So, what has happened since my last piece? I’ve been quite busy, at least up until yesterday when things took a worrying twist, but more on this later.
While you were all busy watching fireworks last weekend I indulged in viewing and learning the original night sky decorations. Both Friday and Saturday nights I wrapped up warm and went for a jaunt in the darkness to a spot without trees. I took my planisphere and began the process of locating constellations, planets and stars. Because there was no moon, the sky was lit by millions of tiny pinpricks of light and I soon realised how addictive this could become.
To date I have learnt, located and memorised about a dozen constellations, I’ve also started the process of memorising the names of several of the stars. On Saturday I decided to try and take some photos of the night sky so out I went, using my staff and gorillapod as a monopod, jabbed into the ground it would be able to cope with the long exposure rate necessary to take good pictures. I set the camera on auto-timer, with a five second delay, fifteen second exposure rate and also set it to take two photos per go.
The first shots proved rubbish, all I could see was a pixellated blackness, so wondering what it could be I altered a few settings and tried again. Still the same. I kept trying for about ten minutes but all I was getting was the same blackness. No matter, I thought – I can always ask my Dad for advice as he’s very good at this sort of thing. I turned on my headtorch to pick up the planisphere, and noticed I still had the lens cap on. I actually laughed out loud at this, startling an owl that had been sat in a nearby tree; it flew away screeching (and making me jump), I tried again.
This time it worked perfectly – two shots of the northern sky, so clear I could actually see the different colours of the stars. I moved the camera to capture Hercules and then the batteries died.
Needless to say, after a cup of tea and the cosy warmth of the fire, I was back out there until gone midnight, snapping away and watching as constellations rose in the east and set out to the west. Addictive indeed. When I viewed the photos I found I can zoom in to see amazing levels of detail (resolution 4k x 3k after all), including where what appears as a bright star is actually two or three close to each other.
The reason the batteries had failed, after only four days, is simply because I’ve been making the most of the clear blue skies, taking photos of all the riotous colours of The Fall on several long walks. I’ve also added to the obligatory sunset shots with several of the dawn over the mountains.
I think I should start carrying my camera everywhere – on Saturday morning I went to fill my water bag and startled a deer that had been drinking at the same spot. The poor thing must have been deep in deerish thought as its passage away was wild; crashes, snaps and bangs. After I had done one or two other essential tasks I went to track the deer. It wasn’t hard; here a slug had been stamped on, there a mushroom flattened. Patches of moss had been ripped off the rocks, some at rump height, indicating just how fast and shocked its flight had been.
The tracks took me down a gully I hadn’t yet explored and I was glad they did; rowan grew everywhere, long straight shoots which were perfect for arrows or darts. I collected one before noticing a clump of hazel further down; even better than the mountain ash.
I threaded my way down the boulder filled gully, being very careful of my footing and glad of my staff; twice the ground I poked before transferring my weight gave way; it was simply a thin cover of roots and moss, on one occasion concealing a drop of twenty feet into a cave below.
I reached the hazel without plummeting to my death and spent some time selecting three poles – two would become spears for my spear thrower, with the ends also straight, long and thin enough to join the third as arrows.
As I always do, I trimmed off any side shoots, then cut them further to where there was a bud on the stem – these were then pushed into the soil, hopefully to take root. This does work; I’ve been doing it for years now and seen the proof. Of course there would also be several new shoots sprout from where I had carefully coppiced the hazel (and the other trees I take wood from). In a similar vein, any acorns I find go in my pocket and are then planted in places that deer would struggle to reach – there are very few saplings around these woods; partly from the deer eating them in winter and partly because, until recently, the area was covered in rhododendron, blocking light from the forest floor, invasive and alien.
As I have said before, I run the risk of sounding like some tree-hugging hippy talking about these things, but I truly believe it is essential to treat such places with respect – and, practically, these little acts will also provide material in the future. It just makes sense. (I also extend this to firewood – many’s the time I pick insects from logs I have just put on the fire, as they scuttle about, confused as to why their home has suddenly vastly increased in temperature.)
I gathered moss, to continue piling on protective layers to my shelter, in the afternoon. At one point I pulled some up and disturbed a toad that had obviously been trying to sleep. I replaced this and left him to his warty thoughts. Then, as it approached dusk, I took my camera out for a stroll over the valley I mentioned recently, where I had seen the deer. I had done this every evening since that experience, but hadn’t seen any further sign of deer. This evening proved otherwise.
I made sure what tiny breeze there was was in my face and crept silently towards the sloped of the valley, camera ready in hand. Immediately, I spotted the buff back end of a doe, about forty yards downslope, head down grazing.
I took some pictures and crept closer. The direction she was moving in meant her head was always facing away from me, so I managed to get a good spot in front of a large oak (good tip this – don’t hide behind trees; animals see movement when you are peering around the trunk, instead stand with your back to the tree, ensuring you are wearing a hat or hood so your forehead doesn’t give you away). Several more good shots were taken, along with an HD video. She was about twenty to thirty yards away, already growing a thick winter coat. And totally oblivious to my presence.
Then a deer barked a warning behind me. I had been so focused on this one doe that I hadn’t noticed any others. My doe’s head went up, another bark from behind me and she was off, and she wasn’t alone either. The woods all around where I was standing were alive with the crunch of deer hooves on the thick carpet of leaves. There must have been at least a dozen of them, and I was right in the middle of the herd!
I managed to get some more photographic evidence of this and a really good video of my doe (accompanied by this year’s fawn) bounding away, before stopping and looking towards the deer that had sounded the warning, still no idea I was there and slightly confused as to what the fuss was about.
After this I went back to camp, stopping to cut down a dead birch and carry it back in the dim light.
Sunday morning was another bright and beautiful occasion and I made the most of it with yet more wood collecting and thatching. By mid afternoon a wind had risen and was gaining in intensity, carrying thick, heavy clouds. I wondered if it might snow and, my work done, retreated to the fire.
That evening the fiercest storm I have yet experienced battered the forest. I’ll admit, I was a little worried as the direction of the wind meant it was hitting the front side of the shelter full on, blowing open the poncho at one point before I made sure it was well secured.
I fell asleep to the howl of the storm, watching from my toasty nest as the trees were tossed about by the ferocity of the wind. Surprisingly I slept straight through the night for nearly ten hours. Looking back I think I now know why.
The following morning I awoke to a world covered in leaves, twigs and whole branches. The wind was still strong, but I braved it to collect and process more firewood. Although the temperature was hovering around the freezing mark, and far colder with the wind chill, by the time I was done I had stripped off my layers and stood, axe in hand, surrounded by a big pile of logs and split wood. I was also topless, yet still rather warm.
As the day progressed my muscles and joints began to ache; I put this down to all the hard work I’d been doing and the headache I now had down to the dim light I work by in the shelter at night.
Tuesday dawned clear and cold. My aches and pains had grown overnight, but at this point I was still sure it was from all the wood collecting and preparing. For some reason I struggled to get warm, my fingers and toes simply refused to do their usual thing and shun the cold.
In the morning I again carried on with thatching the shelter, accompanied as always by the robin that follows me. As I write he is sat above me in a tree, probably wondering why I’m not up and about, providing him with tasty insect treats.
I called The Editor around lunchtime and (amongst other things) discussed the aches and pains and cold feeling. As I was talking I noticed a lump behind my ear – a swollen lymph node I’d imagine, proof that my body was fighting something off.
After this conversation I felt a bit brighter, all the signs did seem to point to me having caught something the preceding week in Mallaig, but I didn’t feel too bad so I wasn’t worried. I went back to the shelter to warm up and make a cup of tea.
Try as I might though, my hands and feet remained freezing, then all of a sudden I was too hot. Then too cold. This wasn’t good. Not at all.
My headache was worse too and the aching had returned, worse than before. As I lifted the billy can I realised just what a precarious position I was in, as all my strength had disappeared and it was a struggle lifting something only a couple of kilos in weight. This sat in sharp juxtaposition to when I had easily lifted logs on to my shoulder that weighed as much as I do, or more.
As I drank my tea my mind began to think of a real bed, or just a sofa to curl up on. Hot baths and food cooked by someone else. Perhaps a hot woman to keep me warm…! This was the first time since I have been out here that I seriously considering calling for evacuation.
But I didn’t. Instead I had my tea and took a few paracetamol, then stripped off for a couple of hours in my sleeping bag.
When I got up it was nearing full darkness, I still felt shocking but I knew I had to eat and drink something or I would get a lot worse. I built up the fire and put some water on to have a cuppa and boil some pasta. Again, lifting the water bag proved a challenge and I nearly slipped and fell into the fire as I lowered the billy. Nope. Not good at all.
I drank my tea and realised I was simply too weak to cook properly. I shelved the idea of pasta and instead had a couple of apples, a third of a jar of peanut butter, some Bourneville and a vitamin tablet. Healthy nutritious diet indeed!
After forcing these cold rations down me I decided to use the water I had boiled to have a good wash. Annoyingly I could only manage to give my hands a good scrub, but I told myself this was no bad thing, as my germs would be obliterated, especially as I followed the hot soapy water with cleaning my nails thoroughly, then using anti-bacterial handwash.
As I sat, recovering from the exertion of washing, I noticed it was a clear, star-full night; this annoyed me. I so wanted to head out to view the heavens but I was simply too ill to stand, let alone go out in the cold. The stars twinkled and seemed to laugh at me sat, alternately shivering then roasting. In my imagination though, heroic Perseus reminded me that they’ll still be there when I am once again well enough to share in their splendour.
My stomach began to give me a little trouble shortly after eating, growling and making worrying gurgling noises. I was beginning to get seriously pissed off; I very rarely get ill (migraines aside) and to do so out here? I decided to blame the miserable train conductor (from my last V.W. piece) for my present torrid state.
I boiled some more water and poured this into my waterbottle, before taking some paracetamol and codeine and returning to my bed. Before I did though I built up the fire considerably and stacked a few logs within arm’s reach of where I lay, so I could ensure it would keep burning throughout the night. While I did this I realised just how lucky I was that I had collected so much firewood. Without a fire my predicament would become so, so much worse; no heat, no boiling water, no cooking food… My decision to laugh at the storm and process so much wood had played out to be the right one.
I knew I wouldn’t sleep, at least not straight away so decided to listen to some music. As I got out the headphones a strange sound came from above me. A hissing, rasping noise was coming from the tree above my shelter. I wondered if I was experiencing aural hallucinations as the sound continued, followed by a hacking, coughing, then a chilling shriek.
As I leant out of my bed, eyes to the sky, a dark shape flew silently above, alighting in the same tree I mentioned the robin perches in earlier. Then it began hooting in earnest. Another owl behind me replied, then another. I was surrounded by owls. For some reason this both thrilled and chilled me; was it an omen? Why had they chosen this night to congregate in the trees around my camp? Thoughts of the Alan Garner novel; The Owl Service, flickered through my head.
Then they were gone, calling every so often to mark their passing and I decided to listen to Bat for Lashes instead. Even the normally soothing strains of Natasha Khan failed to raise my spirits, instead lines from the songs suddenly began to carry resonance, meaning to me that had not been there previously. Feeling weak, ill and rather sad I turned off my music, stoked the fire and fell into a fitful, dream haunted and broken sleep.
Today (Wednesday) I am no worse, but little better. I keep feeling brighter, then worse again and I have done very little at all, other than fill my water bag and keep the fire blazing. I’ve also crafted this sorry tale for you to read and it has made me think about a few things.
Being prepared, with a stock of wood, well kept first aid kit and quality equipment and clothes is crucial. Without the Baden-Powell adage I would certainly be in a lot worse state indeed.
I have also thought about how much we take for granted our healthcare system, and also the support of others. I suppose the moral of this story could either be; “avoid people entirely”, or; “be amongst people constantly”.
I’m still not well as I close this piece so, sorry to leave it on a cliffhanger, but you’ll have to wait for the next instalment to see if I’ve survived out here, or whether I’ve called in that emergency medivac…