Thursday, 19 January 2012

A Space of Time

   Sometimes I miss thunderstorms dearly.  The weather here does not crash and clatter about in the way it did where I grew up.  I miss frozen lakes and snow piled up into dirty grey mountains by the roadside, and sweeping white drifts everywhere else, days trapped in the belly of winter where no one expects anyone will venture out, and so the world becomes a wild, empty place to roam through and shape at will. 

In the winter, ridiculously bundled in warm clothing, we would lose the sense of having bodies at all.  Except, in the bathroom a screaming pain awaited the hands of children who stayed out too long, when frostbitten fingers would be forced under the hottest water that came from the faucet.

And in the summer, the plants grew riotously and it was almost impossible to imagine ever wanting to wear clothes at all.  I thought only of the lake, but was sometimes dragged out of the water to wander through shady forests. We used to run outside to dance and shout at times when the sky turned suddenly green and eerie and the rain made rivers under us.  In spring we slipped out barefoot and collected the biggest pieces of hail and hid them in the freezer.  And autumn was sweetest of all.

  Time works differently in places where the seasons are so varied.  Each season is so intensely present that it blots out the others, making them seem lifetimes away.  Here where things are more constant, the hours are always about me, and a space of four months seems as meaningless as yesterday.  One must cast about a much more subtle eye.

 And so we've decided to try and visit the prehistoric markers that managed to make it past all the time and people that have rushed across this bit of land.  One day's strolling down the street and across the river brought us to a mossy cist near the bottom of a slope that rises above the river Dee.

These days are small windows of blue winter light that seem to have the stained-glass hues of one long sunset.  The sun creaks itself a quarter of the way up the sky and then falls back behind the hills again.  The birds fly backwards in the wind.  And we hurry to reach the hilltops and home before dark. 

Over empty stretches of burnt ground littered with bones, a high heap of stones stands ringed by fresh green moss and scorched gorse bushes.  The stones and boulders that were laid together, built up on top of one another to make this cairn, have probably been here at least four thousand years.  Past the cairn the city stretches out in rows, and oil ships sit on the horizon. It seems odd that the bony, blackened, empty place should stand ringed in by fences and industrial estates, a dump and a water treatment centre, and further on, the monkey bars of an empty playground.  Standing next to the cairn in the shadow of that strangeness, one begins to feel like the wild creature that has crawled out of the woods and sits watching in the shadows at the edge of town.

Further up the hill there are at least three more cairns.  Some of them are even larger than the first one.  Where the exposed rock meets the grass, it becomes clear that just beneath one's feet there are many more rocks heaped together below the soil.  It is impossible to know where the swell of the cairn begins and the rise of the hill ends. 

And the light begins to fail.  We push through gorse thickets in the dark, thorns catching at our legs.  More of this funny timelessness where the sun slides up and down the sky with no consequence.  We walk home in the false dark of street lamps.  In the gardens snowdrops are already flowering.  Though it is January there are sometimes daffodils and the odd tree is blooming. We move away from the expanse of the hilltop where the bones of the earth stand overlooking the city.

   Sometimes I can find patterns, but mostly time expands and contracts in ways that mystify me.  My words turn the same things about, and I have no sense of the direction onward from here.  Back in Paris, around farewell drinks someone said "suppose time is moving slightly faster every day. No one would notice, just each day would be a little bit shorter."

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hip Hip Hooray!

   Last night the new year arrived on the north coast of Scotland in the tiny fishing villages which keep to the old Julian calendar holidays.  In Burghead a fiery procession wound its way sunwise through the town, bringing bits of luck to the doorsteps of the people there.

On top of a flame-covered hilltop, the last bit of the Clavie, which is the name for the burning barrel carried through the town, burnt to the ground as people cheered.  And so, the new year began.

There used to be celebrations like this one in many towns on the north coast of Scotland, but this is the last one that remains.  I wrote about the Clavie last year too, so have a look here if you are interested in reading more. 

As we made our way home, reeking of smoke and tar and full of stovies, clutching our piece of the Clavie to bring us luck, my mind moved back and forth over this past year and on to thoughts of the one sitting ahead.
   I have been a little too much in dreamland the past couple of weeks and the time to get back to work and the regular pattern of daily life has come, I think.  I have been gathering ideas around me, and I'm looking forward to bringing them out into the world, or at least my little corner of it.

   Going back in time eleven days from last night, to the more commonly accepted time for celebrating New Year's Eve, we found ourselves at another fire festival.  The photos below come from the fireball celebration in the town of Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen.

This festival is much larger and also includes a pipe band, a drum group, and fireworks at the end.  You can read more about it in last year's post on the same subject.  We had a lovely night out, standing about waiting for midnight and learning about life in Kazakhstan and Borneo from a visitor met by chance, and then the hush and roar as bunches of fire went whirling past us... sometimes only just missing us as we stepped quickly back!

There is something hypnotic in these fire processions.  Watching as the flames blaze past in the dark street, or trailing along behind them, emotions balance out between excitement and strange awe.

   More than candy-coloured fireworks ever could, these raw flaming processions make a deep and dramatic impression.  I hope that these tiny glimpses of flames and sparks will warm and quicken you a bit.  Thank you for passing this past year with me and my thoughts.  May you make your dreams come true this year!

Throwing fireballs in the sea.