Sunday, August 28, 2011

And all to sweetness turns


To-day I think
Only with scents, - scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot's seed,
And the square mustard field;
Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
                                             Edward Thomas, 'Digging'


Mornings like these I take my first cup of tea outside onto the porch and, as it cools, I watch the clouds slowly unravelling over the mountains. The sun, slow now to rise, offers a welcome but fragile warmth as it rises above the trees. I can smell autumn in the air, although at this time of year, it touches only the early morning and late evening; a crepuscular scent of earth and fungus, of the metallic taint of stone moistened by dew.
We walk along lanes striped by the honeyed light of a low sun, with its harvest-days warmth which illuminates the seed-heads of cow parsley and meadowsweet. In the margins of the lane, the hedgerows hold the symbols of the coming autumn: the hard, small hawthorn berries turning to russet; the slack opulence of cranesbills, their leaves shrivelling to grey; the funereal white of bindweed offering an elegy for summer. At one field junction we see the first damsons, dusted blue and swollen with the rains of august. Long-tailed tits chatter like children on their return to school.

The birds bring a knowledge of autumn which we are slow to grasp; in the mornings and evening we hear skeins of geese adjusting to an autumn on the move. The house martins are still circling over the house in the evening, their febrile flight quickening now, agitated and uncertain. I wonder if the fledglings feel any sense of anticipation, whether they are daunted by the journey ahead of them. Last night we saw, amongst the evening swallows and martins, a single swift, its high shriek almost painful against the darkening sky. It may be the last one of the year.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The blue of distance




 I came back from the islands full of sadness. A week in the Hebrides seems to contain all that is precious about life, distilled pure experience, amber-sweet and shot with light. Each day, we woke to the sound of the wind and the sea, hushing insistently at the edge of consciousness like a dream only half-remembered in the waking hours. Life seemed pared down to a litany of ascetic pleasure; we cycled, we walked, we swam, we ate. Beyond this, nothing mattered.
It is almost impossible to write of the Hebrides without slipping into familiar rhapsodic platitudes: the light, the blue sea, the sense of peace. And yet these are places that have produced more than their fair share of writers, thinkers, men and women of action. They are also places haunted by ghosts, by the absence of families who are now growing up in America and Canada, of the scars of old black houses and field systems showing through the thin, peaty soil like ribs beneath the skin. In 1830, the population of Tiree was 4,400. Today, it is a little over 700. The Hebridean diaspora impoverished the islands, but it also enriched those places of exile, their continuing generations of Macleans, Macleods, Campbells. .In some cases, the depopulation began a perpetual decline for the island; in others, it created a web of connections and associations which make the islanders more worldly than their mainland neighbours.
At home, hemmed by mountains and the half-hearted rains of late summer, I dream of blue; the transparent washed-cloth blue of the sky, the opaline gemstone-blue of the sea, and the transparent earth-soaked blue of islands as they shimmer on the horizon, always distant. I hear geese honking their homeward journeys in the early morning,and I know that summer is almost over. In a few weeks, arrivals from the north will be crowding the stubbled fields of the islands, the unbidden compass of their brains pulling them southwards to these places on the fringe of the insistent blue-grey ocean. And I think of the islands, their storm-tugged skies quickened by skeins of geese.