The Nature of… Jim Crumley

Jim Crumley is a nature writer whose books I’ve referenced before in blog posts, as indeed have others on their blogs. Among Jim’s books a longtime favourite of mine has been his timeless classic A high and lonely place – a eulogy to The Cairngorms and one which prompted this post back in 2014. Both celebratory and unafraid to confront the issues – many of which endure to this day – it is both a good read and a work of reference.

Most recently I’ve read the two connected works in the series The Nature of… and am hopeful that there will be two others to follow. Both books are written with an intimacy and perspective which can only derive from patience and exposure – the latter possibly in more than one sense of the word. Most of all there is that most scarce and precious of commodities – original thought; something which, in these soundbite days, seems as elusive as the native wildcat which he and I would love to know were out there, moving secretively through the forests of Rothiemurchus and Inshriach.

Here’s an example: it’s taken from The Nature of Autumn

“And the first day of autumn is the beginning of everything, the first stirrings of rebirth. The forest fall thickens the land with limitless tons of bits and pieces of trees. The earth is hungry for food: all spring, all summer, it has been thrusting life upwards and outwards, and by the last day of summer, it is tired. Autumn is the earth’s reviver and replenisher… ”

On first reading, this runs counter-intuitive to my programming: unquestioningly I’d accepted that the natural order of the seasons was spring, summer, autumn, winter – emergence, abundance, slow-down, shutdown. Having your perceptions challenged is never a bad thing and, with the benefit of a different perspective, it makes sense to see autumn as very much the opening step in a new cycle – one which incubates during the winter months; dormant but already primed. From the perspective of our most northerly latitudes it makes absolute sense.

Original thinking challenges us and, who knows, perhaps might encourage us to develop it as a skill of our own. How could that ever be a bad thing?

 

The Nature of Autumn and The Nature of Winter, are both written by Jim Crumley and published by Saraband.

 

 

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Should aesthetics trump functionality?

I’m assuming it’s still okay to use the word ‘trump’ in the title of a post without attracting some incoherent response from the man on Capitol Hill.

On a short outing in the Severn Valley a few days ago, I was struck by the contrast between some of the structures and apparatus – old and quite new – which we encountered along the way. At the foot crossing in Eymore Wood we paused briefly as former Southern Region pacific 34027 Taw Valley passed through with a longish and busy train. This is the locomotive which has, on occasions, appeared around the country in maroon livery carrying the Hogwarts Express nameplate. Built immediately post WW2 (1946) it still looks the part, although – had it not been rescued from a south Wales scrapyard – it would have had a very short working life, having been withdrawn from service by 1964.

There is a slight uphill incline at this point and it was the kind of cold, crisp day when a bit of exertion generally produces good, photogenic steam.

Between the railway and the nearby river, a couple of Severn Trent reservoirs double up as boating lakes and wildlife retreats – wildfowl mostly but with a growing cormorant population. In combination with the preserved railway, the river itself and the northern edge of the extensive Wyre Forest, which reaches all the way to the opposite bank, it’s an attractive and not over-used area. Unfortunately, it seems to have been considered an appropriate site for a solar farm (Cenin Renewables in conjunction with Severn Trent apparently) – a development which started small and seems to be proliferating over a wide area. This is part of a cluster sited a few metres from the bank of the river…

One of the local councils – Kidderminster Parish – said at the time of the initial development they only found out about Severn Trent’s plans after they were approved because of (quote) “a loophole in planning regulations”. I could go on about the effectiveness and appropriate siting of these panels – that and the still ongoing debate around their dubious longevity and payback – but that would make for a much longer post. For now I’ll leave it that they’re unsightly and in a place where they should never have been considered; a place, incidentally, where if you pitched a tent for a night’s wild camp you’d quite likely be moved on.

About a couple of hundred metres upstream (no more) John Fowler’s elegant and timeless cast-iron arch bridge carries the railway across the Severn. Probably an unfair comparison, but even in the fading light of our return journey it struck us as more enhancement than intrusion…

Earlier in the day I’d taken this shot from the road bridge adjacent to Arley Station. It’s a jumble and just about everything is wrong with it, but I quite like the overall chaotic effect of steam, people, trains and infrastructure…

There are still a few examples of lower quadrant semaphore signalling to be found out on the main lines, including around the Worcester/Droitwich/Malvern area. Upper quadrants (raised signals) are a bit more numerous, particularly around the stations on the Highland Main Line; the GWR always liked to be different.

With the light almost gone, there was just about enough time to capture the bulrushes below. This group are at the edge of one of the two small reservoirs and are often frequented by coots, and occasionally reed warblers. Nature’s designs are often studies in understated elegance; something we could learn from…

Gibraltar point – Wednesday 1st June, 2016

Unremittingly, uncompromisingly hostile, in that way that can typify the north sea coast when the mood takes it. Cloud: grey, unbroken; wind: persistent, strong; sufficiently strong to skim a blinding, sand-blast layer from the surface of the dunes and make walking an uncertain, faltering activity, even for adults. And, just for good measure, it is a north-easterly; sometimes the weather can feel almost personal.

And yet, somehow, a little tern – probably weighing no more than 50 gms (and I admit I had to ‘google’ that) – manages to manoeuvre, hold its position, and even fly against the full force of the wind. The shoreline birds, which are undoubtedly present in numbers at this time of year, are more to be heard than seen, although a few reed buntings manage to make headway from one patch of cover to the next and swallows are airborne – as they always seem to be.

DSCN0749The coastline has an oddly familiar feel about it; probably a consequence of our acquired taste for ‘Scandi noir’. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to round a corner and be met by a contemplative Kurt Wallander.

A new visitor centre has risen from the devastation of the tidal surge in December of 2013. The recently opened building is elevated on stilts as protection against any similar occurrences in future and allows extensive views of the mixed habitat, which extends to saltmarsh, dunes and shoreline. The dunes form part of a constantly regenerating system – new ones already having become established in the wake of the 2013 storm damage.

 

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 The Gibraltar Point Reserve is one of a number managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

Space, the final frontier…

Some of us need space: not all of us obviously, not everyone; just some of us. Those who feel that need most acutely are probably the same ones who are most sensitive to the intrusions which impact on our sense of space.

There are plenty who take the opposite view – the party animals who ‘work’ a room, love a crowd, blossom in heaving, bustling environments, and for whom space is not something they crave. Each to their own, but I’d guess that most walkers do enjoy a bit of elbow room.

I’m not out in the wilds here – I’m going there later, further down the page. Life, as we now live it, seems to deny us space in all sorts of ways: someone determined to drive inches from our rear bumper is an intrusion; others who literally breathe down our necks in supermarket queues are an intrusion; agitated, impatient, crowding in. Whatever the reason the effect is the same – intrusion. And if, like me, you’d prefer a bit of an exclusion zone, then you’d like the intruder to respect that point of view and… well, you know what you’d like them to do.

There’s probably a philosophical debate to be had about what actually constitutes space on earth ; I’m not getting into that –  it would be never-ending. Like space.

Whatever else it may be, it’s undeniably a component of many other things – peace, quiet, solitude, reflection… all of them benefit from a bit of space, a bit of room to breathe.

The one place where we could usually count on finding respite and our own preferred version of space was out in the hills; an environment we mostly had to ourselves – leaving aside the local population of buzzard, raven, polecat, roedeer, adder, whatever… and we didn’t mind sharing with them; they’re mostly non-intrusive and certainly not inclined to get too close. Or even with the other occasional walker(s) who crossed our paths, for they are kindred spirits after all and sensitive to our preferences.

But that space is being eroded; and eroded doesn’t even begin to do justice to what’s happening in parts of the highlands: annexed, commandeered in great swathes, would be nearer the mark. Mostly the intrusions are visual; in a landscape they inevitably would be, although invasive noise is hardly unknown. In the hills, particularly at the summits, horizons are distant and where there is damage in just about every direction, a 360º panorama reveals all of it – turbines, roads, bulldozed tracks, pylons, masts, bunkers and towers with who knows what function…

Horrible, ugly encroachment. A wave of vandalism encouraged and applauded in many cases by so-called environmentalists. I’ve long despaired of the general direction of humanity’s journey, but could we not ruin absolutely everything? Could we not just hang onto a few precious, unspoilt places? Would that be too much to ask?

I’ll nod here – not for the first time recently – to Jim Crumley and his masterwork A High and Lonely Place. Jim, writing about Am Moine Mhor in this instance, talks about not climbing to a summit, but to a space. We all know that feeling, when the path eventually levels out for the final time and you’re as high as you’re going to be on this particular outing: big skies; relief;  a sense of space.

Much as I enjoy a walk I also like to sit, become absorbed into the landscape – inconspicuous, irrelevant in fact. That’s when, if you get lucky, things – the things that belong there – allow you an insight into their lives: the mountain hare, the hen harrier, the red deer stag, the ptarmigan…

Enjoyment of the space – the old ‘far as the eye can see’ saying – is a big part of that. But it’s being systematically ruined and (here’s the real rub) so few people seem to either know or care. Money is being made, and those making most of it are doing a masterly job – a potent cocktail of PR, lobbying, acquisition by stealth. A bloodless coup, symptomatic of the times.

Mid Wales: sparsely populated, spacious, accessible, under constant threat from commercial forestry and worse…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go quietly and you might spot an adder, a polecat, even a merlin. On an average day, red kite, raven, peregrine and buzzard are never far away. 

Another day, another loss

And another development which defies all logic, rubber-stamped for approval. Which in itself is something of a joke, since the groundwork has been progressing for some time; consent has never been in doubt. I can’t add much that isn’t already better covered by the writer of this this piece

Having a favourite Welsh hill (or range of hills) is no easy choice to make. Mine happen to be The Berwyns – lonely, quiet, at times mysterious; and twelve, maybe fifteen, miles away from where these turbines will be installed.

Still, at least there are some reassurances being sought; and given…

(From the BBC website): “Vale of Clwyd MP Chris Ruane has presented a petition in Parliament asking for reassurances that cables connecting the wind farm to the National Grid at St Asaph would be buried underground.” Okay, well, good luck with that, Chris.

And (also from the BBC website): “The company (RWE) has said it has worked closely with ornithologists and ecologists to produce a habitat management plan, to include restoration of habitats and woodland management.” And would this be an enforceable plan, with no wriggle room and stringent penalties for non-compliance? Just asking…

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The Berwyns – Lonely, quiet, mysterious hills

Anyway, picture standing on the summit of Cadair Berwyn – at 2,720 feet, the highest summit in Wales outwith the national parks and a commanding viewpoint – and looking slightly west of north, towards the coast. You would be looking roughly in the direction of Abergele and, with decent visibility, Clocaenog forest would be in the middle distance. From that vantage point there will be a very clear view of this cluster of turbines.

There are other hills in the area which I know less well (although I’ve walked most of them at least once) and I’m trying to visualise how their views will be impacted. Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant lie to the south west and roughly the same distance away as the Berwyn ridge; these two are just inside the Snowdonia NP boundary and Arenig Fawr tops out at 2,800 feet. My recollection is that it has pretty much unobstructed views of Clocaenog, but it’s been a few years now since I was on that particular top.

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Looking northwest from Cadair Berwyn, towards Snowdon, The Glyders, Tryfan, and Carneddau.

 

A High and Lonely Place

A High and Lonely Place

It’s the title of a book: a good one, by a good writer (Jim Crumley); first published in 1990 and it’s as relevant now as the day it was written, possibly more so. I re-read it a few weeks back, just before a visit to the highlands (although those two things had no deliberate connection) and much of it reads like a present day commentary; you have to remind yourself that it was written a quarter of a century ago, raising concerns which went largely unheeded, much as they still do today.

The high and lonely place of the book’s title is the Cairngorms – the mountains of course, but also the forests and valleys, rivers and marshes, which feed, drain, shelter and, in innumerable other ways, enhance each other and the whole. Some will say, and with valid arguments, that we have better hills and more evocative landscapes. In the end it’s all about opinions: there’s no definitive best mountain, or most magnificent glen, particularly when none of them are the same from one day to the next.

As early in the book as page 22, I came across this passage, where Jim is expressing his anxieties over the future of the remaining forests of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy: “Stand in them, and know that when you do, these same trees were brushed by wolf and Jacobite. Stand in them, feel the past and fear for the future. [Man] has long since passed the day when he could say with any honesty that he never knew”.

All of this was written before the the funicular; before the re-branding of the mountain; before the proliferation of onshore wind; before the ‘need’ never to be without a mobile phone signal.

On one of our outings we crossed the summit plateau of Cairngorm; partly to take in the outlook to the south and also with a view to some reconnaissance for future outings. Scanning around and taking in the views of Derry Cairngorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul, Braeriach (and that’s just a few to be going on with), we were immediately struck by the difference between looking into the heart of the mountains and what you see when you stand near the summit cairns and look outwards. The difference bestowed by national park protection; let’s hope that holds firm when it (inevitably) comes under pressure from speculators and developers.

Low cloud moving across Cairngorm summit. In the distance and just visible, some clearer weather down in Glenmore.

It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow. Of course there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive. The difference on Cairngorm is how quickly, if you choose your path well, you can leave behind the crowds and their debris.

The landscape sometimes pays a heavy price for our recreational activities

On the other hand, it doesn’t take long to escape any evidence of the crowds: a couple of twists in the path, a couple of folds in the landscape, is usually sufficient.

What all this means for us in the longer term is open to conjecture. One definite is that plans for future trips will probably involve walking deeper into the hills, rather than on or around them. More forays into quiet glens – places like Glen Einich – to avoid seeing the things we’d rather not see. In a way, it almost seems like an admission of defeat; albeit one with compensations.
 This was the view from Cairngorm towards Ben Macdui and Loch Etchachan
 
The Spey, assisted by some input from its tributaries, had flooded the Insh marshes and created a wetter than usual wetland habitat. Apparently this is not a typical August scene and certainly one we’d not seen before
 Ruthven Barracks, for a few days at least, gained a moat…
 
A different view of the extensive flooding on both sides of the A9. This was taken from Creag Bheag, a small hill which lies behind Kingussie…
 A roe deer in that peculiar ‘walk forwards, look backwards’ pose, which seems to be a speciality of theirs

A story with a happy ending…

Talladh-a-Bheithe – what does it matter? (06/08/2014)

My first ever Munro was Schiehallion; climbed, many years ago, in winter conditions. It was between Christmas and New Year, the snow line was at about two thousand feet, I was well wrapped up and with a good supply of food and hot drink and – most importantly – I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing!

Starting from the Braes of Foss, there wasn’t much scope for navigational error but the succession of false summits, combined with the marked drop in temperature as I gained height, taught me a few new lessons along the way. There were two brief blizzards, both of which seemed to materialise from clear blue sky and dissipate just as mysteriously; I quickly became grateful that this was a straightforward ascent, 180 degree turn, descent, and nothing more complex.

But I got to the top, stood for a while in a thigh-deep drift drinking coffee, survived and loved it. One other lesson learned that day was the speed with which weather systems can move. At the summit, I looked over towards the west, saw evidence of a serious storm and – with the wind blowing in our direction – reckoned that we would be getting some of that weather in a couple of hours or so. I might have been twenty minutes into the descent when the storm front moved overhead and a mixture of snow and frozen rain began to pepper the ridge. Quite a few were still passing on the way up at this point but, although the storm passed quickly, the light never really returned.

Oh, I almost forgot: the views! Like nothing I’d ever seen – space, distance, tops, valleys, layer upon layer of this thing which, in the round, we call landscape; knowing exactly what that word means without ever having the vocabulary to do justice to it. You’ll know it when you see it!

The likelihood is that that landscape will soon be blighted by yet another inappropriately sited cluster of turbines. Turbines, plus access roads, pylon runs, sub-stations… landscape exploited, job done – move on to the next! It’s the mentality of the alien invaders in Independence Day.

And so what? All we’re talking about here is one individual’s personal recollections; hardly significant in the broader context. Throw in the accumulated reminiscences of every other walker who ever made that same journey and – even for a relatively busy hill like Schiehallion – it’s a tiny proportion of the population. Weighed in the overall balance, does anyone really care much for the opinions of what is, when all’s said and done, a tiny demographic? Should anyone really care?

It’s a question I’ll return to, but only after another trip down memory lane…

There’s a round of hills above Loch An Daimh, which lies slightly to the north and east of Loch Lyon. The complete round – starting from and returning to the dam – takes in a couple of munros (Stuchd an Lochain and Meall Buidhe), two corbetts and at least one other significant but un-named top. For a big raptor, it’s about a couple of flaps and a glide from Schiehallion, and I’ve walked it approximately one point six times!

The point six was the first time. Setting off from the dam (which another blogger once described as a fine example of soviet-era architecture) in weather which would have persuaded a more sensible person to get back in the car and drive to a pub, I somehow managed to convince myself that it was bound to clear up later. In the highlands!

Well, it didn’t – it got progressively worse; a wind so strong that it actually kept me upright on a couple of occasions when I would otherwise have fallen. In the end, I crawled under the edge of a small copse of tightly-packed conifers and ate lunch, knowing that I would be turning back. The sound of grunts and snapping twigs from the gloom behind me was a bit disconcerting; I assumed it would be deer. It was the kind of thoroughly miserable, wretched, frustrating day that just makes you want to come back and give it another go.

The second time could hardly have been more different: little or no wind, mostly clear skies with some high altitude cumulus clouds; Loch An Daimh blue and disturbed only by rising trout; the temperature just about perfect for walking in light clothing. Again, it’s the views that lodge most firmly in the memory – in every direction: The hills of Glencoe; The Ben; Schiehallion itself; the Lawers range back to the east; Ben More to the south; a distant glint of what might have been Loch Linnhe; the seemingly limitless space of Rannoch Moor.

Well, we know by now what an illusion limitless space can be. And how temporary…

So back to the question: does it matter, and why?

Certainly, Schiehallion and the hills at the western end of Glen Lyon matter to me personally because of my recollections of times spent. And it’s just possible that my reminiscences will strike a chord with a few others, just as theirs resonate with me when I read them. But that’s not the point: landscapes like these don’t matter to me just because I once walked the hill, or had a couple of good days out – those considerations are incidental. Schiehallion, Glen Lyon, Rannoch Moor, Ben More, would matter if I’d never set eyes on any of them; these places matter for their own sake – they need no endorsement.

We are supposed to be the custodians: the environment should be safe in our hands. We have the information and the wherewithal; politicians get no credit from me for pretending to acknowledge their responsibilities while continuing to approve the trashing of the landscape. But what hope is there when power rests in the hands of a species which apparently can’t even co-exist with a few hundred hen harrier?

If the energy companies, developers and wrong-headed politicians have their way, every summit in Scotland will eventually look out on its own particular Talladh-a-Bheithe. Its own particular, local tragedy.

They won’t care. To them, it won’t matter.

The happy ending? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-34684039