Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Scotland’

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Strathyre Forest, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland, September 2019

I’m in Strathyre Forest, a Forestry Scotland plantation in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The view of Loch Lubnaig comes and goes as the mist travels between the hills with the cars, lorries and motorbikes along the road down below. I’m sitting on a lump of rock, surrounded by the dead trunks of spruce trees, their successors rising below at their rotting toes. Around old spruce stumps felled by foresters, heather grows and flowers. Birch saplings and rosebay willowherb enjoy this pause in the blanket of monolithic trees.

Looking up for a moment, I’m given a shock by the sudden appearance of the loch and the surrounding hills. The mist has cleared and the shape of the loch’s marshy edges, fringed by the Lego shapes of a caravan park, where the river winds its way in, has appeared. A single spruce stands broken and dead, a mast of decay over Strathyre. A bird flies up, gradually picking a spot to perch on. It sits on the top branch and calls out.

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On the slow and drizzly ascent up to this point, I’ve spent most time on ground level photographing mushrooms. Under the dark monoculture of spruce red russulas are fruiting in profusion. I take photos using the camera’s timer so need to be really still so as not to disturb the camera, otherwise the picture will blur.

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The details are very fine and sometimes the focus is on a very small thing. This means stillness for me.

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My stillness meant birds flocking nearby came very close: goldcrests in their tens, with one within reach of my hand, then a young robin in a half-youth, half-adult plumage.

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It flew right at me and swooped away to land on a branch. It followed me back out onto the track and, perhaps, led me to a the biggest Boletus edulis I have seen. ‘Stick with me,’ I said, ‘and you’ll see mushrooms.’ I didn’t see the robin again after that.

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Away from the dark stands of plantations mosses, lichens and smaller mushrooms flourished at the buttresses of huge spruce and pine trees. One of the largest fly agarics I have ever seen opened like an upturned umbrella amidst its little brothers and sisters. There was light and life here that the close stocking together of trees does not allow.

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There I found lots of small mushrooms like deceivers, webcaps and plenty of others like milkcaps and lots of boletes sodden by days of rain. They reflect the attitude of a woman I heard in the pub last night as she discussed the wet forecast over the coming days. She would still be going out and enjoying her holiday. ‘It’s just water,’ she said.

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Galloway

Galloway, Scotland

John Keats (1795-1821) died aged 25 thinking himself a failed poet. Today he is revered as a great. I mine his poems for evocations of nature, the nightingales, the bees ‘bustling down in the bluebells’, and his recurring musk rose. For these moments, from a wet and gloomy winter, I find great pleasure in peering back 200 years to Keats’s descriptions of a London that had not yet swallowed Hampstead entirely, or my borough, the 800-year-old parish of Lewisham. In Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, he describes much of what makes birdsong a cure for human pains, the continuity of wildlife and nature gives us a place in the world, for we are not the first to hear a blackbird, song thrush or nightingale sing, nor will we be the last:

Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown (p. 220[i])

Birds do not discriminate against any audience, their songs can be heard by any person who happens to be passing, be it the song of a robin singing at midnight in central London or a nightingale firing in the morning from a blackthorn hedge in a Dorset field. And perhaps real nature conservation has this at its heart, though often unsaid from a fear of sounding eccentric or elitist. Nature is vital to humanity in many ways, humanity is inseparable from nature, but in dealing with dissonance and social discord brought about by contemporary austerity and financial inequality, its inclusiveness is what makes it most relevant to us living in the 21st century. The song of the blackbird can be heard by anyone who might happen to hear it, more so if conservation is supported by communities and authorities.

Loch Trool

Loch Trool, Galloway Forest Park, Scotland

On a recent visit to Dumfries and Galloway in south-western Scotland I brought Andrew Motion’s hefty biography of Keats with me. It appears more and more that it is not so much Keats’ poems I like the most, but the many aspects of his story, which poetry seems such a big part of. He lived a very short and full life, his published poems barracked by what we might today equate with critics or journalists of the propagandist right’s ilk. And many people thought that he had died from the heavy blows of his critics. Motion points to his wildly ambitious walking tour of Scotland and Ireland, arguing that it was the conditions a weary and exhausted Keats experienced on the Isle of Mull that began his descent into critical illness. Keats had embarked on a mission to collect experiences to influence his writing, and he was astounded by Scotland’s sublime mountains and wild landscapes. He ‘forgot himself’ and found that nature took away all resentment he might have for other people, or his critics, at that time:

The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s own fellows. […] these scenes make man appear little. I never forgot my stature so completely – I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. (p. 269)

Keats has been knocked down by nature’s visual power and, eventually, by its impacts on his body. He cracks open the heart of the genre of nature writing. Surely the whole point of casting nature as the central theme in anything is so that ‘these scenes make man appear little.’ In the face of the sublime image of Scottish mountains, human problems are made to feel minute. It’s the same feeling people experience today in British woods, on those same Scottish mountains and by the sea. Surely if Keats were alive today his thoughts might have turned to conservation of larger landscape areas – in the same way that his biographer, Andrew Motion, once Poet Laureate, now works for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, defending National Parks from a development lobby which seems to hold sway with government. National Parks are an idea created by John Muir, the Scottish adventurer who helped to found Yosemite National Park with his grand and flawed ideas of wilderness. In Scotland, protected landscape areas such as the Trossachs National Park, Cairngorms National Park and Galloway Forest Park are key to preserving the impact of those places on the human mind, at the same time protecting their prehistoric ecosystems and wildlife. A National Park or protected landscape area is an admission or celebration of the fact that nature can show us how small we really are. For John Keats and visitors to mountains today, if underestimated or not treated with respect these landscapes and their conditions can kill.

[i] The Complete Poems of John Keats, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2001

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Sika deer

Newton Stewart, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A lady with a crutch and white hair slipping from a woollen hat stops me in the road. She saw me photographing the upturned soil and root plate of a gigantic spruce. Her accent suggests she has moved here from England:

‘I’ve seen about half a dozen deer in the woods just up there,’ she says. ‘If you’re quiet you might see them.’

I thank her and take my camera from the bag, pulling my hood up to shade out my face. The day is bright, sunny and warm. Beyond the dry stone wall the woodland begins, a line of evergreens creating a dense bank of shade along the wall, before the characteristically decrepit and mossy trees of an old Scotch wood. I look into shadows and see that a deer is watching me. It’s a sika deer, the first one I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem frightened. It turns to me, then away again, grazing behind the line of dark trees. I follow it along, it doesn’t gallop or run. Its path leads me to two more animals, one of them a stag, new antlers primitive but still impressive. It stares at me behind the wall – there’s a good twenty-metres between us. I’ve been photographing them the entire time. I think back to the venison sausages I had at the Galloway Arms, the conversation I had with the bar man:

‘Everyone thinks they’re all cute and cuddly, like Bambi,’ he’d said. ‘No one wants to kill them.’

‘But not everyone knows what they do to woodlands,’ I’d said, thinking aloud.

‘Well, exactly!’ he’d affirmed in his thick Scotch accent.

I know their numbers are at their highest in the United Kingdom since the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago (so are ours, by the way). I know the link between the nightingale’s sudden decline in England and deer overgrazing woods, not that the nightingale makes it up here to Scotland. But I could not kill one of these animals. I’d rather leave that to the lynx, or even the wolf. I put my camera away and make my way along the empty road.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Cairnsmore of Fleet

Cairnsmore of Fleet, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A wading bird bursts from the bog. I watch its sharp wings cut into the wall of mist and descending treeline. I put my binoculars to my eyes and the bird is lost. The world has been reduced. All terrestrial life but for water, a few lichens, heather and wintry moor grasses has escaped. I have left behind oak woods overcome by rhododendron and cherry laurel, and Cairnsmore Burn choked by the former, its water crashing from the shadows. It was not right. Snowdrops still managed to create small rugs of white flowers and winter green leaves. Bluebells peeked through the leaf litter amongst them. Behold the denizens of Galloway’s oldest woods. Up here those are images in the mind. The life in the lap of the Cree estuary – the buses, postman, trees and gentle flowering plants are mere memory. The cover of Glenure Forest’s regimental spruce is the last notion of protection. It’s now up to willpower, my body and clothing. The path leads clear from 20 metres, visibility coming and going with cloud.

Snowdrops

I climb over a wooden ladder and the landscape ascends suddenly from 400m towards the 711 that marks Cairnsmore of Fleet’s summit. I have not seen a single person since snowdrops. Why would anyone want to be here? I come for the brutal solitude, even if I wanted to see another person I couldn’t. I come because I know that people once had no choice but to walk this path, a path that zigzags and climbs, an uncomfortable choice of jutting rock or slippery grasses. I attempt to find a rhythm on stone. The path curves east and the winds propel me on. I see boulders and mistake them for cairns – this is not the summit. My thighs are soaked, woollen gloves, too. I took my jumper off some miles back and now need it. It’s sodden and looped around the strap of my bag. The winds are harder, colder and the rain splatters against me. What the guidebook called a nice introduction to Galloway’s hiker’s paradise has the makings of a minor ordeal. Water streams down the rocky path as I step up and through it. The music of the running water cuts through the wind, it’s almost all I hear, but for my own mutterings. I can say what I want now, no one can hear me. There will be no repercussions. I cherish that.

Cree estuary

The false sense of the summit has given me energy. I’m so hungry. I begin to see my breakfast as vital, I value it differently, as something I was fortunate to have. I see the first cairn of the summit approach and slump down behind it onto wet stone, moss and crustose lichens, barely protected from the gelid gusts. I push some cheese into a crusty bread roll and swallow it. I feel the onset, the flickering of panic. The wind and rain has thrashed me, and I didn’t realise it had or that it might. Visibility is now down to 10m, I put my gloves back on, the cold hammering without, almost burning. I think of real mountains and feel stupid. Hills aren’t to be taken for granted, either. My glasses are blotted by rain on both sides, I recall my friend’s maxim that the descent is worse than the climb. There is no notion of friendship here. The supposedly fine views of the estuary are not on my mind just now. I tread blindly back the way I came, finally removing my glasses. The path of rock, the fog, the bog, it’s all clear. There is no need for detail. I tread in hope and long to see the cloud drift and for the undetectable sound of the wind dropping. The spruce trees appear again, black and warming, even a glimpse of the Cree. From the bog two grouse explode into the air and I leap in surprise. It’s the start of a world I can live with.

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A layer of snow

Carrbridge, The Cairngorms, Scotland, October 2013

Arriving in the fields, the lichen frosted pinewood in our wake, I admire an old alder tree coppiced and growing by a brook. The landscape unfolds, the Cairngorms rising in the east, fringed in all corners by the yellow of birch leaves. We look to the hill where we had observed this scene only two hours ago, from a spot where a sheep skull hung from a piece of standing wood. We follow the River Dulnain as it runs east, the sound of traffic returning along the A-road. A buzzard floats over a line of trees, calling out, the sound severing the reminder of motor vehicles. We egg it on – ‘go on, my son!’ – and approaching a small farmstead we find a rabbit freshly mutilated, its neck bone protruding, eyes gone. Was this the buzzard’s work, or perhaps a mustelid. We cross a tributary of the Dulnain and a goosander bursts from underneath the footbridge. This saw-billed creature is one I had never seen before now. It steers itself upstream into the dusky light reflected by the water. We continue past a dilapidated cottage and fiery beech tree, watching as sheep leap and bounce away from a row of cabbages they had been eating in a neighbouring field. We meet the main road and wait patiently for our chance. Having crossed, we train our binoculars on the summit of Cairn Gorm, the restaurant and funicular railway car scratched into its slopes. All is dressed in a layer of snow.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Glen Einach

Glen Einach, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, October 2013

Lying on the grass where the road forks up and into the wind I watch the redwing and fieldfare slip across the grey sky. Down below us the River Am Beanaidh flows with great force. My friend has finished in his attempts to separate map from wind and joins me on the gravelly soil, rolling himself a cigarette. A few minutes ago we watched redwing appearing from the heather like particles drawn, magnetised to the scots pine. Some remained in the heather for a time, before using the air and their wings to join with the trees. My smug little siesta is embellished further by a reward received a few minutes earlier: the sight of a crested tit mixing with its coal tit cousins and picking at the sticks and lichens. I have felt the tiredness and tenseness that comes from a lack of proper rest since summer’s end but this landscape reinvigorates me like no other that I have set foot upon. Listening to the quickening wind dashing through the medium of pine needles, my friend calls an end to our pause.

We head up over the top path, the wind bursting through. It’s much cooler, a hint of ice. I automatically reach into my coat pockets seeking woollen gloves. It’s reported to feel like -11 on the peaks today and here blows the clue as we climb to 450m. Trudging along, a shape appears in the distance, passing over the pinewoods, across the river and the slopes of Cairn Eilrig:

‘Big, big bird,’ I shout, into the strength of the wind. My friend stops.

It passes across our view, a cloak caught by a gale. The thought process begins: buzzard… raven… its dark, primary wing feathers like digits. Its wings catch a slither of sun, a golden sheen. It’s the eagle. It disappears behind the trees, appearing again, coasting and now lost to the pines. My friend and I have both leapt up onto a lichen and heather-covered bank of soil. We jump back down, carried back by the wind by an inch or two. We hit a gloved high five, hard and true.

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