Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Other Side

   Before the nights settle in and overwhelm the days, and before summer seems almost too distant to be plausible, I thought I should finally post some more photos taken on my wanderings of a few months ago, when my mother visited from Canada and we set off down the walk, through the lanes and then down the many roads that wound us west.

If I'm honest, I'll admit that it seemed for a while that we could sum up our trip quite easily:

There were days of bare feet on the dashboard, mountains looming high on all sides, the road winding and worsening, becoming potholed, single-track dirt paths that clung to the sides of mountains, with any oncoming traffic initiating a sometimes precarious dance of backing into passing places and customary polite waves and nods.

And the landscape gave up its treasures, the wrecks of castles scattered about on lonely vantage points.

Sometimes they didn't emerge fully from their surroundings, and the forests wrapped themselves about them tightly.

Other times they were too exposed, and the wind and the years devoured them slowly.

There were lighthouses that dreamt of mosques, and stood on the shores watching ceaselessly for things that might wash up beside them, carried over the waves to them from faraway lands.

And sometimes those waves opened up into a great network of roads for us; some days we went from island to island on little quests we had set for ourselves.

On a calm day we landed on Staffa to visit Fingal's cave.  We crept inside to hear the echos that inspired a seasick Mendelssohn, but the ocean was too still, and we heard instead only the approaching voices of others coming to explore the cave.   So we went off to take pictures of our shoes on the hexagon-shaped rocks that make up the island, and explore.

Sitting by the edge of a cliff we had a visit from a group of puffins, and a group of midges, both of which hovered around our ankles, keeping close company.

The odd doddering gait of puffins, and their close, uninhibited carry on made me feel as if I had stumbled into a sort of fable full of gentlemanly animals that spoke politely and kept appointments for afternoon tea.

A minke whale swam alongside us as we left Staffa and the clear, turquoise waters turned a cold, opaque blue.  We landed on Iona and wandered in a fog.

We slipped into the cloisters of Columba's church after closing time and then haunted the cathedral for a while before heading out into the cold, wet centre of the thick cloud that was sat on the island.


Other days we traded in our sea legs and we moved along the outlines of the mountains, though our eyes still floated across the formless seas. 

We happened upon a few hidden pockets of paradise, waded in the shallow pools made by the many waterfalls that cascaded down from the mountains, their waters stopping to sit for a while in the shade of the trees before rushing over a cliff edge and falling straight down down down.

We ate mussels every night in little harbour towns where tiny fishing boats rolled and pulled at their anchors, or sat still and stuck when the tide was out and the harbour was transformed into an almost-empty bucket of sand.

And, always, there was more road ahead.

Somehow, I am not the best at keeping a holiday moving along from destination to exciting destination following opening hours and itineraries.  The details that seem important are not normally written on maps.

And so we wandered graveyards and found glass tubes of angels outside of must-see castles that we did not see...

...we stopped and smelt the flowers leaning out of the closed-up gardens and then we tripped off down another lane, and another, until we were far away, far away like a September's night.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Wood Woes

Wood Woes, I

Wood Woes, II

Wood Woes, III

   Three new etchings.  Tiny ones that fit in the palm of your hand.  I've been thinking about old tapestries with wild men leering or dancing through lush forests, tapestries that make you feel as if you are in the deepest woods when you look at them.  In 15th century Germany there was a profusion of tapestries and other artworks with this theme.  Those wild men, covered in their leaves or fur or flowers seem to waver between being portrayals of utopias and scenes that threaten violence. 

   The title of these prints, which highlights the depiction of the relationship between people and their surroundings, is also a homophone of "woodwose" which is an old English word for these wild people that stalk the forests.  I am pleased to have found a title that is a bit tricky and ambiguous, where what is read out might not be what is heard and understood.  After I had the prints finished and was searching around, trying to prove that I did not make this word up, I came across a link to "am fear liath mòr" which means "the big grey man" in Scots Gaelic.  It seems that right here in Aberdeenshire, in the Cairngorms, there are legends of a wild man haunting the peak of a local mountain.  A strange and wonderful surprise.

   The wild person as a sort of creature, with possible origins as a deity or perhaps as a species apart from man, is intriguing.  I had a friend a long time ago who, one day, out of the blue, went quiet and then asked me if I believed in Sasquatches.  It is gladdening to think that the woods can be such deep and mysterious places.  And then there are the stories of mystics and saints and recluses that go off for one reason or another and live at the mercy of god or nature.  In fact, this blog's title comes, in a roundabout sort of way, from one such story... from all the nights that 'Mad Sweeney' spent huddled, sheltering in yew trees, half-man, half-crazed and half-holy.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Eyes on the ground.

   At the edges of the woods the leaves are turning.  Yellow leaves sit on the mossy ground and trick even the most discerning eye into seeing tiny, golden chanterelle mushrooms growing just a few steps away.

Deep in the woods, though, things are greener, and that's where the most mushrooms can be found, dotting the old logging roads, or standing alone in the shadows. 

 In the small clearings small folk still bask in the sun...

... and stretch their wings before the colder days ahead.

Wandering away from the others deep in the shady green of the woods, the day begins to feel like a dream or perhaps a long underwater swim.  Who can tell how much time passes before a far off call comes from the others, before it is necessary to break a shortcut through the undergrowth, gathering bouquets of twigs in my hair?

We ate chanterelles at every meal for a week after our little foraging expedition.

(Sorry for the ugly kitchen floor, but renters can't be choosers, I guess.) 

Our arms were heavy with our harvest.  We sat down on the grass and sorted them, a friend telling us which ones to cook together, which ones needed the skin removed before eating, and saving us from a poisonous one that snuck in somehow.
So it was chanterelles with scrambled eggs for breakfast, and in soups, in sauces, on toast, with potatoes... every way you could possibly eat them, we ate them.  Luckily, it is almost impossible to get tired of anything so delicious, and fragrant as chanterelles (they smell like apricots).

Garlands of drying mushrooms

We dried the rest for later. 

A lively topiary hedge we found on the way to the woods.

   So, in between the busyness and bouts of maybe-moving madness, we've been having a little bit of a wild mushroom obsession over here, pouring over mushroom books in the evening and making spore prints and things.  But the best source of knowledge of all comes from friends that have been picking mushrooms in the woods with their families their whole lives.  Lucky us to have friends like that!

   And whenever this blustery rain moves off, I'll take some photos of the tiny etchings I mentioned in my last post so I can share them with you, now that they are finished.  I hope September is treating you well!