I have stood in two woods where I have lost my sense of up and down, left and right, forwards and back.
The first, Moseley Bog, is a fifteen-minute walk from my home, and one of the most frenetic woodlands around. A place where ivy and blackthorn vie for any frond of light, where calamitous trees fall, bridging muddy streams, then lie deathly for weeks before exploding in new growth. It is home to quick-eyed crows, to fingernail shrimp that sprint silently beneath the waterline. An ever-fracturing, ever-changing, morphous world that consumes its visitors, spins them around, then spits them out onto the B-roads.
The second is the opposite; that wood is the pine woodland on the hillside of the tidal island, Eilean Shona.
On the day after arriving on the island - a night’s sleep in a good bed righting the wrongs of the sleeper train - I headed out to see the trees. Sensing that I would be met with something special there, I decided to save them for later - like the last sausage. Instead, I followed a waterfall up the hill, skirting the bulk of pine trees that surrounded the main house, and headed for the highest peak on the island’s east side: Beinn a Bhaillidh.
Climbing up, the hard, damp scrub did wonders for my dusty boots, freshening up the leather, squeaking clean the rubber souls. I passed a couple of red transect flags that indicated some old current work taking place; they lined the path of a hill-spring and its rill, which fell fat in reedy puddles. Maybe they were studying the orange rock pools; or the tiny blue flowers and how they seemed to be at their most brilliant on days like this, in the cold grey light.
On the final twist before the summit, a light thrudding sound came from behind a granite shelf that rose out of the hill like an underbite. I moved towards the rock and, looking over, saw a deer on a sheer ledge in the clouds; it looked back at me over its shoulder - demure, brazen, primed, intuitive, holding behind its breath, an intricate spill of primal moods. I imagined slicing open its belly to find that somewhere between those warm, gelatinous organs would be the reducible excesses and restraints of a dozen seasons, the plenty and want of food, a thousand thunderous showers, and the calm blue air that follows.
Then it left. Clopped around the side of the hill, and by the time I was standing where it had been, it was in the valley: sedge and heather, fluctuating between brown and green, passing its movements off as the magic of an altering light. The final trick, a collusion between deer and landscape: a single white breath, a squat clump of grass, and then it was gone.
I turned and followed the ridge to the summit of the hill, becoming more and more exposed to the weather’s intensity. At the very top, I had to squat down behind the trig point to drink. Skye was north and out to sea, south - Ardnamurchan: the westerly point of mainland Great Britain. Peeking out from behind that damp concrete slab, I could see scattered promontories and islands, hundreds of miles of coastline. A hundred hills, fifty valleys, and a million lines.
I put the water bottle back and stood up to be met by air, light, water and sound- harmonious only in their submersion of a little mammal standing on a rock. Alone, each element was dense enough - was great enough - to have alerted every inch of my body to its presence, but together, I was overwhelmed. It was as if I was a hard case of nothing, and I stood looking into the wind, hypnotised by the cold water, the roaring, and the shadows flitting on the island’s peaks.
Then I shouted out. A few barked vowels at first, then for longer, then a line from a film. It felt somehow appropriate, like I was being assertive, like this had any meaning. But the wind was so thorough that only I could hear my shouts, and only then through my jaw. The moment passed, and I moved inward - from my wet thighs, and the itchy licks of temple hair - to pull down my hat and reckon.
the wind brings rain
to the west and north
on the ley-side
they forage and hunt
they fish in the loch
lasting, they settle
harbours and farms
soon children build
where their parents name
each generation tending
its near landscape
for sustenance, culture
and now, the environment
pines protected by fences and culls
I moved off of the summit, and undulated west across the ridges, thinking about the wind, the deer, and these spiky black caterpillars I had found slumbering in the heather. Lightly tickled with a blade of grass, the little beings tweaked on a time-delay - four or five seconds passing before they contracted like fingers. The caterpillars moved just like the deer, I thought, on their own relative time: this caterpillar’s winter, an adolescence; that deer’s season, one full year.
Circling back around towards the south, I aimed, at last, for the pine wood. A new plantation of quick-growing birches were testing the extent of the wood’s frontiers, and looked rather sad and wet; the showers on the hills and out to sea had followed me inland, and their fizzle of rain sat heavy on the twiggy canopies, bowing the birches to almost prostration. At their bases, a patchwork of luminous mosses grew, and, getting closer to the pines, grew together, until everything but the path was covered in moss.
I followed it, crossing the stream and entering the wood, before turning off to drop downwards through the wood’s green contours. Beneath the moss, the bumps of hidden roots merged with rock outcrops and tree throws that had cored the earth like apples. I clambered up and over the fallen trees, compacting decades’ moss underfoot, my hands puncturing through the moss webbing, or catching on the arrow-straight branches that thrust out of the trunks, like primitive traps.
There, it grew quieter. The wind and rain stopped. The air grew tight, like that found after a snowfall. A span of shadow wings across the pillowy green floor suggested a large bird was circling above the canopy. It also suggested the sun: a sideways sun, released from the restless, east-bound clouds, to shine on the flanks of trees and warm their midriffs.
I stopped. Where the floor was soft, and the route open. I let the minutes pass unchecked, guessing at the flight of the bird. It felt good and deep to be here, like looking into a fire, and it was here that I started to lose it again - that sense of up and down, that of left and right, of forwards and backwards. Finally, of being.
On top of Beinn a Bhaillidh, and inside the Moseley Bog, the wind, the rain, the light, and the raw aggression of ecology clarified my human outline; it proved my body’s need to act or be acted upon. Such precarity can shiver a human heart; pump into us the emotions of unrest and fear, such that we make ourselves open vessels for an anxious soup; you walk more and quickly, you shout more often, and when this fails, you de-mark: reasoning the extent of your limitations, then drawing thick boundary lines.
But this pine wood was not a wood of red emotion, not an overawing miscellany of forms. It was not a place where you could be qualitatively lost, and it was not a place reducible to its constituent parts - not segmentable, cuttable, alienable, and certainly, not property.
Here, in this pine wood, everything was everywhere; the trees were rising to the quieted clouds, syphoning their water; drinking, transpiring into the air and ground; the mosses, saplings and fungi were rising to meet the sky, furrowing out to their worlds’ edge, speaking in unsounded languages. Here was not submersion through which to agitate and wade, but immersion in which to live and be. The definitions softened. The timings of humans, deer, caterpillars and trees happily syncopated on a range of tempos. And this. Being able to sense this. A wondrous thing to live on the same plain as those others, and occasionally - loosened from our expectations - feel through that, and see the white hot cross-section of the world’s fruit for a second in a pine wood.