There has been quite a break since I last wrote a proper blog post. Sorry. But I was thinking about you! I thought I'd run out of things to say. It would be boring (I said to myself) for people yet again to read about eagles and how the weather makes all the big decisions about what happens here. Then I realised that there was another reason. Phase 1 of being here had finished and I'd entered a different phase that I didn't like much. New things are always exciting, not to mention a new life. But of course after a while the newness is gone and you start to go more deeply into the experience, which means that you start to wonder more about how you fit into it and what it can do for you, rather than just thinking about it as a neutral observer.
There's a really good German phrase: an die eigenen Grenzen stoßen. This literally means, "to bump into your own limits". Before we came here I cheerily said to many people that I was terrified because it meant I would be diving into the totally unknown. It was true, I was terrified for many reasons (not all of which I admitted to), but as usual, the excitement won out and I felt I had to do it. What I didn't think about was that constantly bumping into your own limits means you end up with a fair amount of bruising. What I'm now experiencing is the feeling you have when you don't want to move off the sofa because every bit of you is going "ouch" - literally and figuratively.
It's getting very cold now and I wear a hat and scarf even on sunny days. But before we went away, autumn was still golden, and I did have an exciting eagle experience, as it happens. I decided to struggle up Coire Dubh (the path behind the castle), not being at all in the mood, and get Beyond the Dam (the point where I've usually had enough and turn back, and the point where it goes into proper mountain country). It wasn't so much "Come on! I can climb a mountain," as, "I don't want to but I'm going to". Spurred on by friends who had just climbed Hallival, a REAL mountain, I wanted to know what it is like to conquer my limits - to see what it would be like to do something really hard. And I was intrigued by the weather - for once it wasn't even cloudy and the mountains looked like we were in Spain or the Alps. Suddenly I got my excitement back - I was in a foreign country! A blazing hot sun, too bright blue sky, nothing stirring except now and again a breeze in the rowans, and the waterfalls sparkling in the afternoon light. The hills were bare, deserted, the grass turning brown, not because of the heat but because of the autumn. But it felt like Mallorca and I felt like it was summer.
|Just above the dam on Coire Dubh (Photo (c) L Becker)|
Each time I got to one of the natural resting places I was keen to stop. I had to keep removing layers because of the heat, I was sweating and grumpy, kept looking down and thinking, why don't I just turn back. But something drove me on. It was stony and I tripped up a lot, but I also kept seeing how far I had come. I was a long way up and it was totally silent (at least once I'd got far enough not to hear Dave's annoying jet-ski). Eventually, I crossed the "lip" of the coire - over the edge on to flat land, a green basin within the rocks, just a stream moving. I felt I'd crossed into another world - another island. The rocks stood up like statues. And as I looked up there was suddenly a huge eagle up above me. I could see a difference to the golden eagles we'd seen the previous day, and realised it must be a sea eagle, its giant, slow flapping movements taking it impossibly far into each glide. It circled above, seeming to approach and I felt frightened - it was just me and him (or her) in this lonely landscape. An eagle, the sun and me. Irrational though it was part of me wanted to run away; part of me wanted to stay until evening, go even further up, scramble up those rocks and reach a pinnacle. But I didn't. I was too sensible or too scared - one or the other. I also wanted to leave the eagle alone - somehow it felt like it wasn't my landscape, it belonged to her (or him). I had to get down. I began almost to run, although it was too rocky to run. Once at the dam, I breathed again. I couldn't see the eagle any more. Just the sea far below and the tiny symbols of human habitation: the castle, Gav and Laura's croft (which is finally taking shape), Nic and Adi's caravan, yurts, houses, boats. Part of me wanted to stay - part of me to go.
I was hugely excited to have seen a sea eagle, and I told people all about how amazing it was. But I wouldn't admit that alongside the excitement I was definitely scared. Eagles never attack humans unless they are in danger themselves and so I felt like an idiot. But it was something to do with feeling isolated - however much we love the eagles, they will never love us back or if they do, we'll never know. And this is how it should be - all we can do for them is leave them alone. And that is why I am struggling - because this is the first place I've ever lived that is not set up for humans at all. We have a bit of a foothold, but not much, and we're still working out what we should/can take and what we can give back. I like the idea of "living in harmony with nature" - but what does it actually mean when you're a human?
I was struggling even more on Tuesday when we attempted to get to Bloodstone Hill. This is a magnificent, terrifying bit of rock on the other side of the island, which you can only get to by cycling four miles to Malcolm's Bridge, then struggling up a barely-marked path, through a bog and over a "beleach" (the dip between two mountains). Once we got to the beleach, the view was incredible - right across to Canna, a tiny island set in a bright blue sea, and down the dizzying slopes to Guirdil, the bothy on the beach that can only be reached by "contouring down" the hill (i.e. guessing where you might be able to put your feet next). We could hear stags roaring in the glen below and then we saw them - they looked impossibly tiny. That was how far up we were. One of the most beautiful views I've ever seen...
|View of Canna from above Glen Guirdil - Guirdil bothy right at the bottom (Photo (c) "Kinley" from the Scottish Hills Forum)|
I never made it to Bloodstone - maybe next time. I got quite a long way, but I was exhausted and grumpy from not knowing where the path was (because there wasn't a proper one - don't argue with me Scottish mountain-climbers, there definitely WASN'T) and continually falling into the bog - much to the amusement of certain other people (you know who you are). "The island hates me!" I groaned childishly after the seventh or eighth bit of clumpy grass fell away beneath my feet to deposit me in a foot of mud. Footpaths! How I long for a lovely Ordnance Survey map with the footpaths clearly marked - I don't care how steep or how muddy, at least they are there! We don't realise how lucky we are in England.
|One of our better "paths" (not me on it...) (Photo (c) "Kinley" SHF)|
I want to think more about how people interact with landscapes that they don't have much control over and so I've been desperately trying to find books that help me out. One of them is Simon Barnes' How to be Wild. (He also wrote the better known book How to be a Bad Birder). He tries to analyse why we as humans are so unhappy in the human-filled world we've made and why we need outdoor spaces, animals and "nature" to be truly ourselves, and urges us to find the "wildness" in our lives, whether that is in the African desert or in our local park. So far I agree, it's a vital message. But Simon (though he's travelled widely, and to far more dangerous spots than I have) lives in Suffolk. Presumably he has a local council, local buses and local doctors. Also, and more importantly, he has footpaths. The countryside he lives in may be rural, but rural England is a place where people belong, generally. Here, we don't. That means our relationship with the island is very different.
I want to love the wilds (and I do), but actually living in them makes you think about your priorities and who you really are. Does it matter that we spend so much time planning how to obtain, grow or order food? No - it's a good thing, it makes you realise what harvest festival is all about and you appreciate every individual parsnip or potato when it's had to be ordered a week in advance and travel to the island by ferry, or be grown with months of care and hard work, and protected from destruction by bad weather, turkeys or pigs. Does it matter that there are no pubs? Yes it does!
Looking for help, I opened up a book at random - Letters from Iceland by W.H Auden and Louis MacNeice. The two poets travelled around Iceland in the 1930s, partly to escape their growing dread of war and fascism in Europe. Iceland at the time was a remote, tiny civilisation of farmers and fishermen - kind of similar to Rum, really. I'd never read the book before. So maybe it was fate that I opened it at the page (p. 27 if you're curious and have the Faber edition) where Christopher Isherwood is asking Auden in a letter:
What feelings did your visit give you about life on small islands?
If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant, because the inhabitants are friendly, tolerant and sane. They are genuinely proud of their country and its history, but without the least trace of hysterical nationalism. I have always found that they welcomed criticism. But I had the feeling, also, that for myself it was already too late. We are all too deeply involved with Europe to be able, or even to wish to escape [...] I think that in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me. The truth is, we are both only really happy living among lunatics.
Substitute "the mainland" for "Europe", and "Rum" for "Scandinavian", and there you are!
Auden is torn, it seems, between the satisfaction of dealing with the struggles of everyday life where politics don't seem to matter, and the need to engage with that "insanity" back in Europe. Insanity wins - eventually.
But just after this, Auden's companion MacNeice wrote to another friend:
...what am I doing here?...
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health,
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge...
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population...
[We] do not remember
The necessity of silence of the islands.
He too seems to be idealising island life - huh, I think, it's easy to be snobby about "culture" when you're surrounded by London! If only! But then he writes:
We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them.
Maybe it's not a straightforward choice between boring "sanity" and exciting, if exhausting "insanity" in the "real world". Maybe it's a bit more complex. Maybe living here in this environment that demands such different skills to "back home", and is so silent, does act as a balance or a learning curve to deal with all that stuff happening out on the mainland: all those really noisy things that can make you feel helpless, angry or sad - but that still need dealing with. Looking inside myself, I realise that humans are full of struggles and they are still looking for where they belong.
I clearly need to give this whole island thing a bit more of a go.
P.S. We do have a bit of architecture (not much) and some trees. We also have a lot of silence.
|Looking across to Orval and Bloodstone from the other side (Photo (c) Kinley, SHF)|