abroad

I’ve only realised now that I’m here, but I’ve come to a foreign country.

It’s not the language and landscape that are disorientating, nor the food and customs, unfamiliar though they are – it’s the activity. My friend has organised a busy week – travelling and meeting people and playing taiko, with new dojos and groups almost every day. In itself that’s not strange: two years ago a week like this would have seemed completely normal. But since my head injury, I’ve been able to do these things only intermittently, tentatively, and here it’s all so efficient. I’ve come into in a new world: a world of planning and execution, of intentions and actions, all smoothly following one another; a linear world of efficiency and efficacy, and of certainty – certainty in one’s decisions, certainty in one’s ability to see them through.

I look on in slight bewilderment at all these individual trajectories weaving around me, lines and curves lifting and looping and neatly intersecting each other. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of this world but back at home I observed it from a safe distance, hovering at the edges, lingering in the shadows, while I waited for my head to clear, for my nausea to subside, for my capacity for sure action to return.

But here these intentions, these trajectories include me and now I have to step out towards them; now I have to carry myself forth.

Tiger and Turtle sculpture, a rollercoaster walkway silhouetted against a rose blue sky in which the sun has just set

‘Tiger and Turtle – Magic Mountain’, Duisburg, Nordrhein Westfalen / North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
30th September 2022

airish

It’s a relief when autumn comes, the heat, the haze, the midges resolving into clear uncrowded air. The lurid green profusion mutes itself and gives way, the bracken curling and bedding down in rich rusty banks, the rowan and aspen crisping up and turning gold. The mountains solidify, meeting the loch in deep blue glimpses, as the gaps begin appearing again: pathways, sightlines, ways into the world.

It’s a relief when autumn comes, the mornings becoming keen and cone-sharp and the evenings becoming “airish”, a word I first heard yesterday from a friend. He used it to describe the coolness in the dusk now, the encroaching winter chill, but it makes me think also of “airy”, the way you’d describe a narrow mountain ridge, vista and distance radiating out in all directions, and this is the truth now too.

It’s a relief when autumn comes, the world unpicking and uncovering itself, and the sun coming closer. Its fine rays filter through the emptying branches and rake through the leaf litter, sifting our thoughts as they loosen and fall and settle into dry rustling drifts. We could sweep them up or we could walk through them, enjoying their crackling quiet fire while the sun holds us, body to body, in its steadfast pale embrace.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland / Cwm Garw, Glamorgan, South Wales
18th September 2022

for a friend

Rain hammering yellow on the siskins, and the finches, golden as your August fields. I watch them from the kitchen window as I run in to shelter from another downpour, finding it hard to believe that just this morning I was sitting in a sun-drenched garden in Aberdeenshire.

It was a flying visit – a rare opportunity to meet you and your family during your own visit back from the Basque country. It’s not an area I’ve ever been to but I hadn’t been to Aberdeenshire before yesterday and it seemed foreign enough. All these years thinking we were both just Scottish and I hadn’t realised you came from such different land – so yellow and broad, and so smooth compared to the volcanic upthrusts of Edinburgh where I grew up or the rough highland coast I now call home.

Our birds would have overlapped though, and I watch the birds to re-orientate myself now. They crowd the feeder intently, sharp-faced and focused, flitting back and forward between the swinging plastic tube and the lower branches of the ash tree. I love the deftness of the siskins but it’s the goldfinches that draw my eye – the flash of yellow in the wing, the jewel-red face. I’ve never seen such ruby on a bird, at least not in this country. There were, however, the hummingbirds that came to the garden when I lived in rural Québec. I’d thought they were insects at first, some kind of massive bees zooming back and forth by the wild apple tree, until they slowed down enough to come into clear view. And what a view: metallic emerald plumage with white breasts and an iridescent red plating on their throats, they were beautifully dainty but also surprisingly fierce, circling each other aggressively in tight spirals of defence and desire.

They seemed impossibly exotic, and were the only species of hummingbird to come to Eastern Canada, but almost all the birds were brighter there. The goldfinches were pure canary yellow – the whole bird the colour of our goldfinch’s wing flash, except for a small black cap and wings. Even the blackbirds had vivid wing-stripes of red and yellow; and then there were the cardinals, crested and clothed almost entirely in crimson. I got compared to a cardinal once, when I lived in Montréal, and we spoke about them when you visited me there (didn’t they appear in Lowry’s Under the Volcano?). However, it wasn’t until after you left that I started seeing – and hearing – them in the city parks, their jaunty presence announced by their distinctive pyew pyew call, a cross between a wolf-whistle and the noise we made as kids pretending to shoot each other.

We’re not used to such vivacity here in Scotland and, after years back here again, my eye has been recalibrated. When I look at the siskins – which are like drabber versions of the North American goldfinch – I think their colour looks unnatural, as if they’ve fallen into a tin of yellow paint. And for all that I admire our goldfinches, I can’t help being suspicious – that dramatic yellow splash, that fancy face mask – as if they’re pretending, dressing up; as if they’re not really from here.

The birds you describe seeing in the Basque country are bright too: lurid yellowhammers and smart black kites and redstarts, birds I’m not familiar with. But you still see sparrows and robins and it makes you feel nearer to know that we’re looking at some of the same creatures despite the space between us.

Because this is the way of it. You’ll return to the Basque country and I’ll remain in the Highlands, places that neither of us are from, but then we always were migrants or vagrants, never quite feeling that we belonged. Though I suspect it’s in that distance that we feel most at home, and perhaps with each other too, in our continuing correspondence, our lives separated as they’ve always been, stitched together by feathers and flights.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
2nd August 2022

joy in movement

The trigram Tui, the Joyous, whose attribute is gladness, is above; Chên, the Arousing, which has the attribute of movement, is below.

And it’s true. I complain about not being able to afford a home in Scotland but I secretly love being on the move.

I secretly love the long drive to Lochinver and the cold dampness aboard when I get there, the effort to keep warm with clothes and wood – finding, carrying, sawing, splitting; the burning the least of it.

I secretly love the aching tiredness of travel, the echoing ache for a home which means I don’t have one yet, which means I’m still on the land road or sea road, still plying my way through the waves of our lives, still live to the ebb and flow.

I even secretly love the slow quease that sweeps over me at sea because it means I’m out on it, because I’m not at home, because I’m only at home, here, in movement.”

I wrote that sometime during the winter of 2018 and came across it in a computer file a couple of days ago. Today I did the I Ching again, and again: joy in movement. But what movement? I’m here now, in my own home, the first home I have ever owned, and although I still travel, with my persistent brain injury I get about much less than before. Yet the movement doesn’t stop, it’s simply more focused. My back and arms ache from digging and chainsawing and swinging my new axe. And I still have a slow seasick-like quease though now it’s from the movement of my mind rather than the ocean waves, as I struggle to shake off the lingering effects of my concussion. But I’m still glad and maybe that’s more focused too. After all, no situation can become favourable until one is able to adapt to it and does not wear himself out with mistaken resistance.

So I pause and watch the chaffinches and goldfinches as they mob my feeders, and the thrush and dunnocks as they pick about on the ground, and the wee wren as it dots about the pile of unsawed branches; and I listen to the wind prowling round the caravan and to the river churning down to the sea. It’s almost incredible, all this incessant noise and action, and all I can hope for is that it never stops; never stops at all.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
8th March 2022