Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Hill of the Winds


I have told no-one this before.
Above the valley, where the trees dwindle to a few gnarled birches, a rowan overhanging the burn, are the ghosts of villages. Their shapes emerge through the early snow; a ghillie's cottage, a shieling. Some are nothing more than the traces of walls, a nettle-covered midden, the gap-toothed absence of a fireplace or a doorway. In some lights, they appear wistful and elegiac; in others, sad and abandoned.
We heard of one building with a sound roof and a wooden floor, left open as a bothy. It nested in ochre folds of land at the base of a towering, windswept hill, the dark shape like a presence of a benign spirit. Beyond, the knuckled ridges of paler hills stretched to the head of the Loch.
We walked in, three of us, through the long December twilight, the gathering dusk of short highland days. We travelled as light as we could: food for a few days, warm gear, a bottle of malt whiskey. We had no plans, as though to be in the presence of that huge hill was enough. I took a book to read, relished the idea of a few days of stillness and solitude, the wide views which can be found in the highlands in winter. By the time we arrived at the bothy, the light had paled from the sky, colour leached from the land.
The first night, my friends fell asleep quickly. I could hear their rhythmic breathing as we lay, side by side, in the old byre at the back of the room. I lay awake, drifting in and out of that liminal space between sleeping and waking, listening to the sounds of the old building creak and settle, its timbers easing into night.
Somehow, I knew there was a figure in the doorway, a paler shape against the darkness. I could not hear or see it, but I knew it in the way that one is aware of being watched, or of the presence of a loved one. I was not afraid; my mind was still slipping towards sleep, my thoughts unanchored.
The figure crossed the room slowly, soundless on the wooden floor. Above my head, over my left shoulder, it paused briefly and leaned over me. I felt the lightest kiss on my forehead.
I snapped into consciousness, fumbled for the torch. I was breathing hard, but still not afraid. The kiss had felt like an electric shock passing through me, a call to alertness. I was aware of not wanting to wake my friends, although I did not know whether this was from fear of appearing foolish, or from a willingness to hold this fading sensation which tingled through my body. Even in the darkness, I knew that there was no other person in the room; the door was still clasped shut. I felt disoriented, confused, but strangely enlivened, listening to the sighing of the silent bothy, aware of the sense of absence in the room. After a few minutes, I lay down in the darkness. Soon, I was drifting into sleep again.
The next morning, clouds had gathered above the hills, darkening the slopes of rock and heather. We walked to the lochside, listened to the limp wind stirring ripples beyond the pebbled shore. The dark hill rose above us like a nagging memory, a presence of something which could not be forgotten. We threw stones into the Loch, listless and unsettled, unwilling to climb any of the high hills as the weather worsened. I could feel the kiss on my forehead like a burn, like a benediction.
We left the bothy later that day; the weather had turned and the last threads of snow had melted from the tops of the mountains. The sky was overcast, bruise-coloured, threatening rain. On the long walk down, I was aware of the mountain over my shoulder, an implacable presence, like a figure in a doorway.
At times, I can still feel the sensation left by that kiss. In quiet moments, when I am far from the hills, it seems like a sense of promise, as though some agreement was sealed in that darkened bothy. When I think of the hills, I sometimes touch my forehead as though it is still wet, as though the mark of an angel has been left there.
I have told no-one this before.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Storms

On waking, I know that something has changed outside the window. The light has a soft, gentle quality like the memory of a childhood bedroom. The sound is different, too, and I know that it has snowed. The garden is pillowed in white, and snow is still falling from a sky which seems absent of colour, drawn in the many tones of grey, like an ink stain washed from a sheet.
I pull on wellingtons and walk out onto open fields, feeling the gentle benevolence of the snow on my hair and face. This morning, the chill air is like a tonic, a reminder of the healing nature of the world, its ability to renew and surprise. The snow brings a freshness to familiar fields and hedges, the soft perfection of its covering an image of how the world would be if re-made, cast anew.
I turn my back to the wind to take a photograph, and my view is streaked with snow; blurred white across the sky like a chalk mark in the rain. In this light, at this hour, the sky and the snow are the same colour, so that the dark lines of hedges seem poised in space; a crisp line in an otherwise formless world. As I take the picture, I notice the brown spots which are starting to speckle the backs of my hands; marks of my own growing antiquity, like the tea-coloured acid spots which appear amongst the text of old manuscripts. I feel the chill in my fingers more quickly now; wear more layers when walking out in the snow. And yet snow still has the power to excite me, to draw me early from bed when I sense its strange flat light through the curtains. Every time, it feels like a blessing.

When the snow arrived, I fell ill; a non-specific virus which passed through my body like a brief but violent storm. My legs seemed leaden, my body weak and febrile, like the damage felt after a night of gales. It left me drugged and exhausted in the mornings, peering at the world as though through many layers of dense grey muslin. I lay on the sofa, staring out at the snow, and daydreaming.
It snowed for days, slowly accumulating on the fells which I could see from my living room window. Their shapes are as familiar to me now as those speckled backs of my hands; I know each ridge and gully, every stream in every valley. I could imagine the snow filling the familiar curves and hollows, smoothing the surface of the hills, softening their contours until the shape of the hills was lost, smoothed into blankness. In my state of sickness and torpor, I dreamed of white spaces; open plains of snow blown by gusting winds, billowing into formless, colourless plumes. I thought of white, and it soothed me.
At times like these, I understand how we are kin to the weather, how we channel its moods and motions, how storms blow through us in the same way that they blow through the winter skies overhead, bending branches and rattling the roof tiles. I pondered on the way that the word 'depression' describes both a weather system and an ailment, as though each is powered by forces beyond our control, how each ravages and leaves destruction in its trail.

Whilst I was ill, I started to sort through boxes of old photographs, rescuing them from the damp which pools in the house in winter; the dark spots of mould which bloom across the walls like the spots of age on my hands. It is part catharsis and part obligation, this process of returning to prints which are growing sticky with age, the moisture spreading across their surface as though time itself was painted on the face of the image; it is a returning of memory which is sometimes welcome, but sometimes ambivalent.

The oldest photograph I found in the box was taken in one of the hard winters at the start of the 1980s, a time when the snow stayed for days on the Lake District hills, when I would hitch north through fog and snow to arrive in the late evening at the foot of the fells, sleeping out in cow byres or abandoned cottages, up early to be on the hills before the weather turned or the short day faded to gloom. In this photograph, I am paused on an uphill climb, picking my way through the snow and rocks into the secluded valley of Ruthwaite Cove. The equipment I am carrying seems from another age, my rolled-up shirtsleeves a symbol of the careless invincibility of youth. I look from this photograph to the view out of my window and think of all the winters since then, some as snow-bound and inviting as this picture, many absent of snow, wet and windy, torn through with the endless procession of storm fronts and depressions. The winters are changing, I think to myself, and a small voice says: And so are we.

After a few days, as the gales subside, I finally have the energy to go out on the hills. Snow is still blowing across the ridges: dry, loose powder which plumes into whirlpools and spirals in a gentle rhythm, refracting the low sun into a brilliant, fractured light.
As I climb, in time with the pace of my feet crisping in the fresh snow, some lines are running through my head; the opening of Yeats' An Irish Airman Foresees His Death: 'I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above' It is a line which haunts me as I near the top of the ridge, where the dirty clouds are spilling with an almost malevolent pace, a turbid mixture of grey and white; cloud and blown snow. It seems to capture the lure and foreboding of the hill top as it disappears into the cloud. I climb slowly, my legs still feeling the exhaustion of the virus, my footsteps faltering as the gusts buffet me on the exposed spine of the hill: I know....that I….will meet....my fate. The crest of the mountain is the white openness of my dreams. Beneath the roar of the wind, I feel a deep peace.

Within a few days, the snow is starting to thaw. Dark spots are appearing on the lawn where earth emerges from beneath the white; a reminder of the transient nature of winter, the slow warming of the days as we edge towards spring. My virus passes, and I am left with a little residual weakness in my legs, but with a yearning to be out in the cold air, the last of the snow, the bright spring light which flickers off the land.
I walk my familiar route across fields firm from days of frost, the late sun slanting across the last of the snow drifted behind hedges and fences. Three snipe billow from the grass in front of me and jink away downwind; agile, chaotic, far more nimble than I feel. I am still thinking of Yeats' airman, recalling the final lines of poem:
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind,
In balance with this life, this death.
It strikes me that this closing is not simply a portent of death; seen in the bright winter light which spills across the fields on this beautiful fading day, it is also an affirmation of life: Yeats has perfectly skewered the uneasy relationship between feeling very, totally, fiercely, alive, and yet feeling the fragile imminence of mortality, the precarious balance in which we live our lives. It is a feeling known to all mountaineers; it is the feeling which drove me back to those snow-filled gullies as a reckless eighteen-year-old. It is not about risking one's life, as much as understanding one's vibrant fragility: the purpose and meaning of our lives, the fuse which ignites within us when we are out, exposed, unprotected on wild white mountains in winter.
Today, it is enough simply to be walking these open fields, the wind in my face, the sun declining towards the lines of hedges. I turn into the setting sun, away from the cold but slackening eastern wind. Behind me, the snow-covered hills glow creamy-white in the last of the light, like the sails of stately schooners heading for open sea.