Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Summer Snow & Midnight Light: Glen Etive & Loch Quoich.

With 2015's examining done by the start of June, I decided to drastically change my reading material and with it my location. Welsh brocken spectres and sea kayaking had been excellent diversions, but not having made it North since November was making me restless.

For the year's first northern foray I ordered an array of new books. Prose - Matthew Kelly's Quartz & Feldspar, Michael McCarthy's The Moth Snowstorm, Melissa Harrison's, At Hawthorn Time, Brian Moss' Lakes, Loughs and Lochs & Paul Evans' Field Notes from the Edge - and, more importantly, poetry - Peter Riley's Due North & Phillip Gross's intricate collaboration with the artist Valerie Coffin-Price, A Fold in the River. (Some verdicts at the end). Almost all were published extremely recently, contributing to a moment of peculiar intensity in the new nature writing phenomenon.

As if to emphasise the point, a copy of the TLS arrived on my doormat on the day I set out, featuring a strange, critical piece by Richard Smyth: 'The Limits of Nature Writing'. In an unnecessarily divisive survey, Smyth explores alternative possibilities to the predominant highly-stylized tradition running from J.A. Baker to Robert Macfarlane (there are aspects of his sceptical take on Macfarlane that do ring true, although far less robust than Kathleen Jamie's recent critique). By the time I returned home the New Statesman had run a still more provocative piece by Mark Cocker on the political shortcomings of the genre's most overexposed figures (powerful, but formed around strangely misleading binaries: nature/culture vs landscape/literature - there are already responses). I've been watching these with particular interest since I sent my own first effort at nature writing to Dunlin Press this month. What's most striking is that the polemical thrust of Smyth, Cocker, Jamie etc implies a cultural prominence for these themes that's only now being consolidated (we've even reached a point at which people are publishing critiques of critique).

That new prominence also intruded on my examining: several second-year historians wrote excellent essays challenging binaries between human/natural, subject/object - advocating approaches to the past that treat sea, topography and animals as historical agents - and digging deep into the ontological implications of this in ways I haven't really seen from undergrads before. They were answering a question - 'How and why should histories of non-human agents be written?' - on the module that has this twitter feed: Marking these made me ache still more for mountain reading & mountain wandering.

Despite the insight it gives you into other human beings, examining can be a solitary affair, so for this trip I got in touch with an old friend in Glasgow...
...and by 7am next day we were on the road towards Fort William. The forecast forced us to stay further south than usual, with everything North of the Great Glen buried in cloud. So we chose Ben Starav for our warm up (although maybe warm up is the wrong term: never before have I slept on the edge of a snow field in Britain just a week from midsummer, with the threat of more snow overnight).
After two days among these Glen Etive hills we drove a little further: into a region that was the great revelation of the trip. With a taste for further North, I'd never really noticed what lay between Kintail & Knoydart. The dramatic knobbly mountains there are now among my favourites of the south(ish) highlands: they're spectacular viewpoints for Shiel ridge, the Nevis range and the whole western seaboard. With great potential for combined kayak/mountain trips, I intend to be back many times.
Two days and nights round here concluded this all-too-short trip.

Ben Starav lies at the heart of a glorious mountain zone (centre of this map):
Looming up from Glen Etive, its apparent barrenness contrasts with one of the highlands' lushest valleys:
But the Ben is far from barren. By the time we were on the first ridge, today's blue sky...
...had tempted lizards out from under rocks to hunt an astonishing array of insects: mayflies, red-banded rove beetles & diverse iridescent ground beetles. (When mayflies outnumber midges all seems well with the world). We managed, I think, to avoid stepping on frogs, but at times that took some doing. This response of insect, reptile and amphibian to unaccustomed warmth made sumptuous banqueting for ravens and this ring ouzel... 
...which was so distracted by its feast that it seemed barely aware of human intrusion.

 After a steep scramble towards the snow field, views of Glen Etive opened out below:
We explored Ben Starav's ridges as the sun lowered, with views of new mountains all the time:
Ben Cruachan's many ridges provided the most enticing skyline of all:
By evening, banks of cloud closed in on all sides, but somehow a large patch of clear deep blue remained immobile over Ben Starav, giving us what felt like a charmed existence.
Donning a silly hat (and a surprising number of winter clothes for June) I set up for a glorious night above 3,000ft. These were the northerly views from the sleeping bag as the last sun left Bidean Nam Bian: The blanket of dark cloud, almost touching the peaks of mountains to the East, was deeply evocative (even recalling the cauldron-like atmosphere of some John Martin paintings) - the effect was strangely claustrophobic despite its grand scale. And there's little that generates atmosphere on cold mountain nights & mornings like the guttural croaks of nearby ravens - there were plenty to watch & hear on Starav - I didn't take photos, so here's one from last Jan:
If only there were wolves (this link is to a really excellent 4min film). Abandoning the bivi bag and relying solely on this sleeping bag has improved my outdoor nights enormously: I hadn't realised how much the noise of wind on goretex had previously disturbed my sleep.
Silent, cosy nights, with views of sky & peaks interrupted only by passing clouds, make it the ideal option when heavy rain is unlikely. As well as the new books, I'd brought Gary Snyder's Practice of the Wild. Digging into this after sunset I was surprised by how badly it has aged, and how dated the faux romanticism of its opening sequence now seems. A few pages in I decided sleep was a better bet. This short summer night barely got dark, but waking c.2am I looked across past Ben's bivi to see that even the closest mountains had disappeared. Ben Starav seemed to be the last peak engulfed, but cloud soon settled, its base far below (under 1000ft), and refused to shift for another 30hrs.

We descended through the clag, accompanied at times by the sound of a golden plover, and drove north to the mountains round Loch Quoich, sandwiched between the Glenshiel ridge and the wilderness of Knoydart.
The road west from Invergarry felt far wilder than Glen Etive. This isolated pass goes precisely nowhere, except the collection of three or four crofts known as Kinloch Hourn. But just because there aren't other cars doesn't mean there won't be traffic: 
Despite being forecast to lift, cloud stayed low. So this was a night for whisky & books. We opened a bottle of sweet, rich Glenfarclas 105 (one of the few heavily sherried drams I actually enjoy, and a departure from the usual cask-strength Taliskers & Ardbegs).

The long leg of Loch Quoich seen from this sleeping spot looks like an excellent kayak route into isolated hills. But that's for another time...

One of the advantages of travelling with Ben (besides the excellent bread he bakes) is that he's the best reader of poetry I know. My challenge each trip is finding a long sequence he's not familiar with to pass an evening on the mountain. Some of our best ventures have been accompanied by Basil Bunting's Briggflatts, W.S. Graham's The Night Fishing, Iain Crichton Smith's Deer on the High Hills, Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossing & Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.* Tonight, on a shoulder of Gleouraich, was Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns. This is a sequence both historical and surreal, confronting the landscapes of eighth-century Britain with the things of modernity, as its first stanza shows:

         King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the    historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

         ‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’

Hill was born in the place I now live, and despite his chilly remoteness (as one reviewer put it 'warmth in these poems is like a dying sun seen through a wall of ice') and apparent elitism (though his background is working-class he hankers after hierarchies) I have a soft spot for his ridiculously ornate lines and vivid but often disjointed imagery. His recent, Welsh-themed poetry has been particularly weather and landscape-driven with characteristic strains of Dylan Thomas:

    Novembering Wales, the flooded meadows
    Pewter, lead-sheeting, briefly highlighted;
    Grand sog of red woods gold-fretted;
    The road squeezed skywards from wrung Betws;
    Now the deep-held tremor
    Of pelting gullies that are wisps in summer
    Behind the stone house with the slate shimmer;
    Again this homing, strangely-abrupt word,
    Possessed domestication of your goad.

This poetry emerged from Hill's recent discovery of Welsh ancestry, and the Welsh words he uses - foel, cwm, hebog, hiraeth, llyn (hill, valley, falcon, longing, lake) - illustrate how much this has been a turn towards rural landscapes. Hill seeks to do precisely what those students mentioned above were doing - making landscape active - not formed, Kant-style, in human minds but intervening in them. I think that's what he's getting at here (particularly the last two lines):

The rain passes, briefly the flags are lit
Blue-grey wimpling in the stolid puddles,
     And one's mind meddles and muddles
Briefly also for joy of it.
     How the morning is made
Intimately surprised that I am glad
By scraps of immaterial parade:
The world much fabled to be what it is—
Radiant mica’d creatures drawn through stress.

Next morning we still didn't have views from Gleouraich or the ridges that protrude to its East. With cloud stubbornly thick and low at 6, we descended and headed West, eventually climbing the ridge that culminates in Sgurr a' Mhoraich. This is embedded still deeper in the rocky drama: scores of peaks on every side and geological contrast all round. Heading up the Sgurr, the Saddle (site of the infamous Forcan Ridge) looked particularly shapely:  
Raven croaks were notably rare here and low slopes were populated instead by ptarmigan and plover (a great reminder of this night):

During the climb, and on the lower end of the snow-spattered ridge, it was clear that this - despite its relative obscurity - was a rather special mountain.  Its true brilliance only became evident at the peak. Views of the Nevis range dominated the South Eastern skyline, here's the pudding-lump of the famous Ben itself, with another Munro, Gairich, looking little in the foreground:

In the opposite direction, and over the shoulder of imposing Beinn Sgritheall, superb views of gullies and ridges in the Skye Cuillin:

South West, Sgurr na Ciche and the rocky forms that ring the Knoydart peninsula promise excellent spots for future mountain nights:
North, over the Glen Shiel ridge, the Five Sisters of Kintail:
Beyond them, the unmistakable shapes of Torridon, Fisherfield and An Teallach stretch into the distance: 
Most delightful of all were views across the small isles (looking West South West). In the foreground is Knoydart proper - the highest point, Ladhar Bheinn, on the right - with one of my favourite places in Britain, the Rum cuillin, peering over its shoulder, and long flat (notoriously-weird) Eigg to its south east:
Here are a couple more views, showing something of how the western skylines fit together:
The between-lands here, not quite Knoydart nor quite Kintail and therefore strangely neglected, have opened up a host of possibilities. This will be a summer of sea more than mountains, but once autumn arrives I intend to find a few more days to get well-and-truly lost here...

My verdict on the books mentioned at the beginning? Those I found most compelling were A Fold in the River & At Hawthorn Time. Each is so precisely composed that it allows the reader to see, smell, hear & feel the landscapes it features, as well as skillfully enmeshing the networks of human & non-human beings at its heart. At Hawthorn Time is the most subtle & successful effort I've seen to transpose the concerns of current nature writing into fiction. The Moth Snowstorm is a profound and significant book that ought to reach a huge readership. It is, however, deeply flawed, particularly in its emphasis on the most reductive & unscientific aspects of current evolutionary psychology (an attachment to such ideas - attempting to emphasise that in instincts & tastes we are still the people of the plesitocene - is a dangerous element of some new nature writing, embodying a commitment to anthropological universals that the humanities and social sciences have long demonstrated to be misguided). It's also very odd that some journalists have used the activist elements of The Moth Snowstorm as a stick with which to beat less politically-driven authors (e.g. Helen MacDonald), when authors like MacDonald are doing precisely what the book calls for: restoring our sense that nature has value beyond 'ecosystem services' & 'environmental economics'. Due North is pure Peter Riley: passages of massive self-indulgence interspersed by luminous sequences of perfect poetry that read like writing from the greats of the mid-20thC. I've bought my Dad a standalone version of the best section of Due North for fathers' day (the Kinder Scout sequence, in a beautiful edition from Longbarrow Press - it recalls the wonderful first half of Riley's classic Alstonefield more than the misfiring second half). The other books I've either not finished yet, or not made up my mind about.

*If you have suggestions for more poetry to fulfil this function, please let me know!

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