Shielding and shelter

There are wriggling tadpoles in small pools across the bog next to our croft but in the last few dry days water levels have dropped and their living spaces have shrunk. A rescue attempt will be made shortly, buckets and plastic bowls will do until the rains return and the pools are recharged. This often happens; sharp April showers interspersed with sharper drying under a bright, fierce spring sun. Shelter provided by the bog pools comes and goes; the lives of tadpoles are dependent upon the height of the water table in the bog and on the amount of rainfall. It might seem precarious but even after dry spells such as the current one, frogs and toads seem to flourish, sheltered and shielded by the living, breathing, functioning of the wild peat bog.

Where rain provides for some sunny dry weather delivers in other ways. There is one plant that thrives on wet ground yet in the warming air of this spring the scent of bog myrtle (Myrica gale) is released. The perfume is sensuous and spicy. Myrtle flowers open as bright orange stars on peatland still draped in the burnt umber of winter. But as the sun warms the surface of the bog perfume spreads out like butter on hot toast.

Myrica gale has a scent like no other. It has accompanied me through childhood and into my adult working life, is part of my ancient Irish heritage and a significant component of the remote landscapes I love so much. It gives me joy and comfort. Everywhere I go the scent-cells in my nose and throat test the air for its presence. A strange sense of belonging is held within its molecules; I feel at ‘home’ when its perfumes wrap around my body. And when I first smell it, I know winter is truly banished.

My bedroom window is open in the hope Myrica’s incense will infect my pandemic dreams and drive away subliminal aromas of hospitals and shake the notions of sheltering (hiding?) from Covid-19 out of my brain. (We have nursed so many of the older generation in recent years that the particular smells of hospital corridors, wards, hand sanitising and care homes are an uncomfortably strong dream memory.) And so I have picked a bunch of woody stems, each with a cascade of small buds and tentatively open flowers already shedding bright yellow pollen; even though the stems might be accompanied by an early rousing of midges, I’ve placed the little vase by my bedside.

The aroma is cathedral-scale frankincense. Once, long ago, in Notre Dame de Paris we opened the doors and stepped into the middle of high mass. The great windows drenched the congregation in rainbows, iridescent colours swirled about in the mist of incense. Strangely, although overawed like all visitors by the grand architecture, the singing and powerful rituals I was more overwhelmed by nostalgia; the coloured perfumes took me back to the rainbows and mists and thick scents of the wild peatlands I had explored as a child.

Here in Wester Ross the bog next to our home shows few signs of wakening apart from tadpoles in the pools and Myrica gale flowers but across the croft itself new green growth is piercing the thick bleached mats of old grass. Where the low riverside fields were cut for hay sunlight plays across the greening; it seems to thicken as I watch. There are worm casts everywhere; the subsurface faunal and fungal activity is now in full swing in the rapidly warming soil. And just now a lizard warmed himself in the sun no more than a footstep away.

Many of the dung piles left in situ over winter show signs of beetle busyness although a few small heaps are rain-bleached untouched and lifeless lumps. Prise the active heaps apart and in the slightly warmer granulated fine tilth there are worms, beetles and other insects, and new livid shoots of grass and herbs. They are small ‘shelter cities’ that have survived the direst cold and wettest floods and will go on to not only harbour new life but seed and enrich their surroundings.

Beyond the fields the sky is radiant. There are no contrails and now I wonder whether some of Scotland’s pastel-gauze skies were partly due to the sheer volume of trans-Atlantic flights passing over the Highlands. That there can be such deeply rich blues seems incredible: the deep turquoise of glacial ice and florescent blues of an iceberg’s subsea mass, the ‘irtyu’ of ancient Egypt, the lapis lazuli of Pharoahs’ masks, the blue faience of grave goods, blues that carry us through time and space into remote realms of myth and legend and our deepest past or remotest wildernesses. There were never such blues when I was growing up; my industrial hometown skies were murky with smokes and foul-smelling miasmas.

But this ultra-clear, ultra-blue sky of our pandemically confined world is even more remarkable. It shows us how very thin our precious atmosphere really is; when air pollution has sunk away, particulates from jet planes, traffic and industry have settled to the ground, what we see is the arching blueness of heaven, with the very same level of clarity that our forbears and remote ancestors would have seen. No wonder the Egyptian Pharaohs wanted to surround themselves in blue, wear adornments of lapis and turquoise and paint the insides of their tombs with deep star-studded navy and cobalt. Heaven is just there, almost within reach; the blues of shelter, shielding and sanctuary.

In this beautifully warm dry spell of spring weather the cuckoos have arrived home. They are over a week early. And skimming over the Red River, the first of the returning sand martins. This small remote small valley is shielded by a great arc of mountains to the north, east and south, and by the sea to the west. There is a mixture of rough grazing, hay meadows, woodland and scrub managed by crofters without pesticides and herbicides, little fertiliser apart from animal dung, seaweeds, organic mulches and the slow natural accumulation of organic matter. There are multiple habitats for a great range of birds and many of the smaller ones living here are ‘hosts’ to cuckoo young. Without these shielded semi-wilded natural habitats there would be no cuckoos in Erradale, they and other species are protected by both the remoteness of this place and by its geographical character and complex history.

The valley, mountains and sea are sheltering me too. With an official ‘shielded’ label I am supposed to stay within certain confines but I am incredibly lucky for ‘home’ has ample space for safe roaming. Just as the cuckoos find peace and space and succour and safety in this sparsely populated, semi-wilded place, so do I.

Beyond the mountain wall grief grows palpably; and here we too are acutely aware of the terrible losses. I yearn desperately for my children and grandchildren but know that for now they are safe. I find shielding, constancy and strength in the mountains and ancient rock, the sea brings me joy and lightness of heart, the skies gift me energy, and the winds bring stories and songs from far away and awaken memories of happy days before the Great Confinement. And when I weaken and falter, and I do, often, the scent of bog-myrtle swaddles me, a comfort blanket made of joy and peace.

Happy Earth Day.

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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2 Responses to Shielding and shelter

  1. I came across your beautiful writing recently while reading the “Seasons” books, and that led me to your blog. I just have to say how much I enjoy your observations, and how powerful and evocative your words are, especially in this hard and confined time. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Maggie, thank you. It means a lot to me. We are living in such dreadful times so if words and pictures from Highlands help just a little then I am very happy. I do hope you stay safe and well. Best wishes, Annie


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