Tuesday, March 17, 2009

John Muir Trust and wild writing

Last Wednesday myself and co-judge Hamish MacDonald announced the winners of the John Muir Trust's wild writing competition at Fort William's fantastic Mountain Festival. It's the third year I've been involved in some capacity and the way that JMT has joined the Festival in developing a creative response to mountains and wild places in our lives has been fantastic and creates more and more interest each year.

For the full results, see here but Tom Bryan of Kelso was the overall winner with a beautiful reflection on his relationship with Suilven, the iconic Assynt mountain that follows one's eye, shape-shifting as it goes, around that part of north-west Scotland. Alan Gay of North Berwick took second place with a mysterious poem called 'Deer Path' which for me made the visible and invisible worlds of the mountains touch for a moment. There were three runners up - all prose pieces - from Kate Blackadder, Stephen Busby and Jenny Holden.

Joyce Carol Oates criticised 'nature writing' for what she called its "painfully limited set of responses: reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness." We may have found those responses amongst the entries but we also found exhilaration, confusion, boredom, coldness, joy and grief.

Congratulations to all!

Meanwhile, if you get hold of a copy of the latest JMT journal (46/Spring 2009) you will find an illustrated extract of my piece 'The Beat of Heart Stones' about a walk along a dry stone dyke on Schiehallion this time last year.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The persistence of feet and water

The train from Nairobi to Mombasa travels to its own timetable, its hours unpredictable. When children in the nearby villages and homesteads hear it, they come running across the fields towards it, specks at first, full pelt with shoulders leading, until they stop with wide grins for the daily spectacle. Whistles, shrieks, waves greet us. The embankments are trailed with paths. The beat of feet have found the most direct way down, identifying the line and then reinforcing it over and over, up and down, wearing it smooth, stone free, curving. The feet have worked with natural features - soft or hard rock, contours, just as a stream would.

In Hell's Gate National Park, close to Lake Naivasha, I was told a story which combines feet and water in the formation of a deep gorge . The Maasai used to herd their cattle between the high plateau and Lake Naivasha. The route they wore attracted running water in the rainy season, which worked with the pathway over the years to gouge a deep indentation in the land. The herders continued to use the route, fairly dry except during the rains, and the gorge deepened to its dramatic formation today. Whether or not this geography is accurate, I like the story of cooperation between human and animal movement and the aggressive momentum of water.
In the gorge, the Maasai found boiling water spouting and falling, they thought of it as someone below them, cooking. They were then convinced this ravine led to Hell.

The Maasai and their animals are now settled there, no longer nomadic. But the tracks of wilder animals persist, overlaying each other on the same routes, ways that converge into the only water hole, to lay out a massive spider of paths.
Yesterday I walked across the valley near my home. The valley bottom is now a golf course but it had previously been common-land and people walk their dogs or themselves there as if it still is. By and large walkers and golfers cooperate. Over the years the greenkeepers have made efforts to re-direct feet by closing gaps in walls where short cuts emerge onto roads or other pathways. Yesterday I noticed that one of the former ways has re-asserted itself over the non-golfing winter - a thin line has been worn in the grass leading to a small but determined tumbling of the wall.