The Great Inversion, Part Four: The White Goddess

Day Four: Tuesday 21st December

Every great day of photography begins with a plan, a rough prediction of what weather and light might look like, which gives rise to an idea for a photo.

Frequently this idea goes out the window as soon as you get outside and compare your prediction to reality, but for me having the idea has always been an important part of the process. At the very least it gets me out the door. At best it lets me predict and pre-empt some of the most wonderful natural scenes that can be imagined.

Whatever the idea is, it’s usually not based on logic, but rather on a feeling of what kind of scene I really want to find. A mix of hope, ambition and forecast – a desire to see a particular aspect of the season, weather and light.

By the fourth day of the Great Inversion, however, I was fresh out of ideas. I had no photographic ambitions left. I had witnessed a tidal wave of rare sights and sublime moments in mountain and wood. I’d been there at sunrise on the Cairngorm plateau; seen hilltops rising above cloud layers; held sunlight streaming through pine trees in my hands; and tasted hoar frost melt from birch branches on my tongue. Brocken spectres; fogbows; ice formations; cloud movements. I’d made contact with a transcendent beauty in a cornucopia of visual wonder.

I was in the midst of a rare and wonderful period of protracted deep immersion in nature. I felt ineffably changed – touched with apperception of things unseen. A transformational moment.

But one more day beckoned. One more day, and I had no idea where to go or what to do.

I felt at a loss, but also liberated. Unsure where to begin, but free of any preconceived notions or desires. In such a state, I would be completely free to immerse myself completely in whatever I found. No second guessing myself, or talking myself out of commitment.

I decided to visit a place I hadn’t been for several years – Abernethy. I might as well go there as anywhere else. And because for many years I’d thought of doing a sunrise shoot there, overlooking the Cairngorms from the north.

Oh, careful now! That sounds suspiciously close to an idea and a plan. So don’t think about it any more. Just go.

In pre-dawn light we arrived at the Forest Lodge deep in the woods, where we set off on the track toward the old croft at Rynettin. It was incredibly cold, and I started to regret already that I hadn’t worn a thicker pair of trousers. I needed to get moving to warm up.

Scout and I quickly despatched the mile-long walk up the gradual hill to the old farm cottages. The frost had been renewed once again, and was thick on every blade of grass. At the crest of the hill we emerged from the woods into clear ground, overlooking the forest and the northern slopes of the Cairngorms. We looked out across the view and I immediately knew we had made a good choice by coming here.

The mist was silver, cold, and thick in the air at the foot of the hillside. Ghost like peaks rose in the distance above a rank of icy birches – rounded, smooth and mysterious in the half light. There was a vast sense of space, of hills and mountains surrounding me on all sides, and of fog extending almost infinitely in every direction. And deep, biting cold.

When people meet such moments they often say it’s like something out of Narnia or Middle Earth. ‘Tolkienesque’ has become parlance for spectacular, fantastic beauty. But they’re wrong. These aren’t like scenes out of works of fiction. They are more important than that. They are the raw ingredients that went in to such imagineered wonders. But they are more wonderful, more fantastical, and more meaningful than any imagined land; because they’re real.

So I didn’t feel as if I had stepped inside a fantasy. I felt as if I had stepped inside a more meaningful reality. The world as it is meant to be seen, as it is meant to be experienced. So full or richness and wonder that the habits of ‘normal’ life pale into dull banality by comparison.

We stayed there on our little hilltop for a long while as sunlight grew in the world. At dawn a golden atmosphere stealthily appeared atop the mists and came down toward us like a sinking tide. The light breathed the mist aside, revealing the tops of the Cairngorms. Seeming to float above the clouds, they bathed in grandeur.

I made photographs with a simple, flowing ease. One thing, it would have been, to predict all this – to envision it and plan it and then come here and succeed. But to simply flow through the morning, without intent or desire. Every scene felt like a gift. A wonderful chance for the world to lead me by the hand and show me wonders in a way I had never imagined.

By the time the sun fully rose above the mist I was really cold. It was time to move. Scout and I took the trail down towards the heart of the Abernethy woods, which thickly line the banks of the river Nethy.

I really wanted to get across the river if we could. On the far side lay a track that wound out beyond the wooded slopes of Carn a’ Chnuic, just above a wide expanse of open moor and mature pines known as ‘The Savannah.’ It is my favourite area anywhere in Abernethy and I was eager to see it on such a rare morning.

But would we be able to cross the river? The crossing point was a ford rather than a bridge, and several years ago a huge spate swept a torrent of water and debris through it, dramatically deepening and altering its course. The Nethy in full flow is a dark and cold slash through the trees, running fast and quick. If it was swollen with meltwater from the high hills then getting in the river was the absolute last thing I wanted to do, especially with the air well below freezing. That wouldn’t just be inconvenient; it would be dangerous.

We emerged from the trees beside the water and saw with relief that it was running fairly low. There was a stony, gravelly bank running diagonally across that should be serve as a safe route to the far side. We picked our way across the first half, but then the second was deeper and faster. I hesitated, then just decided to go for it; depending on gaiters and speed to keep the water from my boots.

We bounded into the water together, manically charging for the refuge of the bank. Coldness enveloping legs. Five deep splashes, ten, fifteen. Scout bounding beside me. Then we were over, diving headlong into the branches.

We seemed to have made it unscathed. Scout shook the water from his fur and was quickly dry. But the water on my gaiters froze to frost within the next ten minutes. Still, they’d kept me dry and made the difference between continuing our day or making a 5km detour to the nearest bridge.

The uphill slant of the track fortunately gave us enough work to warm us up again quickly as we climbed up and out from the deep channel of the Nethy. A mile later we were again out above the woods, looking south toward misty skies, frosty trees and wide open spaces.

It wasn’t only the shapes of the trees that was beautiful. It was the way they receded into the distance, disappearing into the gently glowing mist. I could imagine the forest going on forever into that sweet light. I could imagine wandering through it down endless green and gold halls, seeking.

We came down from the hill and began to do exactly that. We crossed a wide expanse of bog that was usually so deep and treacherous with sphagnum that I always gave it a wide berth for fear of my life. But today it was so solidly frozen it was like walking on a pavement.

The forest came out of the mist to greet us. The trees seemed to move toward me, turning from silhouettes into clear, sunlit shapes. I passed a beautiful pine, then looked over my shoulder and saw another perfect fogbow – replica of the one seen yesterday. I found alignments of tree, moor and mist that seemed like something from a dream.

There was a breathtaking gentleness in the day, despite the bone-chilling coldness in the air. The light caressed the forest, and the mist stroked the cheek of the mountains. It flowed with absolute tenderness between hill and glen.

I’ve sometimes imagined spirit-like figures here among the woods and lochs of the Cairngorms. Characters a little like ghosts, ethereal and transparent, or totally invisible. A lazy, languid goddess who dangles her fingers in the waters of Loch Vaa. A sleeping tree-god who rests inside little pines in Rothiemurchus. A storyteller who whispers the names of things in the breeze that you just can’t quite hear. Children who race one another on steeds of wind the length of Glen Eanaich, throwing puddle water at one another.

I had an idea which of these might be responsible for this day. The mistress of winter, maybe, who passed among the trees and spread frosts with her touch. Come down from her mountain home. Shrouded in mists of gold, for she was not meant for human eyes. Hair of silver, skin of white, lady of winter. The White Goddess.

A short way on I found fresh sign of her touch; a sight I had never seen. Out of the corner of my eye, at the edge of light and shadow, I saw a fall of crystals through the air catching the light. Impossibly fine, as if they were the lightest and most delicate flakes of snow. I could not say if they were the frozen droplets of my breath, or atoms of mist solidifying in the air, or flakes of frost loosened from branch by the touch of the sun. Whatever the answer they fell in a sprinkle of such gentility it could barely even be perceived.

I tried to photograph it, but barely succeeded. If I ever have the chance again then maybe one day I will be able to film it.

The mist was constantly ebbing and flowing through the wood as we wandered. The light was endlessly shifting, the views artistically expanding and contracting from mountain-top to grass-top. We walked in surpassing, lived beauty, among places where few people ever tread.

As the sun began to lower once again into the horizon we began our walk homeward. Back up the trail into the heart of Abernethy, and plunging once again into thickening mists.

There was nothing left to dream for. In the course of the last four days every hope and imagined scene had been fulfilled a dozen times over. I felt simultaneously exalted and exhausted – emotionally overwhelmed and calmed by the extraordinary quantity of beauty I had tried to absorb.

As I wrote this first account I knew that it was only the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long period of reflection. This was an experience of nature so profound that it could only be described as transcendent. The world had made a gift of itself. Every dream had been realised, and then been surpassed. The Great Inversion of 2021.

At the end of the last day I decided to put the drone in the air for one last view. Tomorrow the weather was finally due to change, and the day needed a fitting end. The drone lifted above me and cruised over the river Nethy. A birds eye view of a land to which I will forever belong, body and soul.

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