Beinn Dearg

It was a long walk in to the mountain, the red mountain so-called, though the stone was mostly weathered a silvery grey. Dark shadowed cliffs loomed up beside me as I wound my way up the glen, a bonny brown burn running beneath them, rushing over boulders and dropping off ledges in frothy white streams. At the foot of the steepest cliff, cradled in a corrie, lay a shallow lochan, its floor half-covered in soft weed which shone a gentle green in the sunlight.

I walked on, zigzagging up to the bealach below the summit, veering off the path halfway up to investigate a huge white stripe in the hillside – a hefty vein of quartz. There had been lumps and flakes of quartz dotting the path, and chunks and slim veins embedded in occasional boulders – not an unfamiliar sight in the north-west – but this was a whole slab of quartz, a huge shelf of it. Big chunks lay broken loose beneath it, their edges razor-sharp as if freshly splintered. Indeed the whole mass of it looked newly formed, brittle and bright and clean. Although its texture was slightly to the touch, it was shiny, like congealed snow when the layer of ice on its surface gives it a glassy glaze.

I looked up at the cliffs beneath the summit ridge, close now. Another short stripe of quartz cut high up across them and on the grassy slopes slung above lay a couple of swathes of snow. Eager for coolness on this hot day, I scrambled upwards, following the improbable stone wall which climbed from a lochan on the bealach straight up the side of the hill almost to the summit before turning neatly to the right to run above the cliffs. As I ascended, the mountain reddened, the grey rock underfoot giving way to a peachy-orange tint where the stones had been disturbed or the ground worn by footfall. I understood its name now but it was the whiteness which most compelled me and after resting at the summit cairn, I headed back to the wall, clambering over a gap to take a handful and mouthful of snow.

Refreshed, I continued alongside the wall. Well-weathered and evidently old, it was in remarkably good shape, six foot high in stretches and running for several miles with only occasional collapsed sections. I marvelled at it as I followed its seemingly endless length down the westward spine of the mountain: a single skin construction of large heavy slabs stacked mostly vertically; huge slabs, although they wouldn’t have had to carry them far given the boulderfield the wall ran through. I held onto the wall frequently for physical and moral support as I picked my down the horizontal maze of prone stone until finally it ended at a rusted iron fence post, and I scrambled and slid down the steep heathery slopes to join the path again.

Covered in sweat and mud and presumably ticks, as I looked for a place to cross the burn, I came upon a little scooped pool where the water settled before tipping over a smooth lip. Sheltered from almost every angle, I stripped off and slipped in, letting the water lap over me, cooling and soothing my heated, scratched skin as the evening sun slid slowly down the sky.

I watched the white froth of the water entering the pool and felt with my foot the small vein of quartz that flowed through the pool’s floor, and I thought of the snow, cold on my tongue. What height, what whiteness! And yet it was when ambling back down the path and re-entering the forestry plantation at the foot of the glen that I was most utterly enthralled.

To my right, amid the tall conifers, was a walled enclosure. Small ruined buildings edged its southern side but the wall itself was mostly intact and held a small field almost entirely carpeted in bluebells. I walked in and stood in a small grassy clearing in the centre. The sun was leaving and in the cool shadow, the colour seemed to hover, scented, in the air.

I stood there for some time, a contentment settling upon me, and such a sense of peace; of deep blue peace. I could have stood there forever. All the glories of the day gathered there in the evening light, in the frilly blue haze, punctuated here and there with small patches of white. I wondered what this other flower was but on looking closer discovered it was bluebells, clutches of pure white bluebells, the tender curls of their living flesh breathing in the field with me, the softest and finest of all the day’s treasures.

close-up of vertically stacked stone wall with the pale blue sky shining through its gaps

Beinn Dearg, Loch Broom, Wester Ross, Scotland
15th May 2024

solarity

I’m glowing from the inside out. Like the summer we sailed to northern Norway and were continually bathed in sunlight as the unsetting sun circled a mostly cloudless sky, and like the damp dark winter afterward when I still felt bright within, as if I incubated an internal sun: it’s like that. I feel light, in both senses of the word. I feel spacious and suffused. Even my feet feel aglow, and so comfortable, as if they’re inwardly padded as I press them repeatedly upon the hard pavement on my walk back to the train. It’s not a thermal glow – there’s no heat. There’s just a temperate luminance, a quiet candescence, a slow bright peace.

First session on a NovoTHOR red light bed*, Cardiff, South Wales
26th October 2022

* photobiomodulation – exposure to red and near-infra red light at specific wavelengths and intensities for therapeutic purposes

offerings

red japanese maple keys with orange leaf hanging before winter green grass

Green temples, red altars.
Places to offer yourself,
places to belong.

transparent orange Japanese maple leaf in bed of red ones

Bryngarw Country Park, Glamorgan, South Wales
23rd October 2019

Acer palmatum

Acer palmatum is the technical name for the Japanese maple. A Swedish botanist named it in the 18th century after the hand-like shape of its leaves. Most maples’ leaves are hand-like: Canadian sugar maples (of the flag and the syrup) have broad palms flatly spread. The Acer palmatum, however, has small dainty palms with tiny tapered fingers curling like a child’s hand (the Japanese had already variously named it after the hands of babies and even frogs). And they seem especially alive, these little maple-hands, lifting and shifting and shyly beckoning.

But what do they offer? The fruit of this palm-maple is “a pair of winged samaras,” each holding one seed. A samara? “A samara is a winged achene,” a flat papery thing, shaped to allow the wind to carry the seed far from its parent tree.

“A samara is sometimes called a key,” (wikipedia continues) “and is often referred to as a wingnut, helicopter, whirlibird…” And they do travel. I was always picking up green sugar and silver maple keys as they parachuted around the sidewalks when I lived in Montreal. Their fine veined forms intrigued me. I collected them superstitiously, as if they might actually unlock something: open something, lighten something, transport me through a new sky. You’d find them in all sorts of places, birled around by the warm breezes, often with no maple tree in sight.

The little red keys, achenes, samaras of this Japanese maple are so much more delicate though. They could take off on the faintest breath of wind. Indeed, I plucked one from this tree in this garden last spring and carried it with me until I flew to Japan in the autumn and let the seed fall. The seed itself wasn’t so old but the dream was, long-carried and finally coming to fruition, as maybe a wee many-handed maple is now, in the wooded grounds of an old Shinto shrine somewhere in deepest Tokyo…

red winged keys of a Japanese maple against green lotus leaves

Bryngarw Country Park, Glamorgan, South Wales
9th June 2015

Nikko

wee backyard shrine in Nikko

Wandering around the back streets and alleys of Nikko, I notice every second or third house hosts a small shrine in its tiny walled grounds. Most are red-painted, often with complete with a small torii (gate) as well. Even on a patch of wasteground between houses, there’s a miniature stone shrine. Two white porcelain beckoning cats, which bring good fortune, sit either side of its narrow portal, and a glass of sake appears one morning as well.

I love the flashes of red, the glimpses of gateways, crimson thresholds. At the edge of town is a wooden bridge so sacred you have to pay 300 yen to cross it. It’s also red and curves gently across the green-blue river, bringing out the vermillion tints emerging in the forests which rise steeply above it. Red times, times of changing. We are on the cusp.

Nikko, Tochigi, Japan
16th October 2014

change

We mustn’t take it for granted though – the heart and the belly of it, the pulse and thrust – all this careless, determined change. The world moves, quivering and quickening, and we do: back and forward, forth and on. It’s so easy to forget.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes of dwelling “in pure intimacy with the tangible world”. She notes that, consciously, such contact comes only in rare moments, such as when we’re waking from sleep or preoccupation, our habitual selves temporarily shed.

But it’s there all the time whether we choose to feel it or not: a low continuity beating in the belly; a green weaving, a breathing red thread.

Pontycymer, Cwm Garw, South Wales
26th April 2014

touchstone

Red is a touchstone, a transporter to all times and places.

This red door in a back lane in Pontycymer reminds me of a red door which I used to pass in a back alley in Montreal. These red leaves in the park remind me of the red leaves I used to sift through in Montreal gardens after the death of a dear friend.

Red is threshold and gateway, entrance and passage. The red door I used to pass in the hidden lanes of Montreal had ‘possibility’ graffiti-sprayed on it in blue paint. Red is for participation, for being there. Red is the belly beating, the heart moving through.

red-painted gate

Cwm Garw, South Wales
22nd January 2014

leaving

crimson Japanese maple leaves

Life changes after death. It becomes less about what you do than what you notice; and after you died it was the tiniest things which sustained me.

It was a sudden fall – within days of your death there were leaves on the ground – and out walking I’d find myself rescued by a bright glimpse of colour. I found consolation in all the hues but solace specifically in red, as if it matched something in me, as you did. I became obsessed by the search for the perfect crimson, spending wet mornings on my knees, wrist-deep in the fallen foliage, scouring and scrutinising, desperately prospecting for a silent, scarlet resolution.

I don’t know if it was the intensity of red that soothed me or its tenderness but it seemed to me then that everything came back to this primary, this primal colour. It’s the colour of beginnings – our bloody animal births and the red tips and tinges of vegetation at the beginning of spring. And it’s the colour of glad ends – the rich wooded flame of autumn, the dusty suffusion of sunset. Seasonal and diurnal alteration. It’s the colour of change, the colour of vivacity, the colour of you.

Red became you. A “red-headed angel”, someone once called you, and you were: red-headed, red-hearted, red-blooded, red-tongued – and red-threaded, as I now am, dressing myself up in vermilion plumage to write to you. Even now – months after your death – the colour comforts and condenses me. Perhaps the writing does too. After all, we both found solace in writing – in delving down, in pulling up, in drawing the truth to the surface and inscribing it there: the live line, the pulsing current. We wrote to keep it going, to give ourselves something to hold onto – until yours broke – a red line of continuity, a red thread of faith.

Bryngarw Country Park, South Wales / Montréal, Québec, Canada
15th November 2013 / Autumn 2004