Wednesday, June 28, 2006

From the Top of Spittal Hill

Morris had not been there for many years and I had never been there, so we left the farm behind in the capable hands of our stockman, a grandson home from working abroad, and a neighbor on a tractor in the field below and drove off to climb Spittal Hill. Bright sunny summery days here are all the more precious for being rare. The best advice I got was that whenever you have a day like today, drop everything and go out and enjoy it. Good advice.

We had to ease slowly down the farm road by his son's farm and past the quarry to get to the old road, now unpassable even in the sturdy, 4-wheel drive Volvo. The rest of the way had to be on foot. The slope is gradual but even so it was a bit of a climb. Each step produced new discoveries as the terrain changed or a new plant held sway. A tiny, violet-like blue flower swarmed in the first few steps up the hill, supplanted further on by tiny buttercup yellow blossoms. Wet ground had rushes; drier ground had grasses and heathers.

The heathers are beginning to bloom. If you were only about 1/2 inch tall, the heather would look like an evergreen forest. Looking down on it, the individual flowers can be so small as to be overlooked if not for the outrageous color they display. Today I saw heather I dubbed lipstick heather because the tiny florets at the tips of the heather were a scarlet red. Among the heather were lichens and mosses, some of which were blooming with tall red shoots--tall relative to the mosses, that is.

Above the heathers we saw orchids--not the showy prom dress kind of orchids--Heath spotted orchid and moutain orchid. Both looking a bit like scaled down foxglove. I also saw a favorite plant whose name I actually learned and could share with Morris. Butterwort is a lovely little blue flower so named because it was once used to make butter, or so the Highland Ranger told us. This dainty blossom, however, has a hidden talent for gaining necessary nutrition--her leaves are sticky and trap insects that it then devours!

Along the side of a burn running down the hill, a dozen larks took wing and hovered above what were probably their nests. Their alarm call sounded like, "Please. Please." The hill was more than big enough for larks and the two of us, so as we moved away from the nesting area, we were rewarded with a lark singing--lyrical and complex. No wonder larks are the subject of poets and song makers. If my high school English teacher could have taken us to Spittal Hill, I would have been much more willing to pay attention to English Romantic poets. In the suburbs of Indianapolis, however, lark song held no magic for me.

From halfway up the hill, the scene below was magnificent. Fields of different shades of green contrasted with grey dykes, white sheep, and dark blue water in a distant loch. On a clear day from Spittal Hill, you can see both Thurso and Wick, the two towns in the area, and much countryside in between. A haze in the air obscured that extent of visibility but left plenty for me to enjoy. I would have been content to go down then, but Morris insisted on going to the top.

We leaned on the ordinance survey monument and looked around. Morris spied evidence of possible buildings but only a trace remained. We walked down the hill and talked about how quickly the land can remove any trace of habitation. I had a chance for a hands on lesson about electric fences. Morris, with the long knowledge of fences, decided to test whether it was live rather than walk down to the gate. I was not keen on experimenting, which I think made him even more determined. So, if you ever happen to be wandering through a field with an electric fence and you are bold (or crazy) enough to test whether it has current running through it, you can try this. Pick a green blade of grass. Morris said that twice, so I think it must be important. Lay the blade atop the wire. If the wire is live, you will feel what Morris describes as "a pulse." Bear in mind that British English is often more understated than American, and the electricity in the fence is intended to discourage animals that weigh 5 to 10 times your weight.

In addition to flowers and heathers and broad vistas of farmland, I got to see fox dung on Spittal Hill. Now this may not seem as beautiful as flowers or as dramatic as how to test an electric fence, but in the country it is probably more useful. Fox dung is grey colored, larger than sheep and rabbit dung and smaller than cow dung. For good measure, my recent study of manure has included otter dung. Otters like to leave their dung and urine in places they visit as little calling cards to other otters or other animals. If you find fresh dung, the Highland Ranger told me and the rest of a group of eager hikers on a recent walk, then you can be sure that an otter is nearby. In case you are interested, otter dung has a rather pleasant smell.

We sat for a moment and listened to the wind through the grasses in an otherwise quiet world. Not even the larks were singing for a few moments in the bright summer sky and then we made our way back down. We took a different path down the hill to take advantage of a gentler slope and discovered a patch of lichens and lipstick heathers with bog cotton weaving above it all. Beneath us we saw a field of grass gone to seed in the distance and the purple seed heads swirled in the wind like small animals in a world of their own.


At 2:14 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

I'll print this out and read it on the way to Spittal Hill!


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