Paths

 

Autumn break. I find a copy of The Poetics of Space in an empty house. Its enchanting – I know this is not a novel response, but it comes from my own perpetual struggle to find somewhere to live so that I can’t see houses in the same way and wonder if I can transfer his attitude to somewhere else in my world..

Briefly Bachelard says that houses are a place to dream , a refuge, and so retain enchantment. For me about to leave my twenty forth adult residence,  never really been able to domesticate a space, houses are sites of disillusion.

Bachelard’s writing feels comfortable – he is at home with himself .

The house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the varous functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a word to express the passionate liaison of our bodies , which do not forget, with an unforgettable house

I envy him his sense of continuity.

 

The next day, off into the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty  we walked through the woods of Silverdale, along the coffin road from Arnside to Beecham, over smoothed limestone slabs, between hazel stools and yew clumps, along an old straight road. What you would need if you were carrying your dead friend in a heavy wooden box. Gallumping up the Fairy Steps, hopping from clint to clint on moss feathered toaster pavements, while nuthatches blow for time. I love this place.

I can never get quite this cosy in the Scottish hills and rarely in the woods. They do not contain so.

My daughter is more aware of the cows. She has been programmed to fear , and I have worsened this by lightly touching on the story of a tragic stampede. Bullocks. What do you do to take away a teenagers fear?

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Unfortunately the footpath we are to follow tracks off indiscriminately over grassy (and sometimes croppy) fields traced only by prior footprints (or according to Richard Jeffries,’the very track of a rook through the grass leaves a different shade each side’),  until it makes an assignation with a more modern boundary marked only by a missing brick in a distant wall.

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Yeah well , the bovine menace lurks there. Indisputably these are large beasts with a certain truculence – docile and sluggish in my view, territorially terrifying in hers. She believes that Scottish paths range through areas where there are no cows – I am not so sure.

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We take to the woods, hop and scramble with GPS and map, and I hope I can turn this into a sense of independent overcoming that can get her out there again. I am consciously getting lost – in the sense of not knowing where I am , and hoping that this will engender in her, an ongoing sense of confidence that you can always find your way out. These are tight little woods of coppiced trees and you have to go where they tell you.. She takes on the posture of adapted teen – an adult has brought her here and she has to put up with it. The adult should be expected to release her from this , and as soon as possible.

When I am not wrestling with this expectation , I am aware that I am answering my question about Bachelard . Not in scrambling around amongst the pavement and briars, but in seeking and finding  paths.

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I feel a sense of belonging on a path . My favourite of Robert McFarlane’s book is Old Ways. I read it like a journey (so much so it felt transgressive to scan it to find these quotes)..

the eye is enticed by a path and the minds eye also. The imagination cant help but pursue a line in the land – onwards into space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and it s previous follower

Paths connect . This is their first duty and their chief reason for being . They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people

Paths are consensual too , because without common care and common practice they dissapear.. paths need walking

My own sense of time alters on a path.  There is not really any need for time..Instead we only need distance- how far to the point of our destination.. This can press us into a route march , or remove us into a meditative state, a bit like the ones Bachelard and his authors find at home.. And more prosaically  you dont have to look where you are going – which gives your senses space for other matters.

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Many people are fiercely protective of their paths. I remember an episode of Weirs Way where cuddly little Tom turns into a whirling dervish when confronted with a blocked right of way, and, if memory serves, tears the gate down.

Scotland’s right to roam may have removed some of the symbolism here , but in England the green right of way sign is still a call to arms , and a symbol of the commons..’ Paths need walking’.

And that right is still subtly contested. In Dorset recently I noticed at least four signs on right of ways warning to BEWARE OF THE BULL.   So I was , and it was BULL -there not being any..But I walked with a certain wariness (scared of cattle, me?), and am aware there will have been many people who will not have crossed that path.  Once the wariness reduced I became angry at the deception ..

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Walking then becomes something different. The consensus is broken , the relationship becomes one of deceit, and potentially of dispossession, and we are then on a kind of protest march against the enclosure of our space..(I did try to knock the gate down, Tom,  but i would have needed to come back with a set of power tools..)

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the long white roads .. are a temptation. What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or the underworld of the past’ (Edward Thomas, The South Country)

Let’s keep it that way – and challenge the bovine menace..

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Death to the Haddingtonshire Rhymer

 

Butterdean Wood.

Stapled to a beech

Of seventy years growth

Is a poem

Typed and laminated

With a request

PLEASE LEAVE

FOR THE ENJOYMENT OF OTHERS

 

Which defies me

To take it down

For surely,

someday,someone

Will come along

Who enjoys shit poetry

More than tree trunks

 

It has stared me down

For several months

But now

As a shit poet myself

I can be bolder

Bad poetry is for its creators

Becomes good only by acclaim

 

The beech tree, song thrush

Grass of parnassus, wood rush

Badger, long tailed tit

Have no need of your shit

The best bit

of lit crit

I have ever done

Relieves the tree of its burden

And places it

In The Bin Provided

for the turds

Of insensitive visitors

 

So blank versers, rhymers

Concrete poets and haikuists

Iambic pentameter merchants

Follow the Country Code

TAKE YOUR POETRY HOME WITH YOU

 

‘And do not tell it to the trees

Because the trees dont need to know ‘

 

Does the Sublime have a Sense of humour?

Does the Sublime have a sense of humour?

Irreverence seems to have dropped out of our idea of nature with the arrival of the sublime. All those awesome views and stuff..

One of my regular journeys is up the West coast mainline crossing the Border and up past Beattock , where just before Crawford,  on the hills to the east is a shelter plantation shaped like an inverted penis.. or at least the standard teenage representation of one..

This can readily be tested when you point it out to to a representative teen , as they will begin sniggering- if they have not already clocked it.. I believe groups off them enliven interminable school bus trips by trying to get the first spot in. ( so to speak)..

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After I had passed by a few times myself I moved from my initial belief that this was obviously a random accident – shelter belts often being long and pointy (for obvious reasons),  with a couple of knobbly bits at the end ( for less obvious ones- any ideas out there?) –  to the sense that we may be looking at some gigantic silvicultural  piece of graffiti which in years to come we may wish to preserve like the Cerne Abbas giant..

If you spend your winter living in a damp caravan in the middle of nowhere planting trees for minimum wage I think you earn the right to inscribe a giant coniferous penis on the Southern Uplands for posterity.

Do the Hills look less sublime with knob gags drawn on them?

Probably ..Faced with this question  on a visit to Cerne Giant and a glorious vista of the Paps of Jura I can remember a real dilemna over whether it was ok to snigger or not..

Irreverence is also inhibited by  other considerations – one it might somehow damage Nature, and that it might reduce my normal watchfulness and let it damage me. Both of These could be folky superstition or traces of the Awe of the Sublime. Or of the decay of practical connection to the Land (or Nature,  as I nearly said).

Irreverence is kind of engagement , albeit a rather twisted one. It is about demonstrating that we don’t want to take things too seriously , that we are a bit oppressed by what is expected of us , and we are trying to subvert that.

I saw some Airt in the Ingleby Gallery that seemed to fit this ( fittingly given its links to sly monumental joker Ian Hamilton Findlay) . Now, I confess to knowing nada about this guy, but he goes out into scenic places and creates explosions ,or puts incongruously shaped park benches in=won and has his wee-gee pals sit on them. Then takes high definition photos of them , very reminiscent of po-faced retro-sublimicist Thomas Joshua Cooper.. and then sells them at six hundred quid a pop.. Youve go to admire that chutzpah.. and yes LOL !

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So onto my own walk of shame- acts of environmental irreverence (and I notice all of these involved a sense of agency in a social situation, and a sense of playfulness towards the formula)

1/ I ate many of the specimens I was supposed to identify on ecology field trips – leading to gaps in my knowledge of British vegetational communities. I saw it as an early protest against phytosociology..

2/ I removed all of the poems of the Haddingtonshire Rhymer from the trees of Butterdean Wood and placed them in the dog poop bin. And then wrote a poem about it.

3, I used a hollow oak tree in Butterdean Wood as a secret romantic post box – which worked less well as a romantic device because my intended amour couldnt find it and spent her afternoon wandering despondently in the mud.. Ardour dampening..

4.I leave small pointy piles of pebbles along boundary walls and pretend they are Andy Goldworthy installations ( but he may well do the same thing)

5. I make up exagerrated stories about our wildlife

The problem with irreverence though is when it leaves a permanent trace.. I suppose if I lived in Crawford I might get fed up opening my curtains each morning to a view of a 300m long penis..

But if did I suppose I could get some mates and a chainsaw and do something about it..

Plateaux

Plateaux

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Many a hand has scaled the grand

old face of the plateau

Some belong to strangers;

And some to folk we know

The Meat Puppets, Plateau, from MeatPuppets2

Place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both is altered..

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

At a point on our diagonal journey up the ridge the underfoot changes, the heather tangle shrinks back and is replaced by a short sward – heath, moss, lichen, sprays of tiny plants and many, many stones. Like the litter of a giant lithological (rock) festival..

We are in the cloud and the strange hollow presence of the atmosphere has a room- like feel. Distant plover calls are like the murmurs of sleeping children. The plateaux denizens – leveret, ptarmigan, dotterel – crouch tight against intruders. It gives me pleasure that I can find them – but then I don’t see the many that will  have evaded me. My friend points out that our frozen hen ptarmigan has camoflague so exact it mimics the disruptive mosses that break up the grey- brown sward..  But she blinked and I saw the beadiness in her eye.

We drift in and out of pockets of humidity within the cloud. I expect sweaty, bulky looking guys in white towels to wander out of the screes. But this doesn’t happen.

We are here for a June jubilee – a jaunt back into the white world, a nostalgic reminder of previous interpenetrations – near death exhilaration on his part (on the cliffs to our left), workplace familiarity on mine (on the grouse moors to our right). It does get in your head though, this place. And it never leaves. Feels like you are back in your old room.

Not much appears to link Nan Shepherd, Doric feminist and doyen of phenomenological psychogeography  championed by Robert McFarlane), and The Meat Puppets, Arizonan cowpunk pioneers, progenitors of grunge ( championed by Kurt Cobain) , but they both have their plateaux and an agreement that they are clearly in A Place. Which may seem obvious but also feels really significant up here.

I am on the summit of Lochnagar where we wander between invisible featureless munros,  rolling up and down like downs, and  I am connecting my experience to near identical patches of land thirty miles north on the Cairngorm and twenty miles east to the Mounth. This I feel I would not do on other Scottish mountains – which after all are supposed to be individual enough to make us want to scale them. All. Seperately. And to memorize our ascents..

Nan’s writings about the Cairngorms have (often) a splendid vagueness about the where and when, contrasted with an exactness in describing the details of what she say and felt.

‘ There’s nothing on the top’ , as the Meat Puppets have it, on their plateau – which I am guessing is those Colorado Badlands that surround the Grand Canyon – or at least things are less spectacular than we might expect in the absence of  towering Mordor like summits. There is more opportunity to pay attention to detail then.

I find these things amongst the rocks. I am beginning to get used to papping flora and taking the pics back to the field guides. At home I confirm I have a trailing azalea , as described on Lochnagar by Professor Balfour in August 1847 (where it was growing beside a large snow patch)  and the fruticose mountain lichen Stereocaulon vesuvianum, named for its resemblence to volcanic smoke,  here erupting from a small piece of frost- shattered granite.

I also reflect on the glacier-squashed nature of this land . We are at the south edge of it – here because of a coincidence of height, but stretching northward with a carpet of similar plants, animals and vistas into the words tundra and north, which we can’t reach so easily on a quick day trip. I imagine it rolling forth – dissected, undulating, but for its resident flora and fauna contiguous and consistent to the melting white spaces around the Pole.  And then we nip off home for our tea.

Siccar Point

The trod to Siccar Point. Offering false promise along the shore through slab fields of fallen sandstone tipped out of cliff faces by the crumbling breccia beneath.

You cant get far that way and we are soon hopping back up following the deer to the boundary wall. But finding at the top that someone has gone and dropped a long distance path up there. Shucks!  Its a COASTAL TRAIL, but soon it dives inland doonhollow to the giant turnip complex hidden Wallace-and-Gromitly in the old quarry – what do they really do in there? The sheep look suspiciously wooden and we can see the nuclear plant in the distance.. HMMm.. There’s something fishy going on..

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Following the cliff line we track a stoat along the wall. Down below sails the small boat of Mr

 

Hall of Dunglass , containing his near neighbour Mr Hutton of Monynut and Playfair of Edinburgh University. It bobs on a milky sea..

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In the boat – (Fx – to the rhythm of the waves)

‘ Ho!, Quite glad Hume was preoccupied today..’

‘ Hi!, Wouldnt be room in the boat had he not been…’

‘Aye, sirrah, he’s a bit of a geological formation himself..’

‘Whff, How goes it with the Great Infidel’

‘He still repenteth not .. and indulgeth much’

‘ An Unconformity , indeed’

‘An example to us all perhaps’

‘And with us in spirit’

‘ We judge by evidence not superstition, what..’

All evidence suggest that the future will resemble the past‘ quoth he,,

‘ Look for the patterns – assume not magic or magicians, but time and repetition. ‘

What is there is enough to capture our awe..’

‘And that itself may be divine’

‘Or Divinely inspired”

‘Be we Heretics then, fellows?’

‘No sir, we are Three Men in A Boat, private in our thoughts and speculations’

‘ Well , so , but there is power in these thoughts.. Profitable in many directions ‘

‘Aye well ye’d know that James’

Siccar (to make sure) is near – overhead circle the fulmars and among them the figure of the w’ged Foucault.Atop the banking is the easel of Steven Campbell , and chipping away on the raised beach are Chris Grieve’s Whalsay chums. At sea a boat carries the Motley Crew. Distantly we sight the tousled wandering Nan Shepherd, while Bellany and Kenny White observe the gannets, and Jean Redpath duets with The Seals. The Caledonian antisyzgy glints in the sun.

 

Scotland after all is A LANDSCAPE FASHIONED BY GEOLOGY.

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Progress to the Unconformity is now aided by sturdy ropes and interpretative boards. The drop off is dizzyingly Danteanly appropriate. We descend not to Hell but to Truth.

The unconformity, tucked down on the shore, is Incontrovertible. God retreats after trying to shower us with an unruly seventh wave.

We trace its outline with our fingers, two geological dilletantes, defined by our unconforming scepticism ; and say how great it is to be here together. The rocks don’t fit smoothly and neither do we.

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There are many lumpy differences that need to be eroded first, and a gap that speaks of absence.

We speculate about bringing the returning fundamentalist militants down for part of their re-education . But you only really see it if you want to , and when you do nothing will ever be the same again.. what is layered down on top – the conformity – is an illusion.

And more, the same small movements over and again, everyday struggle, resistance and demand, creates and destroys , makes and remakes us all.

Let our chant be

‘ that we find no vestige of a beginning , no prospect of an end’ .

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On the bed of the Moldau the stones they are turning..

The night has twelve hours , the day comes at last..

The Case of the Celtic Rainforest

in-tree-300x300It was the day I  saw the fairy dancing amongst the undergrowth that I knew the whole bogus stunt had gone sour..

I hunched my collar up my neck against the  teeming rain, flicked my cigarette butt away and headed back to the office.. (unfortunately I may have burnt down a small, semi-natural ancient woodland in the process  – but it was in the name of genre authenticity).

It was time I spilt the beans..

When I was  a greenhorn ecologist,  rainforests were massive, perpetual and in  the tropics; Celts were ancient peoples from central Europe – or football supporters; and the damp, dwarfed midge-ridden woods of the west Highlands were just that – not even forests – which in Scotland are large estates full of deer.

But now look at this – from our heroic parliamentarians,   breathy with wonder..

The Celtic rainforests ignite the imagination. For those who have not visited—me being one—the names alone paint a picture of an otherworldly habitat. I understand that we could explore Puck’s glen or go on a hunt for blackberries and custard or octopus suckers.(Labour)

The species that dot the forest floor and enjoy an epiphytic bond with the overhanging trees contain a joyous mix of names and uses (Nationalist)

I do not know what bush tucker can be found in Scotland’s rainforests, but I am told by my eldest daughter Sibylla that wild garlic makes very good pesto.  ( guess..)

 

It is a little hard to pin down what exactly has changed to create this buzzing uniquely ‘Naturally Scottish’ ecological zone – and that may be because it’s existence has a tinge of contingency, which I ‘ll get to, but lets review the ecology first..

To begin with it appears that a rainforest has become a forest that grows for a long time in a rainy place, and although it should still have certain characteristic indicator species,  but these can be related to microflora or non-flowering plants.

Then we are, it appears,  to extend that elasticity a little further to suggest that it may not always have been there – at least in its current form.. And that there might be a degree of fluidity in the size, structure and presence of the vegetation needed to make the sites part of the same zone.

So in the case of this Celtic rainforest, or Atlantic  semi-natural woodlands as they were formerly (more modestly?) known, these criteria are fulfilled by the fact that it is pretty wet and windy in Argyll and west Invernesshire ;  it’s near the sea (a high oceanity index); that there are a lot of woods which were cultivated for charcoal smelting  or tan-barking in this area which gives them a unique history and structure ( at least in Scotland); that although most of the flora and fauna occur in other places, there are, amongst the lichen, moss and  fungal communities ( again not unique),  some species which are found nowhere else in the UK, and possible nowhere else at all ( which may of course be a function of how hard the rest of the world is looking for small cryptic non-flowering plants).

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The slightly underwhelming but undoubtedly rare White script Lichen, graphis alboscripta

Of course by these criteria we can have a lot of rainforests , as long as we have a lot of rain.. we can have birch rainforests, hazel rainforests ( now that we have revised our opinion that hazel is not scrub), oak rainforests, and possibly ash ones too . And maybe pine ones if they could cope with the rain.. To an uninitiated woodland creature,  or  world-weary ecological gumshoe, the reality of all these situations might look  pretty different, but we might not understand categories so well as the people who write the guidebooks.

And then ‘Celtic’ – there are similar forests ( which I would call woods) on the west coast of Ireland (  one of which  Colin Farrell and Rachel Weiss’ frolic through with a camel in my favourite dystopia , The Lobster ). As there are also in Cornwall, Portugal and Madeira – and probably on the Azores as well. Is there something which makes the maritime woods of Scotland and Ireland more alike than say those, or the woods of Argyll and the Southern Lakeland area..? Ermm..

So would that thing be cultural?

In the hastily coffee -tabled glossy Rainforests of Britain and Ireland, used as a sourcebook by the researchers who wrote the politician’s speeches above, Clifton Bain suggests

The term Celtic rainforest has been adopted to reflect the shared geographical distribution with remaining Celtic languages, but it also conveys some of the mystical and spiritual connections with our ancient past.

Like any rural medieval community , Gaelic culture used woods as sources of fuel, pasture and timber and they figure in Gaelic culture . The Gaelic alphabet is named for trees and in that alphabet there are lovely, ancient, concrete poems describe natural phenomena.

James Hunter has suggested a special cultural attitude towards nature in archetypal Gaeldom.  But in my view the evidence suggests that the  woods figure as a backdrop rather than as a cultural space – there are for example no specific words remaining  in Scots Gaelic for types of forest – coille , is used for all woods, and, unlike the rich array of landscape words which cover the moors and coasts of the north west, there are not many for wood types. Duncan Ban McIntyre and Sorley McLean, are both rightly seen as great nature poets  working in Gaelic, but are using contemporary poetic forms in their native tongue.

Historical records don’t suggest any patterns of use that identify consistent timber conservation or management patterns through the Gaeltachd – instead they suggest the usual interplay of pragmatism and economic interest found in the rest of Britain.

Celtic does have other connotations, which if mumbled vaguely in a lilting tone  can be attractive to tourists ( ‘Gee,  didnt they film Game of Thrones somewhere round hereabouts’?) but none of these have anything to do with damp woodland

I have it on good authority that in the post offices of Assynt  and Ardnamurchan the words ‘Celtic rainforest’ translate into local speak as ‘tourist hoakum’.img_20160917_175031977

So where has all this come from – and suddenly. Something persuaded the daddy of lichenology,  Paul Gilbert to move from a cheery description of the joys of the semi-natural woods, to slightly awkward hagiography of the Celtic between two publications in less than a decade.. Could he have been lent on?

Pragmatically it’s good to have a monicker , a USP, and if that works for your sponsor all the better. The Scottish government – through Scottish Natural Heritage ( which became the Nature conservancy + the countryside commision, ecologists +planners) is now the sponsor to most research and conservation effort in Scotland – and it is keen to brand its nature.. It has discovered its own crossbill- a bird that can only be identified by minute comparisons of its beak , and may not even be distinguishable by other crossbills.. and, finding itself the proprietor of a lot of Highland land, needs to be seen to doing something worthy with it.. so whilst,  to me , the widely quoted studies of the Coppins are the kind of exploratory stuff lichenologists still routinely do everywhere, they fit that other bill (‘uniquely Scottish’) quite well.

The whole idea seem to have been bigged up by a variety of oscillating waves of publicity effort – conferences, publications, mappings and the growth of a style of conservation which functions a bit like the community health initiatives of other parts of the government. That is  – publish lots of glossy stuff and hope that it shows that we are doing something.

‘So gumshoe, why does this get you so much ?‘, said the Lauren Bacall lookalike lounging in her cagoule against the  conveniently placed standard oak..

‘Is there anything wrong with enthusiastic promotion of potential (as opposed to outright lying) – its not as if anyone actually dies, and a mossy wood is a delight whatever its called, surely? ‘ (not sure her name was Shirley, mind you..)

My problems are two fold – the first is that this type of gloss is very much using the authority of science to peddle its wares .

While I was going through the files about the Celts I came across this famous quote about Whig history

It is not a sin in a historian to introduce a bias that can be recognised and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organisation of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognised  (Herbert Butterfield, 1931)

 

So if we substitute ‘ecological’ for ‘historical’ this feels like what’s happening . Its about creating Scottishness or worse Celticness , without acknowledging  that’s what’s going on. And thats a lot to hang on some mosses and liverworts..

The second is that you might not be able to see the wood for the trees.. There are two prisms which we are simultaneously viewing nature at the moment – one is holistic, the other contextual?.. Is a wood a system of production, or an aggregate of the things which are haphazardly growing there.

The rain forest stuff relates back to a style of ecology which discusses climax vegetations , ecosystems and plant communities as if they were platonic forms ( and goes along with some fairly wacky right wing thinking too, which often goes underground in metaphors about order and natural balance)..(see Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, pp220-3 for a concise discussion of this) It also largely wrong ..

Real places we discover through studying the records of what has actually happened and what exists on the site- so for example we have some interesting woods in Western Highlands

1/because they survived the general overharvesting and grazing in the nineteenth century Highlands

2/because their timber was locally valuable and

3/  their boundaries allowed them some protection .

They decayed gently internally until the present day – most helpfully most of them were either too small , steep or wet to have been murdered by the Forestry Commission in the last publicity driven siege on the woodlands ( anyone remember ‘Plant More Trees’) after the second world war which culminated with the tax dodging afforestation of the flow country by that jolly cove Terry Wogan and his mates in the nineteen eighties..( Sorry got a bit carried away ).

Within them there are relicts on steep inaccessible terrain from which small , slow growing damp tolerant plants can gradually recolonise . This pattern is found in other localised areas of Western Europe , but not necessarily any more frequently in the immediate vicinity of those sites.

What exists on a site is a matter of history and there is no ‘intrinsic’ reason why one part of it is better than another..

For example one of the most characteristic plants of the Celtic rain forest is the rhododendron , which loves the shade and slope of these woods – it was introduced by people who saw it as source of ongoing beauty and in some parts of the Celtic rainforest zone like Inverewe Gardens is still visited by tens of thousands of people each year..

However at the same time SNH are encouraging landowners to root them out of woods to restore an original vegetation that often didn’t exist there.. It is a decision about woodland management to grow rhoddies or damp lichenous scrub (which does take a bit longer) , but if you allow that to be the case you cant give authoritative advice on the right thing to do –  hence another reason for the spurious nonsense about CRFs.

We should love things for what they open for us- in the damp woods it is the scale and patterns of growth that surprise and delight. There are lovely artistic responses to this, for example, in the art sponsored by the (reformed, cuddly) Forestry Commision in At the Edge,  or in the images of Sorley Mclean in his poems Hallaig and the Woods of Raasay. There are also responses in the hutting and woodcraft that occupy the denizens of Reforesting Scotland .

A visit to the Celtic rainforest is pretty much as it has always been – I actually visited four over the last two years without knowing what I had stepped in.. I went looking for woodland birds , couldn’t find any in the dense foliage , but did see a lot of moss and rain. On Seil in the  Ballachuan Hazelwood I walked for over an hour under the canopy without standing upright whilst enjoying my sense of immersion in the green glow. I thought how nice it was to get lost there.

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Whilst there I thought heard a rustling and along a branch thought I spied a fleeting glimpse of the Caledonian Chimera , the one animal that is unique to our rainforest . Feasting on a diet of publicity materials and nesting in an ancient druid’s staved oak it has existed for hundreds of years in a way which is both authentic and really quite cool.. but I fear all of the fuss and attention from the excited tourists that our MSPs believe are about to flock there might scare it back into the Celtic twilight from which it had emerged..

 

 

In St Baldreds Land

It came to me as I marched towards North Berwick that I was heading for the wrong place. That NB orientations- topographical-historical-psychogeographical,  were not towards the Bass , but towards the May, and via that to Fife. And then I remembered that transport to both the monastery of the May, source of beer and literacy , and the pilgrim route towards Earlsferry and Fife – St Andrews, ultimately –  progressed medievally out of North Berwick harbour.

The May was a low flat presence in the distance, a three dimensional jigsaw piece, sufficiently remote to allow me to cogitate over the curvedness of the earth. The Bass loomed close – was the last in the row of jagged teeth that skirt NB – the canine or the incisor, I’m not sure.  But to look at the Bass from North Berwick as was, you’d have had to crick your neck to the right, or place your panoramic window at an angle to your façade, or walk and scramble out onto the headlands beyond the East Beach.

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And perhaps this is why I have always found North Berwick a pain in the neck..

So, for my purposes,  I needed to be further out.

I decided to approach from an assumed hinterland towards the East, via the farmed but currently lightly peopled space east of Whitekirk, from within the three parishes- Auldhame,Tyninghame and Prestonkirk which claimed St Baldred and his miracles.

I am demotivated. Worried again about my rumbling exhaust, and wondering if my quest is coming to an end – not over what I’ll find, but what I’ll do then. But as Basho says every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.

Scoughall. Parked beside a field of cabbages. The farm road slopes East from the pilgrim route defining the edge of the land of golf courses, steading conversions and chocolate labs ( ‘East Lothian – Easy Living’) , and leads towards a different one of football pitches filled with crops ( Arable-Arable-Fodder-Arable–Potatoes), Pheasants,  and PRIVATE signs at road ends.

Not an exact geographic split perhaps but a  significant psychic one. I can feel the difference – a release of social tension in the area above my stomach, replaced by ancestral anxiety in my gullet over the farmer and his gun.

A heavily built field mouse blunders out of the verge . I think of a surfacing camper at Glastonbury. It checks and retreats. Mid summer.

Up a concrete track between unfenced ( and lightly domesticated) fields the Bass presents – centre stage, lighthouse to the face, cut off from the putative orchestra stalls by a wall, damming a long reservoir of barley ,on which  the set floats – the string section drowning under grain.

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OK this is Tantallon, but you get the picture , eh?

The May has now changed sides, is out in the Firth seaward of Bass and Fife. The alignments are favourable..

Down Chapel Brae and ower a fence a faint track leads to the shore, across to another zone of ..

Oyster-catcher snicker. Red conglomerate sandstone. And the smell of weed (man..) – wet , foetid. The view south east. Man , dog, erratic (name?) . St Baldred’s cradle, Dunbar, Cement works. Torness, Barns Ness, round to Siccar Point, and a wart I don’t recognise at the end.

St Baldred’s Boat is my destination. A name on the map.

So what is the Boat? – the map is unclear. The  most prominent feature on my route is a separated sandstone calf ascending outwards and making a col along the shore path between it and it’s roan-cow mother cliff. Prow-shaped its strata ascend outwards.

It is accessible only from its nose, broken and smoothed by tides immemorial. As I climb it narrows to a turf-ridged butt only a foot wide in places snaking back forty feet above the shore. Between it and the Bass – rocks, pools, a harbour, a skerry topped by a stone memorial and the channel.

My mount deserves a name, I feel. It has a mythic proportion and is, from the east, an obvious landmark, an edge. If it was St B’s Boat we could imagine it has moored him to the coast ,rather than being in the aeon-slow process of separating from it. But it turns out it’s not – maybe it should be his pulpit. It would have been a place for him to proclaim from ,to prophesize to the sea, to the East, to the theatre of May and Bass, to the cells and coracles of the other anchorites.

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Bass and promontory from Seacliffe

The other contenders to be the Boat are a small isolated but prominent skerry – crest lined with cormorants and GBBGs,  faces decorated with guano – and, athwart midships, a long rocky promontory  leading via a narrow tidal isthmus to a headland topped by a concrete concave tower and cross.

I head there, picking up speed as I note the advancing tide.

Then there is a moment – the water to the outsides of the rocks I am crossing looks higher than in the pools at my feet. An instinct about the wisdom of heading out into an approaching tide in an unfamiliar place kicks in , and resounds loudly in my gullet.  I reason with it  –  I have at least two feet of tide to spare. I cross the isthmus onto the first eroded sandstone promontory.

Then I see others between me and the cross – I am suddenly aware of my folly, as I am of theirs, and I wonder if I should warn them about the oncoming tide. Instead I speed back across the isthmus.

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I observe them from the safety of the beach. They are a middle aged couple. In cagoules, I note disparagingly. They are determined to remain on the rocks, but within reach of an escape route, until the very last moment. I imagine they have sought the mild peril of potential drowning as a replacement for the swingers circuit they have outgrown. Unlikely to thank me for my concern.

…And yet I feel that the prospect of being rescued from drowning by the coastguard,whilst clinging to a memorial to the drowned,  ( however slight) would erode my dignity fatally. Here comes middle age..

Instead, as consolation, I explore Seacliffe beach , which is smattered with diligent holiday makers.

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The Boat

I find out that the Boat is in fact the gull clad skerry. It was moved there by St Baldred, as part of his hundred year residency on the Bass.  The rock used to be a hazard to boats on way to and from the Bass, then at least partially inhabited . After a particular tragedy, St B asked to be placed on the skerry, which he then steered to its current location, reverse parking neatly beyond the promontory.

 Much research leaves me with only an apocryphal account of  the origin of the cross-capped tower. ‘They say’ this is a memorial to a drowned Edwardian daughter marooned by the tide, and as a future  refuge for the unwary who might end up there.. Not any more though,  as some authority has removed the lower rungs so it is not climbable – more grist to my mid aged discretion..

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 At the other end of the beach a tiny harbour is cut into the headland like a Bedrock jacuzzi . It is in use – two prawn boats are unloading.

Two other middle aged guys are poking around the headland with cameras and light summer slacks. They take pictures from many angles – they mean business. I am reminded of the pontificating lunching lady, ‘ Men don’t make friends like women do, and then they don’t contact them when they need to’.. Still we are happy in our small corners on the giant lump of sandstone.

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I feel I am in the right place. The sprawling derelict Place of Seacliff , atop its woody banks, ivy indiscriminately dragging down the sycamore trunks and walls . The Gothicky archway leading the road down to the shore, the hermit’s cave- a little shelter with a view, the sight lines lead towards the gannets wheeling round the Bass like flecks of shampoo going down the sink drain.

I was niggardly to this place on previous visits. The entrance charge for the road offended my sense of common ownership, but I know now the problem was because I d come the wrong way.

Just to confirm my surmises I find a sandstone outcrop that from certain angles appears like a moai from Easter Island, or as near as I will find in East Lothian.

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics . It resides in a profane illumination’, is written in the sand, by a departed meanderer.

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