Home in the Highlands
The highlands of Scotland loom large in the imaginations of writers and members of the diaspora. For those who are curious, here is a perspective on life on the edge of the North from an American from the heartlands.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Treasure Beneath our Feet
Yesterday I took part in a walk led by one of our country rangers and a botanist around Brough Bay. The walk is the brainchild and efforts of many people in the Brough Bay Association. My friend Angela has a special fondness for the flowers on the brae because she remembers them from when she was a child coming back to Caithness in the summers to visit. After the walk she showed me a small black and white photo of her sitting atop the brae--chubby cheeked barely past toddling age in a smart little cotton dress and ribbons in her hair clutching a fistfull of flowers.
So I was with her on the brae along with half a dozen others and we tried bravely to recall that the tiny flower nestled into the grass was common mouse-eared chickweed or that there are several varieties of dandelion and this fern is the golden scaled male fern and brackens are not ferns (and are pretty nasty characters, too, as it turns out). Besides taxing my limited aility to memorize such things, I was trying out my digital camera.
At one point I got a great photo of the tip of my boot (I really appreciate that delete button. Now only I have to see the gaffes I make with the camera rather than having them come back in a jaunty Kodak envelope.) I'll unload the shots and probably put them on my blog tomorrow. (Why wait? Well, today I have to prepare my crafts room for embryo transplants tomorrow and have coffee with the ladies of leisure in town. )
Among many discoveries large and small among the flora and with my camera, I was struck overall with the supreme irony that the rarest plant of all was nearly wiped out by the good efforts of the association in cleaning their slipway. An unassuming plant--even less so than the common mouse eared chickweed--is the northern salt marsh grass. I could not get a photo of it because an admirer stood so close that it was nothing but a shadow no matter how I wriggled. So I will describe it for you. It is a scruffy little grass lying close to the ground that looks like a bad hair day. The grass is short, ground-hugging and kinda spiky with no pattern in the way it grows out. And it lives in a crack in the slipway.
In better days, northern salt marsh grass spread out on the piers. Now it just hangs on wherever it can. I was very careful not to tread on it, having made its acquaintance.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
BBC has launched a new series on poetry. Poetry is often overlooked, so it is a welcome diversion and a good reminder that poetry should be more central to our lives. I like the tag line--let more poetry into your life or is it make room for more poetry? Either way I like the idea of scooting over on the sofa to make room for someone close and comfortable or taking the cat that has found its way to your back door. Poetry, I think, is like that.
My daughter told me that a similar event had occurred in the States and some band of poet-advocates had commandeered the signs in the subway. It was a welcome relief, she said, from the ads and the comments.
Poetry, more broadly, art, has the purpose of putting together things that we might otherwise overlook. To do that it makes odd unions or comparisons. I like the idea of a poem where a subway map might be expected. The poem might not help you get to the right stop, but it would certainly help get you to a different place.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
A friend from the States has been visiting. For many reasons, among them that it is not easy to get here, I am always grateful for the intrepid visitors who make it to the edge of the earth. After praying for decent weather--we had one gorgeous day--the next challenge is to think what is most important to see or to do to characterize this part of the world.
Tartan and whisky and wooly cows are elements that are associated with here and certainly describe it, but they can be ordered from the internet. Stunning scenery of lochs and moors and such are also available, for viewing or purchase via the internet. So as with any travel it comes down to those things that can be experienced personally, directly, and hence uniquely.
We have packed a lot of that into a little over two days. I'll talk some more about that (and hope my guest will too) in other posts.
Now it is time for that other element of visiting--the stories shared over breakfast porridge or enroute to the formal experiences.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
I never thought I would grow into one of those people who tells pet stories. OK, I never thought I would chuck babies's cheeks or say "My how you've grown" to my grandson or, for heaven's sake, start to sound like my mother. My mother wrote sing songy poems with contrived rhymes to the little things in her life--kids, cats, dogs, and a famous one for which she won third prize in a Pepsodent contest in which she waxed ironically lyrical about dandelions.
I have obliterated nearly every one of those "nevers", so I might as well go whole hog and take some time and space just to talk about an ordinary cat--as if there could ever be such a thing! I call Tabby an ordinary cat because he never became famous for dialing 911 to save his family from burning flames or make a thousand mile journey to get back home or become infamous for stealing socks from a next door neighbour.
He was a cat that liked to be liked. He came into my acquaintance when my grandson and daughter adopted him from their local shelter. He had been abandoned by his previous owners. Abandoned not just by the roadside which is horrible enough for a house cat, but left alone without food or water in their apartment after they had left. I don't recall now how he was found, but the good news is that he was found: first, by the rescue people, and better yet, by my daughter and grandson.
They were able to give him the love and patience that allowed him to trust again. By the time he was officially a senior cat--as the cat food manufacturers and vets label a cat 8 years and up--he no longer had panic attacks when suitcases came out of closets.
He mellowed sufficiently to tolerate and to become genuinely fond of another feline orphan on the storm, Cocoa. Cocoa came from a shelter and went to the home of a friend of mine. When I told my daughter that Cocoa was in danger of being returned to the shelter, she agreed to take her in. Cocoa and I drove the 200 miles from Indianapolis to Chicago in companionable silence. When we arrived, Cocoa disappeared somewhere within the apartment and was not seen or heard from for some days.
This piece of the story is not about Cocoa except to note that she is normally quiet and tends to take her feelings off to a safe distance--under the dishwasher or deep in some corner. So when Tabby died, it was Cocoa that sent up the alarm. When my daughter relayed the sad news, she said that Tabby had been in a decline as they say here in Scotland for some time. Losing Tabby is only a little less difficult for being expected. The consolation is that Tabby had a good life. As recently as my last visit, Tabby was still playing with strings and toys. A phrase from a medieval text book long ago described an old man "who kept a green heart even into his old age." I think Tabby was like that. Of course those of us who are fond of cats know that each and every one is extraordinary in some way. For me Tabby will always be a testament to a heart that can learn to trust again.
Oasis in a Sea of Chaos
OK the bed is ready for my visitor--one of the treats of this part of the world is the air. That may sound silly until you have breathed it. So hanging bed linens out on the line and letting them soak up the sun and the fresh air is more than just a task. It is perhaps the first gift of hospitality.
My friend and cleaning lady took ill, so the chronic near chaos of this house presented an even more daunting prospect. After several days of hard slogging, I can say that bed in the room is done. The room is almost done enough--am I the only one who has stacks of books nearly everywhere?
Saturday, May 09, 2009
A Boisterous Day
Normally a gale connotes dark skies and precipitation of some or all kinds, but it is possible to have gale force winds and clear sky. On such a day the wind is usually called boisterous--the kind of euphemism used for an unruly child pushing the limits of one's patience or a Puckish fairy whose ministrations may or may not have their intended consequences.
Just looking out the window suggested a good day, but the sound of the wind was all too familiar. But this day--boisterous or not--had to be given over to chores, so I dressed for town in the mixture of American and Scottish bits layered and fastened securely for a Puckish wind and set about the chores.
First into the car was Inkblot, the wild kitten who had walked into the live trap when I had given up hope of catching the elusive Big Black Cat. She will get a better quality of life after her visit if she does not batter herself into shreds against the walls of the cage. I know it's the right thing to do and maybe its the wind or the other appointment after the vet, but my nerves are already jangling.
Inkblot goes quietly enough into the vet's. And I say several times that she isn't my cat and every time I do, even I believe it less.
Then to the eye doctor's for a refit of the glasses my husband desperately needs. Success this time. My nerves relax a little or perhaps it is a slight easing of the wind.
A follow up visit to another medical person. A new doctor--they seem to change often and to be younger each time--but the same nurse. The doctor is taken aback by my husband's approach. I can feel the nurse smiling quietly beneath her professional demeanour. A few minutes later and we are all smiling and laughing together and then out into the wind again.
Inside the car, the wind loses its effect so we drive into the sunshine and explore some back roads. The light is enchanting, the gorse is outrageously yellow, the grass is eye poppingly green and the sea is flashing many shades of blue and white where she bares her teeth against the wind.
We drive all the way to John O Groats (Sadly, it is about as boring a place as Lonely Planet says it is) and turn just off the beaten path to the Old Schoolhouse now turned micro restaurant. Since it is run by just two people--mother and son, their hours are limited. We have never been able to get there before for a meal. Today we are in luck and it is a treat that must be the balm for all the ills of the day and more to come.
The ambience--it actually has ambience--is friendly and relaxing. There is a marvelous peat fire going and we sit right in front of it. The food and the service are just excellent and we meet someone who joins us and we have a wonderful conversation. The wind in this case has done us a great turn. We have a friend coming and we have booked this restaurant to share with him.
A quick stop with good friends on this side of the county and then back to the vet's where Inkblot is sitting Zen-like in modified meat loaf stance in the middle of the cage that she despised earlier. She rides home without a peep. She doesn't look drugged, so I bnegin to hope that she has achieved enlightenment. As soon as she is inside the house, the banshee wail returns. I open the cage and she is out and away. So much for enlightenment.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Dancing Doves and a Lonely Hare
The air was sharpish today but the sun was brilliant so we had a Kodachrome sky and calm sea. If you could duck the wind, you could almost pretend it was summer. I don't think it was a good day for the surfers, but for the rest of us it was a good day to stockpile colours for the long dark time. I borrowed a few minutes from chores to sit in the car in the parking lot in the Coop. My eye was drawn to a dove--I have for some years now been fascinated with just that lovely-blush-pink golden infused grey of their breast. "Dove grey" is an oversimplification. I was thinking about how I just might be able to capture that colour in wool if I took a few strands of this and that and combed them together when I noticed a larger dove doing an elaborate head bobbing routine. Only love would make a dove move so foolishly, so I watched them dancing for awhile until they flew off to continue their romance outside my prying eyes.
After dinner with friends, we took a long way home in the soft twilight that occurs now at about 9pm--soon it will hardly be dark at all. In that soft light, I saw a brown-grey creature moving on the verge on the road. A hare. I used to think rabbit and hare were different words for the same creature, akin to rock and stone, but a hare is larger than a rabbit and has much longer back legs. If you think a rabbit can run fast, you ain't seen nothing til you have seen a hare cover territory in leaps and bounds with those oversize legs.
I first saw hares doing what earned them their moniker--"mad as a March hare" out the window of the train between here and Inverness. I saw several hares running harum scarum totally oblivious to the train or the livestock in the nearby field. And then, I saw pairs of them stand on those oversize back legs and make a pinwheel motion to each other with their front paws. As I found out later it is called "boxing", which is apt but it looked for all the world to me like the stereotyped fighting you see in movies. These fisticuffs are not between combatants, which is perhaps why the blows don't need to land, but are a little love spat--or a negotiation. The lady hare is telling the gentleman hare whether his attentions are welcome or not. For a short while in the month of March, these critters run around lovestruck. And then, as is often the case with love, passion cools and the hares go their separate ways.
So this lone hare lopes his way along the verge was thinking of clover and a warm place to sleep for the night rather than love. He loped along beside the car and then made a characteristic quick turn across the road and into the field.
Wool and Waves
The surfers are here. When they come for the championships--in this case, O'Neill Cold Water Challenge, the median age drops significantly. They add to the landscape not only on the streets with their young, lean enthusiasm but also on the waves. It is great fun to watch them. And they have a great effect on locals and amateur surfers from nearby who climb into their suits and take their boards on to the shores away from the competition sites.
Their arrival gives a whole new dimension both to the land and the sea. I like adding more facets to my vision. Yesterday after a workshop on identifying bumble bees (more about that later), I was waiting for my husband to pick me up. While I waited, I enjoyed the waves on Dunnet beach--short, white ripples following closely one after each other with the regularity of reps in corduroy. A clutch of young people huddled around their car in the nearby parking lot pulling on the requisite wet suit--one surfer told me that the water had been positively balmy--he only needed a 3mm layer of neoprene. I wished them well as they headed to the waves. I do believe they look much much like seals and, with fins on their surf boards, I understand how they can be mistaken--even by other seals--for one of them.
Unlike the first time the surfers arrived, due to the influence of some local folks who opened a little surf shop and cafe down by the harbour, there was more official recognition this time, including an exhibit in the local museum on the art history of British surfing. I must confess my midwestern parochialism limited my knowledge of surfing to Beach Boys and "woodies"--those station wagons of days gone by that still had wood on their sides.
The Brits, of course, including some Scots, were way ahead. Captain Cook's men, it seems, "discovered" surfing in 1769 when they met the Polynesians. In addition to outriggers coming out to meet the ships, one man arrived having paddled out on his surf board. This led to some of the seamen trying it without much success but setting the precedent for a fondness and respect for surfing.
I had the opportunity to interview Peter Robinson, the creator of the collection currently on exhibit at Caithness Horizons, who has spent the last 6 years looking for a permanent home for his collection of artwork from posters and periodicals as well as surf boards themselves. His website is www.thesurfingmuseum.org.uk. With a little luck and more hard work, he may have a permanent home for it in Devon, one of the more traditional sites for British surfing.
That's the waves, but this is lambing time in Caithness. Even though we do not have sheep here, we know folks who do and so a common greeting is, "How's the lambing going?" So in this season of lambs and waves, I have been working through my fleece. If you are country person or a woolie, then it is as best as my husband could say, the wool of a cross bred hogg. It is coarser by far than her elegant cousin, merino, and has a definite kink to it from what I presume is the blue faced leicester, the purported daddy of this ovine lassie who gave me her coat.
I threw myself into this wool project when I got the latest rejection letter--or in this case, email. I'll be back to writing soon, but I needed to be away from it for awhile and the wool took over. I took notes, I wrote out designs on backs of napkins, I collected bits and bobs from my wool stash to use as inclusions, and I slogged through a lot of soap and hot water. I had a great time. I'll share the results soon (I have yet to get my digital camera working), but wanted to fill the empty spot where my blog should be.