1. It’s not enough just to look at landscape.

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I have just spent a week in the Cairngorms with my wife Elizabeth, doing a little teaching and hoping to immerse myself in the locality.  I was not expecting any great adventures, no climbing of granite peaks, but some reasonably long and strenuous walking. I wanted to climb alongside burns, tramp over heather, amble amongst trees.

But early in the week, scrambling up a hillside quite close to the Woodlands Adventure Centre in Kingussie where we were staying, the torn cartilage in my knee played up again. I knew this might happen—I have surgery scheduled—but had hoped that with care, a stick, and a knee brace I would avoid serious pain. But no, after early twinges on the way up, the downhill slope home brought truly sickening pain. It was all I could do to hobble back to the house.

So all Elizabeth and I could do was drive through around in the car our host Robbie kindly lent us. The autumn colours were unexpectedly stunning: birch trees cascading a fragile tracery of branches, scattered with delicate leaves: beeches contrasting with strong blocks of gold and orange with odd patches holding on to the last of the green; oaks showing bronze leaves on gnarled dark trunks and limbs; larches a delicate yellow. The rowans and hips having already lost their leaves, held their naked berries startling red against the browns and greens, as if they wanted to knock a hole in the atmosphere through to another world. And above the trees, gruff hills and more distant snowy mountains rose into a winter blue sky.

But in a car, this world passed by in glimpses, glimpses already framed by the windows and by flickering gaps in the trees and hedges as we whipped past. I felt that what called to be looked at was forever just behind, off to one side, or had just slipped out of view. Even when we stopped and got out of the car, I only had a slightly more sustained glimpse. The world we wanted to engage with was always somewhere over there.

For we were perceiving our surroundings solely through our visual sense—that is what makes it a landscape, a term derived from painting. There was no smell, no natural sounds, above all no physical and kinaesthetic engagement. “Place and the scale of space must be measured against our bodies and their capabilities,” Gary Snyder wrote. But there was no tramp of feet on rock, no damp muddy places to cautiously traverse, no sound of water trickling past, no sweat rising, no satisfying tiredness. Transported by motorcar our bodies were not engaged. We just watched the images of the world flash by us. A deeper sense of place eluded us.

 

2. The Old Oak Tree

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After a morning of intense classroom discussion with the Edinburgh University MA students, we met outside, bundled against the cold, ready for a walk in nearby woodland. The way up from Woodlands took us first along the road, where damp sycamore leaves, yellowy green, stuck soggily to the ground and my stick clicked against the hard surface with each stride—my knee had somewhat recovered and I was able to walk again with care. Through gaps between the trees we could see down the hill to the flood-plain of Strathspey and the snow-covered Cairngorms behind. In the bright winter sunlight all the details on the trees stood out: the patterns of the bark, the growth of fuzzy lichen, the tracery of bare branches against the sky.

A little way up the hill, we followed a track off to the left, squelching our way through thick black mud, full of humus and dark wetness. Then we turned again, through a galvanized farm gate stuck open just wide enough for walkers, onto rough grassland at the edge of a stand of Scots pine marching up the rise ahead of us.

We crossed the open ground into the wood proper. As soon as we were amongst the trees I felt we had entered a completely different kind of space. From house to road, road to muddy track, track to rough grassland, that was three transitions already on this short walk. But now I felt another, an uncanny shift, a feeling of leaving the everyday behind and moving into… into what? What was it that made me at that moment mutter a prayer to remind me of my interconnectedness—‘to all my relations’—as I might when walking into a stone circle, crawling into a sweat lodge, or entering an ancient church? I remembered a similar feeling arising as I sailed into the sea area enclosed by the Blasket Islands off County Kerry.

I am hard put to say what this shift consists of, but as I stepped beneath the trees I felt I was taking a further step away from the classroom, the road, even the mud, into an opening, a spaciousness, a place of greater calm. Maybe it was simply an intuitive sense of stepping into an ecological niche that was self-regulating with little interference from human beings. Maybe it was more than this. Maybe I might even dare the word sacred.

We walked deeper into the woodland, weaving our way between the upright pines, pushing up the slope.  Ahead, I saw the hint of a darker form, a contrasting shape. It was an ancient oak, maybe three hundred years old, and so stood there long before the pines were planted. Its huge trunk was covered in great gnarled burrs and patterned with green-grey moss and lichen. Its limbs branched out in all directions, crossing over each other to form strange patterns. All had died back toward the ends and some seemed completely dead. Fallen leaves were clustered in the forks between branches, more hanging from branches still green yet tinged with bronze.

We sat together round the base of the trunk, drawing, writing or just sitting quietly, taking in the presence of this strange old being, and then continued on our walk. As we left the canopy of trees, I turned and looked back at the gaunt shape of the oak, its tangled structure contrasting so clearly with the verticality of the pines and placed it firmly in my memory.

On the long journey home to the south of England, as the East Coast train rocketed through the late afternoon dark, the image of the tree came back into my mind. As I rushed southward, it would still be standing there, its old rotten branches reaching out, leaves turning and gradually falling, all on its own amongst the pines.

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3. The Parallel roads of Glen Roy

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“You might go and see the parallel roads in Glen Roy,” suggested Robbie.

I had no idea what the parallel roads were, so Robbie explained they were a phenomenon of the ice ages, lines along the hillside left by the shores of ancient lochs that had been created when glaciers gouged out and then dammed up the valleys. In folklore it is held that they h
ad been created by giants, or were the hunting paths of the Celtic warrior Fingal.

It sounded intriguing. I couldn’t get a strong image from Robbie’s description, nor from the information on the internet, but it was clear that they were an impressive sight. So Elizabeth and I set off west from Kingussie along the old road across the highlands, now the A86, following the River Spey up toward Loch Laggan and the River Spean down the other side of the watershed. Spectacular autumn foliage surrounded us and early snow covering the peaks and ridges of high ground rose in front of us.

It had been bright and dry in Kingussie, but as we drove west dark clouds gathered ahead as the southwesterly winds carrying Atlantic moisture blew up against the barrier of the Highlands. The clouds hung around the peaks and from time to time sent heavy raindrops rattling across the windscreen—they gave us cold shivers even in the warmth of the car. In between the showers, fair weather clouds danced across patches of blue sky. One moment the sun shone brightly through gaps in the clouds, the next it was obscured, an ever-changing light show on the autumn colours.

At Roybridge we found the way up the Glen, a signpost directing us to a ‘glacial landscape’. The single-track road followed a winding and undulating path up the hill, past isolated farms and through patches of woodland, until round a sharp bend we arrived at the car park and viewpoint from where Glen Roy unfolded in front of us.

The glen itself was carved out by glaciers, characteristically shaped into a shallow ‘U’. Along the bottom, a meandering line of trees marked the path carved out by the river, creeping up the hillside along feeder streams and petering out toward higher ground. The whole scene was richly coloured: the rust of bracken, the glowing beech trees, the delicate larch and birch set against the complementary scrubby green of the grass, backed by the purple bulk of the hillside in the distance.

A squall of freezing rain blew through and as we pulled up our hoods a rainbow arched up from the western side of the glen, disappeared in the clouds to descend again on the eastern side. And under the rainbow the bright sunlight picked out the feint horizontal lines of the parallel roads on the hillside ahead of us. We walked a little way down the road, just far enough to see where the glen bends away to the east, so that the hills on each side appear to meet up. The parallel lines were exactly aligned.

We would have liked to explore further, but my knee was hurting and I could not walk far. Then another blast of icy rain blew through, and we retreated to the car. But no matter. I felt I had touched, or been touched by, something deep in the history of our islands. While not dramatic and spectacular, like the glaciated valleys in Yosemite, it was nevertheless quietly and deeply impressive.

What we had seen was the consequence of glacial action some 12,500 years ago. Earlier glaciers had carved out the valley and retreated. Then, as the climate cooled again, the ice sheet extended once more and blocked the southern entrance of Glen Roy holding back water in an enormous loch. As the glaciers retreated again, the level of the loch changed, and parallel shorelines were cut in the hillside by the actions of waves and frost. Eventually, the water pressure lifted the dimihishing ice barrier and the loch drained in a catastrophic deluge that actually changed the watershed—water drained west to the Atlantic rather than east to the North Sea. And we stood where all this took place.

We returned home after our week in the Highlands. In the train, I read the reviews of the new iPad mini and next day visited the local Apple store to drool over the displays and consider whether I could justify buying one.  I find myself wondering how to place the glamour of this latest technological toy in the same world as my new understanding of these great geological events that shaped our world.