Saturday, February 24, 2007

Wee Calfie Remembers Me

It seems a long time since I have walked among the cattle. I remain surprised how much I enjoy it. Morris wanted to show me today the new gate the men who work here designed themselves. It will make life easier for us and for the cattle. He also wanted to show me his new information system. I strolled with him as he commented on this feature and another of the steading and the cattle. Without thinking too much about it consciously, I noted a collection of cattle in one pen and said that must be where Wee Calfie is. "Probably," he replied, still keen on showing me the system and his latest improvements.

After admiring all the changes and looking at all the other cattle, I came back to the pen and called out Wee Calfie's name and looked for recognition among the cattle--many of whom look much like Wee Calfie. Wee Calfie, as always, was one step ahead of me. She was standing apart from the others looking through the gate waiting for me to recognize her. "My how you've grown" takes on a a whole order of magnitude when talking with a heifer. Wee Calfie now weighs about 500 Kg, about a ton.

I stroked her broad forehead and brought her a bit of silage with a few flakes of barley in it as a special treat. She rubbed her head eagerly accepting the pats and stuck out her tongue as if she were expecting the milk bottles I used to feed her. I laughed. The others came slowly up to the gate beside her. Perhaps some of them remember me, too. I adopted all the young calves when Wee Calfie was weaned. Twice a day I brought them hay and barley mixed with sugar beets.

Wee Calfie has the makings of a good mother. Every day I told her she would grow to be the mother of champions. With a little bit of luck, Wee Calfie and I can grow old together.

On the Road to Dunnet Head

A sunny day up here is a special gift. The best advice I was ever given was to take advantage of them when they come. With this in the back of my mind I drove into town and did essential chores with a vague resolution to do something with this day. That resolution took shape when a friend said that she liked to drive to all the little harbors along the coast. I do not know all the little harbors let alone how to get to them, but I know a few, so I headed east to explore a harbor or two.

John o Groats, the most northeasterly point of Britain, is dubbed by the Lonely Planet guide as boring. It has a handful of uninteresting shops and a mostly synthetic tea room. Despite this, I at first planned to go there as so many other people no doubt do, so that I could say that I had been there. Along the way, however, I realized I could go to the real beauty spots.

The sense of adventure and purpose helped still the melancholy that my husband was not with me. I used to do everything on my own, so I hiked up my nerve and settled in to discover the harbors along the way to Dunnet Head. I made note of Castletown beach as I headed east and also of Dunnet Bay. I had only about 3 hours of sunlight so I decided to stop by on my way back. Now that I had a mission, I was resolved. The day was so warm, that I opened the sun roof. BBC 3 (Radio Scotland) first offered Classical music, which filled the empty spot in the car as I passed the dunes beyond Castletown, and then jazz as I passed by Dunnet woods. A lovely walk for a day when more shelter from the elements is needed, but today the sun is high and the wind is soft.

Because I am on a road that is designated as a tourist route, I can follow the big brown signs to get to Dunnet Head. The road is easy to find as long as you can accept that a single track road is, in fact, the road. I like the snugness of a single track road and now that I can navigate laybys and the insouciant wave that accompanies the choreography of two cars in one lane, I am free to enjoy the rare treats at the end of such roads. The road makes a sharp right past the little(r) road that leads to Mary Ann's Cottage and begins a slight climb that will continue until I reach the peak. I know two people who live in Brough, but the signpost for the village baffles me. There are so few houses and at such a distance from each other that I cannot see a village.

I do see broad sweeps of growing heather and bracken and grasses that move gracefully among each other in broad swirls of patterns that seem to form an ocean of its own. Among the heather-ed hills are bright blue lochans--rounded, often deep pools of fresh water. Carving their way through the hills are secret rivers. They leave traces of their paths etched on the heather, but any water moves out of sight.

A broad sweep of ocean view startled me as I rounded a bend. Just off the coast is a tall stack of rocks. I laugh as I think that this would be a magnificent site in its own right, if not for the others. The road winds back and forth on itself. I catch a glimpse of a large black head atop massive shoulders and before I can bring it full into sight, the road bends and it disappears. As I move onto higher ground I see that the large black Highland bull is part of a family scattered on the hillside. He sits sunning himself in the middle of the hill. A younger, red haired heifer sits right by the edge of the road. A handful of others are busying themselves at a hay feeder. I resist the temptation to get out and take a closer look. They are normally docile enough, but mothers can be very protective when they have young about them. It is a bit early in the season for calves, but I can look at cattle at home. They are no longer the stuff of adventure for me.

I am high enough up now to see a boat riding very low in the water. The warm sky is being chased by the colder, wetter weather that is never far away here. I park in the furthest car park and bundle up. On top of my jacket and scarf, I layer a long down parka and gloves. The wind up here is much more insistent and seems to be coming right out of the north. I take only my camera and hike up the path labelled Viewpoint. The entire hilltop is beautiful, but the sign seems to point to the very highest point. I see two other cars in a car park closer to the lighthouse, so I choose to go the other way. Up the hill, I pass the remnants of World War II when this part of the world was a strategic battleground. The ocean sweeps around below me. I sit on the wall of the view point to steady myself and my camera, but the best light of the day has already been dulled with greyness of the clouds moving in and the start of the still-too early twilight. It is, after all, only February. I snuggle into the hood of my parka as the full force of the north wind hits my face as I walk down the hill. The boat is now on the other side of the lighthouse from where I first saw it. I wonder how far away it is, where it is going. The whitecaps form scrolls of lacework from where I see them, but I doubt if they seem like lace to the people on the boat.

The cattle form a rustic tableau as I pass them again and wind down the narrow road. I stop at the bend of the road where I first saw the ocean and the stack of rocks. I realize that there is a road down to the water and that I have been there. I was terrified then and have no wish to venture down again in a car. Instead, I try to catch a photo of the rocks with the last good light of the afternoon moving slowly away from them from the top of the brae.

As I walk back to the car, I meet a couple and their daughter. They are from Yorkshire and have only been here for 7 weeks, but they love it. They, too, heard and took the advice to savor a sunny day. I realize that it is as much a foreign country for them as for me. Perhaps a bit more. Having been here now for 2 years, I was able to tell them some things they didn't know about the area. They clambered down the path to the water's edge with their daughter leading the way. I waved goodbye as I headed for Dunnet Bay.

Since the light was fading, I made just a quick stop at the waves rolling into the surf. I stopped a bit longer at Castletown beach. The tide was still far enough out that remnants of seaweed made large freckles on the beach and the sinuous patterns of sand and rock showed the path of tides. The water was getting the silvery cast of twilight, so I did not linger. I did not stop for Thurso harbor or Scrabster or Brims, and merely nodded a welcome to the ocean in my back yard as I pulled into the farm road.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Oyster Pearl Skies

Winter, like road trips, always lasts a bit longer than you want. The first few flakes of snow were charming, and the crown of snow on nearby Ben Ratha is picturesque. Now, however, the grass is crunchy with hoar frost, I had to scrape my car windows three times yesterday, and my feet are cold. Despite this litany of whinging, however, I managed to discover a whole new skyscape as I drove home yesterday.

The day started cold but clear, warmed into a clear, warm-in-the sun afternoon, and then the sky filled in and sent swirls of large, wet flakes of snow in showers between Thurso and the farm. One stretch of the road would be snow covered and darkened by a cloud overhead, and then, the next bend would be clear. On the back road, inland, rather than along the coast, I noticed sheep sitting placidly in the snowy fields. Two tiny black lambs tottering after their mother looking discomfited by the snow beneath their feet stood out against the whiteness of sky and ground.

The white snow was doing its best to cool the warm tones of the spring sunlight. In some places it was succeeding, but most places seemed like the sheep sitting complacently on the whitened fields with a layer of snow on their backs--certain that this will soon pass. I take heart from their patience and in that instant I notice the sky above me is a rich mixture of sunset pink and golden orange using snow-filled clouds as a diffuser to mute the colours. The sun was a lustrous orange- pink pearl nestled into the seashell-coloured skyscape. The snow was sidelined by the skyscape. I rounded another bend toward home and the snow stopped altogether, but the pearlescent sky kept me company all the way home.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Verities in a Smoor

Eskimos (Aleutians) do not have 400 words for snow. This was one of those unexamined truths that is passed along without being examined. Scots, however, probably have that many words for different flavors of precipitation. I won't make a prounouncement until I have counted them all.

I dragged myself off the sofa Wednesday evening to go to my writer's group. My feet were heavy even before I saw the weather--an odd mixture of foggy-rainy-drizzly coolish air that confounded the darkness of the rural road for the 10 miles into town into a flat grey horizon with ghost lights emerging and disappearing in an eerie silence and a shoulder obscured in mist and wet-shine. This murky perspective pulled my routinely competent left-hand driving experience back into the awkward self-consciousness of the looking glass experience. Thus, I was doubly pleased to arrive safely at my destination and see my friends and fellow writers for the first time in nearly three months.

"Weird weather tonight," I offer into the conversational mix.


"We call it a smoor."

"Smoor?" I try wrapping my mouth around the new word trying not to think of "Smurf" or schmear. "Like a har?"

"Och aye, but faster moving."

And then the definitive answer for those already familiar with basic weather words:
"Och, a drookit misty swirl of rain."

Over cups of coffee or tea (more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers in case you wonder about the British stereotype), we settle slowly into the business of the group. Christine tells about a class that will be offered at the local college on writing for drama. I have learned that in order to ensure that things happen up here, it is a question of numbers. I say yes right away. I explain to the rest that I have adopted my own personal campaign to overcome Caithness reticence: "Say Yes first. Then figure out how to make it happen." We all have a good laugh to steel us for the hard work to follow. Some time during the evening each of us will read from our recent writings. It sounds easy, but it is not. First, you have to have been writing rather than thinking about it or talking about it. And then you put yourself on the line. The group is friendly and supportive and we are all fellow writers, but the stark terror of reading those lines out loud is as daunting now as it was when I was in the Bluebird reading group in first grade.

The only thing worse than those grim, sweaty palmed, quaking voice moments is the thought of never having written all the things in my head--that means the rubbishy ones, and, hopefully, the good ones.

George, a real writer and the group's leader, reminds us of the verities of writing, which in my paraphrase mean that you face the sweaty palm moments, the I would rather lie on the sofa than drive through a smoor moments, and the long hours alone writing because that is what it means to get to the brass ring or exorcising the voices in your head, whichever metaphor you feel is more apt.

As always, I test my newfound knowledge on Morris when I get home. In response to my question about a smoor, he describes it as a swirly snow that gets inside your nose no matter what you do. His expression suggests many times caught in a smoor. I count my blessings that all I had to do was drive through it.

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