Any plans for New Year? If you have, I suppose that – following convention and the calendar – you’ll put them into practice on December 31.
Bad news. It’s the wrong date. The calendar year may end on December 31, but if you were to celebrate the true New Year you would do it 10 days earlier.
It is obvious if you consult nature on the subject that the old year ends at midnight on the winter solstice, because the next day, it starts to get lighter again.
The New Year has begun. I like the solstices, both of them, because they are nature’s annual reference points along with the spring and autumn equinoxes of equal light and equal darkness, and nature’s reference points tend to structure my approach to what I loosely call the wild year.
The thing I seek most doggedly in my relationship with landscapes is intimacy. I keep going back and cross-examining them in all the seasons so that I get a sense of nature’s entire repertoire through the wild year.
That way, a sense of understanding creeps in almost by osmosis, and that informs the way I write about them. The idea began 30 years ago when I was writing a book about the Cairngorms called A High and Lonely Place.
Somewhere over the back of Cairn Gorm – by which I mean as far away from the skiing development as I could get while still remaining within touching distance of the plateau – I had found a 20-feet-thick wedge of old snow in midsummer, and tunnelled from end to end. I walked right through, and in places the tunnel was seven or eight feet high.
It was warm inside. The mountain wall was darkened within by constantly melting snow. I walked upright through an exquisite tunnel of months-old snow, and given that winters 30 years ago were more reliably wintry than now, it was possible that somewhere at the heart of the snow wedge was a patch that had not melted in years. I looked back along the tunnel. Summer sunlight blazed at the entrance. I wrote in that book: “Only the snow can speak to you of winter in high summer, instil in you the four-season awareness I hold as a prerequisite to my understanding of any landscape.”
Considering I was still new to the nature writer’s trade and this was 35 books ago, I was quite surprised to read that again now.
However, the one sentence that convinces me now that I was at least on the right track then is this one: “The exercise’s reward is a deepening understanding, the prising free of the mountains’ most elusive secrets.”
There it is – 30 years later, that is still at the core of why I go to work and what I hope to achieve when I get there. So what, you might ask yourself, brought this on? The answer is that with the approach of one more winter solstice, I wondered idly where I might go and what might happen.
Then I wondered about what would happen if I pitched myself headlong from there back into the summer solstice to see where I was and what happened.
It may have been six months ago, but such was the wonder of it that it remains as vivid as yesterday. The Berwickshire coast was always something of an unsung shore in my mind. I was writing the final volume of a quartet of books about the seasons, a five-year project, and I wanted a comparatively unfamiliar landscape to sit alongside the more familiar.
I found a cottage a handful of miles from the Border and with the sea on the other side of the street. And the first thing I heard was the ever-so-slightly eerie, atonally beautiful, wolfish chorale of grey seals.
At that moment, even before I had unpacked the car, I knew that I had found a song for my unsung shore. A simple principle fell into place that first afternoon. It was that the ebb and flow of the tide coincided with the wax and wane of the seal-song.
The ebbing tide uncovered acres and acres of flat rock riven by parallel diagonals, and as soon as the furthest-out rocks began to appear above the waves, so did the heads of the seals.
They didn’t quite form an orderly queue to step aboard, but the effect was something similar, for they gathered on the seaward side and swam around until they found what they were looking for.
And once they settled – a relative term for a grey seal colony, for they are restless as a way of life – in concert and solo they sang.
All week they sang, but their song was intermittent and so unpredictable that it surprised me every time it resumed.
The last full day of my stay turned out to be the summer solstice, and the tide table suggested that a couple of hours of late morning and early afternoon sitting on the clifftop directly above the Apache would offer prime seal viewing. It did.
As the sea fell back and back, the water was studded with the heads of approaching seals, and it seemed to me that they waited for the sea to clear from a particular long and almost level rock before they emerged.
Eventually, there were about 60 grey seals, arranged along four rocks, and as it happened the rocks were aligned largest to smallest from right-to-left.
The inland side of the big rock’s platform had two pools and a kind of natural waterslide over seaweed. In two hours, these were in almost constant use.
The singing was more sporadic than ever in the middle of the day, and most of it came from the smallest rocks. I wondered about its purpose. It’s not a contact call, for most of the time they are literally within touching distance of their kin. But it is a far-carrying sound – wolves again – so perhaps it is designed to send information up or down the coast to other haul-out rocks. Or out to sea.
Those clifftop hours were as agreeable as any of the entire wild year. And then there were dolphins. Perhaps half a dozen, perhaps more. Their perfect dive. The last of them soared from the water, steepened its descent, and as it re-entered the sea it was perfectly vertical.
That was the image that endured, that became the shape of the midsummer solstice, just as the seals became its song. I vowed to myself that I would relive it come midwinter.
A few evenings later, back on the Highland Edge, driving towards Stirling from Flanders Moss, I stopped to watch a red kite hunting across a roadside field.
It stalled on the air about 10 feet up, stretched its legs beneath it, talons together, raised and narrowed its wings as it pitched into a perfectly vertical dive, and as it fell with its wings not quite completely closed and hoisted high above head and body and stretched legs, what came back into my mind was the diving shape of the dolphin.
And now you know where you will find me at the midwinter solstice, trying to pitch the landscape headfirst into summer.
Perhaps there will be dolphins. And seals singing. There should always be singing at New Year.