Thursday 25 October 2012

A Tonic for the Turning-In

DOWN IN THE FIELD WHERE OUR VEGETABLES GROW, the sunflowers die and the mists hang low...

In this pigeon-blue of autumntime, there's a quietness all around. Sounds only bounce as far as the droplets of fog suspended in the air, and all you can hear are the earnest cracks and squelches of the folding in of the year. The distances are grey-green, and all around us the plants curl and bow and turn in toward brown and root and rot.

These once glorious-tall Sun Kings are making way now for the Hag of Winter's ominous approach, as the birds take the last of their seed.

The fennel stalks stitch a beautiful umbelliferous ochre lace through the dew.

And our community comes together to bring warm things, red things into these shortening days...

Yesterday I spent the day down at the field with good friends tucking in the herbs against the coming cold, trimming shallots and brewing a berry tonic with pickings from the hedgerow and field.

Into it went haws and rosehips, raspberries and blackberries and one or two lonesome elderberries. These were simmered slowly for a couple of hours in water and then the delicious crimson mixture was stirred with honey and strained into bottles. We'll drink this over the next few days; a red medicine for heart and blood and eye.

And on the night of the Chagfood harvest gathering, we told our story beside the fire, where cider was sold from the wagon and children's faces were bright and impatient for a tale under the clear October sky. That day they had been pressing apples and threshing wheat. That night, once again, I was heart-full and thankful for these people who are my village, who are my tribe. These people with whom I share vegetables, these people who I meet in the lanes and the shops many times a week, these people who love this place like I do, these flame-lit people sat on straw bale seats around me on this night of gathering-in: they are my harvest, they are my nourishment and my tonic.


A small postscript about my etsy shop:

I've just listed a handful of original watercolour sketches of which this firelight gathering below is one. They were painted quickly without drawing in pencil first as an experiment in what-will-be! I'll not be making prints from them, so this is a one-off opportunity to snap up a rarity!

And from the beginning of November until Christmas, all purchases of prints or originals from my etsy shop will include a free extra print, so long as stocks last, so keep your eyes peeled. Christmas cards will follow in due course too...

Saturday 13 October 2012

Carrying A Story to the End of The Land {part 3}

{continued from part 2 here}

Our road north from Glasgow is long and beautiful. Scotland is big! The further up we drive, the more distant we feel from the mad thrum of the south. The signs become Gaelic.
Lunch and the afternoon is spent in the company of the tall trees at The Hermitage, Dunkeld alongside the crashing beautiful waters of the river Braan.

The sun glints on us as we walk by root and river...

...and find hidden there: Ossian's Cave.

The water froths through the forest and throws loud fresh jewels into our eyes as we sit by it. The greenness is a sound and the rocks are scooped-out undulating artefacts, sculpted by the time of water.  

There are gold coins of light scattered at the trees' feet. We walk on, enchanted.

In the haze of the advancing afternoon, we come across an iridescent lizard, trampled into the path, no less beautiful for its death.

And now we must drive on. We have ferry tickets booked from the port at Ullapool tomorrow morning, and we have many miles more of Scotland to drive through.

The highlands are indescribably beautiful. We reach the road to Ullapool as the dusk is coming in. Already there is a carpet of midge corpses smearing the windscreen.

We park up by old travelling friends Andy and Mel (whom some of you may remember from back then). Andy was away visiting his mum, who had broken her leg, so we spent the evening with Mel and several million midges.

Andy and Mel have lived off grid on this spot for a few years now, but have plans to head further north horse-drawn when the winter has passed, after having given up driving altogether recently.

Steak is cooked on the stove, a tune or two is played, news of the past years is exchanged. All around us the hills tower magnificent and silent.

But we cannot stand the terrible midge-biting for long: they are in our hair and eyes and mouths and ears and will not leave off biting, despite the layer of horrible deterrent we've slathered over our skin. So we retreat into our respective vehicles and sleep a dream-filled sleep.

Sun greets the next morning, golden and awake. We bid farewell to Mel and head to the Atlantic ocean.

The ferry port at Ullapool is small and friendly, and we are blessed with exquisite weather. The skies are clear blue and whisped with white clouds. The water is calm and laps the small off-shore islands quietly as the boat takes us out toward the open sea. 

Gradually we leave the jagged blue skyline and the archipelago of islands behind. I am stunned with the beauty of this edge of our land. I have never been here before, never crossed over this northern sea to the Outer Hebrides. I had expected lashing grey Scottish mizzle, but instead this topsy-turvy summer gifts us with a topaz theatre, filling my vision, shimmering with a beauty that is starting to pull at my soul.
We stand up on deck and the sea blows blue through our hair, whisks out any stagnation we had festering in us and flings it overboard.

Every so often, people get up and rush to one side of the ferry or another. Killer whales and dolphins are spotted far off, leaping through the water! All I manage by way of a photo (above) is some sea with a hint of what could be the Loch Ness Monster or the shadow of a gull. But we see them, and it makes us happy.

In time, land is sighted. The Isle of Lewis! Small buildings scatter the coast. A lighthouse, some houses.

We drive through the island which is empty. Miles and miles of treeless peaks, peat bog and water. The skies are still blue for us. Every so often we pass a house or two, remarkably modern and ugly, each with its former traditional blackhouse in ruins a few feet away. The houses have no trees to hide them, for trees struggle to grow tall on these windswept islands. Many people grow pampas grass as a barrier behind which to nurture less wind-hardy plants.

There's a wild and strange feeling to this place. I like it. 

We stop at the spectacular Callanais (pronounced Callanish) stone circle. A group of megaliths erected over 4000 years ago on the west of the island.

And on we drive, further west, further and further away from the busy mainland.

There are terraces cut into the peat all over the island. Often we see a little wheelbarrow and bag and spade left on someone's peat patch.

We cannot stop gasping at the beauty and intensity of the landscape we are moving through. The rock is powerful.

By chance we see a large wooden carving of one of the Lewis Chessmen, sitting kingly over the spot where the hoard is said to have been discovered.

We're nearly there, but the late afternoon sun and this wide sandy inland beach calls to us; and our sea-bronzed cheeks and our road-weary eyelids will let us fight no more. We lie here on this soft sand on this far flung island, and sleep.

The rock underneath us and all around us speaks.

And as the high northern summer sun moves a little lower in the sky, we head on, remoter still... to the end of the far western road.

And there, on a croft in the tiny hamlet of Breanish, live Sharon Blackie and David Knowles, creators of Two Ravens Press and Earthlines Magazine. 

They look out on a point of land that borders the Atlantic ocean, and there is nothing and everything all around their house.

As the last rays of sun cast pink gold across the hamlet, David takes us out to the point, and shows us this wild and lonely and wonderful place.

I am very moved by the feeling in this rock. It is Lewisian Gneiss, we learn - the oldest rock in Britain. I become more and more fascinated as David explains incursions and other long-ago geological magics.

There are bog plants, too: small and hardy, plants you could imagine growing across the Arctic tundra, so different from those tall greenings we find in southern hedgerows. Cotton grass flits above the peat in deft little wefts.

By the next day, the clear sunny skies have been replaced with Hebridean cloud, and a different kind of quietness. We go out exploring again.

One way is sea. The other way are bare mountains. The rock still calls me with its ancient old voice. It has aeons and footprints of time etched into its bone. It knows things.

We find a hole, not unlike the entrance to the Underworld our hero Ivan will have to venture down again later today when we tell our story to the folk of Lewis.

Just looking at it gives us vertigo. You can hear the sea at the bottom, though you cannot see it. Bold little plants grow on the sheer edge.

And then it is time to prepare for our fourth and final storytelling. This venue is different again: we conjure a little makeshift stage in the shed where the animals winter, and farming paraphernalia is stored.

This audience is the smallest yet: about 8 people come from far off on the island to hear our tale. Afterwards we all enjoy a feast cooked by Sharon and learn about life on Lewis from these islanders.

Sharon and David have traditional crofting rights to a lot of land around their individual croft. Here they graze sheep and a cow. They also raise pigs, poultry and vegetables (which is a much hardier task than down south: Brussels Sprouts have to be grown in the poly-tunnel!). Peat-cutting for fuel is still common here too, and crofters have an area of peat bog allocated with each croft. Perhaps next time we'll get the chance to sit by a peat fire.

On the last day there, I wander out to the point with Macha and clamber amongst the rocks and crashing silence.

This place, I decide, is a place to come to be alone. It feels like a last refuge on the edge of Britain - a place where nobody else is, a place still big with The Numinous, still wide and open and un-fenced.

I crouch by the grey-green pools which dance with seaweeds and salt.

The stones and the limpets and the barnacles and the wracks and the unnameable things of this Hebridean seashore all sing to me. And I sing back.

Having reached the zenith of the arc of our journey here on the farthest tip of land, we begin the slow wend homewards. The ferry leaves tomorrow morning from Harris - the southern part of this island. We drive most of the way that evening, climbing higher and higher between mountains whose heads are hidden in cloud.

We park up overnight high up in the Harris peaks. Cloud is all around us, water below.

We look happy and alive in the photograph we take of ourselves on the top of this hill. The journey has scuffed and rounded us, it has stretched us and led us, and we are bigger because of it.

Morning coffee is made early; our ferry leaves soon.


The homeward road is no less beautiful than the outward bound. The ferry crossing is grey where the first was blue, and we arrive on Skye which feels like a bustling metropolis compared to where we've been.

The land we drive through is endlessly stunning. It is jagged with mountains and lochs.

We keep imagining what this land was once like when covered in Caledonian forest.

We stop to rest and eat by a loch fringed with fireweed. Scotland is very long, and there are many miles before we reach the border, but we are sad to be leaving; these western isles and western hills have moved some Scottish part of us.

Further on and the sun creeps back again...

...dancing a cloud-chase over these fissured ancient mountains that surround us.

As we hurtle on southward, the clouds move back further, and a whole rainbow perches beautifully over the moors.

By evening we still have not reached England. We park up just a few miles from where I used to live in the South Lanarkshire hills...

And meet the next morning a little green riddle hiding in the grass:

These hills which I once loved to walk in, have in the intervening years been prodded all over with wind turbines. I find the once-familiar skyline quite shocking. Everywhere you look these huge things loom and bristle.

And so, home.

We made the rest of the journey in one day and collapsed into bed, filthy and brimming and tireder than we knew was possible.

I notice that I have begun and ended this post with photos of motorways, which is unlike me. I like all my doings to be bedecked with aesthetic delight, devoid of cars or industrial inorganic trappings. But on this journey we passed through both exquisite beauty and exquisite ugliness. This sacred greengrey land of ours is heavy with a human-made mantle it did not want. Widening ribbons of tarmac and retail distribution centres choke it.
And in all the nooks of Britain, thrive good people striving to re-weave the old songs, rekindle the old tribes into marching. They are there, and our journey stitched a few together, binding them as pages into our new book of the road.

Thanks and love to all the folk we met along the way for feeding and housing us, for telling us stories and for listening to ours.


{this post has been divided into separate episodes on account of its excessive length and the inability of google reader to cope! If you'd like to read it all in one go, please go here.}