As I write there has been no rain for eleven days. This is a welcome change from the storms and constant downpour of the previous few weeks. It has meant I’ve had to return to the burn to collect my water, as my other source down the gorge has nearly totally dissipated. Fortunately I’ve located a deep section of the burn further up its course, which has made life a lot easier.
I am guessing that by the time you read this I should have had some snow – the mountains received a fresh dusting last night and, out of the sun, the ground temperature hasn’t risen above freezing in well over twenty-four hours. There has been little wind at all for days and this has lulled me into a false sense of security as today I went to collect some materials for Christmas presents with only my woollen layers; as I have for a few days now. Around midday there was a sudden gust of wind, which steadily built up; coming straight from the north it was icy cold.
Yesterday I tracked a deer for more than a mile. Its slot marks were huge; the biggest I’ve seen so far, and I suspected they belonged to a large stag. Sure enough, when I caught up with him, some hundred yards away, he was huge; antlers spread wide and proud. Its colouring was exceptionally dark for a red deer, verging on black. As I lifted my camera to take a few shots, not only did he snort disdainfully and begin to trot off but the camera chose that moment to tell me to change the batteries. Typical. As a slight recompense I did manage to get a few shots of a doe today, with strangely pale colouration, but I’d have loved to have snapped the King of the Mountain.
On the same walk I also discovered faint traces of human occupation. These were ancient and a very humble dwelling indeed; maybe ten feet wide by twenty. This is not even twice as large as the shelter I have built which leads me to think it was very old, with a levelled off area of ground around it that once upon a time probably grew vegetables for the occupants. There was also a small overgrown pile of boulders nearby from when this area was cleared, which is what alerted me to its presence in the first place.
Neither this dwelling deep in the thick oak forest, nor the other I found down by the coast (with raised beds for growing food) are marked on my map. Chances are they are long, long forgotten, visible only in the right conditions; once the bracken had died off and the light strikes the lumps and bumps from a low angle. I would hazard a guess that both predate the coming of the Road to the Isles, when most travel was done via the sea and this area was a hotbed of revolution amongst the clans.
To live, albeit for only a short time, near places like these, is a privilege and reminds me of the depth of history (and prehistory) these hills, coast and woods have to offer. It adds a social aspect to an adventure that has been dominated by the wonders of the natural world and also adds to my feeling that my own part in this tale is very small indeed.
Although my impact on this place is minimal (before very long at all there will be very little left to be found of my weeks here), the impact of this place upon me is huge and substantial.
This place will stay with me for the rest of my days.
It will be there, in my mind, on photographs, in my journal. And I know I will use these, in a variety of ways. I envisage using my little shelter as a focus to calm me when life’s journey proves difficult (if it proves really difficult then I’ll simply pack and return here physically!); these woodlands, bogs, mountains, beaches, gullies, cliffs, hollows, crags and caves will be carried everywhere I go. I can continue to walk the deer trails, sit of a rock watching the eagle soar above, listen to the chatter of the small birds and experience the ever changing skies.
I always knew this journey would shape me, but I never realised quite how much this would be the case. There have been times that the thought crossed my mind that if I did perish through some misadventure or accident out here, at least I would have died doing something I loved, something amazing, rare and very special. Conversely, there have also been times that I have given myself a stern telling-off; perhaps climbing fifty foot barefoot into a huge oak isn’t sensible at my age; maybe running as fast as I can down an uneven, dimly lit deer trail, trying to outflank a deer to get a photo isn’t wise; leaping twenty foot off a sheer drop to land and roll on the soft moss below could be construed as foolhardy…
Perhaps the greatest boon the wilderness has gifted has been the time to think, to process all that has happened to me so far in my few years and come to terms, not only with these events and occurrences, but especially with who I am and where I am going now.
My journal bears witness to this process, I have listed all the options I think I now have, all the different roads I am free to follow and this experience has proved exceptionally cathartic. Whether it is because of the isolation, the clear sea and mountain air, the stripped down reality of existence out here or something else, my mind feels sharper, less fogged or troubled than at any time before; at least since I was a child. I do also believe that knowing my outdoor skills actually are as good as I thought there were has helped; I have discussed this with some people in the past – knowing I can always live in the wilderness, find shelter, food, water, light and maintain a fire, means I approach life differently to many. I can step beyond the slavish existence so many blindly follow and see, if not a bigger, then a more real picture of life.
Too many people forget we are simply a part of nature, the top of the food chain, true, but at some point we return to the earth, our bodies nourishing other life. I would suggest that this divorce from nature is a far more recent event than you may think. Talk to the older people you know (or you may remember yourself) and it becomes clear that the technological age we are living in has helped this separation. As examples of this, think how many people love to watch wildlife documentaries, or have an epic vista as their computer background – yet few actually get out there and see it all for real. Before it’s gone.
I’m not talking about doing something as extreme as I am currently undertaking. There is nature to be found wherever you are, be it in a local wood, field, hedgerow or even park. But you won’t see it unless you actually get out there. I’m not being sanctimonious here; when I lived in Sheffield I was as guilty of this apathy as anyone else, it is too easy to think ‘oh, it’s raining/dull/windy/cold’ or head to town and a bar instead.
So what if it’s raining? You’ll be dry by the end of the day and bad weather is often the best time to see wildlife – the animals and birds know full well that we prefer to stay indoors, cloistered away while they go about their crucial business of gathering the sustenance they need to survive. Dog owners will understand this – as long as they don’t walk with head down, hood up, they are far more likely to have seen animals closer in the rain than in the sun.
Maybe you should get out for a walk this weekend? Chances are you may even have had snow – if you get out early before it melts or is confused by others, you may well see the tracks and signs of creatures that at one end lead to a living, breathing wild thing. It will make you feel good to see these things and restore a portion of that separation I have talked about.
Back to my own plans. I have decided I will make no firm decisions on my own trail into the unknown that is the coming months and years until after Christmas. There are only a few things that are set in stone – celebrating with the family (which is something I am very excited about), visiting my sister in January to help her with one or two things and finally my novel.
I’ve not really spoken much about this here, which is odd as this site is for writers of course, but I have been steadily working on this over the time I have been out here. It has now reached the point where my fingers are itching to get to a computer to type up my notes, snatches of dialogue and everything else my journal is littered with.
I won’t say much about the plot here at present but, if I do say so myself, it is excellent and already contains some of the best work I have crafted to date. I have set a rough date of March 2011 to have the first draft complete; a tall order perhaps, but as I said, much of the work has already been done in pen and ink in my overflowing Moleskines.
There are also another couple of projects, directly arising from my time out here, that I intend to work on when I return to civilisation. A collection of illustrated children’s poems is already underway (very dark illustrations and poems, with a humourous bent). I have also crafted several other poems and intend to couple these with some of the thousands of photos I have taken. Then there is the adventure itself, this will be used for another project the Editor and I are already working on…
So, a busy few months ahead but before this I still have a little time left out here and I am trying to make the most of it. There are still firsts to be had – just today I got to within fifty yards of a buzzard sat on a branch (at least I think it was a buzzard, it was darker in colour than usual, but that may have been because I was closer and I was seeing the normally hidden upper side of the bird). I also saw my first fieldfare (or fellfare) of the season – a sure sign winter is here.
I will leave this piece here now; I have dinner to cook and a fire to build up. The temperature is plummeting and I am glad of the warmth and shelter I have from this bitterly cold wind. I wonder when it will start to snow. Perhaps tonight.