Today Was a Gift

A few days ago the first snows of winter arrived on the mountains. There was a hard edged clarity of light in the forest that I only know from winter – white edges and black shadows running along every branch. The remains of autumn colours clung to the tips of wind stripped birch trees, like the final tiny glow of a candle flame before it dies.

The day was beautiful, but it seemed to signal a premature end to an autumn that never really got going – at least, not if landscape photography was what you had in mind. Autumn is the season of riotous colour and surreal mists. Interplays of shadow, light and land. But this year many days were wet, the temperatures too high for those sublime mornings of sunlit frost on golden boughs. So I was not too sorry to see winter’s promise in the air. A fresh season might be exactly what I needed. They say a change is as good as a rest, and winter is The Great Change.

I wandered among the woods along a familiar route, paying visits to many spots that I am sure are well known to me but completely unremarkable to most. It is in the nature of landscape photography to look closely, and to grow familiar with otherwise obscure places. Many of the routes I have made through the woods follow only the footprints of deer, and more than one person has asked where precisely I took such and such a shot. I’m sorry, but I don’t tell. It’s not my secret to give away. The knowledge of itself belongs only to the land, and it’s the land you must ask.

The images I captured were, I felt, the best I’d produced in months, though not for lack of trying. The forest was generous with itself, the light beautiful, the distant snow enticing. I returned to the car with new memories, and that satisfied internal peace that is the calm of the woods.

And yet, it was not that day which was the gift.

The next morning dawned with clear skies and a beckoning glow. I walked out of my front door barefoot on the morning grass in a t-shirt, feeling the breeze gently lift the hairs on my arms. There was no shiver. The warm air was calling gently and irresistibly, calling to the woods and the hills. Autumn, it seemed, still had something to say.

A short while later I was closing the car door and walking out into it all again. Was it really only a day apart. Yes, this was the same view, the same hills, the same place. Yet the snow was gone, the wind was light and playful. Above all there was warmth; not only in the air but also in the light. The sun today was not the hard edged blade of light but a suffuse golden glow that poured golden rays down over the crests of the hills.

I had an idea in mind of where I could go. A remote tree in Glen Eanich. I think it might be the highest, furthest away tree in all of Rothiemurchus. The last tree. The Sentinel. I’ve been there once before and it was one of the most superb photography experiences I ever had. I don’t think anyone else has ever photographed this tree, but if someone has then I would be surprised if it wasn’t Seton Gordon. I have delved into his writings of these woods and hills with joy and a sense of companionship in the old wanderer. There, I think, was a man who looked at things the same way I look at things. Deeply, closely. With adoration and wonder. A man capable not only of prodigious feats of walking, but also of dawdling.

There is a tree in Glen Eanich that Seton Gordon certainly did photograph and write of. The Tree of the Return (Craobh Tillidh). Of old, it was the ‘last’ tree of the forest before the woods gave way to the bare hillside moors of the glen. In the days when cattle were driven up to spend the summer on higher ground, the herdsfolk would walk with them as far as the Tree of the Return. Then the cows would continue alone, knowing the way, and the people would return home. This was one of those living intersections of culture, life, and landscape.

That ancient old pine is now nearly gone. In Seton Gordon’s photograph from a century ago it stands proudly in the glory of it’s old age – magnificent as only very old pine trees are. And, I recognise a very similar style to my own in the way Gordon photographed it. But there’s little left of it now. Hamish Napier and I tracked down its remains this past summer, and found no more than a rotting bole lying in a gully. The tree’s feet were washed out from under it long ago. And yet, still it’s size is impressive.

It’s far away across the glen and on a different hillside that the Sentinel yet stands. Higher and further up, a reminder of long lost days when the woods filled the glen right up to the final walls of Braeriach and Sgorr Gaoith. Way off the track, and way off the route to any possible summit. There is no reason at all to go there unless like me you happen to love extraordinary trees.

The Sentinel, winter 2019

And so here I am, plodding and not striding my way through the woods of Rothiemurchus yet again, yet again, yet again. And the day is glorious. The trees shine in golden light. Clouds pass by, throwing spears of light around with a casual grace; they make it look easy. The woods today are so very alive. How curious that this perfect autumn day should wait until after the arrival of winter.

After a mile or so I simply must leave the path. The opportunities for the camera off to the sides are simply irresistible. Just here the last great slopes of the hills are shaggy and green with deep forest, at such a steep angle that the sun only picks out the tops of the trees. There is so much texture and beauty in the way the golden rays of the sun illuminate the nearer trees, against the stipple-gold shadows behind. It is one of those occasions with the camera where every direction is perfect. You can not really go wrong, but when you get it really right, it is like lightning.

Further on we turn the corner in the track where the view to Braeriach and the mouth of the glen opens up majestically over the thinning forest. The world seems so playful today, there is no harshness anywhere at all, it’s as if the whole land has decided to just take a day off and relax. Sometimes I imagine that there are spirits in each place and thing – a water spirit in the river, a tree spirit dwelling in this pine. Today they are all languidly happy, but the children of the wind spirits race each other suddenly and exuberantly, dashing through me and leaving me fresh at their touch.

We press on, though we stop to drink at a stream crossing the path, and again for some time to watch a pair of Crossbills foraging among pine branches. I’ve been trying to spot these birds for years – until now I’ve always needed someone more skilled to point them out to me. But the flash of orange and the strong shape of the bill leaves no question that this is them at last.

Further on, making our way now into the glen itself, we pause by the river for a short rest. There is a point on the path to Glen Eanich where you turn a corner, and suddenly you are not in the forest but in the mountains. The view expands suddenly, the glen narrows. A few dozen huge and ancient granny pines dot the floor of the glen beside the rushing white waters of the Allt Beanaidh. Here is a wonderful place to rest beside the pure hiis of water in the shade of the pines. The sun over the hills was now unobstructed by any cloud at all, and I settled myself on a grey boulder crusted with furry grey lichen. Scout danced by the river while I feasted on tea and biscuits, and never was a meal more welcome or perfect.

I wanted to keep this moment for ever. I knew already I was having a perfect day. I was like a visitor to freedom. The world was singing laughter, cascading water and racing wind children. The joy of a mountain land is awake in me.

I explored the river side with Scout for a while before we returned to the path. The sun was shining out of puddles at me and blazing brilliantly upon the water. Just a little bit further, and there is a decision to make. This is already equal to the furthest I have walked in months – chronic fatigue is still a fact of my life. So do I now loop back around on the higher path, down through the woods and back to the start. There are many splendid trees that way which I have rarely visited. They would be worthy goals and I would have no hesitation to call that a good option and a good day.

But the other way is calling. The way that goes on, up the glen, up the hill, to the Sentinel. It is further and more physical; there is that snag of doubt in myself again, wondering whether I will pay a greater price of tiredness later on. Tiredness that lasts weeks, not days.

Today, though, is not the day to listen to doubts and fears. I am determined to show myself that at least some of my limits are only limits of confidence, however real the physical ones may be. So it’s onwards.

Scout and I cross the simple bridge further up the glen and break out off the track. We’re onto the open hillside in the glaring golden sunlight now with hardly a tree in sight. Breariach is massive in front of me – gigantic. Across from it on the other side of the glen are the towering cliff faces of Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor. The glen, as always, diminishes me to a tiny speck crawling through huge space. The brown grass flickers white in the wind and sun.

We now face the climb. Not a hard climb by any means but I am out of fitness these days. But I’ve faced down my doubts on this climb before, and it was worth it, so we plod on. Without pause, step by step, through bog and moss and boulder, higher and higher. The Sentinel is in sight, growing from its most unlikely boulder field in a glen that is defined by barren emptiness. It seems to slant back into the hillside as we ascend beneath it.

The ground is really steep as we reach it – difficult to keep footing on moss and boulder and heather stem. So I recline myself in the heather before long, but not before I reach out a hand to touch this most wonderful tree, for the second time in my life. Here I intend to stay a while. There is no finer viewpoint for miles around with the glen spreading out below, and the heather was comfy and the sun warm. I know immediately that the photography conditions were better on my first visit – more dramatic – but to be here again, in a place that felt so out of reach for so long, is wonderful. I am in no hurry to leave.

Time settles into itself as the mountains settle into themselves. The shadow of the pine is like the shadow of a sundial as it swings slowly up the hillside. The wind no longer blows but is still. Everything fades into silence and the sacredness of an unbroken peace. I wonder who else, if anyone, has sat in the shade of this particular pine? Here on its hillside, alone, living, waiting. Thrashed by wind and rain, buried by snow, frozen by cold, warmed by sun. Always still.

The wind rises again, and I rise too from a deep reverie. Sometimes I fall into these sleep-like trances in out-of-the-way places, lost somewhere between a daydream and a meditation. I can feel the tiny creak of muscle as I move my head minutely, feel the slight pulsation through my whole body, rocking back and forth in tiny motion, as my heart beats. I think it’s time to move on, but I’m reluctant to disturb the mountains.

But I am not a plant and I’ll put no roots down here. I’m a person and to be a person is to move – to exist in more than one place. I pick up my bag, stir the dog to action once again and we depart.

We’re not going back the same way though. There are more trees to discover – trees I’ve wanted to be among for many years. I’m reminded of being a kid in school again, looking out of the window in afternoon french class at the wooded hills above our house. Wanting so much to get up there underneath the branches.

So we don’t descend the hillside but instead traverse. We walk back into the woods without losing any height. When you consider how rare this is in Scotland it’s quite extraordinary. To walk from a mountain habitat into a dense, fully developed ancient wood at the same height makes you question why our hills are barren of trees. They don’t need to be. And the vision of what they could be is right here, alive and well.

Scout followed in my footsteps, quiet and a bit sleepy. The first pine we came too was ancient and spectacular. Gnarled, twisted, splendid and old, its potential for a photo was immediately obvious. I gained a little height and pressed on through some really very rough and tricky ground to place it up-sun. I knew without a shadow of doubt it would be an instant winner – portfolio quality. Even though it was the same bright sunlight as we’d had by the Sentinel, here it worked whereas there it did not. I snapped a few dozen frames, intending to choose the best later on. Then I put the camera away and sat to look longer. I didn’t want to hurry away. I knew already I’d spend years looking back fondly at this moment. I wanted to spend a while longer enjoying the real thing. And then, quite without intention, the name of this tree popped into my head. Grandfather.

The sun finally began to angle itself toward the horizon. Shadows attached themselves to bits of ground and began to lengthen into the forest. Time to go. There was, after all, a decision to make. By traversing this way back to the woods I had given up any option of using a bridge to cross the river again, and there were rivers on both sides of this triangle of land. So, I knew I was set on making a wet crossing, and had better be about it sooner rather than later.

Scout and I found new energy as we bounded together down the heathery hillside and into the deeper woods. Having seen the level the river was flowing at earlier in the day I was sure crossing would not be too much trouble, but still, river crossings are generally to be avoided if possible. They are a serious business, especially if you are alone. I have confidence in choosing to do it sometimes only because I have had extensive training in how to do it safely, plus many years experience kayaking, swimming and pulling people out of significant rapids.

Still, great care was needed. After investigating a stretch several hundred metres long I chose a spot, then checked again to see it really was the best one. Here the river widened a bit, which meant the flow was slower and shallower. Where water is narrow it is often deep and fast, so unless you can jump it easily it’s a bad idea. Then, I found a stout branch to use as a support, fastened away all my camera kit, did up all my pockets and made sure I had as clean a profile as possible. The first half was only ankle deep and no problem. The second half was deeper – just over my knees. I faced upstream and leaned on my branch. Using it to form a triangle of support with my feet, I moved one thing at a time – branch or foot, and committed to nothing unless I was certain of the footing. Scout swam the flow with ease, but some difficulty was encountered when he decided the branch was his toy and his teeth fastened around it – his body wedged between my legs. So, I proceeded by moving foot, branch+dog, foot, branch+dog, with a combination of fond cursing and considerable mirth.

In a few moments we were over, Scout had been deprived of his prize and returned to the lead, and we were bushwhacking our way up through the woods back to the path. Behind us, the last rays of the setting sun were turning the woods and mountains a deep gold. Just as we had not encountered a soul on the way out, we saw no-one on the way back. The day was ours, the adventure was ours. I was deeply satisfied, even a little proud, to have made it back to the Sentinel, and delighted to have gone further and explored a little of the woods to which I’d never been. The tip of an iceberg revealed. My legs were tired, my memory card full, and the smile never left my face as we took the darkening trail home.

3 thoughts on “Today Was a Gift

  1. Spectacular images and evocative writing. That last photograph is particularly breathtaking and a good choice on which to conclude – lovely late afternoon light is suggested. Haven’t heard of Seton Gordon before – will look him up.

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