The quiet world

Thu, Jan 25, 2018

Snow bunting, Isle of Skye

I’ve never really understood terms like ‘fundamental truth’ or ‘universal truth’, ideas which tend to be bandied around in the outdoor press by those approaching as much of celebrityhood as bearded tramps can. I always wondered what they were seeing that I wasn’t.

Then, recently I decided to blank out some time on a wild, windy and wet day to fester in front of the telly for an hour to watch an intriguing programme on BBC4 called Retreat, Meditations from a monastery. There were three in the series and I was about to settle down to the first of them, from Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire.

I watched the soundless monks doing what monks do, working on this, working on that, moving silently through the stone cloisters, very peaceful and calming but it was the shots without work that made me think. A scene in a cool dark entrance hall. Wooden stairs leading mysteriously to the left while straight ahead the bright summer day filled the world beyond the old wooden door with light and warmth. Green grass, an array of trees in full bloom, birds singing. The scene was static but full of life. The sounds of the natural world going about its business. Another shot, this time of a monk on a bench. Birds, trees, grass, sky, clouds, watching, listening, doing nothing in particular. By the end of the programme I knew what those bearded tramps meant when they talked about a ‘universal truth’.

I also realised I’d been experiencing it all the times I’d been in the mountains. The time I sat motionless for an hour on top of Sgiath Chuil on a soundless day of summer heat, looking along the line of summits towards Ben Lawers. Sat next to a rough rock that shared my small space, there was literally no sound. After some amount of time I felt like I’d left my body and was stretched to every part of the horizon, able to run my hands over the summits like climbing holds, free of care, free of all thoughts, free of an identity. Eventually the air cooled and the sun began its descent to that far undulating horizon and I moved, stretching and rubbing and the spell was broken. I looked at the rock next to me, ran my hand over its rough surface and perhaps understood a little of what it meant to be up here for eternity. It was that time spent still on the mountain that sprang to mind after the programme. It was an experience of ‘universal truth’. There is an existence out there that has always been there. When we’re toiling away at our chores, these things are up there, existing for no other reason than to exist. They have no purpose other than to be. It’s simply beautiful. They’re my constant source of inspiration.

The things I remember most from walks and climbs are either the epics on rock or ice or the small things. Mostly the small things. Running my hand through coarse deer grass on Maoile Lunndaidh, I still remember vividly the feeling of the stiff blades and the push of the breeze. Resting my open hand on the smooth sloping rock of Marsco and letting a silent and barely felt sheen of water flow over it, feeling immensely at peace. Watching a recently filled rain puddle slowly evaporate on the south top of Blaven, its edges drying and flaking as if it was slowly draining into the mountain. The sudden wind-gust on the same hill that made eery ghost sounds in the rock and after it stopped, a large dollop of sheep wool landed next to me, out of the blue, splayed like a tupe. Yes it’s the small things that keep that connection alive, that connection with a ‘universal truth’.

Snow bunting, Isle of Skye

These thoughts were in my head the other day as I went for a lunchtime walk in the woods. The cold air was playing in the bare branches of the ancient Ash, reminding me of winter days camped in the hills. On the way back two small birds were rummaging on the track a few feet in front of me. At my approach they flitted up into a tangle of branches and began hoovering up the buds, methodically working their way from branch to branch, every now and then soothingly shewing to each other. Almost imperceptibly gentle and fragile sounds in the jagged skeletal outline of the winter tree. Being against the bright grey sky I couldn’t see what they were at that distance. They were perhaps dunnock or wren size but they were too tame and too many. They allowed me to stand under the branches and watch. Moving very slowly I managed to get the wee camera out and later I realised they were snow buntings.

The Gaelic for snow bunting is Gealag an t-sneachda, little white one of the snow, little snowflake and I usually only see them on the summits. Again, that ‘universal truth’ insistently barging into the mess of daily life, reminding me to stand and watch, to just be, entranced by two little birds.

Once, I’d sat next to a snow bunting, puffed and perched on the summit cairn of Cairngorm for a good hour or so. It sat, meditatively regarding the plateau while I sat next to it, a foot away, doing the same. It was such a peaceful and inspiring moment that I wrote a gaiku for it and put it in my book. The Gaelic haiku poem accompanied the photograph I’d managed to get of the little snowflake, being a little snowflake.

Snow bunting, Isle of Skye

In an increasingly social media instructed, selfie-centric world, it’s good to know there are still small things out there, doing what small things do. Just being and allowing me to just be, along with them.