At last, after a very busy summer, tourist numbers are tailing off. The main beaches closer to Gairloch are still dimpled with people-trails but locally Opinan’s sands have been washed clear by showers, divots smoothed by the high tides. Now there is a line to mark the margin between land and sea; on one side the sand is patted and stippled by showers, on the other, wave-brushed to the smoothness of a plastered wall. Close to the sea-log-seat, for the first time in weeks, human footprints have been replaced by otter tracks and bird trails. This morning they were crisp and purposeful, cutting across the sands from the water’s edge to where small burns, swollen by recent rain, chivvy new gullies down through the dunes.
The weather has changed. Sunlight breathes with brightness still but is rinsed with henna, while patches of purple heather on surrounding hills are dusted in ground ginger. At times the air is so full of moisture the world appears faded and worn as if in an old sepia photograph, almost colourless yet with hints of yellow like drifting tobacco smoke.
Great showers pile in from the south-west, then north-west; winds shift in direction, back and forth; light spills out in great rivers or slips between sheets of cloud. One afternoon the sky seemed to toy with the sea and, for a few minutes, created a vista of such potency that I wished I had filmed it. Just one photograph captured a sliver of magic. From pale grey banks of cloud ‘God’s rays’ arrowed left and right but at the centre a thick, viscous light, shimmering and strong, flowed downwards like molten metal poured from a metallurgist’s crucible. The impression of decanting and spilling lasted some minutes and the sensation of motion was so powerful that I thought the sea would be entirely filled with liquid silver and palest gold.
Such high, broad, wide vistas, where sea and sky are inseparable even when distant horizons seems clear and well-defined, where atmosphere is never uncoupled from ocean, are why I love this place. To understand their communion, their common language, is almost impossible; the swiftness of their exchanges defeats me even as I listen and watch.
Horizons here are changeable, malleable and often nebulous, and not defined by sharp lines or stark angles. They are swirling, curling melees of interlocking shapes and shadows, at times vague and blurry, at others crisply pleated with the Outer Isles. And yet the overall effect is of gentle brush strokes that bleed watercolour paints from side to side along horizontal planes. (I wonder at times how important this broad laterality is to my sense of belonging.)
In late July I was in New York, my first visit to Manhattan, en route to a family wedding in Ohio, and we enjoyed a short time craning our necks to peer up at or lean out of the edges of tall buildings. The contrast to home was spectacular and exhilarating; the city bewitched us with its energy and vibrant colours. New York throbs with noise; it is growing and swelling with movement and energy and so it feels alive though not in an organic way like a mountain or forest. At street level the pinnacles and towers feel inhuman and unreceptive; from their heights the flow of traffic and people below are soundless and remote. The city was a film set, a computer game, a synthetic matrix of brick and glass, all vertical lines, sharp angles and strong shapes, and yet at its heart were the people we met, warm, generous and friendly.
From New York we hurried on to Ohio, to flatter landscapes, big skies and a panoply of greens. There the verdant semi-rural suburban landscapes are enriched further by dense pockets of woodland. Even in the gardens of our hosts there were so many tree species it was not difficult to imagine the old forests that would have covered great swathes of this part of America before the pioneer settlers came. I asked about the trees I could not identify; there are many more than in our small islands, over 100 species in Ohio alone, but the relative paucity here in the UK is to be expected. Post glacial spread of forest from continental Europe into Britain began only 11,000 years ago and when sea level rose to create our islands no further forest advance was possible. So tree-species diversity is much lower than continental-scale North America and Europe; Britain is, in biogeographical terms, relatively young. It was fascinating and a reminder of the richness of global forests and how precious our native British woodlands are.
And I loved the tree names; among the dozens of varieties of oak, willow, ash and pine were cottonwood, quaking aspen, sassafras, sweetgum, chinkepin-oak, ironwood, hackberry, buckeye, tamarack, hickory and loblolly-pine. I wanted to wander among them and feel their bark and learn more about their leaves, fruit, nuts and life cycles, and what creatures lived in the woods or on the trees, and what their Indian (Shawnee) names were.
From Ohio we travelled to the shores of Lake Michigan for a few days of rest. Here the woodlands felt more jumbled and complex, and less constrained by development in the pockets of wilderness of local state parks. There were beaches and footpaths that snaked and curled through woodland from Saugatuk on Lake Kalamazoo to the dune coast of the greater lake. Along the trail Monarch butterflies rested and caterpillars chomped on mayweed; there were giant ants and black squirrels, cardinal birds in crimson coats and strange voices in the deeper dark under the tree canopy.
At Michigan’s shore the woodland gave way to a wide, bright horizon; the lake itself was edged by frills of waves and broad swathes of fine, pale yellow sands or steep cliffed sand banks. The ‘Great Lake’ is enormous, more than 10,000km2 larger than the Irish Sea. Its expansive salt-less nature was difficult to grasp in spite of holiday-makers swimming and sun-bathing, paddling and eating ice-creams. Quite why it made me feel that way I could not begin to explain. And at Holland beach, the largest we visited, was a red lighthouse marking a waterway busy with boats of all shapes and sizes that dashed in and out from the open water. It reminded me of Amity in the film ‘Jaws’. And then I thought of Nantucket, Captain Ahab, Ishmael and Moby Dick and much larger deeper oceanic things.
Back home it took a while to disentangle thoughts and feelings from jet-lag. Our new American family were happy folk and full of love and the strong feelings of companionship have not dwindled with the passing days. But several times my dreams were of huge dark forests filled with crimson-coated fairies who led me down old Indian trails to talk to ancient trees about their lost kin in. Heading out after returning home I felt guilty among the trees in our own little patch of woodland, thinking about all the great individuals that must once have lived here.
But now the colours of autumn are threading through everything, along the shore, above and below water, in the fields and up on the hills. The green grasses of late summer are tipped with copper, and in between patches of still-purple heathers the slopes have been washed in bronze and gold. Yet the atmosphere is silvery, flushing with gentle light and warm winds. There are clouds of small birds roaming the humid air, they rise up here and descend there, picking at the fruits, seeds and insects.
Just now a horde of goldfinches landed all around me in the long grasses of our top field. They were like tattered flecks of Christmas wrapping paper, all shiny gold, silver and red and they clustered noisily, chattering away, their voices full of stippled and unreadable words, like the crowds on the streets of New York.