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.

Walden: Or Life in the Woods

In this, the first in a series of explorations of the texts sacred to Last Wolf, I will attempt to explain a bit about the books in discussion for those who may not be immediately familiar with the text, as well as my own feelings or stories I associate with it. This is by no means from an academic perspective, merely from someone who loves to read and to share books.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

Henry David Thoreau

Walden: Or Life in the Woods

A direct quote from Henry David obviously, it possibly being the most famous part in his most famous book, Walden: Or Life in the Woods is one of our most sacred texts. An American classic, it is both widely read and taught in high school and college syllabus but is far lesser known here in the U.K. First published in 1854, it tells an account of Thoreau’s two year long journey into ‘living deliberately’ by building himself a cabin in the woods near Concord Massachusetts. You can visit a replica of his cabin in the area around Walden itself, the name coming from the pond it was constructed at.

Thoreau is concerned that people are so occupied with the day to day “labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” and it surprises him that this is true of people living in a country as free as America. Contrastingly, he takes us through his day, the hunting and fishing, the repairing and maintenance, the seasons and the solitude. But sometimes he’ll spend an entire morning ‘rapt in a revery’ or an entire day watching one animal, for primarily, Thoreau is a naturalist and it is the wildlife that gets most attention. He studies wildlife, carefully watching the squirrels and foxes, jays and chickadees and most memorably perhaps, the loon that spends as much of its time underwater as it does in the air. The visitors he has are sometime human. He famously has three chairs, one for solitude, one for friendship and the third for society.

And of course we get his thoughts and philosophies. He describes his morning reading of that most famous of Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Geeta, as bathing his intellect, whilst his morning bath in the pond is also given religious overtones and turned into an almost ritualistic experience. Yes, the spirituality of nature is everywhere in Walden. Heaven is indeed under our feet as well as above our heads. Nature’s unlimited ability to renew life, inspiring Thoreau to grander thoughts and higher aspirations for himself and humanity.

Photo from The Walden Wood Project, walden.org

 “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Henry David Thoreau

What does it mean to live deliberately?

Which brings me to thinking of Walden and what it means to Last Wolf, the phrase ‘live deliberately’ specifically which I use to sign off my communications. I use this term in connection with Last Wolf and in my own life, attempting to live my life deliberately and applying this theory to every aspect of it.

What? Let me give some examples.

Words have power. Think about the effect every word that comes from your mouth has on the listener, or of their perception of you. I recall something a friend’s dad said about one of our mutual friends. He said that when he first met our friend he thought he was simple (not his exact words!). This was until he realised that he was taking time over what it was that he was saying. Every word that came out of his mouth was considered and thoughtful, and for some reason that stuck with me. Coincidentally, this is a guy who lived in a tepee in the woods for four years so he didn’t have to pay rent whilst at college. He’s probably a big fan of Thoreau. This in turn translates to what goes on social media. I delete more comments than I write. In an age where an image is worth 1000 words, yet there are thousands of images and far fewer words, words are becoming increasingly essential.

Use time wisely. Making every minute count. Seems obvious but with a young family, this is especially pertinent. I’ve found myself writing future social media posts, ideas for blog posts etc. in the notes in my phone on my lunch break. Or while watching Frozen, again! Keep a notebook and use it. And connected to this is…

Make life work for you. How do we make the time in our modern busy lives? I’ve struggled with the hours in the past. It took me a long time to realise we are all given the same ones, it’s just how we use them that changes. Would I like more hours in the day? Sure, but I would prefer to get better at making use of the ones I have. And connected to this is…

Live the life that you want to live and not the one that society thinks you should. For example, in my real job, I’m a primary school teacher who has tattoos on his fingers and until Covid hit, fronted a death metal band. Just how many of them do you think there are? Me and Nocturno Culto? The professional progression tree may not suit some people, most people maybe. Do some people take on more responsibility or management roles because they actually want to, or simply because they want a bigger wage packet every month? Whatever your choice, make it suit you and not the other way round.

Recognise the beauty in the everyday. As Thoreau himself says “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth” resonates into the everyday existence of everyone on the planet. See the wonder in your own back garden. I once saw a meme that I agreed with completely. It was around the time of a big harvest blood blue red moon, or something. Let us just assume it was one of those lunar events that doesn’t happen too often. “LOOK AT THE MOON” exclaimed the meme “says me every night when I go outside.” Bang on! The moon is wonderful and you don’t need to wait until it turns blue and on the news to look at it. Get off your couch and go outside. It’s there all the time! And while you’re there, have a look for Venus too.

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”

Ach, there’s tons more examples, but I’m not here to get preachy. Maybe we can revisit these thoughts. My aim is to share Walden, its ideas and how they have affected me and Last Wolf. Like I said previously, this isn’t a book that is read very widely in this country Next time we’ll maybe discuss something a bit closer to home.

Live deliberately

Barry