Wild Swimming (ish)

Wild Swimming (ish)

Many years ago I was offered a mooring for a house-boat, but my boyfriend at the time suggested that living on the water possibly wasn’t the best idea for someone who fell down frequently on solid ground.  While I still can’t argue with his logic, it hasn’t stopped me being a little cross with myself that I didn’t give it a go anyway – because I really wanted to. Similarly, for the last ten years or so I’ve been muttering about swimming in the loch, but every time I mention it I am reminded by my partner of all the reasons why it is not a good idea – it would be fair to mention here that he has worked on sea-lochs around Lochaber for the best part of 30 years, so does know a wee bit about them. Tonight, as I walk down the rough brae from our house, across the single-track road and down to the stony shore, the warnings of red jelly fish, slimy brown seaweed and frigid water temperatures are ringing in my ears, but I have finally decided that enough is enough. The only way to find out if I can do it is to, well, do it.

The weather has been hot for the last few days and the evening air is a white haze across the water, turning the greens of the surrounding hills into an indistinct blue. I’m hoping that the recent heatwave will have turned the top few inches of the loch a touch warmer than all the dire warnings have indicated. The ground at the shore here was recently landscaped by a digger into a makeshift slip of broken granitic gneiss and basalt,* but the stones closer to the tide, glistening russet, gold, cinnamon, honey, copper, olive, pewter, have been rolled smooth by time and water. More important to me though, at this precise moment, is that the usually-prolific bladder wrack hasn’t quite recovered from the groundworks here: it is as clear a stretch into the water as I am going to get.

I stand with my toes, still in trainers, tipping at the edge of the yellow-toned shore water.  The wind sends the surface undulating towards me. When I was wee my mum used to run the bathwater too hot, so I used to get into the bath in increments, first acclimatising my feet, then gradually letting my ankles, my shins, my thighs get used to the hot water; I inch forward now and let the waves travel up to my bare ankles.  It is cold, but as, this guy puts it, it’s somewhere between ‘no bad’ and ‘aye, it’s awright’. I have a brief moment where I think, ‘you’re nuts, this is going to be painful, just go for walk’, but then irritation kicks in: I want to know if I’m capable of this. I step further into the loch, sliding a little on the stones. I’m up to my knees.  I imagine going home now – it wouldn’t be too shameful for a first attempt, would it? But after a few minutes I take another step forward, the water now up to the tops of my thighs; my lungs seem to be trying to get away from the water as my breath suddenly starts to come in sharp and shallow. I can still see the bottom clearly though; here and there are wisps of kelp still anchored on rocks by my feet.  I remember swimming in the sea off Ardneil Bay as a kid: I was fine as long as I could put my feet down on the sand, but the minute I got into deeper water I had this same involuntary drawing in of breath, as if my body was trying to draw itself out of the water. I was afraid of the unknown, of other sea-dwellers (whatever they may be), of what lurked in the water between my feet and the seabed.  I still am.

However, I am also now becoming aware of a separation that exists between me and the natural world: barring the odd walk I have largely admired the breathtaking display of the Scottish Highlands through a pane of glass (touched on in this much earlier blog post). So I bend down and put my arms into the water up to my shoulders, feet still firmly on the ground. I breathe slowly and deeply to remind my body that it is okay where it is, that I am still only a few feet from the dry rocks at the shore. Taking one more slow deep breath I lean further forward and push my whole body into the water. A tiny splash of salt water on my lips is exhilarating – I am doing it!  I am swimming in this loch!  I swim in a tiny circle, maybe five or six breast strokes, then quickly scramble my feet back down onto the rocks that are just a couple of feet below me.  I stand up and beam into the sunlight; the sun gleams off the seawater that streams off my black leggings. The water doesn’t feel as cold now, and I push myself back into the water, again doing a little circle. I can describe little else as I am mainly focussing on catching my breath and calming it down.  I still don’t want anything to touch me, but as I swim in my tiny orbit close to the shore I start to relax enough to see the water, the liquid denim blue of the waves woven with white reflections, and golden seaweed breaking the surface at either side of my safe zone.  My eye won’t go beyond that to the hills, or even to the trees which I imagine are waving me on from the shore, but maybe next time.

 

* Thank you Lochaber Geopark.

 

 

Finding the ‘sacred’ – Arthur Dent style

Finding the ‘sacred’ – Arthur Dent style

When I walk I am usually searching for something: a different perspective, peace, escape, information, connection, understanding, or sometimes just to get breathing space, to find a return to my own head after a day with the kids; walking is a conscious act with agency behind it and within it. This morning I am woken just after 5 by Keir, who climbs and plays around us until I register that it is light. Having just finished Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, and also having the class instructions to go for a walk for a class that starts at 9 today – meditating specifically on Snyder’s thoughts in the book – I decide that now is as good a time as any. I reckon that starting the day with a conscious connection to the land I inhabit can only be a good foundation to build from (combined with the mortar of morning coffee of course.)

The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy.

The point is to make intimate contact with the real world, real self. ‘Sacred’ refers to that which helps take us (not only human beings) out of our little selves into the mountains-and-rivers mandala universe.

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

So, having first checked it was okay with the larger Lawrie that I could abandon him to the breakfast routine, I chuck waterproof trousers, jacket and wellies on over my jammies and head out into the universe.

My intention is to do a quick tour up the back of the croft, but I can’t help following the deer and sheep tracks that are so clear on the wet ground, tunnels of flattened grass with their tips pointing away from me like arrows, to end up at the boundary with the sliver of common grazings that lies between us and the landfill site. I stand and watch the ever-present sea of gulls that flock over the raised-up hollow of earth that holds the detritus of human lives. Hundreds of the birds lift off out of this basin in a white wave, a cycling swell of movement that brings them back round and down again like water swirling down a drain; once settled they coat the surface and line the rim like dots of icing around a cake, three ravens continuing to circle above them. The sound of the seabirds’ raucous burbling sweeps towards me, and I want to wait to see if they will lift off again, but, conscious that I have been away longer than planned, I turn for home.

Splinters of white, blue and red catch my eye here and there, plastic caught in the lee of the stone wall, in the long dead grass, and quivering in the bare branches of the birch like prayers for the sick in a clootie tree. At one point I think I see some white-brain fungus, whose gelatinous folds I am equally repulsed and amazed by, but it turns out to be a crushed plastic takeaway cup enmeshed in the sphagnum moss. Stopping at the fencepost that sits roughly where one of the ruins has been dug away for the betterment of another area of the croft, I decide to make my own wee offering to this piece of recovering land, inspired by Snyder’s spiritual approach to the landscape. I choose to make this fencepost my personal sacred marker of this sad but necessary act of demolition, and the loss of a living memorial to the people who made this land their own before us. I look around for something to put on the post and a scrap of sheep’s wool catches my eye. Though perhaps an ironic choice, given what drove the creation of crofts in the first place, I bend to pick it up – it turns out to be an opaque polythene bag.

Instead I place a piece of dried common bent grass, glistening with tiny wee stars, remnants of rainwater.

Magic raven feather

Magic raven feather

All day we have been under an oppression of heavy grey cloud, and beneath it the gusting eastern wind has turned the usually clear loch into a tempest. One thing I am learning though, as I pay more attention, as I read more, is that the ravens love the wind; so, despite being scunnered and tired, at the back of 5 I don boots and trudge up the back of the croft, heading westwards towards the neighbouring crofts where I suspect the ravens are roosting.

Perhaps it’s the day it’s been, but I am not soothed by my footsteps as I usually am. Insecurity as to what direction my writing should go in, fights with wee Lawrie about sitting in a different car seat, about what boots to wear, Keir breaking half a dozen eggs all over the kitchen (Lawrie is allergic to raw egg) and subsequently pulling the shower off the wall, toy throwing, nipping, screaming (them, not me), forgetting to buy milk – all of these things accumulate like the purple bruise of sky sagging over the pale blue-gold sunset faraway in the west. The winds have brought litter: caught in the net of birch, willow and hazel that grow along the banking are marge tubs, poly bags, takeaway packaging, bottles, cartons, shredded letters… I video a trail of blue plastic, American Beauty style, caught on a branch and twisting in the wind.

I am really only half-heartedly looking for the ravens; in truth I am just trying to get away from my mood. Nonetheless, I bother to scrawl a few notes as the ravens register me, a group of twelve taking turns to swoop round silently and pull up short in the sky above my head, held there in the wind, until they disappear as one, issuing a single croak as they go.  I spook the group again as I tramp about the undergrowth, as well as a couple of roe deer, feeling the thud of their escape through the ground and hearing their warning bark in the distance, but I still can’t pinpoint where the birds might settle. Eventually the failing light sends me homewards (and the knowledge that I should really go and help with the bedtime routine), the grump in me as heavy as the leaden skies that contrast so sharply with the white hilltops to the south.  I cross the fence at a point where it has been knocked down, and there is my gift. A single black feather. I have to double back over the fence to pick it up, but I know now that I am on the right path. I walk home clutching my feather like Dumbo, suddenly lighter. Just write about the ravens.

img_7780

Walking paths

Walking paths

I have a tendency to go to extremes. If I am studying (as I am) I either work as hard as I can, or I do literally nothing. I am getting better at learning to find balance – having to stop whatever I’m doing in order to, say, feed my children forces me to break my day up a little better and helps prevent burnout. However I clearly haven’t got rid of this all-or-nothing mindset. I am nearly 40 (apparently) and seem to be getting more unfit and unhealthy by the year, so after reading Sarah Moss’s blog post on running I decided that I would do a couch to 5K. But I couldn’t find my trainers. So, living on the shore of a loch, I thought maybe I would follow in the forward stroke of Victoria Whitworth and Amy Liptrot and start wild swimming. On suggesting this to my mussel-farmer partner I was informed that the water temperature was about 6 degrees at the moment and, at my current level of fitness, I would basically die. He casually suggested that I could maybe just go for a walk up the hill instead?

Once I’d recovered from my forehead slapping ‘doh’ moment I did indeed just stick on my wellies and walk up the hill at the back of the croft. As it always does, walking leaves my mind free to wonder. As soon as I walk up the steep slope of grass to the west of our flat bit of garden my mind immediately starts searching and analyzing the ground in front of me. I follow a brown-leaf path through a wee copse of thin willow which takes me out along an ancient dry-stone dyke, so ancient that the moss and grass present it as a large hump: you only know what lies beneath by the unresisting thud of stone you feel if you give it a boot. I have followed this wall many times, on OS maps, on satellite images, and on foot, but late winter is by far the best time to see, by eye, the marks left on the land by our predecessors. As I walk the croft at this time of year, when everything has died back and the dry grass lies close to the ground, I am straining my eyes and my mind to see old ditches and walls, or a well, and of course old paths. Some marks aren’t so very old: a perfect circle of overgrown stones turned out to be where my partner’s father stacked hay only 30 or 40 years ago; my path through the young willow has very recently been created by the sheep, as evidenced by the scrags of wool spindling on the lower branches.

img_7443This afternoon’s walk takes me up to the common grazings ground beyond the belt of mature oak and birch along the top of the banking. When I first moved here from Glasgow 10 years ago, filled with images of Highland life from novels such as The Silver Darlings, I would gaze at the criss-crossing of paths through the open, undulating landscape of bog myrtle and heather, imagining tracks trodden for centuries by crofters. Regardless of the fact that I now know crofting itself is only as ancient as the 19th century, through experience I also suspect my historic paths are more likely to be as old as the deer that trampled them last night.

img_7446If paths aren’t walked regularly the surrounding landscape will generally reclaim them. When my partner’s parents still had their lab-collie cross Grandpa had a dog-walking circuit he would do over the two crofts; ‘Grandpa’s path’ was clear from their house to ours, and up the field to the level high ground adjoining the common grazings. Poor Dash was only buried in Granny’s pet cemetery at the bottom of the field last year, but already Grandpa’s path is getting harder to see. Grandpa himself has commented on it and endeavours to walk it regularly though he’s missing his sidekick; even with this effort, in this short amount of time, the path is fading.

I am reminded of all of this this afternoon, as my feet reaffirm the safe passage the deer have found through the boggy tufted grass, the winter brush and the crunchy heather. I am conscious that when I walk the croft, when I search out the old paths and the new, I am creating my own path. I inevitably return home down the east side of the croft, which was recently reshaped by diggers: the ground here has been swept clear of previous human activity. There are swathes of flattened rushes where some large animals, probably deer, have had a kip for the night; otherwise it is a blank page. Today however I imagine I can see a meandering trail of bent tawny grass that could easily have been made the last time I stole a free daylight hour to walk on my own. The sedentary lifestyle of a literature student and writer (not to mention the slow walking pace of very small children) means that I must make a conscious choice to get my body moving, but by walking the croft I am also choosing to add my own history to this landscape, however tenuous it may be.

The Sea is Awake Here

The Sea is Awake Here

The sea is awake here, breathing deeply, in and out, pitching towards and away from the rocks that tumble below my feet. Above the black rim of the mountains the waning gibbous moon is clear and high (97% illumination, according to my phone); its uninterrupted light touches everything like snow, revealing unexpected shapes and lines in the shadowy landscape. Pinholes of water gleam in an outline of hazel branches; the hazel, if indeed that’s what it is, interrupts what would otherwise be a perfect composition of glittering inky waves and luminescent stone – but the camera on my phone isn’t capable of seeing this light anyway. I try to take a photo out of habit, but realise that if I want to capture this moment, the scene around me, then I will need to write it.

Behind me the moonlight lies on a great slab of rock, which has been blasted and exposed to make space for this road I stand by; the light runs along the edge of glistening black tarmac. Posed along the shim of rock-face there is a still assembly of muted-grey birch.

Beyond the islands that lie veiled and dense upon the quiet deep of sea, and the dark sleeping back of the peninsula, my eye finds the familiar pattern of Orion. My pal Orion used to watch, from his spot above the hill behind my parent’s house, as I bolted home before – or after – my 10pm curfew. Twenty years later and 150 miles north he still reassures me with his infinitely non-judgemental presence. I tilt my head back further though and deliberately gaze at the unknown constellations visible in the limpid sky; at this angle the vastness of indigo is accentuated by a darkening fisheye warp at the edges of my vision. In this radiant darkness I can see the shape of the air and this rock I stand upon.

Poetry: ‘Gull’ – Take 2

Poetry: ‘Gull’ – Take 2

I recently completed a week-long artist’s residency at Outlandia in Glen Nevis, more on which to follow. One thing that became clear to me during the residency is that my working process is, and should be, longer than I’ve previously made room for.

I posted Gull to my blog recently, as I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and was prompted just to put stuff out there without worrying about public opinion: if I liked it that was good enough.  Except, Gull has been hanging about in my head since I posted it; I’ve finally admitted that I’m not actually happy with it, and I sort of regret posting it.  I could of course just take the post down, but a) it’s good for me to keep reminders of the learning journey and b) nobody really reads my blog anyway!

So for the 3 of you that will read this (hello! Thanks for visiting!) here is the revised version of Gull.  I’ll let this one sit in my head for a while before deciding if it is finished.  I’d be keen to hear from other poets as to at what point they know a poem is finished.

 

Gull

Canny gawker,

Raucous marauder,

Caustic skitterer:

Calls for culls.

 

Untold scraps of white let fly

Arcing endlessly, windborne yet free,

Between the absolute of sky

And the grey glimmer below.

 

No thought

for either.

Poetry: ‘Gull’

Poetry: ‘Gull’

Addendum: So it turns out this wasn’t finished after all. See this blogpost for a later version of this poem.

 

Gull

 

Shrewd stare.

Snatcher of seaside sandwiches.

Shit that dissolves shiny car paint.

Calls for culls.

 

Untold scraps of white let fly,

arcing, endlessly, windborne yet free

between the absolute of sky

and the grey glimmer below:

 

no thought, for either.