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Discovering the natural world – to infinity and beyond!

Ben DolphinMy fleece trousers and woolly hat insulated me from the first icy breath of winter but it was still cold at the loch’s edge. I’d been sitting there for an hour, having deliberately got up before sunrise to see some geese. That probably sounds underwhelming but these were pink-footed geese. I’ve written about them before so won’t go into the ecology, but suffice to say they spend winter here in enormous numbers and their daily morning exodus is worth setting the alarm for.

While listening to the geese waking up and readying themselves for departure, the first rays of sunshine broke the horizon and the summit of nearby West Lomond burned orange like a candle.

I stared.

I listened.

I took the whole glorious scene in.

And then, as is often the case these days whenever I find myself sat waiting for something spectacular to happen, I couldn’t help ponder just how much my experience and enjoyment of the great outdoors has changed in recent years. What on earth did I do before this?

‘Before’…..in the Grey Corries

A few years ago I’d never have spent a whole morning watching geese. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so, and even if it did I wouldn’t have been able to sit still long enough to see anything happen. That’s not because I wasn’t out and about a lot back then. I most certainly was. But if I was outdoors I was always on the move, and when I was moving I was moving quickly.

I was off up munros every weekend, and I was up Arthur’s Seat almost every evening after work. I’d inhale the clean air, enjoy the endorphin release, anticipate the summit reveal and stand awestruck at the inspirational landscapes. Life was good but I’d otherwise speed around the hills in blissful ignorance of the mind-blowing variety of the natural world around me, no doubt congratulating myself on another peak bagged. I saw so much….but noticed so very little.


So what did I actually do on walks back then? What did I look at as I marched along? What did I think about? I have no idea! As someone whose life now very much revolves around the environment, the outdoors and the natural world, that ‘before’ version of me is now so distant and so alien that I can barely conceive of him.

How I moved from ‘before’ to ‘after’ is a long story that I’ve devoted hour-long talks to, but between a life-threatening accident in the Mamores, volunteering with the Pentland Hills Ranger Service and going back to college at the ripe old age of 32 to do Countryside Management, I found myself leaving the bank I worked in, slowing down and re-evaluating my relationship with the places I visited. In so doing I had my eyes opened up to things I’d never even considered, and almost overnight my walking experience changed beyond recognition.

Peaks themselves were no longer the main attraction and I instead set my sights on natural features that were, in themselves, now more interesting. The example I like to give is MacCulloch’s fossil tree on Mull, a remarkable feature found at the end of an even more remarkable walk every bit as remote, far flung and exhilarating as any hillwalk you care to mention.

‘After’……in The Wilderness

But wildlife was the biggest eye-opener. Any interest I might have had ‘before’ only really extended to the big-ticket items such as photogenic stags, big herds of deer and of course golden eagles. But between those and the views it meant I was only ever looking outwards from the hill, never downwards at my feet.

Being encouraged to do the latter by inspirational rangers and tutors was a revelation, and I couldn’t believe the things I’d been missing. Iridescent beetles, exquisite wildflowers, carnivorous plants, colourful mosses, tracks and signs, everything! Not that I knew what any of them were of course, and if I identified something successfully I’d quickly forget it again. The natural world, seen through the eyes of an enthusiastic amateur was so complex and overwhelming as to be off-putting. It had to be broken down to something more manageable, so I’d try to limit myself to learning just a couple of new plants or creatures on every walk.

It took a while. I made (and still do make) lots of identification errors but enthusiasm saw me through and the change, though gradual, was undeniable. Piece by piece the landscape came to life. The result, however, is that I now faff an awful lot on walks, so it either takes me longer to get to where I’m going or I often don’t even get there at all! But that’s okay, because even the tiniest and seemingly insignificant organisms or objects embellish a much bigger picture.

Summit reveals are still just as exhilarating now of course and hills are still a draw, but these days a good day out tends to be one where I’ve encountered something new, interesting, or unusual. And the best days are the ones when nature’s astonishing variety of form and scale is on display everywhere you look, especially where massive contrasts come within quick succession….which brings us neatly back to the lochside.

In the dim light it was hard to tell how many geese there were but given the surging cacophony there were clearly thousands. As it grew brighter there were a few false starts as the massive flocks rose up, surged over the mudflats and settled back down again onto the water. It was a weird game of dare, and each collective ‘whooosh’ of those first wingbeats made my heart skip a beat with the anticipation.

Pink footed geese doing their thing at sunrise

Another ‘whooosh’, but this time they ALL ascended and they ALL kept going. The sky quickly filled with a bewilderingly huge geese vortex, rotating as it rose, accompanied by that astonishingly cacophonous din. The noise was incredible, and as they split into two groups and passed overhead there were a few splats around me, but somehow I avoided a direct hit. Just a few minutes later all the geese were gone and the loch was quiet, save for the soft but persistent honking of whooper swans. Exhilarated, I packed up my things, turned around and headed home.

Not five minutes from the lochside I happened upon a series of puddles on the track. Each one had a surface of ice, with concentric circles where the water had melted and refrozen whilst draining away. The circles were eye-catching but each puddle was also adorned with its own unique frost formations, making unique works of art.

Few things lift my spirits like an icy morning. There’s excitement and anticipation at seeing what beautiful art works Jack Frost has left behind and, because no two frosts are the same I’ll rush outdoors to inspect the car windows before the rising sun gets to work. Jack’s handiwork is astonishingly complex, but it’s also delicate and ephemeral. Give it the lightest possible touch and the finer details are lost.

Jack’s puddle work

I knelt down at each puddle in turn, peering close and taking care not to breathe onto them. On display were feathers and ferns, teeth and triangles, lines and lattices. So many shapes. I haven’t the foggiest idea what random assemblage of imperfections in the water or on the ice can lead to such exquisite designs, but examining ice or frost patterns up close gives me this surreal feeling of looking down from a great height, like looking at the countryside from an aeroplane. The world looks so small from up there, but you know that down on the ground it’s on a massively different scale, and that the true detail and complexity is concealed only by your distance from it.

Of course, my eyes can only do so much and that’s where the macro function on my compact camera comes in. The natural world was already infinitely interesting but macro opened up a whole new world, revealing details I just couldn’t see otherwise: hairs on ants; individual scales on a butterfly’s wing; crystals in rock; actual expression on an insect’s face! Using technology to see beyond my own physical limitations has inevitably made my faffing on walks much more acute, as I’ll frequently stop to take photos of random flora and fauna on the off-chance that a close-up macro photo will reveal something otherwise unseen or unseeable.

Discovering the macro setting

In this case, distinct hexagonal ice crystals, columns, hairs, frozen air bubbles and long DNA-like strands of ice, all branching off and growing in different directions. What on earth was I looking at!? Together it reminded me of H R Giger’s weird pictures, although you couldn’t draw something this elaborate and weird if you tried. It’s wonderful how peering closer at nature can do the opposite of simplifying or explaining your subject. Instead it sparks more questions because the object in front of you, whether it’s organic or not, gets progressively more complex as you start to realise there are entire worlds within worlds.

My camera has its own limits too of course, and could only take me so far into this icy world before it all fell out of focus. On reflection that’s probably just as well, because it sometimes feels like I’m teetering on the edge of hole in the ground, one that drops through to another universe. Each level of magnification reveals something more fascinating than the one before, and I sometimes think I could lose myself in the detail. Heaven help me if I ever bought a neutron microscope. I don’t think I’d ever come up for air.

Ice worlds within ice worlds. To infinity and beyond!

Losing yourself in nature at this tiny scale reminds me of an episode of Coast where Nick Crane is asking a seemingly simple question: how long is the British coastline? Well, it’s 17,820km according to the Ordnance Survey, but Nick discovers it depends on how long your measuring stick is. We use miles or kilometres because they’re measurements that suit our perception of travel and distance, and we can comprehend them as a common reference. But as Nick went on to explore, if you use a 30cm ruler you’d be able to get into a great many more nooks and crannies along the coastline that would otherwise get missed out, and you’d arrive at a much higher figure. Now imagine that your ruler was just 1mm long. How many more indentations in the rock could you get into and therefore include in your measurement? Or how about a measuring stick just 1 micron in length (a thousandth of 1mm)? Or smaller? Or smaller still? And so comes the mind-blowing realisation that the answer to the question ‘how long is the coastline? ‘ is….erm….that it’s very possibly infinite.

“Woooooaaaahhhh!!!”

It’s not surprising I lose myself in these moments and end up abandoning walks completely. I must have spent 20 minutes kneeling there in the hard, frozen mud, and I was only jolted out of my trance because the warmth of my knees eventually melted the frost and I suddenly felt cold and wet. I took some final photos, stood up, and ambled home on a high.

On the face of it, geese and ice and the coastline paradox might seem completely unrelated things, but as I walked home I enjoyed reflecting on the juxtapositions of scale. I loved how, just a couple of hours earlier, I had deliberately positioned myself to get the fullest, most expansive landscape-scale view of a massive wildlife spectacle. In camera terminology I focused my eyes to infinity, their maximum focal length, on something so huge, so loud and so unlike anything else in daily life as to give me goosebumps (sorry!) and be emotionally overwhelming.

But then just minutes later I’d found myself doing the exact opposite, crouching downwards at a tiny puddle and almost going cross-eyed as I brought my eyes to their minimum focal length. And finally, improbably, despite focusing on a subject just 10cm in front of me, with the assistance of my macro lens and digital zoom I still found myself staring into infinity of sorts.

Ugh, this stuff addles my brain if I think about it for too long, but these are the kind of encounters I really thrive on now when I’m out and about – encounters that reveal the mind-boggling variety, scale and complexity of the natural world. Days where the more you look, the more you see, but ultimately the less you understand. The world doesn’t get less interesting the smaller you go, and grandeur isn’t found purely in the presence of craggy mountains, gnarly ridges or sumptuous landscapes. From the very big to the very small, from the exciting to the mundane, the commonplace to the scarce, it’s the whole beautiful mind-blowing package that really inspires.

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