16 December, 2016 Sunset at the Langstrath Birch

I have wintered myself and sunk into sleepiness. In the absence of cerebral work, without a computer and away from deadlines, I have gone with my physical sense to sleep and to rest. Or so it seems. Rising this morning so early and walking to the oak and back left me a little tired and I was overcome with yawning and heavy eyes when we drove from Wasdale to Borrowdale, to begin our walk to the Langstrath Birch.

Walking to the Langstrath Birch

But that feeling passed, as it always does when I am outside and walking. It often seems grim and cold outside, when you consider it from an indoor or in-car perspective, but it takes only a few minutes of walking to become warm and energised, and to feel present and attentive to the land once again. There’s a tease of blue in the sky and it seems enough to take away the oppression of heavy grey. The valley feels open and light. We’re at the Birch within an hour.

But the clear sky doesn’t last. Mizzle is sweeping in from the head of the valley, drawing a  curtain on the day, muting colour. It’s 3.20pm, so not long till twilight.

drizzle hanging on the fine birch branches

I can feel the minimalism of winter coming through in my writing. Wet air makes it difficult to write outside. My phone is now in a freezer bag and, so far, responding well. Pencil and paper don’t cut it in the rain.

The valley is shrouded. The greys, though, are rich and silky. There is grey in the wintering fell grass, grey in the trunk of the birch, and the stones in the beck look grey but in fact hold browns and greens. The murk doesn’t feels oppressive today, and the fells are whitened by soft mist.

Harriet working below the tree in the steady drizzle. Rob's camera packed up after thirty minutes of being immersed in the air.
Harriet working below the tree in the steady drizzle. Rob’s camera packed up after thirty minutes of being immersed in the air.

It’s not yet 5pm but it’s almost dark. We have been considering when to eat our food and both agreed now-ish is as good a time as any, and then we’ll sleep. We are both tired and it seems like the best thing to do. It’s a wintering: we’re not prolonging the day much longer than the natural light is here. Rather we are slowing with the dark, turning inwards.

Before we sleep I ask Rob about his experience with his camera today. We have spent a lot of time beside the beck downstream of the tree where the stones are flat and he has been enjoying the layers of grey. I make a few notes of what he says:

The tree holds the frame beautifully, breaks the skyline, cradled by fells. Everything flowing down, pouring down, through the tree to me. The colours are better in these conditions than in sunshine. Black is really black. White is really white. In this contrast all the elements come alive and there’s a greater sense of the tree’s isolation … a human concept, yes, but you feel the lack of other trees. You feel it more in this kind of weather.  

It’s a perfect single tree for its size, this one small element in a large landscape seems to resonate life from that one spot. All the elements are perfectly balanced. The elements that compose an image, and the elements here: the sky, the rocks, the water, perfectly in balance.

Langstrath Birch in the soft mid-winter rain

I too have been preoccupied with the elements, particularly the fundamentals: darkness and light. My attention placed so purposefully in the thresholds of day and night this week makes this an obvious focus. I keep coming back to the way that light, however faint, so powerfully banishes dark. It feels like a metaphor for hope in the current political climate. As an optimist, I want to be certain that light has a stronger power than darkness and I reflect on this each night as the day’s light passes, and each morning again as night’s dark recedes. In this, at least, there is an unavoidable cycle. In history, it seems to be the same, with mistakes and horrors repeated, just as celebrations of life and abundance are repeated. But the facts are challenging my optimism. The frightening pace of destruction due to climate  change and the enormous difficulty of slowing humanity’s drain on resources do not seem to be part of any balance, and I fear for the future.

In my own small space on the planet I am homing in on some of the characteristics of darkness in the outdoors – slowness, uncertainty, subduing, quietening. I fall asleep thinking about the elements and in the pitch black, with the sound of rain on the tent, there is a  coming together of sleeping mats, warm bags, and a curled up dog. I surprise myself by falling asleep way before my usual bedtime and sleeping without dreams.

17th December, 2016  Sunrise at the Langstrath Birch

6 am and the sky is clear, moon high. We are up and out as soon as see this – too excited even to make a cup of tea. I am dressed warm and outside once again. My body is a moon shadow. I walk to the beck and discover the moon’s twin, held in water. But it’s sinking. On the black ridge of the fell the bright orb seems to rest and spread its shape, like white ink. I stand completely still, watching its passing as the earth turns. Rob is taking photographs further downstream and I am a solitary watcher, with no need to name or talk about what I see and hear. It is as if the sounds and the flow of water, and the white light of the moon, come through me.

A single whip of cloud rises from the point where moon-white meets stone-black. And then the moon has gone, but it has left a line of white gold on the ridge.

moonset on the Langstrath Birch

Opposite, to the east, the sky is lightening in a gradual paling of blue. Suggestions of clouds are moving fast, peach embers. A single star shines above the tree. All the while the water tumbles, fast and white.

pink sky behind the birch

We have been watching for hours. I make a note of the time – 0908 – when the first rays of sun hit the ridge exactly where the moon fell. It will be a long time until sunlight finds the valley floor and lends a bit of warmth to the tree. After packing up and having breakfast we walk out as the fells are being stripped of their night-time grey, and golds, greens and whites begin to shine out instead. When we come to the confluence of Langstrath Beck and Greenup Gill we walk beneath veteran birches, oaks that have curled their roots around stone, and lines of larch. At our feet, gold needles are like riches scattered onto rock.


The day before: At the Oak, Day One.

Dark Walks thoughts before and after.

Taking in the morning with a cuppa.

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