Song of the Rolling Earth
‘Song of the Rolling Earth is an environmental classic to stand alongside Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Maxwells’ Ring of Bright Water and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. In an age perplexed by experts, Lister-Kaye is that rarest of things – a genuine all-rounder.'
He didn’t know then if it would end up as a book or, if it did, what kind of book it would be. All he knew was that the words were pouring out, and they seemed to have brought their own style with them: unforced, personal, different to anything he had ever written before, as though this was a book he was meant to write and which had been dammed up inside him for years.
Extracts from the book
‘A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea,They are in the air, they are in you.’
Walt Whitman - 1856
I have lived at Aigas for more than twenty-five years. My children and stepchildren have grown up here; in and around the Field Studies Centre which has been our home. Every day, my wife Lucy and our youngest daughter Hermione interact with our colleagues and the hundreds of guests who pass though our hands each year. Together we set out to explore the Highland landscape, its people and their poignant history, its wildlife and the long saga of the land itself. Our aim is to share this special place with others who care about such things; our reward is to watch it happening. To us all at Aigas it has become a way of life.
So this book is a journey of discovery; it is an attempt to see some of the bigger picture we call home.
John Lister-Kaye, House of Aigas 2003
One of the great glories of living among hills above the 57th parallel, north of Moscow and north of Churchill on Hudson Bay, is the benison of low-angled light. Dawn doesn’t flood serenely in as in low country or on a great plain, here it gathers behind the mountain like the clans themselves, building force and energy; a presence luminous and kinetic, waiting to happen like a war. Then it comes tipping in, molten and clean, as a lake overflows its dam. It arrives streaming, dancing, slicing, shafting, piercing, embracing, or trailing across the fields like a lapwing feigns a broken wing.
All day the sun prods and fools with cloud and mountain like a child with a torch, spotlighting fragments of the frieze for fun. If I could orchestrate it, along with woodwind and strings I would need whole ranks of trumpets, cymbals and kettledrums, all mixed in. I am drawn back to it over and over again. It nags at my brain’s core, barging in like a child and dragging me from my work, imploring me to stand and applaud its every whim. Now subtle as a flute, it wraps warmth and comfort around me like a lullaby; or it comes crashing down, a great cathedral organ exploding, open diapason, tumultuous and vibrant so that I am forced to the window - held there. Later it can be tragic and yearning, like so many of the folk songs of the Gaels, echoing the historical misery this glen has known, poignant as a weeping violin.
It is from these windows that I see lissome otters, shiny as a twist of current, leave the river on bright June mornings long before the rowdy human world is up. They skirt the edge of the fields and scour the ditch for frogs and elvers, past us on their way up the burn to the loch. One day just recently an otter was passing where the burn runs down the side of the one-acre paddock where we keep our few hens and ducks and Hermione’s pony. A white farmyard duck, looking for all the world a living replica of Jemima Puddleduck, and every bit as naïve, had wandered away from her friends in the paddock’s muddy pond where they habitually dabble away their days, slipped (ducked) under the fence and down into the burn, which babbled seductively to her under the midday sun.
I don’t believe the otter was duck hunting. He must have passed the paddock dozens of times, slinking from pool to pool, unseen beneath the ferns of its shady bank, on up to the loch from which the burn issues half a mile further up the hill. I hope she never had time to realise her mistake. To the otter she was no more than a wild duck that didn’t fly away – his lucky day. A duck, not sitting, but innocently rediscovering its beginnings, just doing what ducks always do in water. Just as her genetic predisposition had enticed her to the stream, so the otter’s genes snapped it into lethal mode. No more duck. A few white feathers drifted downstream. Otter and duck disappeared into a drain.
From these windows I see the herons stalk the sedgy river shallows stabbing at salmon parr as they flit downstream, and often an osprey wheels over and crashes into the flow, rising untidily to row away across the forest with a trout twisting grimly in its talons. I see the broad-winged goshawk spiralling high above his hen nesting in the tight spruces below. Spindle-legged roe deer delicately swim the river, dark noses and white-spotted chins tilting above the flow and, stepping free from the shaken rainbow, they tiptoe ashore to the sweeter browse on this side.
From here I have watched the gentle evolution of the birch woods. They are a private pageant. ‘Dancing ladies,’ someone said to me once. The rich plum of their winter twiggery bursts into a soft, pastel cloud when the first tiny leaves open for my birthday in May, and then slowly they darken down to the universal summer stain. Later, in the cool of late October nights the chlorophyll drains away and for a few brief, exultant weeks, my view is all gold. I see the fiery red of the autumn sun creep into the wild cherries – geans they are called here – and the brilliant silver-gilding of the aspens which are dotted about among the birches. For sheer glitz both of them challenge the blousy scarlet of the rowanberries, which, any day now, will bring a harlot's glamour to this luxuriant wash of August green.
It is a transformation which never ceases to make me smile and shake my head in awe as the wind comes rippling across their bunched crowns like a bow wave. After the first moonlit frosts have spilled down the slope of the glacial valley wall during the night, I come into my study in the mornings and I can trace their umber trail across the bracken in the misty river fields.
Adders P76, 77
The eye of an adder is lidless and unblinking. It’s a tiny jet bead as cold as bronze. Two black stripes paired like eyebrows flow back from behind her eyes towards her body, highlighting the focus of her hard, angled little face, like a wedge prizing open the afternoon air. I ease closer. I am impaled on that gleaming dot of menace. Perhaps she is measuring me up with that stare, thinking of dislocating her jaw and swallowing me whole so that my boots stick out and I bulge ludicrously inside her scaly stocking. Her tight little face is implacable, inscrutable, no hint of a smile or a sneer. She just coldly looks, utterly still, like Moses’ brass serpent, a moment cast in the fiery properties of magic. They say you can’t stare down a snake. Snakes always win. Whoever said it is right. I can tell I’m not going to win this one. It’s like championship chess, the atmosphere redolent with tension and suspicion. I’ve forgotten whose move it is.
She probably lives on lizards. They are common here. And newts and frogs, and the occasional small mammal like a vole or a wood mouse. When she comes out of hibernation, where she has been underground for almost half the year, she is hungry. She will nose out the convenient glut of meadow pipits’ nests in the deer grass and the heather, gorging on eggs or tiny fledglings, bare and blind, building her strength for mating and producing her young in high summer. This lady looks fat. She has fed well. I can breathe more easily now.
I had never paid much attention to snakes until a few years ago when I was sitting under a dry-stone wall eating sandwiches with a few Field Centre guests. It was June and the day was bright and high. We had been up in the hills searching for the little moorland falcon, the merlin. We had found a pair nesting in an old hoodie crow’s nest in a low birch tree, so we were pleased. We sat down to eat and doze in the warm spring sunshine.
In front of us lay a grassy patch of delicate little flowers, the yellow tormentil, clusters of eyebright and the vivid blue of the sky reflected in the tiny petals of milkwort. Clots of buttercups sprinkled sunshine across the sheep-cropped quilt. A rustling movement in the long grass to one side attracted our attention. It persisted as though something vital was going on in there, life beavering away, purposeful and repetitive. I pressed my finger to my lips to urge the others not to make a sound. I had no idea what could be so busy in there. A shrew, perhaps?
An adder emerged. He didn’t slide, or slither, as one might expect of a snake, he whirled. He was a dashing wisp of cord, like a whiplash flicked across the grass. We were all startled by this rush of reptile, but we kept our silence. In a moment he had spun around and flashed back into the long grass. More thrashing about. He was unquestionably male, the zig-zag pattern down his spine was strident: bright zig and brighter zag, attention-snatching like an alarm signal. He was sandy yellow and hard-edged black, a contrast of sharp, waspish elegance.
After a few more moments of waving grass he emerged again, to repeat the same looping circuit of excitement. Something was up, of that we were certain. He was entirely oblivious that five people were keenly observing this wild hieroglyphic dance. But this time, instead of returning to the long grass, he took off across the sward and disappeared into a heathery clump. Almost immediately another, smaller, just as brightly patterned adder appeared from the same grass and seemed to be pursuing the first. In seconds they were back, one chasing the other, whipping through and turning to face one another down with powerful up-and-down jerkings of the head and neck. I guessed these were two males contending for a female.
While all this was going on, to one side of the clearing a third, much larger, adder arrived, lazily and apparently unconcerned. Her darker colouring and larger size gave away her gender. She coiled quietly in a corner and appeared to watch with that coldly dispassionate viper stare. Several times the males came back towards her. Each time the larger of the two saw the other one off, fencing and feinting, weaving and whipping, barring his way and jabbing his angled little head constantly into his opponent’s face. Finally the smaller male seemed to give up and headed off into the undergrowth, chased by the larger male until out of sight. Then the victor quickly returned on his own.
We were witnessing an ageless courtship rite - the tale of inexorable telling, the dance of two suitors to an irresistible melody as old as the rock itself. It was mesmeric. We dared not move. We were as transfixed as if caught up in an oriental carnival pageant of dragons and gods. In all my years of wandering the hills and meeting adders I had not guessed such speed and agility was possible, such power of suggestion, such aboriginal posturing. But we had seen nothing yet.
Our male came swishing back to his love. He pranced around her victoriously for a moment or two and then pressed his suit with fervour and passion. To begin with she ignored him (as females will), so he slithered urgently all over her, from the flatness of her delicate head to the tip of her coiled tail. He mouthed her entire length, flicking his black tongue over the whole surface of her back, whipping round and facing her head to begin again, tonguing his way over her eyes and neck in the most affectionate and persuasive courtship I have ever had the privilege to witness. Slowly she began to respond, to ease the hinges of her scaly armour, loosening her coils, beginning to writhe herself in time to the constant rippling of her lover.
At this slightest gesture, this merest hint of reptilian acquiescence, he flew into ecstasies of ardour, redoubling his efforts to cover her entirety, prizing his sharp little head into her coils and oozing unstoppably through the knot like mercury through your fingers. He seemed to be literally prising her apart. This success drove him wilder still. He hopped and he skipped, he tapped her head with his own in a tattoo of urgency; he tied himself in knots which unravelled themselves in a slither of silken sensuality. He became a flowing figure of eight, the rampant weaving border to a love poem. He was Eden’s diabolical serpent having disposed of Adam, inventing the original sin in all its aching, raw and desperate sexuality.
At last she was impressed. Her sinuosity arose from its lethargy and rippled down the length of her voluptuousness. She loosed her stretching roundness and flowed with him in a writhing continuum of mounting passion. They swirled together in a confluence of wild streams, twisting and turning before us, only a few feet away, over a love quilt of bright starry flowers. He never ceased his fervent kisses with that flickering tongue, bifid and black. He never eased the dance, only settling the pace to a rhythmic, winding duet of the tempo of a Viennese waltz. Finally, after many minutes of this fertility rite, the male succeeded in entwining his lover like a vine, spiralling around her in a frenzy of excitement. He angled his tail beneath her, upside down, and their lower lengths met in a clinching cloacal embrace.
Once locked together they became one. For a while we sat mesmerised by this earthly undertaking, unable quite to believe what we had seen. The word snake had rewritten itself in coils of exquisite calligraphy, never to be read quite the same again. Very slowly, still harmoniously writhing and convulsing, they crossed the little clearing and disappeared into the heather on the other side. We tiptoed away, unspeaking, in case the spell might break. It was like coming out into the sunshine after a wild and disturbing film, a slightly shivery return to a human world which had no language for what we felt.
Swifts P 120
The folding armchair and the lamp are still here. I ease myself into the dusty seat. I am four feet from a swift on her nest. Gently I focus the beam onto her sooty, curving form. She does not move. The feathers of her head and nape are layered like the slates above me on the roof, each one wearing a paler curve at its rim like ocean waves on a choppy day. Her throat is pale. Her tiny black bill mirrors the curve of her aerodynamic head and her colourless sunken eyes, oriental and inscrutable, stare at me in an unblinking, unrevealing gaze.
No wonder this is called the Devil bird, or the Develing, the Skir devil or the Devil’s screech. People have always been wary of things they can’t explain. For centuries we knew neither where they came from nor where they went when they so suddenly vanished. Their common screaming presence around church towers and their darting disappearance into dark crannies seemed to suggest they were agents of the devil sent to mock and to haunt the houses of god. Some, like the 16th century Swede Olaus Magnus, Bishop of Uppsala, seeing them dip to the surface of water to drink, believed that they rocketed themselves into the mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes where they survived the long winter. Even the great 18th century English naturalist Gilbert White instructed men to dig in the ground in his search for hibernating swifts.
This is a mystery in dark curves. It is a bird unlike any other. It is enclosed by wing, trapped within its own parentheses. The rigid blades of its curved primaries extend far beyond its tail. Its genes must be curved. Its legs, such as they are, are invisible. It shuffles rudely on its belly. Its scrape of a nest, loosely gummed with saliva, is hard against the gable only a few inches below the louvers where it makes its rocketing, roof-piercing entry. I wince as her mate arrives. A black projectile hurls itself at the tiny day-lit aperture, a feathered dart stabbing home, right on target every time. The accuracy and speed are astonishing. That this bird can fly at one hundred and five miles an hour.
Outside, the others - the gang of perhaps non-breeding juveniles honing technique for when their turn comes - are circling in wide, screeching arcs of catch-me-if-you-can. The air ripples with their frantic passing. Their wake casts dust into the thin sunbeams which slice across the roof floor. For a moment I am a lighted mote dancing in the beam. I become a blur, dazzled by this extraordinary bird.
Take one bird. Take an ordinary perching bird, a Passerine such as makes up more than half of all known living birds. It has a beak and two eyes, two legs and four toes, a tail and two wings and a set of major and minor pectoral muscles bound to its breastbone to make the wings work. It has to have at least one mate. It has to copulate to fertilise its eggs and it has to find a place in which to lay them. It must find a reliable food supply sufficient to feed itself and raise its young. The world is full of food and there are thousands of niches it could fill. Throw in a good seasoning of competition and you end up where you started, with a passerine just like half the known birds living today. You have a thrush or a robin, a redstart, a blue tit or a wren.
Joy and delight are nature’s gift to those who seek it and strive to reveal its truths. Nature comes free and in full Technicolor. It is neither fussy, nor is it personal. It recognises no cruelty, tolerates no flaws. It makes no promises and tells no lies. It is utterly original, constantly recreating itself anew, dazzling and inspirational. Its laws are absolute, without amendments. It just bowls along in its meticulous, random way, handing itself down from generation to generation, making the most of its rocks and its climate and its simmering broth of genes. For those who are fortunate enough to be able to know it well, it reveals the triumph of creation. In its bird song and its trees, in the river and the mountains and the loch, in small tortoiseshell butterflies and its inscrutable trout, in its swifts and wrens and rooks, in its badgers and its pipistrelle bats, in the adder and Uroceros the wood wasp, in praise of all of these and more, the nature of Aigas has handed me my life.
At lunchtime (actually ten o’clock, but we have to pretend it is lunchtime because we’ve been up for so long) we land on an island. It’s a bit of my old farm which the river has decided to claim for itself. A flood channel has cut through a slip of meadow and stranded it and its bankside alders and willows between two running prongs of the stream. The island is going back to nature. Ungrazed and left to its own it is treeing up. It is a tangle of shrubbery and saplings all fighting for precious soils and the daylight. We tie the boat to a fallen log and carry our basket to a grassy spot at the water’s edge. We explore the thin slip – about an acre – of island.
A dead ewe is hanging from a tree, jammed there by the flood, three feet above the matted grass. Her scrappy fleece has shrunk onto the skeleton like plastic wrapping on a frame. Her putrid body has drained out of her gaping mouth and a wide rent in her side, opened, I suspect, by hoodie crows. Other forces have been in there too. We peer inside. Whatever she once had has gone. She is as hollow as a box. No guts, no liver or lungs, no heart, no udders – nothing but a backbone and ribs like the staves of a wrecked boat. Her eye hollows leer at us from bare bone. A bluebottle crawls out of a shrivelled ear and careers off, buzzing. Her tongueless mouth yawns a perpetual boredom of teeth and parched skull. Hermione can’t resist giving it a prod with a stick. A sexton beetle, Nicrophorus, tumbles out of her throat; its carapace is red and black in mottled contrast like a Roman tile. She catches it in her hands and it scurries frantically out between her fingers and falls to the ground. This happens three times before she is content and lets it go. As we walk away we glance back. The ewe seems to be laughing.
We find where an otter has habitually left the water and entered it again, sliding down the bank on his tummy. We see his prints in the mud – recent too. A stained patch of sick grass and woodrush tells us he urinates there – a liquid signpost to any lutrine callers. I think he was here this morning.
It is ten o’clock and the sun is hot. We sit on the bank and eat our soggy sandwiches, the rolls Lucy lovingly made for us last night, and we munch our biscuits. I lie back. The couch grass smells like cricket pitches years ago. I close my eyes and the sun is still too strong. I turn sideways. Hermione has found some red ants in the sandy soil; she is fending them off with a grass stem. I wonder how ants get off an island?
“Daddy you’re snoring.” I struggle back to the surface. I didn’t mean to drop off. I raise myself up onto one elbow, blinking. Hermione is still quietly prodding ants beside me. Past her, over her hip, just there, not eight feet away the sleep-blur pulls focus on a face. It is wet and shiny. It sparkles. It is round like an old tomcat. It has ears like aspen leaves, neat and curved. It has whiskers, stiff and hard, arrayed in a downward fan. Beads of water hang from them, catching the sun. Its fur is spiky, as though it has just been rubbed with a towel. Eyes like black pearls peer. It is transfixed. It stands square on; slightly pigeon toed on short legs, broad-fronted like a strong dog. Its body rises behind it to a curved hump and a long, sleek tail curls down to the river. From its tip a trickle of water is running back to the river.
It is looking straight at us.
Thank god we are lying down. We don’t look human. “Don’t move,” I growl at Hermione through my teeth so quietly and so sternly that she freezes. “Otter. Turn very slowly.” Her eyes pass through mine like a cloud crossing a puddle and they keep going, slowly, gently, down the length of my body and out across the river, still panning, slowly….. slowly……over her own legs and back in to the bank behind her. Her head stops. I know she has connected.
The otter has not moved. He is astonished; he can’t quite believe his eyes. Never before has he met a human on this island. He thought it was his: a place where he can slide in and out without a care. Somewhere to crunch his fish with needle teeth and roll in the spring grass. Perhaps he brings his mate here – perhaps she is the mate and she has a holt here, under the alder roots? I shall never know. I know that any second now he or she is going to turn and slip back into the river with scarcely a ripple. He will re-enter the river by melting. He will vanish in a ripple-thong. He will leave only his five spread toes in the sand and his liquid image seared into the quick of our singing amygdalae. I know that this is one of those million-to-one chance encounters which gild the lucky. Hermione may not see an otter like this again for years. I hold my breath.
The Anniston Star 8C