Wed, Sep 14, 2022

Snow bunting on Cairngorm

We all need anchors in life. Somewhere to retreat to, to look out on the world from our sanctuary. Something to hold us to an idea of who we are, or were, or should be. An idea that follows us through life and reminds us of a truth we need to believe, that shows us our roots in a changing world. In the way a cloud drifts aimlessly across the mountain landscape, looking down at its shadow slowly following, shapeshifting as it crosses glens, rivers, peaks, forests and seas. The shadow’s shape changes but its essence is to anchor the cloud, be its truth in its life that is always there in some shape, reminding it of its cloudness.

I was reminded of this recently when reading The Spirit of Man, a beautiful wee book, reprinted in 1940 which Mallory took to Everest and whose copy was found in his and Irvine’s tent high on the ridge. It has some simply beautiful poems and prose from across the centuries but one in particular stood out at a time I really needed something like this to appear. It’s a prose piece by Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th century, reminiscing on his previous monastic life. Religious aspects aside, its simple message connected.

People have anchors that are mainly social. Friends, family, shared beliefs from a community or ideology but what do you do for an anchor when you are a solitary person and your beliefs change as you move through life, like the cloud above the landscape? What is your shadow?

I retired to a solitary place … where whatever it was in my affairs that was giving me discontent might plainly reveal itself.

Over thirty years ago, on a solo trip in my late teens, I sat on top of a remote mountain in the southern Cairngorms, tweed breeches, big heavy boots, checked cotton shirt and a giant mop of unruly hair and sideburns like forgotton, unkempt hedges. My worn and faded rucksack contained a stove, some food, water and a sleeping bag as I was headed for a remote bothy, high up in a wide, open glen surrounded by some of the remotest hills in the country. No road reached its door and my path there was over two Munros and high trackless moors where plovers called and deer moved lithely across the peathags.

That place is my anchor. I can never go back as it’s a storehouse of identity. As my shadow moves across life’s landscape, the bothy is its essence. I change, am changed, sometimes against my will but there’s a kernel where the truth of who I really am is out there in the world. When things change for the worse,

my unhappy soul, wounded with wordly business, is now calling to mind in what state it once was when I dwelt in my monastery.

I’ve seen pictures of the bothy since, renovated but my memories are clearer than any photograph. Its ruined half, roof caved in, a pink ornate sit-up bath at a jaunty angle in the rubble. Its wooden structure open to the east winds and its eery, ghostly presences in its single habitable room that contained the relics of the former occupant. Trinkets on the shelf above the fireplace, a stained mirror on the wall and the springs of the bedstead that creaked when I rested on it. The sounds of my boots clumping and scraping on the wooden floor and the purr of the stove as I cooked dinner by the window, looking out on a glorious evening of long swaying grass in the late afternoon light. I remember well, washing the pot in the burn as the lowering sun balanced on the western ridge of Carn an Fhidhleir. Contented, happy, alone.

when I recollect my former life, I sigh as one who turned back his eyes to a forsaken shore

I’ve spent almost all of my life in mountains. They’ve been a sanctuary, a monastery of the mind, a place to be when truth is needed and yet as life wears on and we are caught in the hysteria and madness of what’s being done to our planet,

I almost lose sight of the port which I left.

That life is my port and the bothy is the hold of the ship that contains who I think I am. It contains a young man, happy in his solitude, his lack of belief in anything other than nature and his own ability to exist in it, in all weathers, longing for nothing other than being in that environment. I daren’t go back as I still live there, in my mind. To go there mentally means to empty my mental rucsack of all its useless gadgets, rules and ideas of the modern world and put nothing back but the essentials of the journey. I don’t know what I would find if I made the journey with body too.

For people who enjoy their own company, the company of solitude, the friendship of silence, we need anchors that are more spiritual than physical. There is the pleasure of physical movement, as we have always enjoyed in the mountains but the day may come when that is no longer an option and therefore it is important to remember, to keep our mind active, fresh and our happy companion in later life, lest our being decays such that

it cannot so much as behold in memory what before it had actively practised.

It’s a fine balance, pleasing body and mind. The former clamours for activity, eating up the miles, relishing the rest in tired tranquility after a long day in the mountains. The latter wishes to reside in quiet contemplation, processing the torrent of raw information the body produces in its travels, turning what you saw and felt into deeper truths about yourself. At the root of those truths is our port. If we look back through life we can follow the faint ripples of our journey, back to that place where we, whoever we are now, started and must not succumb to the world of others such that

we are carried so far out to sea that we lose sight of the quiet haven whence we set forth.

Those words from the seventh century are fitting for the modern world and if you have your anchor, nurture it. If you have none, perhaps it’s time for your mind to look through its store of memories for a place of sanctuary in a world of storms, before it is carried too far out to look back.