Connection with my surroundings, and with the turn of the seasons, is one of the main reasons why I’ve lived in the countryside for most of my life. I tried living in a city once – Norwich for a few years, back when I was a student – and although I enjoyed some aspects of city life, I found it disorienting. I felt adrift in the year, my anchor points to the seasons cut loose. I could no longer look at the sky, at the trees, and feel instinctively when it was. Bricks and concrete reflected nothing back to me.
Every place is different. Back when I lived in Suffolk, in a biome dominated by dry lowland heath and mixed forest, I became attuned to the summery smell of pine pollen and bracken and the churr of nightjars after dark. I spent a lot of evenings night walking. You learn a lot about a place when you walk through it at night, especially if you keep your torch switched off. As an introspective teenager, I had a lot of spare time, and I spent much of it wandering the woods – feeling, smelling, hearing, tasting, sleeping, writing, dreaming. That process embedded me in the landscape in ways it took me a long time to fully appreciate. It’s been many years since I last lived there, but in a tangible way part of me feels embedded there still. I miss those nightjars. Lowland heath, interspersed with birch forest, still feels like my home biome – a sort of personal dreamtime.
My years living in Glen Coe were hugely significant in my life, but in terms of my connection to place they hardly registered as a blip. Climbing and grades and summits obsessed me for most of that three-year period, and I think that stunted the process of building connection. Perhaps they made me less open to the necessary attentiveness. It’s important that I make the distinction here between a place that feels like home – the Glen Coe / Ballachulish community certainly felt like home, and continues to do so to this day, as I still have many friends there – and a natural environment where I feel embedded and attuned, like a wild animal. I love the mountain environment (and I miss it whenever I’m not there) but it’s a place that I feel I have to adapt myself to, and keep having to adapt myself to whenever I return. In fact, that’s part of its attraction to me. I do have a tangible connection but it feels very different.
I now live on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. I’ve lived here for a decade – far longer than I lived in Scotland for, and longer even than I lived in the Suffolk Sandlings. But the process of feeling embedded in the complex intermesh of local biomes has felt much slower. Why is that? Maybe it takes longer, as an adult with work and responsibilities, to become tuned to landscape and nature than it does when you’re a teenager with too much spare time and a vivid imagination. Maybe Glen Coe loomed large in my memory for too long, casting too deep a shadow, making it harder to see the very subtle things around me. For years I saw this place as nothing more than ditches and crows, hacked-down hedges and monoculture crops. Nature is not always obvious here. Lockdown eyes helped me to see more last year, though, accelerating a process that had only really got going two or three years before. Yes, it’s a clichéd story by this point: the Covid-has-made-us-all-wake-up-and-smell-the-flowers story. That doesn’t make it any less true.
I won’t say that I’m fully attuned, as if such a thing were even possible. But it now astounds me to think about the things I was oblivious to before – the flowers and plants I had never even noticed, the subtle changes in colour, the ineffable feel of the seasons, all anchoring me in the slipstream of time. The miracle of meadows. I found these things effortless in the Suffolk Sandlings; they came as easily to me as breathing. Now they’re coming to me more easily here too. More often than can be rationally accounted for, I can set out on my morning walk and know when I’m going to see a particular animal.
We’re now in the eerie hush of summer. I don’t mean a literal hush; in fact, the buzzards are being incredibly vocal at the moment, yawping and yapping to each other as juveniles set forth and try to carve out new territories. But there’s a dull green pause that comes in July and August. An uneasy, almost macabre sleep of landscape. Although everything is still busy growing, I think of this as a season of death. The long-tailed tits are ragged and losing feathers as they fight around the bird feeders, birdsong is muted and sporadic under the heavy canopy, and the corpses of roadkill mummify in the heat. As the flowers die back the world’s colours become ever more muted, reinforcing that vibe of sleep, of pause. There’s often a swaggering but temporary grandeur to this season, though – contrast between stillness below and the thunder-filled sky above.
Every place is different, and it’s all change all the time. That’s part of the beauty of it.
I was on BBC Radio Lincolnshire recently, chatting with Carla Green about long-distance walking, the Cape Wrath Trail, local nature, and my next book, The Farthest Shore. You can listen here (BBC account required); my bit starts at about 1:07 hours.
I’ve also been featured on Lincolnshire’s Siren Radio Podcast in a conversation about similar subjects. Andrew David was a great host and I’m looking forward to hopefully returning to this podcast later in the year.
Don’t forget, The Farthest Shore is now available to pre-order with Vertebrate Publishing.
Until next time,
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