the biting females are loud as they approach so with luck I will only have to put up with the less painful bites of the dun coloured common ‘clegs’.

Occasionally I was unable to sleep in the steamy white nights of the simmer dim. But one clear day ended in a fire and brimstone glower to the north and we walked out to sip the cool sweet air. To my amazement and great joy an unusual sound crept up from the meadows, wrapped in scent. It was a noise like finger nails scraping along the edge of a comb. And then there were replies, back and forth in the long grasses below us. Corncrakes! This was the first time I had heard their ‘singing’ and according to our neighbours they have not been seen or heard here in the Erradale valley for decades. But now they have returned, encouraged by the reduction in grazing intensity and different types of meadow management.

Despite the last few days of light mist and gentle showers the river is reduced to thin red strings of water that weave a complicated riddle through stones and boulders. The Red River waterfall, normally so full of swagger and laughter, has become a silvery squirm over rock steps running between enormous mounds of cemented rust, the great sandstone steps usually coverd by foaming cascades.

The ditches are bone-dry, bog pools crusted like burnt toast. Even the lower croft meadows seem parched but scrape away the crisped turf and there is moisture in the soil. More orchids have bloomed in the top paddock (the pàirce) and swaddled the steep embankment next to the garden. We have deliberately kept both parcels of ground free from grazers to give the orchids a chance to flower and set seed, and at last they have succeeded despite the ‘drought’. Some plants appear to thrive even in the dryness. In the vegetable-herb garden Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) has flourished despite our ardent weeding between the rows of beans. But it is beautiful plant with flowers that match our sunsets so I cannot pull them all out. And in the gravels of the garden paths tree seedlings have begun to sprout: birch, hazel, rowan, ash, willow and Scot’s pine. The gravels trap moisture and organic matter underneath providing an ideal tree nursery and one by one I am potting them up to grow on until they are ready to be planted out on the croft.

On the hottest days, we swam in the sea, slowly entering the turquoise water until accustomed to the cold. But the clegs pursued us even there and so I swam with a T-shirt, sun-hat and sunglasses like an old granny. Fish riddled by, flashing with silver-green and blue, and slowly the numbing cold was replaced by effervescing joy trilling up and down my body from toe to scalp. The whole effect was of champagne. I was a sunburned strawberry in a glass of bubbly.

Clear seawater played tricks with the sunlight. Waves created patches of stars and drew strange lines and curves below the surface. There were glimpses of other worlds, minute Saharan dune fields and sand-tornadoes. Beyond our turquoise swimming pool, the Inner Sound crackled with light. Instead of wave sound I was certain I could hear fireworks, the sound of sunshine striking the surface of the sea.

But now the crackling heat has cooled. For the first time in a few weeks there is a tangible darkening between midnight and two. We are speeding away from the summer solstice and the simmer dim is shrinking. But today a sweet salty breeze is running across the fields, tickling the old Shetland ponies into action. Greenery is furred with moisture and I can almost hear sap moving up stems and flushing through leaves as the living world is refreshed, just as I was in the clear blue waters of the Inner Sound.

 

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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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6 Responses to Corncrakes and a sea swim

  1. How wonderful to hear the corncrakes, especially when changes in land management have helped their return. Your story reminded me of Kathleen Jamie’s account of looking for corncrakes.
    How are the solitary bees doing?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. alisondunlop says:

    Wonderful, Annie! Back in a few days and missing it terribly, but you’ve given me a perfect ‘fix’!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post, thank you. (Beautiful photos too.)

    I’ve been following with interest the corncrake project on the Isle of Iona where I work every spring; delighted to pretty well guarantee hearing at least one or two every April; usually more.

    Liked by 1 person

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