The Last Wolf

Celumë: Nature as its own Historian

Celumë: Stream, flow in Quenya Elvish.

I’ve long been fascinated by the past. History was my favourite subject in school along and has remained a constant interest throughout my life. I’ve held particular time periods in high esteem in different parts of my life.

The Scottish wars of independence, the Russian revolution, WW2, Ancient Greece and Rome, the European medieval period, Renaissance Italy, Victorian London, the Viking expansion, Vietnam, feudal Japan. All conjure up memories, books I’ve read and even where I was when I read them.

Natural history, however, all though not new to me, is not as ingrained as other historical areas. Vikings, WW2 and Picts I studied at school and most of my undergraduate degree is in history. I’ve never studied natural history or science, not once in all the education establishments I’ve been to, and though I would like to, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The term has always been a bit baffling to me. Is it not the study of almost everything in the world? And even then some. The search for water in space is the search for nature elsewhere.

Natural history can be grand, huge and even epic, one of my favourite overused words these days. Yet it can also be localised and miniscule, from the study of ants to elephants, seeds to Sequoias, the scope of natural history is enormous

While the study of history is essentially the study of people, natural history is the study of the other things on the earth, regardless of whether people are on it or not and surely it works best when people are not.

However, for as much as I’d love to do another degree in some natural or scientific area, I don’t think I’d be able to choose.

Nature has value in itself, without having to put an importance upon it as we would an impressive building, victory in battle or on the deeds of kings. Much as how history evolves, the way we view nature has changed and will no doubt develop in centuries to come, just as the words of Aristotle were once seen as ‘truths’.

Christianity changed this view, as did the industrial revolution. It’s crazy to think that agriculture, environmentalism, or even gardening wasn’t always a thing.

I like to think of nature as its own historian and this got me thinking of the ways we see the history of the world within it. Trees tell you their age once they are chopped down. Fossils can be found from beaches. We dig up peat for fires that is the vegetation dinosaurs would have eaten. Ancient shark teeth fall through our fingertips when we run our hands through the sand.

Easily visible, Hutton’s section of the Crags in Edinburgh gave us an idea of just how old the earth could be. These things are always there, the only thing that changes is our perception of them, and whether or not we notice them.

In Victorian era Scotland the study of nature was considered to be good for your mental health, now there’s a wholly modern idea.

Live Deliberately,

Barry

Currently listening to Timewave Zero by Blood Incantation

“I love to ponder the natural history thus written on the banks of the stream, for every higher freshet (stream) and intenser frost is recorded by it. The stream keeps a faithful and true journal of every event in its experience, whatever race may settle on its banks; and it purls past this natural graveyard with a storied murmur, and no doubt it could find endless employment for an old mortality in renewing its epitaphs.”

Henry David Thoreau ‘Journal’ 5th July 1852

Aware. Awake. Alive.

What is the number one things people say on their death bed? Possibly, I wish I’d had more time, I wish I had done more? I guarantee it’s not I wish I had worked more. Maybe I wish I’d seen Japan/Australia/ the moon, delete as applicable.

Psychologist William James said that consciousness isn’t simply existing and we must have an awareness of our being. It follows that that stems to wherever we are at the present moment. When we are completely aware of our surroundings we are truly alive, and for many that is most profound when we are outside. Whether it is having our faces beaten and bodies being knocked off balance by mountain winds, the roar and smell of ocean waves crashing around us, or the simple beauty of sitting in the garden on a summers evening, it matters not. ‘Without awareness we are not truly alive.’

Returning to our death bed thoughts, how about I wish I’d spent more time with my eyes open, enjoying what was around me? I wish I’d lived more in the moment. Time goes slow when we’re bored and also when everything is new. Apparently this is why your childhood summers seemed to last forever, because every experience was a new one, and now as cynical jaded adults we feel like we’ve seen it all.

Now as adults we sleep walk through life. We are on auto-pilot. We can drive to work after having dropped the kids of at school, after getting them all ready, after making them breakfast, and we do these things no problem, without even thinking because it’s what we do. How often have you caught yourself three minutes from work thinking, ‘I’m actually driving here’, and have been for half an hour? We haven’t realised because we’re coasting through life. Every morning is the same routine, but routine is good, organisation is key, organisation is freedom, thanks Jocko.

But I’m advocating awareness here. Active awareness of oneself and looking in on oneself, regardless of what it is that we’re doing. By all means be reflective, assess, journal, whatever it takes for you to be successful, but let’s try to do this for the majority of our lives. Can we be aware of our surroundings at all times in this world of constant distraction and a million advertisers competing for your attention? Think of an Australian Aboriginal on walkabout. Or a tribesman hunting on the Namibian plain. Awareness is everything. It leads to being alive and not sleepwalking through existence. And may even halt a few death bed regrets.

Live deliberately.

Barry

Currently listening to: The Pale Riders: L’Appel Du Vide

A quick internet search shows me the top answer is I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expected of me and, yup, there’s I wish I didn’t work as much straight in at number two.

Wanderings of a Naturalist

The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf

Seton Gordon: Wanderings of a Naturalist 1921

Seton Gordon is hardly a household name anymore, but he deserves to be. He became world famous as a naturalist, folklorist and photographer in his lifetime and most of his works are still widely available and some still in print. He was born in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire in 1886 and died in 1977, coincidentally, the year I was born. This year sees the 100th anniversary of his book Wanderings of a Naturalist, and it seems timely that this becomes one of the Sacred Texts of Last Wolf.

Wanderings of a Naturalist is one of those heralded books of Scottish nature writing that I heard about and saw mentioned by others many times before I even saw a copy. I can’t remember where, or even when I got it, but it is a hardback Cassell first edition from 1921 with ’78 Illustrations from Photographs by the Author and his Wife’.

Seton Gordon’s primary interest seems to be birds. Bird life overrides this book and a lot of his work and he wrote widely on the subject. His first book, published when he was only 21, was entitled Birds of the Loch and Mountain. He wrote some 27 books throughout his life, including a book entirely dedicated to his favourite winged species, the golden eagle that almost certainly had an impact on the bird still being seen in certain parts of the country today. One of the striking things about a lot of chapters in this book is the amount of times he sees an eagle, insinuating from beyond the grave that there was a lot more of them around a hundred years ago than today. He was one of the first people to photograph eagles in their eyries.

Wanderings of a Naturalist is written through the eye of an obsessive, not just an expert. Birds may be an overriding passion; he spends countless hours and days in huts and shelters to observe various birds, but he writes about the outdoors, mountain vistas, views from island hilltops etc. with the same passion and a poetry that brings the magic of the area truly to the fore. And it is almost exclusively about Scotland. He seems to be able to name every surrounding hill and mountain within eye-sight and even names those that he should be able to see as well if the weather didn’t allow it. In the chapter on Ulva for example, he names all the islands and as well as each of the peaks on them. He is firstly a naturalist but he never ignores the country or its people and he writes equally about both. He collected stories and folklore and does not shy away from our sometimes violent history.

As all these early 20th century pioneer types seemed to be, Gordon is quite the character. He usually wandered wearing a kilt and a bunnet, or sometimes a deerstalker, no doubt cutting quite the figure wandering the moors, glens and mountains. Magnificently, he would often break out a bagpipe tune, something I find wonderful as I often sing when alone on the hills and find myself wishing for some instrumental accompaniment.

Gordon may have been Oxford educated but spent most of his life in the wilds of Scotland and when he died a memorial bench was erected on Skye in his memory. The plaque reads…

“In the memory of the late Seton Gordon, CBE, writer and naturalist whose twenty-seven books on the highlands and islands led many people to appreciate their beauty. His love of the Hebrides influenced his coming to Skye where he lived for more than fifty years among the people of this area.”

We will end with what is a fairly random section of text reproduced from Wanderings of a Naturalist.

“Landing in one of the sheltered bays-for the south wind blew strong- a short walk took me to the hill-top, where, on the cairn, the peregrine is wont to sun himself, and where on the heather and bramble plants stone-chats rear their broods, and whitethroats flit noiselessly as the busy themselves at their nest-making. Great fields of wild hyacinths covered the hillside, so that the air was heavy with their scent, and the quickly springing bracken fronds, which soon would cover the hillside in a thick canopy, could scarce be seen for the luxuriance of the bluebells and primroses that grew between them.”

This is very lyrical in its description. I have broken up the same text into lines. Read again, the same words but how poetic they are. This could be poetry:

Landing in one of the sheltered bays-

for the south wind blew strong-

a short walk took me to the hill-top,

where, on the cairn,

the peregrine is wont to sun himself,

and where on the heather and bramble plants

stone-chats rear their broods,

and whitethroats flit noiselessly as they busy themselves

at their nest-making.

Great fields of wild hyacinths covered the hillside,

so that the air was heavy with their scent,

and the quickly springing bracken fronds,

which soon would cover the hillside in a thick canopy,

could scarce be seen for the luxuriance

of the bluebells and primroses that grew between them.

Seton Gordon ladies and gentlemen. So happy 100th birthday to Wanderings of a Naturalist. Take your rightful place amongst the Sacred Texts of Last Wolf.

Live deliberately

Barry

Currently listening to Exercises in Futility by Mgla for the zillionth time. An utterly flawless album.

https://no-solace.bandcamp.com/album/exercises-in-futility-lp-2015

The Living Mountain

The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf

The Living Mountain by Nan Sheperd

Nan Sheperd was born in 1893 in Cults which is now part of Aberdeen. She lived in the same house for most of her life which since 2017 has had a commemorative plaque outside. Like me, Nan went to Aberdeen University, graduating in 1915, 80 years before I went. She went on, also like me, to be a teacher. Though unlike me, she taught teachers, employed at Aberdeen College of Education until her retirement in 1956. She wrote poetry, three novels in a similar style to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and many essays. However, her most famous work, a short non-fiction book lay in a drawer for thirty years, Nan only publishing it four years before her death.

“To feel heather under the feet after long abstinence is one of the dearest joys I know.”

This book, The Living Mountain, was written in the latter part of World War II and thankfully saw the light of day in the glorious year that was 1977. This was quite a year. It brought the release of three of the top eight biggest selling albums of all time. It was the year of the Queen’s jubilee. Star Wars rose and the plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd tragically fell. It was also the year of my birth, three months after the death of Elvis, who weirdly died a year younger than I am now.

The Living Mountain is centred specifically in the Cairngorms and is a celebration of the mountain range; but this book is much more than that. It is perhaps easier to say what it is not. The Living Mountain is not a book about summiting. It is not a book about peaks, speed or victory. This is a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage even, and a fresh take on writing about mountains that is unconcerned with the more masculine pastime of conquering. There is more than one way of climbing a mountain.

”Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Nan really explores this landscape, and she recognises the details and subtleties of the entire area, a range that is older than the Alps and the Himalayas. She looks upon the plateau of the Cairngorms as a whole, not individual mountains but one, with many tops. I love this idea, one that Nan called the Total Mountain. And unlike every other mountain, you do not look up at the peak, but look downwards, into the chasms and depths from the plateau itself.

The book is divided into chapters that reflect features of the mountain experience. It includes chapters on water, snow, plants and wildlife but also on man, on the senses and what Nan calls Being. It deserves its place amongst Walden and A Sand County Almanac as one of the world’s greatest books on the outdoors, and as a sacred text of Last Wolf.

“Man might be a thousand years away.”

One of my favourite sections is on Life: Plants and I love the descriptions of the various smells you might become acquainted with in the Cairngorms. Smell is important to my memory and sense of place and I can understand why she covers it. I can be taken away to a Highland loch or forest, a deserted winter beach or the summer Tuscan countryside with one aroma. Nan compares smells on the mountain to scones baking and jam on the boil.

In this same chapter she also laments the mass cutting of trees for the war effort, which began in the Napoleonic era and includes two, very recent at the time, world wars. She highlights the fact you can see how far up the mountain the tree line used to go. I suspect it is even much lower now than it was in 1945.

“So simply to look on anything such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.”

This is a factual book; a record or diary even of everyday detail in the Cairngorms. It includes a lot of ecology: it is sold as a celebration, but is mostly a meditation. The spirituality in this book is the reason it is a lifelong influence on Last Wolf. It feels closer to a Buddhist text rather than a book on mountaineering and it is this that makes it transcend and shine through in its unadulterated joy of the Cairngorms. Her descriptions of the flight of swifts are as sublime as those of the eagles; stags sing with tenor and sometimes bass voices.

This Zen like quality to the outdoors is something that has been written about before on this weary road to Word Mountain and no doubt will crop up many times on this journey. When we walk into the mountains, we walk into ourselves. We have “walked out of the body and onto the mountain” and are “a manifestation of its total life.” This is a beautifully written book that deserves far more recognition than it gets. I’ve read it many times and I know I’ll read it many more. The Living Mountain is the preeminent spiritual inspiration on Last Wolf.

Live Deliberately

Barry

Currently listening to: The new track from Wolves in the Throne Room.

https://wolvesinthethroneroom.bandcamp.com/album/primordial-arcana

A Sand County Almanac

The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)

A Sand County Almanac was in my Amazon wish-list for about ten years before I bought it. I don’t know why it took me so long. It was never expensive, only ever around £10 or so, I just never got around to buying it. I eventually got it a few years ago, just before Christmas, and I read it quickly.

Every Hogmany (New Year’s Eve non-Scots) we spend several days at a cabin in the west of Scotland. This had replaced the hubbub of Christmas and become my favourite time of the year. It is very quiet, rarely do we even see anyone. Before the bairns came along I used to use this as a time to drink whisky, sleep, walk and of course read. Reading uninterrupted with nothing but a log fire and a view of the mist on the loch, or the frost on the ground. What could be better? Some books fit this scenario better than others. Books on Scotland for example, especially Scottish history, fit very well. Stephen King’s It, not so much. I read A Sand County Almanac at our cabin, finishing it on New Year’s Day.

It’s a wonderful book, an undisputed classic of the genre. I haven’t been so affected by nature writing before or since. I reread parts of it over and over. I wrote down an entire chapter in my notebook and I am just going to repeat part of it here.

August: The Green Pasture

“Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes.
I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my mind’s eye.
Like other artists, my river is temperamental; there is no predicting when the mood to paint will come upon him, or how long it will last. But in midsummer, when the great white fleets cruise the sky for day after flawless day, it is worth strolling down to the sandbars just to see whether he has been at work.

The work begins with a broad ribbon of silt brushed thinly on the sand of a receding shore. As this dries slowly in the sun, goldfinches bathe in its pools, and deer, herons, kill-deers, racoons and turtles cover it with a lacework of tracks. There is no telling at this stage, whether anything further will happen. But when I see the silt ribbon turning green with Eleocharis, I watch closely thereafter, for this is a sign that the river is in a painterly mood”.

Leopold then goes on to end this section…

“Do not return for a second view of the green pasture, for there is none. Either falling water has dried it out, or rising water has scoured the bar to its original austerity of clean sand. But in your mind you may hang up your picture, and hope that in some other summer the mood to paint may come upon the river”.

Beautiful imagery, and nature writing at its very best.

It’s harder to pinpoint how this book has influenced Last Wolf directly but it has to do with how the simple things in life are all connected. Everything fits together in and we, as humans, need to respect that and fit in too. The best trophy of the outdoors, the wilderness, the wild, whatever you want to call it, is the experience itself, and that is ultimately human. He discusses ideas that were way ahead of his time, topics we have met already atop Word Mountain, and no doubt will meet many times before the day that this project ceases to be.

How do we encourage use of the land to ensure it remains protected and conversely protect it at the same time? Is governmental influence an answer? This book is a plea to value these places. Think the idea of tropic cascades came from George Monbiot? Aldo Leopold discusses this in 1949 within a heart-breaking yet life changing story of shooting a wolf mother and at least one pup. This was a time when the killing of wolves was almost considered good manners; less wolves equals more deer for the sportsmen. But the young trigger happy author instantly regrets it.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes- something known only to her and to the mountain”.

When thinking of farmers clearing the range of wolves, Leopold writes…

“He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

And that,

“too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run”, he then goes on to quote or old pal Henry David Thoreau.

Think like a mountain. Be like Aldo Leopold.

Live deliberately

Barry

Currently listening to Winter Solstice by Black Pyre and Speak English or Die by S.O.D.