heat

It’s like the sultry summer days when I lived in Montreal, heat so thick your skin’s running with sweat,and all your thirsts want slaking. You’re heavy with desire and you want to do something about it but the sun’s pressing in relentlessly and your will is liquefying and really all you can do is wait: wait for the humidity to build, wait for the humidity to break, and then….

First there’s the thunder – the clap, the flash, the weighted brightness – and then comes the rain. You’re standing out in it, lying out in it, feeling it patter all over your body like a thousand darting tongues; touching, tasting, quenching the heat of you, until you sigh and subside and gratefully dissolve.

Those were the days, and this is one now, although in this case the thunder is a low rumble rather than a violent crash, and the sky isn’t dense purple but medium-grey, and the rain isn’t filling the hot street with warmed flooding water: this is a Scottish summer, more temperate in all its aspects. Yet still the heat comes in, still the rain insists.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
13th June 2023

heartening

I’ve been corrupted.

Yesterday I walked up a hill, as I often do, following a burbling burn with pretty pools and falls, and up onto a rounded top covered in boulders of shattered blue-grey quartzite. Behind me the western mountains rose from the sea like petrified waves and ahead of me eastern Sutherland spread out in all its low and dappled brown glory. Everything was gleaming in the clear summer sun – the rocks, the lochs, the distant sea – but all I could see were good builders (large and squareish with clean faces), fine pins (long and slender) and some excellent (tapered and triangular) wedges.

The summit itself was covered in hefty slabs, perfect for making cheek-ends, and previous hillwalkers had used some of them to make a bench, a sound construction, far better built than the low stone wall around the trig point which looked distinctly shoogly. I secured one end of the wall with a handy wedge, sat on it and ate my lunch, then slept heavily for a while on the stone bench in the sun.

“Have you started dreaming of stones yet?,” the waller who is training me asked recently. I had. And now even my waking thoughts are stone-shaped: sometimes rough, sometimes smooth but substantial and with a satisfying heft. Even the little thoughts have their uses, like the hearting in a wall, supporting and securing those of larger dimensions. Nothing is wasted.

I think about this as the mountain carries me along, this heightened attunement to rock. It’s not only in my mind but my hands too. I can almost feel the stones that I think about: their grain and texture, their corners and edges, their linear or complex forms (the even grain of Torridonian sandstone, the sheer faces of Cambrian quartzite, the lumpy curves of Lewissian gneiss).

I’m being changed by them, and it’s disorientating, as change often is. But as I recover from the fragility of a brain injury, I sense that working with stone is good for me, that it’s therapeutic in some way. In lifting the stones, handling the stones, placing the stones, I’m being consolidated. I’m being built up. I’m being heartened.

long slender pale stone embedded in dry grass pointing towards distant blue lochs and hills

Ben Hee, Sutherland, Scotland
4th June 2023

release

I felt the lift as it flew from my hands; not just the release of its warm weight but an actual lift, as if I too was leaping from a pair of palms held out an upstairs window and swooping swiftly over the steeply terraced rooftops to settle on an outer branch of the great oak tree which rises above the village a couple of streets away. As I watched it land, it was as if the arm of the oak reached out to me too, across the stretching gulf of air, the jackdaw’s sudden flight stitching me to it with an invisible thread.

I don’t know how it had got in but when I came upstairs I heard it beating frantically against the closed window. I opened a pane for it but, not understanding my commands to fly “up” to the opening, it continued to jump and flap energetically against the lower glass, occasionally fixing me with its pale bright eye. Such a smart bird and so self-possessed. As I placed my hands around its back, it folded in its wings and, as I lifted it over the window frame and opened my hands, it flew out in one fluid motion, as if the holding and release were one movement, as if I and the bird – for one mutual moment – were equally graceful, equally light.

Pontycymer, Glamorgan, South Wales
4th April 2023

the birds

The loch is full of birds; multitudes of them; wheeling, diving, scattering, settling. They’re here for the whitebait which are filling the head of the loch this autumn. I don’t know why this autumn and not others but it’s high tide just now and the bay is brimful.

They’re mainly gulls: herring gulls, black-backed gulls, black-headed gulls (in their unhooded winter plumage), common gulls and kittiwakes – gulls of all ages and sizes. A good number of cormorants and shags are here too, snaking in among them. A few razorbills and guillemots hang around at the edges of the melée, and the occasional resident heron stands watch on the shore. The seals are getting in on the action too, poking their noses up here and there and sliding smoothly in and out of the mouth of the River Inver. A gannet wings its way in from the river mouth heading seaward.

The scene is ever-changing. For long spells, the birds sit around calmly, their pale bodies studding the loch’s dark grey surface in a distributed array which at times spans almost the width of the harbour. Then, when the shoals come in, they fly up and swoop down, crowding the water densely, the larger gulls especially, in a great mass of mottled wings. A colony is the usual collective noun for gulls but there’s no systematic colonising here. This is a clamouring of gulls, a noisy mass rising and falling, flocking and dispersing, floating and flyting, and feeding, feeding, feeding. Some of the gulls pluck the sprats from the surface of the water but most dive right in, the kittiwakes plunging with a noisy plop while the cormorants and shags slip neatly beneath with an elegant arching dive.

It’s quite a commotion and one I’ve never seen before, despite living on the loch itself for several years (aboard a boat in the harbour). When I ask around, however, I discover I’m not the only one. No-one’s seen this many birds on the loch for decades and we’re all captivated. Every time I’m in the village, I see someone standing by the shore, gazing out, transfixed: locals, tourists, delivery men, we’re all under the spell. I’m told social media is all a-flutter too, with photos and videos, sightings and observations. For me, it’s not just the sight but the sound which is compelling. When the feeding frenzy starts, the racket is immense: raucous, glaucous; an ear-rattling krilling and clacking, flapping and splashing. As it subsides, the cacophony simplifies, spreading out into distinct calls and cackles which punctuate the air, clarifying its dimensions.

I love watching all the birds, singly and in quantity, but it’s the kittiwakes which fascinate me the most. They congregate at the mouth of the River Inver, drifting about daintily then suddenly dropping into the water and emerging with a slim silver quickly-swallowed fish. They’re the most beautiful of gulls, to my eyes, and it’s a rare privilege to see them in flight so close to shore. The last time I saw kittiwakes was a few years ago when sailing with my partner off the coast of Norway. It was a cool evening in early June and we’d been out in a lumpy sea all day. I was cold and queasy and was lying around listlessly in the cockpit when four small white birds appeared around the top of the mast. They stayed with the boat for about quarter of an hour (though it felt like longer), beating up into the wind then gliding down our lee side, then holding steady, almost hovering, beside us. I didn’t recognise them then – the dark beak and eye, the black trim on the tail and the dark V on the upper side of each wing – but in my sea-weary state, they seemed like a visitation, the maritime equivalent of being called on by doves.

It was only later, on consulting my bird book, that I realised they were young kittiwakes. There are many of these here too, as well as the adults with their black ink-dipped wingtips, and all with that beguiling dark eye. In among all these kittiwakes though is another gull, dark-eyed too yet more petite and self-possessed – almost demure. I follow it with my binoculars for a while. Like the kittiwakes, it has a white head and body, pale grey wings, and a pure white fanned tail. However, its wings are more rounded and flappy, reminding me a little of a peewit, and underneath are a dark tapering grey. This dark underwing is unusually beautiful, particularly as the wings are bordered in white, making the bird appear translucent at its edges, as if it’s not fully of this world. Indeed, in the graceful lift of its flight, it seems almost holy.

There’s certainly something profoundly appealing about it. Yet it’s not just the kittiwakes and this little gull which are precious, it’s all the birds, the whole assemblage of them, and the way they have come to us now, unbidden. To me, returning from a difficult time away, they’re a welcome surprise, yet as I listen to people speak about them it seems that we all feel the same way: that this coming of the birds is a blessing, a benediction. After everything we’ve been through, with lockdowns and illness, extortionate inflation and a damp squib of a summer, we find ourselves surrounded by these clouds of white feathers, drifting and banking and at times filling the sky; as if – for a moment – we’re living inside a lightly shaken snow globe.

29th November 2022
Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland

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