New Years Day, 2019. Glen Eanaich was its usual self; brooding and dark. The waters of the river were the colour of hammered steel, flowing through a glen so long and broad that you could comfortably fit Aviemore inside it. At its head stood the grim cliff faces of Sgoran Dubh Mor and Sgor Gaoith. Across the glen, making those mountains look small, rose the many slopes and hollows of vast Braeriach.
I was trying, in futility, to capture a sense of it all. The epic sensation of space. The glen’s elemental convergence of rock, water and air. Sudden eruptions of fleeting light, like water from a burst dam; which vanished again like receding waves.
But nothing was working for me. I wasn’t finding that spark which makes the camera work like a conduit between the land and myself. The magic was happening far off on the hills.
Around me the snowless glen was alternately dark with shadow, or dim with the dead brown of winter. Beside the river I gave up photographing the rocks, and zipped my camera away. Another gap in the cloud opened, and a golden shaft of light swept across the mountain slopes, tantalisingly out of reach.
It’s okay, I told myself. Today’s just not the day. That’s how it goes for a landscape photographer. The search sometimes leads you down a dead end.
The short day was waning, and I turned for home. I trod the gravel track through mile upon mile of void-like moorland. If it were not for the mountains rising up on every side, then the impression would have been of startling, echoless emptiness. Not so much a place, as an unfilled volume.
Across the glen was Carn Eilrig – the ‘little’ hill that divides Glen Eanaich from its more famous sister; the Lairig Ghru. Its wide, steep slopes rose to a low summit of no particular appeal, which is rarely visited. Blankness. Just a huge sweep of heather, bare and brown in the darkening afternoon, except for the mottled patches of grey stone. And, just there…
Hang on. What’s that?
A slim beam of light penetrated the clouds and shone on the slopes of Carn Eilrig like a spotlight. And there among the rocks, so tiny and distant, was a brilliant point of green.
I looked away, and then back again, to see if my eyes could still find it. There it was.
The sunlight faded and the tree all but vanished against the dull slope. Now that I had fixed my eyes on the spot I could still see it, barely. I’d never have noticed it at all, if not for that brief moment of light.
Interesting, I murmured.
Life’s challenges are never what we expect.
Neither are the solutions.
I couldn’t go on. I didn’t want to turn back. Tortuous apprehension twisted in my gut. A despised enemy.
My mentality was against me. Like having a rusty spring caught on my heels. To go on meant dragging it out, stretching it taught, and discovering whether the tension or I broke first.
Or I could turn back now. The optimism of the morning was already lost in hammering rain, after all. No prospect of finding my image any more. There really was no reason to stay.
Except that turning back would still break me.
I’d had enough of that. Been broken enough times. I started pulling.
I crossed the sodden moor. Then, haltingly, I dug into the steep slope of Carn Eilrig. At the limit of my breath, heart thumping through my entire body as I took the slope, I had a word with myself. Take this as proof that you can do things you don’t think you can do.
The wind down in the forest was slashing through the trees. On the summits it was gale force – strong enough to knock you down. It had snowed recently, but that was mostly melted. The hillsides wore ugly stripes of melting grey patches. The rivers swelled with peaty brown water. Clouds blew close around the hills and shut out the light.
Hard to explain just how much I wanted this tree. How much I needed to be there on a barren hillside in a storm. Beyond the boundary of what I thought I could do. The wind hammered me down, but I got up again and kept stepping slowly up.
I finally saw it, hiding among the boulders from which it grew. Alone above the glen. Twisted, stunted, weird.
But, finally reaching it, I viewed it from a new angle. The tree no longer seemed grotesque or strange, nor hidden. It was beautiful in its own right, and made more so by its sensational position. It did not keek out at the world, but stood proudly over it.
With deep relief I dropped my bag in the heather. I was here, finally. And the clouds that blew over Glen Eanaich were shredding, tearing apart, and letting light flood into the glen. The grim brown of winter heather turned to gold. The grey shadows became deep shades of blue. Banners of wind blown snow fluttered from the mountains.
With joy, I raised the camera. But sometimes landscape photography is nothing at all to do with photographs.
The day was glorious. The woods felt so very alive, so playful; there was no harshness anywhere at all. As if every spirit in the land decided to just take a day off and relax.
I like to imagine, sometimes, that there are spirits in the landscape. A water spirit in the river, a tree spirit dwelling in a pine; personifications of weather, places, and moments. Today they were all languidly happy, except for child-like wind sprites. They raced each other among the trees, dashing through me and leaving my skin fresh at their touch.
The trees shone golden. Clouds passed by, throwing spears of light around with a casual grace; they made it look so easy. I knew already I was having a perfect day. The land was singing laughter, cascading water and racing wind. The joy of a mountain land was awake in me.
I walked without pause, step by step; through bog, moss and boulder; higher and higher. The Sentinel was in sight, growing from its unlikely boulder field in a glen that is defined by barren emptiness. But then I went a different way, traversing back into the highest edge of the forest.
I found Grandfather high on the hillside in the evening light of autumn. Crooked fingers propping him against the slope like a crutch. But still tall, and powerful. I decided to stay with him a while, and made myself comfy in the heather, in the glow of the warm sun.
Old Father Time settled himself on the hillside. The shadow of the pine swung slowly round, offering out his gnarled hand. The wind settled. Everything faded into silence and the sacredness of an unbroken peace.
I sat there looking; with intent; with patience. Quiet but rapt attention to the motion of clouds and the flutter of heather stalks. One endless moment as long as the sky, and as short as a flower. The loch at the head of the glen twinkled in the sun.
This was it. This was my place. And the chance to see it, to know it, was the gift of life itself.
Old Father Time breathed on the back of my neck. The sun was dipping toward the horizon and it was time to go.
For ten years I’ve stalked these woods, searching for a conjunction of place, and light, and feeling. A Moment. I spot it from afar, on occasion; high and far away in the uppermost reaches of the forest. While I’m wandering down among shadows, I see the sky reach out to caress the hill with a sublime touch.
The montane edge of the forest – that’s where I wanted to be. Not surrounded by the dense pines, but overlooking them and the mountains. Standing in a grand setting at a transcendent moment.
The perfect opportunity was never going to announce itself in advance, so it was simply a case of deciding to go.
I worked hard for the first hour, stepping over endless hummocks of heather and moss, threading a way through thick forest. When I stopped to rest I watched the snow clouds drift in from the north. Little blizzards passed across Aviemore and Glenmore, hiding them behind grey curtains.
On I went, trees passing by, yet never seeming to reach the top of the woods. I felt myself craving the effort as I pushed the pace to the limit of my ability to breathe. Partly suffering and partly relishing the pain of it, demanding strength from my body, and finding there was something there after all.
At last my body had enough. I dumped my bag, wiped copious sweat from my brow, and faced downhill to watch.
The snow was gliding in over the lower slopes of the forest, where I had threaded my way only a short while ago. In moments it arrived. The snow filled my open palm with bouncing white peas. It made piles on my shoulders and the tops of my legs. Darkness slid into the forest, snatching away the views of wood and loch. It made the world small, but full of mystery.
I had not wanted to experience this place in blue-skied banality. I wanted its spirit, its life, its wonder. A much finer and more subtle beauty. Snow streaked the silver air; blending the ground into itself. Trees turned to silhouettes. Layer on layer, they faded into the distant hills.
I had a sense of fleeting but timeless perfection. The land concealed itself, and in so doing revealed its true beauty.
I can see the Sentinel even from the very start of my walk. It stands out, a distant fleck of darkness on the white sheet of the snow covered mountain. The highest tree in all the forest. The furthest away.
I wish that I could just snap my fingers and be there. But I remember what this tree means to me. That some things must be earned. To reach it is both the challenge and the reward.
The light pulses in the woods as I crunch through the deep snow. It offers me opportunities, but I pass them by. Today I am focused and determined. It’s all or nothing.
I want to find a Moment, likeI have before. Only, I want more. Always more. More ferocious beauty. More intense exaltation. The harder the Search, the more worthy the prize.
So I must go today; a day of deep snow, howling wind and freezing cold. A day of fearsome awe. No soft magic, no curtains of light. The mountains are not hiding their power today; they are all raging white and gold. It’s time to look the Silent Goddess right in the eyes, dare her wrath, and steal a kiss.
The wind picks up as I climb into the glen. It raises snow from the ground and blasts me with it. Spindrift flows across the ground like a procession of ghostly banners. I sweat as I walk but freeze when I stop.
I pass familiar markers. Other trees I’ve photographed many times. But not only physical landmarks. I note the point where I start to doubt myself. And the moment my concerns become nervousness, as I wander alone into an enveloping white wilderness. I tick them off, familiar with them now. I know they will not stop me any more.
The snow is deep and my progress slow. Each step a process of extracting a leg, taking high step. Leaning forward and down as the snow compresses and my leg sinks in again to my knee.
Spindrift seeks out gaps in my defences and gets in my eyes. I’m alone in the glen, with nothing but white snow for miles around. And, somewhere just up above, a lonely tree on a hill.
Eventually I reach it again. The weather feels like it has a personal vendetta against me now. The wind howls, ice crystals sparkling in sunlight before they strike. But I smile, because this beautiful winter fury is why I am here.
The tree creaks as wind moans through its needles. I settle in the snow, keeping my lens out of the wind, poised and ready. I’m shaking with nervous excitement, or maybe the cold. I can’t stay here forever. But I’ll stay as long as I can. As the wind howls and snow whips I sit and wait.
I only need a second…