Outside in

These are difficult times for all of us. If you love the outdoors it can be difficult to be separated from the hills. From his home in Inverness, John D Burns (author of The Last Hillwalker and Sky Dance) looks for the lighter side of confinement and gives us something to smile about.

I’m indoors, isolated and trying write my next book on my PC but the words won’t come. I’ve not been more than a few hundred yards from my flat door for two weeks, and the confinement is getting to me. I’m staring at the keyboard, trying to force my mind to produce words, when there is flicker of movement at the edge of my vision. When I look up a yellow breasted blue tit has landed on the bird feeder outside my office window. He pauses, peanut in beak, and looks back at me. Only last week he’d have flown away if he’d noticed me but we are getting to know each other now and he tolerates my presence. He looks at me with open curiosity. I’m wondering how tame he’ll become when an image drifts into my mind. It’s Burt Lancaster in the 60’s film Birdman of Alcatraz. He’s sitting in a prison cell, captivated by a tiny bird that flutters onto his windowsill, just outside the bars. Delicately he takes a crumb from the bread roll of his discarded meal and drops it a few inches from the bird. The tiny creature hesitates, then creeps forward and takes the morsel of bread. Lancaster smiles, enjoying the fact that the bird has freedom even if he does not. The blue tit takes the crumb and flies away. He is free and I, like Lancaster, am not. I suddenly realise, I’m becoming the Birdman of Inverness.

Blue tit (photo: Walkhighlands)

There are a few ways you can try and cope with being in confinement. One way is virtual hill climbing. Work out how many times you have to climb your stairs to equal the height of any mountain you like. It could be Snowdon, Ben Nevis or you could go for the big one, and climb Everest. Of course in order to make the simulation of climbing Ben Nevis realistic, someone would need to hose you down with ice cold water at random moments. About half way up the stairs you’ll have to meet a gaggle of sponsored Barnsley office workers, raising money to teach children in Africa chartered accountancy. Not to mention a bloke in shorts and flip flops, shouting up from the bottom of the stairs every fifteen minutes. “Is it far to the top from here?”

I’ve heard some people have even been camping in their back garden to simulate the outdoor experience. I really admire folk who do that. I’m an occasional and very reluctant light weight camper. Call me choosy but I really like being able to stand up to put my trousers on. In my experience trying get dressed in a tent that is only two feet tall is something only a highly trained contortionist should attempt. I live in a block of flats and don’t have a garden but if I did I know that if I were camping in it the temptation of a house with a wide screen TV and beer in the fridge would be overwhelming. By ten o’clock I’d sneaking back into the house for cheeky beer and a sit in the armchair. I live four floors up so my equivalent of camping in the garden would be to use one of those porta ledges big wall climbers use. These are the sort of people who don’t believe in gravity and are happy to nod off separated from two thousand feet of space only by a sheet of nylon. Me sleeping on a porta ledge might cause a bit of a stir amongst the neighbours, especially when I get up in the night for a pee.

My preference is for bothies. Here is where the garden shed comes in. If you are lucky enough to have a shed you can empty the contents out, install a comfortable chair, light a few candles and enjoy the bothy ambience. This is especially relevant if you and your partner have been getting on each other’s nerves for the last seventy two hours. Imagine how pleased to see you your loved ones will be in the morning when you emerge from isolation. Although I should warn you that there is the possibility that they decide things are actually better without you and pop out late at night to nail the shed door shut.

Bothy night (photo: Walkhighlands)

Being kept away from our hills and the open spaces we love is difficult for us outdoor people. I can’t help wondering what effect it will have on the environment and the wild creatures who inhabit these places. You may have seen on the interweb that the canals of Venice are running clear as they have seen so little traffic. For the first time in hundreds of years the murky water in that city’s canals actually became clear; to me that’s an incredible thing. Our hills are now silent, our bothies empty. The seemingly ceaseless clamour of humanity has ended.

I wonder if somewhere there’s a badger, poking his head out of his den and shouting to his lady. “It’s over, they’ve gone.”

Only a few weeks ago I was sitting in a wildlife hide deep in a forest, watching a pine marten eat peanuts and honey from a log. Those moments of contact with a wild thing feel like a lifetime ago now. It’s hard to believe that so little time has passed since I sat in the quiet forest, listening to the wind in the tree tops and waiting for the magical moment when a wild pine marten would come for his daily feed. It was cold and I had to remain as still as possible. I snuggled deeper and deeper into my down jacket as the occasional snow flake drifted down through the chill of the air. After an hour I was beginning to wonder if this wild creature would put in an appearance at all when, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sleek brown back moving through the undergrowth. Moments later there she was, an animal from a wild and lawless world. She turned and looked deep into my eyes, trying to decide if she needed to run for the trees for her very existence. Somehow she decided I was okay and then went about her business of searching for food as if I didn’t exist. I watched her for perhaps ten minutes but that short period of time, an intense contact with the wild world, will stay with me forever.

Pine marten (photo: Walkhighlands)

One thing that we can all do is build insect hotels to help boost the number of insects around that form the basis for the food chain, supporting our birds and mammals. The decline in our insect population has been dramatic. Not that long ago when you drove any distance in the summer your windscreen would end up plastered in dead insects a testimony to just how many there were. Now when I drive across my Highland home my windscreen stays pristine. Unless I try and park in the middle of Inverness when it’ll be plastered with parking tickets by the flocks of Traffic Wardens who swarm in even greater numbers than the flies. Even though I don’t have a garden I used to do this when I was able to visit bothies. If in the future you happen to notice that someone has pushed small sticks into the gaps in a bothy wall you’ll know I’ve been there. If you’ve a garden you can spend many happy hours creating habitat for insects. The principal of creating an insect hotel is trying to create as many nooks and crannies as you can for insects to call a home. In our cities many people have been forced to pave over their front gardens to create space to park their cars. That thousands of people have done this means that, in our urban areas, the opportunity for insects to find a home has been drastically reduced. As human beings we seem to have an irresistible urge to tidy things up. Nature doesn’t like tidy. Nature likes jumbles of things, wild areas of bushes and untamed trees. We are tidying nature out of our lives.

Perhaps, in a time when we can’t go to the natural world, we can bring a little of it to us. If you are confined to your house and garden with the current crisis then creating a garden pond is one of the biggest boosts to wildlife. There must be lots of folk out there who have been meaning to build a garden pond but just never got round to it. Now’s the chance. There is something about being near water that’s good for mental health too. I’m very lucky in that my flat overlooks the River Ness. The short stretch of water that runs for five miles between Loch Ness and the Moray Firth where it empties into the sea. It’s not unusual for me to see seals and even the occasional otter swimming past. If I stand up from my computer I can see across the roof tops of Inverness to Ben Wyvis in the distance. That’s a good view to have, it keeps reminding me of where I’ll be able to go when the virus has gone.

Inverness (photo: Walkhighlands)

One day this jail sentence will be over and all of us will be able to walk amongst the hills and the wild places once more. When that happens we will have been changed by all of this. We will walk out into a different world. We will have learned to value our wild places more. More importantly perhaps, we will have learned just how much we need each other. I’m hoping, when at last my cell door is opened and I am free again, I’ll walk out into a kinder world.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.