David Lintern walks out of lockdown with a Black Dog.
(What shall we do
With all this useless beauty?
The stuff that can’t be harnessed
To the yoke of productivity,
Or another ideology.)
With restrictions relaxed, I’m content to head north and camp again. I’ve unfinished business in the Fannichs, and want to catch the last snows. This time, I’m ‘extreme camping’. I have forgotten the hot drinks bag, so it’s snowmelt only; a suitable beverage for this particular pilgrimage.
It’s been a year since I was last here. My friend and I left in a hurry, as high winds and lockdown stopped us in our tracks. Much has changed since. Within a month over Christmas, I lost my job and then my mother.
The high mountains are for stoics and in the afterburn of Covid, there are countless stories of grief and loss. I should be knuckling down not buckling under. And yet I am, and we are, doing both, at the beginning of a mental health epidemic that the medical community warn will affect up to 10 million of us. I thought I had my own Black Dog house trained but now it’s back, circling camp in the dark hours before dawn, slavering and growling under its stinking breath. As well as straining at my metaphors, I’m wary of oversharing or being reductive, but still… denial is not an option for grown-ups. Our stories may only be exceptional to us, but nevertheless, it has been an exceptional winter for all. So, I’m trying to take my new predicament, and my feelings about it just seriously enough.
It’s a little after 8 in the morning and I’m just on the ridge as the sun creeps over Sgùrr na Clach Geala, it’s eponymous white stones blanketed in soft spring snow. That hill has enough mass to create its own weather. The sky a deep blue, ground a searing white, capped with a singular cloud that later becomes almost lenticular before evaporating to nothing. I’m wading slowly through often knee-deep, sometimes waist-deep snow. To my right, Ben More Coigach lounges in the sun, a light dusting of icing sugar on its distant ridge. An Teallach is mostly still hidden to its left, brooding in chilly blue. Ahead, I attempt a line of least resistance, casting to the leaner side of deeper drifts that snake between steeper sections of ice and rock.
I should be in a blissful fizz, but instead I’m inured to it. I feel cut off from myself, as if underwater. Lockdown has made clichés of our feelings about isolation, now all the more confusing because they are tangled up with everyday anxieties about health and work. The pandemic was and is an amplifier. Life didn’t stop happening just because Covid was added to the mix.
As the mountain rises and falls, a hip injury I’m working through grows more insistent. Despite the Ibrubrofen on the first Munro, I find myself lying fully down in the sun and the snow at the next bealach, practising the stretches the physio has given me to work with. It provides temporary relief. The discomfort is dull, more or less ever present, like toothache. I’ve tried to be grateful for the small insight it’s given me into my mum’s pain during her final months, but more often than not I come up short.
I’m surprised to hear Golden Plover, a sound I associate with a Peak District moor not the mountains of the North West. As well as the background sound of the burns, there’s also a deep, motorik subbass that underlies all. It seems to emanate from the eastern end of the loch. Is it the hydro system, or my own nervous system? I’m not sure.
I double back from the summit of A’ Chailleach – one of Scotland’s many places named for the Celtic ‘old woman’, elder, or mystic – and this one at the western end of the range really does deserve her witchy nom de plume. The folds of her cloak embodied in the cliffs and coires drape down to meet an ink black lochan striped with grey ice. The quality of light changes as I descend, and the nature of things softens and blurs at their edges.
There’s a deer trod that traces the edge of a line of crags overhanging a deep-set bowl, a lead I follow. The Nest of Fannich is equally well named, this time as a harbour for deer. It occurs to me absentmindedly that we are bleeding out the latent energy of these places, literally and figuratively. In the Celtic Dreamtime, where there is a Cailleach there is often a spring nearby. Springs support life, creating meadows for grazing deer. The old woman of winter becomes a bride in the spring, in turn sometimes cast as a deer herd. The stories come from the land itself, each piece jig sawed to its neighbour. Nowadays, the hydro drains that lifeforce to power search engines and emails in faraway places. The power is socially distant, flowing only in one direction. Where’s the reciprocity?
The thin line made by the hooves of deer leads me through a break in the crags and down onto more open ground, where dozens graze below me. There’s a gentle headwind, and they don’t sense me until I whistle from a distance, so as not to startle them too much.
Winter melts into springtime. Out loud, I find myself saying ‘wow, spring’ and moments later, my epiphany comes, a start-stop bubbling up of sobs and tears. Gratitude, then regret. A veil is lifted, and I comprehend why my self talk has rung hollow recently. Covid made a mess of my mum’s final months, but it didn’t kill her. It was her time to go and I couldn’t stop it.
She was a modern witch, a seer of sorts. In our contemporary, rationalist tongue; a psychotherapist. But her will to power and insight couldn’t save her from crying out in pain in the small hours, and neither could I. On the morning of her final day I took her dog for a walk by the beach. The sky and sea was a monotone grey-green that merged at the horizon. I recorded the sound of the waves on my phone, and when I played it back for her, there it was – something behind the eyes registered, a flicker of thanks. It was all I could do, to take her emotional health seriously, but it still wasn’t enough to stop her body giving up its ghost.
Back on the flanks of the witches hill, I stop walking several times, for crying out loud. Save for that deer herd far below, I’m alone. The convulsions are involuntary. So be it. I sit down, then stand up and continue for a few metres more. I let them come and then pass, these waves. The springs that tumble down from the broken banks above me are noisy with snowmelt. I have a thought to immerse my head, and honour the impulse without questioning it. A freezing baptism and my breathing slows.
After, there is an aching tiredness. I return slowly to my shelter, which has sunk a full 6 inches in the hot sun, and remembering that the winds are due to drop to nothing that evening I choose to move it to the flats above, where the snow is thinner, and the mosses are mostly exposed. I’m aware I’m very dehydrated and have caught the sun. Early mountaineers called this feeling glacier lassitude, a deep sleepiness that comes from overexposure to sunlight reflected on snow. I kneel inside the shelter, numb, quiet, and acknowledge the first deep peace I’ve known in a year.
‘Everything changes, nothing is lost’, Ovid reassures. I understand it, want to believe it, but there are new pieces missing. On the walk out the following day, I pass winter’s haunted vignettes, spring’s silent witnesses: A crumbling Sheiling footprint, now home only to flies and a vague sense of place; a fossilised tree root embedded in the path, it’s single limb twisted and desiccated by the elements; and a still strong looking 5-pointed stag, newly expired at the edge of a plantation. Decay comes quickly in the end. He wasn’t there 2 days ago and already his eyes have been taken by the birds or the bugs.
I don’t know that I’ve ever fallen as hard for springtime as this time. Back at home walking my mum’s small, black dog in the days that follow, the ground is so warm I can smell the pine sap rising in the forests. The dog’s name is Bella. We’ve become familiar. She is my shadow now.
I’m not a mental health expert – that was my mother’s job – but I do know that time and again, the hills grant me the physical space to untangle psychic trauma. The experience is not always peace and quiet. It can be fierce and dark and bare its teeth. It is hard to fathom and even harder to measure. It is no panacea. But if I give the mountain time, it gives me back the space I need to turn a corner in return. There is reciprocity. I know that I am not alone in this, that many of us feel the same. That is no small thing, and I am grateful for it.