Song of the Rolling Earth
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This book is about my home in a Highland glen and the wildness of the mountains and forests which frame our daily lives. Yet it is far from being a conventional natural history.
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 through 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
Three years ago, one June afternoon, Sir John Lister-Kaye sat in his boathouse, with the doors open and the view clear across to the birch-woods he had created 25 years ago on the other side of the loch, and started to write. 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.
For more than a quarter of a century, his home at Aigas, near Beauly in Inverness-shire, has drawn people to the Highlands to study its wildlife and ecology - the first field study centre of its kind in the country. But that doesn’t even begin to convey the passion with which Lister-Kaye writes about it in 'Song of the Rolling Earth'. The Aigas he shows us here, in all its seasons, all its history, all its wildlife, all its fauna, all its memories, is not just a home but a place that can and does shape lives.
So, I don’t doubt, will his book. For in the process of discovering that apparently easy style - clear, unfussy, unpurple prose that can suddenly take wing into both the personal and near-mystical lyricism - John Lister-Kaye establishes himself straight away as one of the finest nature writers in the language.
Me, I’m a townie, half-blind to nature. At primary school we copied out oak leaves and, apart from the helicopter seedpods of sycamore trees and the spiky green mines that contained conkers, that’s pretty much all I know about trees. Perhaps people like me are the reason natural history books started falling off those publishers’ catalogues in the first place. What my ignorance blinds me to is something I can see in all good writing about nature: a sense of its interconnectedness and comparative timelessness. For while Lister-Kaye is particularly vivid on nature in minuscule - adders mating, a wood wasp drilling into a treebark to lay its eggs, a badger snuffling up to him in the night-time forest - he also has a clear eye for the wider picture. At end of the book, for example, in a bravura piece of writing, he rewinds the centuries and imagines how the landscape around Aigas would have changed, chasing time back to the golden age of Gaeldom, when the birchwoods were already retreating to isolated pockets; back again 4,000 years when the heather moors had vanished, the land was warm and fertile and the Iron age fort on the horizon above the house was new-built; still further back to the wolves howling in the Great Wood of Caledon, brown bears, lynxes, moose and beavers in its mixed thickets; finally to the last melting of the glacier, whose striations still mark its rocks, the whole life-filled future still immanent and imminent.
Already, he has shown how the House of Aigas itself has changed, how the lichen-festooned ash tree growing by the south-east corner of the house would have been there when it was just a tacksman’s house and all its Fraser occupants were killed in their beds after Culloden; how the place became all showy and Scots baronial as its Glasgow owners bought into the Balmorality dream, only for it to fall into decay and become a home for Highland widows of the next century’s wars.
In other words, this is nature writing that depends on a lot more than a keen eye and a good pair of binoculars. Instead, it relies on a deep sense of place and time - perhaps what Wordsworth meant in “Tintern Abbey”, when he wrote about looking on nature “not as in the hour/Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes/The still sad music of humanity”. Nature writing at this level is a rare beast indeed. Time to start the stalking.
At Aigas, we go for a walk up to the boathouse by the loch where he writes in summer, and out into the woods beyond. It is February and they seem quiet, lifeless. So what, I ask, am I missing?
Everything, it seems. Crossbills hiding from the wind, signs of foxes and badgers, the deep cleaves of a heavy stag in the mud, the broom by the side of the track, fixing nitrogen into the soil so that one day wind-blown birch and willow seeds will be able to grow on it. Over at the other end of the loch, in the pine forest (“God’s finest thought hereabouts”), are the black grouse which have only just come back to the area.
“I can lie awake at night and I can lift off and project myself into this wood. I can smell the smells and hear the wind in the trees and know exactly what’s out there.”
So great is this empathy with nature, so complete the recall, that during particularly boring meetings in Edinburgh of one of the many environmental organisations on which he has served, he would find himself drifting away from discussion, mentally metamorphosing for a few minutes into, say, a sea-duck (Mergus serrator, the red-breasted merganser, if you must know).
Although Song is more than a memoir, it tells a lot about how Lister-Kaye’s own interest in nature started. About prising apart the wings of the stinging nettle butterflies as a nine-year-old growing up in a rambling Warwickshire mansion, where the old gamekeeper taught him how to be still, watch and listen. About how witnessing the carnage wrought by the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill turned him against a career in industry. About how, instead, he moved north to work with Gavin Maxwell on Eilean Bhan just before his death from lung cancer in 1969.
The White Island, written two years later, was well received by everyone apart from a small number of Maxwell’s friends, among whom it caused a spectacular falling-out. If that, and setting up Aigas, running Scottish Natural Heritage in the Highlands (his OBE, awarded for services to the environment) put his writing on hold for 30 years, it has not suffered for it.
In any case, 'Song' is not a book a young man could have written. Only someone who has shared his discoveries of nature with a whole range of visitors, from underprivileged English children to his own brood (three stepchildren and four children), from American tourists to his crofting neighbours, and learnt how to communicate both a child’s sense of wonder and an adult’s accumulated wisdom could ever have attempted it.
There may - just may - be another reason he was able to write such a heart-felt, time-eliding book. Inside Aigas, on the walls of what is now the dining hall, are a series of portraits of his ancestors. There have been knights called Kaye (later Lister-Kaye) in Yorkshire since 1072. They have owned 13,000 acres of England - until 1948, all the land between Wakefield and Huddersfield and large chunks of both, as well as all the coal beneath that land. From the 17th century on, that made the family hugely rich.
The baronetcy came from Charles I, the deed marking it in impossibly tidy copperplate on display in the hall. “It gives you a sense of who you are and where you come from,” he says. “My family has been closely associated with the land for nearly a thousand years, and feel that’s in my blood. So I’m not surprised that I’ve got so emotionally wound up with my own land here.” He sweeps his arm towards the serried ranks of ancestors staring down at him. “I’m sure these people really loved their land too.”
Perhaps. But none of them could possibly have shared that love half as well.
‘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
Excerpts from the book
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.
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.
A home is much more than the sum of its parts - its people, the geology, climate, the flora and fauna - however well one may come to know and understand each of those components - and it can take years to see a broader picture. In that long process one becomes a part of the place. It shapes your life and you witness it shaping the lives of those who share it with you: highly personal experiences more to do with the human spirit than with science and history. Slowly one begins to feel of a sense of belonging.
‘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 - genuine all-rounder.'
Sebastian Skeaping, The Spectator