Before Christmas we shared a blog about our seven days of Dark Walks, written on the last day of walking, and promised we would post more. So the obvious place to start is with the first tree, the Wasdale Oak, which is at the westernmost point of the constellation of the seven trees. These blogs draw from notes written at the time …
Wasdale December 15 & 16, 2017
Fieldfares, low cloud and soft light on the muted flanks of Great Gable. It is as if my eyes need to take time to the adjustment of no walls or windows. I am not looking through a car windscreen. I am not looking at a computer screen. I am in the open. I am gradually opening.
I am collecting greys and grey is seeping into my thoughts. Grey light under a grey sky with the slightest slit in the clouds showing that sunset is near. It is like an oppressor’s tool, this leaden cloak with teasing glimpses of gold.
Just over an hour’s walk along the narrow path and across the screes takes us to the Wasdale Oak. Above us, black crags are like dark blunted teeth beneath weighted cloud. Underfoot, stones are grey and mottled with lichen of lighter greys, colour given up as if this season’s task is to subdue vitality. I sit for a while with the oak, taking in the scene, watching the clouds. I lean into the tree and find a stillness, while sensing the strong pulse of life within the tree, and the land, that both appear dormant.
I walk up the slope beyond the oak so I can look down on it, and I settle beneath a holly tree. I sit and take a pencil, begin to sketch. While Rob trains his camera to find and to create images, this is my way of looking deeply. Leaves of deep green, shining as if polished, spike the drab sky, and the rocks beneath the holly are a spread of angular greys. The trunk is a hushed brown, and this tree, rooted in a fall of stone, seems as robust as a stocky boxer, retired, sitting out its sedentary days.
I expect grey to be all for today, but suddenly there is gold. The rocky land is gilded, feathered birch etch themselves against a fiery sky, the bracken-covered ridges are bronzed and Middle Fell turns from dull to dancing, like a haggard face transformed by a smile. And we smile and exchange whoops of joy at this surprise – me at the holly and Rob at the oak. The sky gives in to blue, just for two minutes before the western clouds engulf the sun and I am once again in a muted land, but this time with superficial greys, and a feeling of gold on the inside.
The next morning we wake in darkness. The owls whose calls filled the air when we went to sleep are still exchanging hooted conversations and the moon is high but hazy in mist.
For about forty minutes we need our torches as we pick our way along the path. It’s only 7am, it’s still dark, and it feels warmer than it did yesterday afternoon before the sun sank. The lake is calmer, making only the softest of stroking sounds as it laps on the shore below us.
We turn our torches off around 7.40am, just before we cross the scree slope close to the tree. The sky and the lake are being purpled by the night’s receding so that we’re walking through an indigo hush that’s not like any colour I know. Then there’s the briefest of yellowing in the clouds, followed by a quiet grey. And it’s warm. I wonder. Last year’s December was the wettest on record. Might this year’s be the warmest? (I do a bit of internet digging when I’m back and discover that UK average temperatures are the eighth highest since 1910.*)
I sit with the Oak. I wonder at the tree. I listen for any messages and pick up ‘we are not here for you‘. I think of what is written and shared in widespread media – messages about the planet and what we are doing to it and the main argument for greater care often being that we need to think of our grandchildren and their children – perhaps that is the tendency of any species whose prime goal is to continue. But in all our efforts to plant trees and stop polluting and wrecking, really, all these efforts are ultimately for the planet, not for us.
I walk down the slope and pass through the ghost of the yellow line and the words of the poem that it held, aware of the ways that everything is connected. And I think of the tune of this valley, which is wind and water and the calls of ravens and gulls, and how simple that is, how devoid of any philosophy or message; that is just how it is. And the heather grows, gorse blazes; there are birch trees getting stronger and oak saplings taking root, and a blackbird announcing daylight. Dawn is merging into day in a greyness that is the hush of a very warm winter.
** The provisional UK mean temperature was 5.9 °C, which is 2.0 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average, and the eighth warmest December in a series from 1910. (http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries)