The Great Inversion, Part Three: The Edge of Beauty

Day Three: Monday 20th December

Scout and I returned to Whitewell in the early morning, not long after sunrise. Once again we ran from the van to the birch trees at the crest of the hill. The thick mist in Aviemore had fooled me; I had assumed it would be much the same here – similar to the way I had left it the day before. But the air here was clear and bright. Sunrise must have been spectacular. I should have been here earlier, I thought. What a sight that must have been!

The birch trees were still decorated with a silver filigree of hoar frost. Impossibly fine, branching needles of ice sprouted from every surface. On each plant, on every stone, across the entire expanse of wood lay a crystalline blanket.

Beneath the sun of a bright blue sky the birches looked like sparkling feathers of ice. They glowed with a brilliant radiance that made their moniker of ‘silver’ seem appropriate yet wholly inadequate to convey their luminous grace. So even if I had missed sunrise, there was still plenty to be seen.

Without wasting any time I set about my photography. I love to repeat compositions; to come back over and over, capturing a tiny insight into nature’s infinite capacity to reinvent its own beauty. So while I shot I was also remembering other mornings of frost. Frost on golden leaves; in silver mist; in spring sunrise; over pink heather; frost beneath starlight. Such things, once seen, are never truly forgotten. They exist side by side with the present – all going along together.

I gradually worked my way further down among the birches, making images, feeling an urge to hurry before the brilliant sun melted the frost from the branches. Already behind me I could see the trees were brown at the top of the hill, where they had been longest in the sun.

Every direction was gorgeous. Every twig was shining brilliantly white, encased in needle sharp crystals of ice. The senses thrilled to a palette of white light, black edges, and deep blue shadows. Ice does wonderful things.

Scout was eager. Happily there was no sound of gunfire from the clay pigeon shooting today, and he was plainly keen to follow our well trodden and favourite route through the woods to the river. I was perfectly content to indulge him, having no other intention than walking, looking and seeing.

As we walked I couldn’t help but draw comparison to the very first day I had discovered this route, on a very similar day of frost. Years ago I had followed a deer trail down through the trees, into the depths of the real forest, away from the paths, and discovered an astonishingly beautiful ancient pine. The photograph I had taken had felt it meant something. At the time it was the best I’d ever made. It surprised and delighted me, and in its wake my attention really began to turn to the woods in earnest.

I revisited the same spot; but that image was a true one-off. I can’t repeat it because the forest has already changed. In the same place now the view is blocked by a thick stand of young pines.

But that’s the beautiful thing about the forest – it changes. Not just the conditions of weather and light, but the place itself. It’s constantly shifting and morphing. There are shots I can never repeat, but also new ones coming into being.

Just off the path was a small clearing filled with elegant pines, and though I had stopped there many times, I had never been really happy with any image from that spot. But today was its day.

There was an other-worldly quality about those trees, like viewing a forest that grew on a different planet. I had seen them covered in snow many times, but they possessed a special quality in the frost that I’d never seen before. They were not ’rounded out’ by snow, or weighed down. Their forms were clear and sharp. They might as well have been growing ice in place of pine needles. The light slanted in over the hills, picking out their canopies like clouds of light, throwing them into sharp relief against the dark blue shadows.

The scene worked so well because the trees stood at the edge of shadow and light. The low sun cast a long shadow from the nearby hills, which reached just as far as this clearing. The trees might have their feet in shadow, but their tops were in light. This was the reason for the great contrast between the trees and their background.

Very often this is the way of landscape photography. Great opportunities exist at the edges of things, where different elements of space and light combine. Intersection points between one thing and another. Where shorelines meet water; clifftops meet air; forest meets clearings . Where light, shadow and space join, you stand on the edge of beauty.

Scout and I continued to the river, where he begged me for a ball and a swim. With the air so cold I had no intention of letting him get soaked, but I chucked his ball into the shallows for him to splash and frolic while I tucked into a packet of biscuits. He emerged, and I dodged like the well trained pro I am as he came up beside me and shook river water all over the place I had been a moment before.

Afterwards I chased him through the woods, making exaggerated lunges at him as he evaded and outflanked me, goading this lumbering moron with nudges and playful growls while I stared at him upside down with my head between my knees. The only thing better than enjoying a day of photography in the world’s most beautiful forest is sharing it with a dog.

Frost was forming on his coat as we made our way back through the woods, and when we reached the van again Scout was obviously keen to return home.

But I wasn’t. I had a clear feeling that to leave now would be a mistake. The day was still superbly beautiful, and it would be an error to assume I had already seen all it had to offer. It’s always easy, once you’ve got one good photo, to be satisfied with that and call it a day.

I took a good look around, and saw that the mist above Aviemore had swelled upward and outward. It was now just reaching the highest slopes of the hill at Whitewell. I was beginning to think it might soon spill over the shoulder of the hill and come flowing down among the pine trees.

I had seen it do exactly that only once before, and the result had been just about the most extraordinary experience I’d ever had there. If those conditions were about to repeat, I wanted to see.

Scout looked at me with eyes that plainly said he’d had enough for now, so I left him comfortably in the van and set off once again. I paced rapidly down the hill we’d just come up, peering at sky and wood with an urgent interest. The mist seemed to be coming the right way, but then a moment later I was convinced it was retreating again, so I decided to go after it.

I plunged down the hill, looking for that vaporous softness in the light that suggests magic in the air, but it eluded me. I changed course, chasing it through heather and juniper, among pine and birch. I used all the skill and craft of 15 years to move as quickly as possible through the woods. Each foot seemed to know exactly where to land.

The mist dodged me again, and I changed course once more. Heading back uphill again, trying to find the edge of it, I climbed over a fence and picked up the faint trace of one of the old, overgrown paths that led to the very top of the hill. I finally started to see results – the mist thickening once more. There was a creamy denseness to the air again, and golden light painted on branches

But the compositions here were terrible. Too busy, too complex. So I continued my pursuit, slightly breathless now. Further up, to where birches still stood in frost, and where pines were fan-like silhouettes against the sky. I could feel that there was something special nearby – a jackpot shot – but where?

I turned left near the top of the hill, using a faint track to break through otherwise impenetrable barriers of juniper. Mist and light were swelling around the hill – it was happening – but every sight line was confounded by a web of branches. I ducked under scraggy lichen-clad twigs through a dark copse, feet dancing through the frost in haste as branches grasped and snagged me. At a run I finally came back out into sunlight.

I’d come back to one of my most familiar spots – near the top of the hill rather than the bottom – just as the tendrils of mist found their way in among the trees. Before me was one of my favourite subjects – a stunning granny pine that was a textbook specimen in the glory of its years. The sun lay low in the sky behind and, as the mist enveloped it, the tree shone with an ethereal backlight while dark beams of shadow sprang from its branches.

Once again I was finding beauty at the intersection point. The edge of the mist at the top of the hill; the edge of the forest and clear space; the edge of daytime and night. I had found the perfect place.

I felt nothing less than euphoric. One second I would be snapping away with the camera. The next I had my arms wide, head thrown back, twirling ecstatically through the golden atmosphere. I was literally skipping and dancing from one shot to the next.

At the very top of the hill I looked toward the antisolar point, and found a terrific fogbow waiting for me. The great granny pine was now down sun, and framed a perfect fogbow.

I had come so close to just jumping in the van and heading home. I would have missed this. Folly, folly, folly. Lesson learned.

Soon the air was so thick with mist that the light began to fade. Distance vanished and a grey ghostly light replaced the golden glory of a few minutes earlier. I decided this was the time to get the drone in the air, to seek out that perspective I could not quite reach myself. For the next hour I alternated between drone and camera – shooting by hand whenever the mist thinned, and by air when it thickened.

The view from above was sensational. Thick bars of light streaming through banners of fog. Mountains rising above the inversion layer and the sun glittering in the blue winter sky. Jackpot indeed.

Eventually the sun started to go down behind a thicker veil. My final battery for the drone was empty and the light was fading. It was finally time to call it. The sun was a pale disc shining weakly through the greyness at the end, as Scout (I’d gone to get him from the van a while ago) and I headed home.

I’d seen so much in the past three days, I hardly knew what more I could possibly hope for. I knew the forecast was still good for tomorrow, but had no ambitions left. Every type of scene I dreamed of had been fulfilled, and I’d seen everything wonderful that I could imagine. What on earth could there still be?

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One thought on “The Great Inversion, Part Three: The Edge of Beauty

  1. The final flourish to the series! More magical images and writing – I particularly like the trees “growing ice in place of pine needles”.

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