Sunday, February 28, 2010

Portskerra Memorial View

A sunny Sunday was enough to prompt us out into the golden sun. First to church and attempts at visits--up here the old fashioned tradition of just dropping in is still observed. It allows people to be more spontaneous but it also means you may not find anyone at home. Today we didn't and so we ventured further into the west just the two of us.

After lunch in what was our local before we moved, I wanted to go to Portskerra--I've written about this little treasure spot before. This photo was taken from inside the enclosure around the memorial to the drownings. It is typical of the highlands--a sad note in a startling beautiful place cherished by the few people who find their way here. I make a point every time I visit of reading out loud the names on the memorial. Nothing but the wind to hear, but it feels like the right thing to do.

The memorial is atop a hill and the winds even on a mild day were enough to bring the tears to my eyes even bundled as I was with long coat and scarf and wool socks and hiking boots having replaced my church shoes.
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If Sheep Could Choose

The wind is growling like a cat with a mouse he does not want to share, the snow gates down south are already closed, and the snow is still coming down hard. I need a little diversion, so here's a wee story for a snowy day. When I first saw wool on the barbed wire, it looked like prayer flags to me. I even wrote a bit of poetry about it. Since then I have learned more about it. It can be a sign of fences in need of repair. And I am friends now with a woman who as a child collected the wool on the fence--wool gathering as it was meant to be--back when the Brora mill was still working and the price of wool made it worth collecting off the wire. Knowing that now makes me a wee bit sad when I see the wool on the wire--a different kind of prayer flag, or maybe just a different prayer.

This morning as I walked beside the field with Shaun the sheep and his large family, I wondered what colour wool sheep would pick if they had their choice.

I asked Shaun and his pals, but they were too busy to complete the survey, so I made a guess at what the fence would look like if they could choose. I just happened to have a handful of dyed merino wool tops in my pocket--my own particular brand of wool gathering.

Good Company

The new house offers many advantages over the old one, not least of which is that we can have people in for dinner and conversations or coffee and conversations or a drink and conversations. In case you hadn't figured it out by now, I love a good conversation. I was chuffed yesterday when a friend just dropped in on his way home from Wick. It was so good to see him. I popped the kettle on and we had some talking about nothing in particular.

The other night we had dinner with folks I had only spoken to in passing over the years. An opportunity to talk a bit more. They arrived with these lovely yellow tulips, so now every time I look at the tulips I enjoy not only their own loveliness but the recollection of a good evening and prospect of more such evenings.

The trade off is that the space we have to offer folks from America is smaller. I was reminded of this the other day when a good friend who has visited before said she and another friend would like to come and maybe spend part of their time here together. It's a great idea and 4 adults makes a nice combination for mixing interests and activities, but we don't have the space for them as we did in the farmhouse. There are lots of ways of resolving that space issue, but as I walked through the peat this morning I thought about trade offs. I'll write more about that tomorrow. Now I must get to town for chores and coffee morning with Newcomers to Catihness--most of whom are no longer newcomers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Quiet Mind--Busy Life

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I didn't realize quite how jangled my mind had been until I began to feel it relaxing in a 2-hour yoga and meditation session. Sometimes if we are lucky--and I think that I am--the answers find us before we have even quite rolled up the question. The yoga teacher was in the hotel and we chatted and she said come along to her class. I knew that she had taught a 5am class and demurred on that grounds, but when she assured me this class started at 10 am, I thought it was just what I needed.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the big changes I have made in my life already, I am reluctant to find new places and to meet new people. I am still a shy person. The shyness gets papered over with practice but is never really far from the surface. It was dangerously near the surface as I looked for the Youth Club. I followed footsteps in the snow up the wrong ramp and then out of the corner of my eye saw the open door to my left.

And again as I have discovered here in Caithness, the class members are very welcoming. One woman suggests I move closer to the instructor since I am new--excellent advice as it turns out because many of the moves are altogether new and others only vaguely recalled from a time so long ago that I moved too quickly to enjoy the slow stretches.

At my age moving too fast is rarely an issue. The teacher told us first--convincingly--that you should do only what feels right for you. It is not a competition like some of the exercise classes I have attended with a front row populated by a cult of "shiny leotards" seeking the adulation of a drill sergeant instructor. I lose my anxieties about performing and just begin to enjoy the luxury of stretching and breathing in a quiet but structured way.

By the end of the session I felt more alive than I have for weeks. I realized that every part of my body--including eye sockets and fingers and toes-- had been given a gentle workout. And during the meditation I was reminded of what I know but so often forget--creativity, whether knitting or writing or living--grows out of the quiet mind.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Letter from a Friend

The words slipped as easily off the keyboard as any others in the perfect democracy of QWERTY, but landed heavily. "rare disease that has affected my lungs has reached my heart". She didn't say she was dying, but death swirled into the room while the music in the far room played a cheerful pop tune that conjured images of a red flowered chintz curtain blowing in a summer breeze. I wanted not to have read those words, but they sat there. They could not be ignored any more than the sarcoidosis.

The rules of engagement do not require that we be introduced to the likely agent of our demise, but, once having been introduced, we are somehow obliged to treat this uninvited acquaintance with some civility.

My friend has a team of 8 doctors involved in her complex care and good friends and family, so what can I contribute from so very far away? I hesitate, my hands on the keyboard, and then I send a little description of the view from my window where there is neither sarcoidosis nor hospital memories.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Goose Fat and Grey Skies

After too much domesticity, I needed to feel the wind--even a cold wind--running through my hair. If you live here you have to like living under a giant sky dome. After my first foray into using goose fat for roast potatoes (good, not greasy as I had fretted) but a bit tricky to manage, and socializing with friends over coffee, I needed a bit more openness.

After a day of grey skies, the clouds lightened just as twilight was setting in. I decided to try to make it to Duncansby Head in time to catch the sunset. As the photo suggests, the lighthouse was already at work (the photo is when the brightest part of the light is away from us--the light is very very bright even at the respectful distance atop a little know of a hill above the lighthouse), but it was still light enough for walking along the paths carved by the sheep.

Alas, my feet--though not large by human standards--are larger than sheep's hooves and not quite as good on slippery mud. Before I had time to realize I was slipping, I was landing with a thunk-squish. The squish, although leaving damp mud along my coats and trouser legs, tempered the fall. It also brought me back to my senses. I had gotten casual about mother nature--I had gone for a Sunday drive and was there alone save for one other photographer now heading down the other side of the hill and it was getting cold quickly and dark. It was easy enough to pick myself up and hustle back to the shelter of my car but it was enough of a reminder to be sensible as well as romantic.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Moles, Voles, and Distant Friends

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I believe that if you love Caithness (not everyone does surprisingly), then you never really leave it. I have already been here long enough to have seen as many friends leave as I did in my days as a faculty wife--a postdoc for two years, a visiting fellow, a trailing spouse who patiently waits her turn and then two or three years spent where she could get a job. After a while it became harder to say hello because a goodbye was embedded in it. I have developed an aversion to goodbye parties. I prefer thinking that my friends may well show up again some day and be folded back into the conversation as if they had never left.

All these thoughts were tumbling around in my mind along with a dollop of homesickness for the gardens I have left behind as I worked in the new garden. A happy accident had left me with rescued plants from a friend now far away--at least physically-- and they needed a special place.

A sturdy little hedge plant--my gardener tells me it is Lonicera something or other--now sits at the edge of the front garden as a reminder of my friend, her fondness for Caithness and gardens and the story of one little cutting that refused to die. For all those reasons I gave it pride of place in the front garden. The Lonicera is a part of her still putting down roots in Caithness, shivering in the wind, stretching into the long summer days. If she comes back, we'll have a coffee and walk around the yard and I'll show her all the things that took root here because of her and we'll have a good laugh.

Until then, I carried shovels full of a hard working mole's handiwork to fill the hole around the Lonicera. It is certainly some fine compost; the Lonicera will like that. It makes a good contrast with the stony edges of a wall or remnants of the old coaching inn that used to be here. I wanted to give the Lonicera as good a start as I could --thanks to the mole--but we all have to learn to live with rocks up here.

Before the rain sent me indoors, I cut up plastic drink bottles to make little vole-guards for the Birch trees. Although they look more weed-like than tree-like along the ridge of the front garden, I don't want to lose them to voles. Now we have only the vagaries of wind and salt air and cold and moisture and competition from other plants to contend with. One little step to tip the odds of survival in our favour.

If these Downy birch trees manage to prevail, I will be old by the time they look like proper trees. Even trees who like it here take their time growing. I sometimes look at the senescing sycamores on the edge of the yard and imagine them as arthritic with their twisted trunks. I try to imagine what someone else will think of these birch trees--Will they tear them up to get a better view, wondering to themselves as they do why anyone would ever put trees here? Will they cherish them as valuable wind break and colour early in the season when colour is a bit scarce? Will they think of Robert Frost's poem on birches? Gardening, especially trees, is an act of faith. Between the voles and the senescing of the birches and myself, I can hope for birds and bees and downy buds.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Golden Day

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The rooks may have eluded me, but there is no denying these catkins on the willow. willows are hopeful but sturdy. They would not let a few sunny days fool them. I do believe. I do believe.

I was not sure what to expect today because last night's shipping forecast suggested winds of 4 to 5 mph but from the direction of the north--a dreaded northerly even if at the moderate speed of 4 is enough to send a shiver down my spine. The shipping forecast also revealed a high near Iceland and apparently moving this way. I am glad to see that the high prevailed, so I am out and about to drink in as much sunshine as I can. There will be a northerly again soon.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Just a Few More Steps

The light was disappearing almost as fast as the Rooks. I wanted a shot of the rooks like the scene yesterday over the rooftops at Castlehill--the heritage centre on the grounds of the old flagstone works. I was impatient because I had already done several things wrong. I should never have been cameraless. I should not expect to get a shot like something seen yesterday where things vary moment to moment--let alone day to day. And of course I should not expect critters to stand still. Especially not skittish social birds used to living in close proximity with humans who often do not appreciate their presence. So the rooks swooped and perched and re-perched always just out of reach of my camera lens.

I took this first shot as a do-me-til photo. Sometimes I use photos almost like little Post It notes. I can recall from the photo the feel of a day or an idea. Sometimes I take photos of the same thing trying always to get a better one. It took me about 4 years photographing heather before I felt as if I might be getting the hang of it. And, more practically, it was cold and I was eager to be inside with a cup of coffee to warm my fingers.

Instead I took just a few more steps--back around the gate and into the not yet renovated area. The air was so still that I could hear all the voices of the people who had once been there--and the occasional jibe from a rook or two to lure me on.

And so I took a few more steps. If the light had been better, I would have tried to photograph the curiously curved wooden frame that must once have held a window in the gable end of the deserted building or the soft mouse-coloured stones protruding awkwardly above the snow. After several failed attempts at catching the rooks, I noticed the tracery of the branches of the ancient trees arching above me and stood a moment to let the branches and the rook-call and the dwindling light fold me into their rhythm.
And then I took my numbed fingers inside and wrapped them around a cuppa and talked about the photo I didn't get, but the moment in the cathedral of the trees lingered in the back of my mind.
This morning as one side of the sky looked like a child's drawing of a sky--blue with a couple cotton ball trees--and the other like a dark gray sash along the horizon, I thought about the pleasure of those few extra steps in the cold and bundled up for a walk.
Instead of turning to the moss, I went up the hill. From a spot just a few feet higher than the house I could see for miles: sun-bathed cliffs of Dunnet Head in pink and beige, farmsteads and fields of dark green Sitka spruce and mottled snow patches against the brown earth. I turned in a sort of languous pirouette at the top of the hill taking it all in. I could not begin to capture it with a photograph, so I tucked it into my mind as a metaphor, a reminder that when I am weary or my world has grown monochromatic, I need to take those few more steps to find the cathedral in the trees or the treasures from the top of the hill. Along the way, I might also just get a good photo of those pesky rooks.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Snowflakes and Squares

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Snowed again. And cold. I was content to spend the day inside, but a friend needed us and the company would be good for us as well, so we braved the cold and the swirling snow late afternoon to join them at their house a few short miles from here. Fortunately, the sun was still up when we left. It lingers longer now and brings a bit more warmth with it--even swaddled in snow clouds.

When we got to our friend's house and she was still out in the cold and the snow, I fretted. We can't really worry about friends in the way we do children, but I could not dispel the edginess I felt as it got dark and colder, especially up here where we have no street lights and emergency services of the official kind are far away.

Her car did slide off the road, wedging itself miraculously between a sturdy signpost and an electric wire and about two feet from the edge of a snow covered stone wall. She is OK and the car is OK. The story I want to share is the story of the matter of factness with which folks up here look after each other.

The first person along the road after she slid off knew her, insisted she get out of the car and the cold and brought her safely, gently home. And then she turned around and did an expert job of directing our efforts to retrieve the car. A neighbour came by in a pick up truck --I've seen the truck on the roads around our new neighbourhood but don't know the driver yet. The two of them set to work and had the car out in no time.

The few cars that passed by on that road stopped and checked that everything and everyone was Okay. In the middle of a worrying time there were caring, thoughtful people. It was very reassuring.

Nonetheless when yesterday arrived with snow and cold again, I was content to sit and knit and watch old movies and let the snowflakes batter themselves against the window and slide down to collect anonymously on the windowsill. Even my knitting was simplified for ease of thinking and doing. I knit squares for a blanket that will help someone sometime when they need a little help or a little warmth. I like to think that each stitch, each square adds up.