This is one of two excerpts from Dominic Cooper’s work, The Open Places, which appear in the pilot edition of the journal Echtrai, bringing together writers whose work is informed by the idea of landscapes lost, forgotten, abandoned or mythic.
Wind, stroking, carries seed and sea-smell before it. Puffing, it rolls the lightness of loose things an inch or a mile, dust and pebble, briar and twig, to settle them anew. Bright days of its restless bounding work even surer deeds, whipping and whittling and boring in everywhere, forever tugging and easing half-strong things to weakness till they hang ready for the taking. Then the storm winds come, so much part of the days of darkness, with their streaming strength and vast walls of weight, ripping, crushing and driving up till the air becomes thick with a craze of branch shatter and flying grass from the hill.
Still now wind slices stone and rubs down the shape of things, much as it sliced and rubbed twenty-five thousand million moons ago in Archaeozoic times. Rain too has always been here, washing and polishing and jetting into rock on the back of storms—rain which, in these northern, drought-free parts, we love to curse, yet without which neither life nor even soil or plant could ever have been. We dream back, yet it is almost beyond our comprehending, the scale of the first, life-founding rains. Before them, before all, the original wilderness was truly a dark, impossible place: fire-hot rock and unbroken night and giant winds moving beneath a canopy of impenetrable cloud. At last, with the cooling crust, the momentous downpour began, at first in blank darkness but later, as the cloud-cover thinned, through long nights and weakly illumined days, seamless rain that lasted five, maybe ten centuries, on and relentlessly on. Until that miracle of days when the grey dome finally split and the sun first shone down on the enormous brightness of the collected rainwater that was now the sea. And so it was that there in the warm swell of the primal sea, the quiet alchemies spawned weed and worm, our early forefathers.
Ice and snow cramping tight have been the forces too, the slow roaming of the ice sheets in the centuries of cold bringing down earlier heights of upheaval, making turtleback and cupping of what before had been merely jagged and raw. And the seas too, now as ever gnawing and mining under the fringes of what has always seemed secure, have come rising time and again and overtaken the land, leaving behind them, when finally they went, fossil and bed and the shape of abandoned beaches. Sea and ice and the fading power of fire have been periodic workers of this land—but always, whenever and wherever, it has been the wind and the rain, always the wind and the rain.
And so it must have been, right from the days when the ice sheets last fell back before the gathering warmth. The winds now striking level rain into the hill behind the house can scarcely differ from those that blew here in those distant times. Is it not in this sense of continuity that lies the cause of the heart’s leap and the oceanic peace felt out in the wilderness? A faint flaring of memories from out of our past, a vague awareness of ourselves as nothing but part of the wheeling processes of eternity, forever changing yet forever changeless. Close consciousness of this is perhaps long gone, for the links to our origins have largely been civilised out of us. Yet in our response to the open land and to our mother the sea, we urbanised, computer-hounded creatures still give some acknowledgement to what was, and perhaps at heart still is, if only we knew it, at the core of all earthly existence.
The earliest settlers of this northern wilderness, one suspects, knew all and nothing of this. Dependency to the point of life or death, the greatest bond of all, must have held the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the sixth millennium BC so close to the earth and its beasts that it left them neither choice nor much scope for the consideration of things. Their prey, and the land from which they gleaned some added sustenance, was what they were, their present and all of their future. The skeletons of two people of this misty time that were discovered in the caves near the Allt nan Uamh in Wester Ross had bones of arctic fox, reindeer, northern lynx and bear near them. Ideas that the bones were the remains of the two’s food supply cross with others suggesting a simpler scene in which, over the years, the caves had merely been a place for holing up for both man and beast alike. Perhaps though there need be no such clear distinction here—man and beast both prowling the land in pursuit of survival, making use of much the same skills and the same shelter, and from time to time eating one another, as true companions of the earth. And as berry and beast and fuel ran out, so these people moved on, leaving little or no mark behind other than the occasional handful of artefacts.
Mesolithic to Neolithic to the Beaker People—the progress is immense in concept and detail, yet still but a scratching on the enormity of the wilderness land. Chambered tombs, standing stones, stone circles, dark and mysterious, speak of such spirit of intuitive understanding, of sub-mystical closeness to the earth and the star-shot sky above, that our casual way of tagging these people as ‘primitive’ can sometimes seem verging on the crass. If integration is indeed the heart of happiness, what score can we be so sure of having over these silent ancestors of ours?
Letting one’s mind open back to these times, it is easier to envisage the small communities with their unknown tongues and half-guessed beliefs than it is to see the now naked glens and straths packed out with woodland and wild forest. I have lain dozing doglike by a fire of peat and ancient tree-root far out in the empty grounds east of Slioch as a kiln-hot day slid on into its night. Lain and dreamed waking scenes of the great forest there and another summer’s night three thousand years before, with the people hunkered in the same shudder of flamelight, ever aware of the vastness of the dark, encircling wood where the bear and the boar, the wolverene and the hunting packs moved and waited. But from there to those few pale twists of branch and root close to my fire that had been thrown up from the peat by the workings of wind and rain is a stepless change all but beyond belief.
The idea of the Old Wood never quite lets go. Its shadow is always there, pressing imperceptibly at the margins of what is light and conscious in us, shaping out a memory of things, a whole way of being, that reaches beyond what, by some unconscious displacement, we now primarily concern ourselves with—the balance of nature. Measureless and numinous, full of silence and hidden sound, or surging surf-like beneath squall and gale, the primeval forest’s dark impenetrability and damp chaos of undergrowth are, in one’s mind’s eye, a suggestion of all that we have allowed to drift away within ourselves. The shadow shape of the Old Wood is an image of the unspoken and the unspeakable, of what is in itself unclear and so seemingly dangerous. There is the possibility that our urgent and necessary concern for the balance of nature conceals another fundamental need for balance—that between ourselves and the natural world around us.
Here, where the land looks north across open sea to the islands, where the single-track road grows cockscombs of grass down its middle and where days may pass without sight of another person, there is enough of the original stillness and unpaced ways of living to give one the sensation of peering out on to an earlier world, a seeming microcosm of all that remains free and uncluttered in this country of the north. It is true, no real forest can ever have grown here, I think, for the winds tear in from all sides. Yet there are signs that it was once worked ground, the house adrift in a sea of lazy-beds, long giant furrows that would have given drainage to the crops and vegetables grown on the ridgebacks between. Sheep have had the grazing here for a long time now, so the ground cleared of heather and rock lies nap-soft and summer-bright—a startling warmth held between the low, knotted massings of the hills and the ocean sea. But these slopes of grazing are as nothing, mere flecks of colour in amongst a hard and sombre landscape. For just beyond, at the road’s end, there is only the brown and purple crush of desolation, ground where knuckled fists of rock crowd thrusting out into long, spined headlands, pitted and cut in with pockets of quaking bog and bitter soil. It would be hard to imagine that anyone ever fought for such ground—even the hardy sheep seem to hold largely to the grassy rims of the bays.
Being in this small, quiet corner of coast, where everything seems both unchanging and forever overwhelmed by rock and sea and enormous skies, one forms an image of life over the centuries along the whole country’s western seaboard. Away in the lusher grounds of places like the Borders and the Black Isle, there are everywhere signs that man has succeeded in his bid to tame the land. Great shaped fields smoothed and scored by ploughshare and harrow, mathematical neatness of fence and hedge and gate, farmhouse and outbuildings standing proud and strong. And always roads, big and small, roads giving swiftness both to the market-place and to the bright lights of an evening’s ease. The root difference is that here there is to be no such winning, nor ever has been: this is a world where the simplicity of subsistence has tended to be the level of man’s ambition in his enduring struggle with the land. Those for whom this is no longer tolerable generally move away; those who stay and those, like myself, who come to seek it out, find in it a certain perspective that suits their feeling for living. It sometimes seems to me that away beyond the mountains, over on those better grounds, mankind has made his indelible mark on the landscape. But that here in the west, and in the north, it has been the land that has made its mark on the people, the rigours and constraints of its nature shaping them to ways of calmness and acceptance.
Dominic Cooper published four novels between 1975 and 1987, the first of which, The Dead of Winter, won the Somerset Maugham Award. He lives on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, in a house he built from Norwegian logs. Read more about Dominic on his website.
The pilot edition of Echtrai is out now. It features work by Cal Flyn, Jeff Young, Alex Woodcock, Martyn Hudson, B. G. Nichols, Emily Hesse, Martyn Hudson, Brighid Black, Louise Kenward and Jon Woolcott, amongst others. The cover is by the artist and writer Pam Petro. Find out more and buy a copy here. Copies will also be available from the Little Toller Bookshop.
The photograph at the head of this essay is by B.G. Nichols.