Is the outdoors still great

Sun, Dec 8, 2019

Thunderstorm over Beinn Sgritheal on Knoydart from the Isle of Skye

With the news that the world’s oceans are running out of oxygen while humanity makes land grabs on habitats in order to blanket forest a fig-leaf for their unabated, voracious consumption and pollution. With the endless noise and light pollution of increased fish farm traffic up and down the west coast, implementing the Scottish government’s requirement to double output by 2030, regardless of animal welfare and environmental destruction. With hydro roads up many glens, industrial fencing marching with the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William, creating in effect two Trump-like walls for wildlife to die negotiating, I asked myself the other day, is the outdoors still great?

Boots slipping on the muddy incline into the Kinloch forest, cold winter wind hurrying thunderstorms in from the west, these were the thoughts that filled my busy mind this morning as I went for a walk in the woods.

These woods have changed a fair amount over the last 19 years. There used to be a dark conifer corridor on the high path. A place of quiet peace with mossy-green carpets and contemplative fungi spreading into the dark interior. It’s clear-fell now. When I ran the 10K route it was starting in dark conifer lanes, hiding my puffing and panting, now it’s a depressing wasteland of brash and stumps. Conifers were never planted to look nice or provide habitat so it was inevitable it all had to go but there is nothing in its place. No “real” trees planted. Just a mulched up mess of machinery tracks and destroyed ground.

The “real” forest is still going, buzzards patrolling, bullfinches barging around, hazel, ash, rowan, oak still allowed to be trees, doing nothing much other than being trees and making me happy.

But there’s a new radio mast on the forest road with, I estimated, around 20 native trees felled to make way for its footprint. The wind moaned through its wire ladder and round the topmost antennae but it was not for moving. The old bridge on the high path has been replaced with a much larger steel and wood crossing, with again, I estimated, perhaps 20-30 native trees felled. Some were down in the gorge and I assumed there was no other reason than to let people see the view. As if trees are not part of the view. So that’s around 50 native trees gone in the name of progress. Nothing changes.

I arrived at Leitir Fura as a massive thunderstorm trundled across the Sleat peninsula and spilled out over the Sound of Sleat before crashing into the mountain walls of Knoydart, the air vibrating with the low claps and bangs of the storm. Stinging hail then torrential rain fell on me as I sheltered behind the walls of an old house. The inhabitants were cleared in the 18th century by the landowner as they had felled one of the oaks that gave the place its name. Nothing changes, really.

Once the storm had cleared I slithered down the path to the forest road, to check out the “des res”. A beautiful pool that fills with spawn in the spring and is alive with insects above and below the surface. A trickle of water keeps it fresh and crystal clear and the slow outflow into the main burn really does make this the place to be in spring-time. A veritable des res indeed. It was gone. There was a new, 2 metre extension to the old forest road, new aggregate, new bridge. Literally two metres of pointless road. The old road is now bypassed by the new felling road and massive new bridge lower down but someone in an office somewhere, with no soul, no imagination, no right to be let near anything natural, had decided someone else equally vacuous and stupid needed two metres of new road that nothing would ever use. And the toads, the spawn, the waterboatmen, the dragonflies, everything that once enjoyed life in that des res has nowhere to go.

It’s the details that matter. The small things. It’s what people do, not what comes out of their mouths that matters. Regardless of what TV personalities say, the oceans are still filling with plastic. The pollution in the atmosphere is continuing to rise. The average UK family buys one “bag for life” a week and still throws out tons of uneaten food. In a world that is crying out for trees, SNH can still turn up on an island in Loch Lomond and inject poison into 300 beech trees, to kill them, because they consider them not to be “native”. Beech trees are older than Scotland. The designation of an area of the planet as “Scotland” is not native.

Isle Ornsay lighthouse on the Isle of Skye emerges from a winter thunderstorm

The storm had passed and the Isle Ornsay lighthouse had stopped blinking. It had been so dark in the depths of the maelstrom it had come on, winking at the fish farm factory boat sheltering in the bay. Now it rubbed its one eye, not believing what had just passed by. The black clouds sped off into the wild of Knoydart and white puffy, ragged shards chased them away while bits of blue appeared above me. The sun came out and lit up the birch woods, shiny in their wet clothes and full of concerned sounding birdlife all shouting to each other. “Did you see that? That hail was something else!”, flustered the blackbird. “Speak up, I’m deaf from that thunder”, replied the blue tit while the robin chirped “whatever” from under his leaf-brolly.

Despite the commercial incursions, the holiday crowds and the traffic noise, It’s easy to forget just how good the outdoors is for one’s physical and mental health.

Dr. A.H.B. Man summits Dun Caan on the Isle of Raasay on a chilly St. Andrew's Day