Winter Trip

February is easing into March and the certainty of winter is becoming the possibility of spring. Outside the Hostel, around the bird table, life thrives. A male pheasant practices its regal strut, all clashing colours; its feathered train, iridescent in the morning sun, touches the ground. A mallard duck and her drake waddle up like an old couple on their way to the café. A red squirrel floats from branch to branch like a silk scarf caught in the softest of zephyrs, before landing soundless, weightless, to sample the droppings from the table. It’s hard to believe it feeds on anything more substantial than air. A chough slices in; matt black with blood red legs. Blue tits and coal tits flitter between bush and feeder as quick as fear. Or they blur their wings in a hummingbird hover to feed. Larger and more forthright, chaffinches grip the lip of the feeder and eat at will. A bullfinch swoops and is gone. Red breast on display, a robin seems more interested in being admired than in eating. Behind the hostel red deer roam the grey strip of felled firs. Across the road, rising in soft verdancy, Scots pine blanket the lower hills. Above them the Harris tweed of the heather dappled foothills lead our eyes to the main attraction; the great white whales of the Cairngorm mountains. At first sight their milky smoothness suggests gentleness but on closer inspection of Coire an t-Sneachda we can see patches of stark rocks like bared granite teeth. The sky is blue and a smir of cloud looks like another whale escaped from the pod. Where the westerlies have blown snow over the Fiacaill ridge it looks as sculpted as the cusp of a sand dune. From this distance the scene looks literally frozen, still and calm. But up there, in it, it is a different story. It is a battle against wind and cold and vertically. Calf muscles scream, thighs strain and streamers of snot pennant from wind reddened noses. The world is reduced to white and effort; senses alert to for signs of avalanche and the change in texture as crampons and axes bite into snow. It is a world of hurt and beauty and exultation. In a white on white world it is a shock to see a red grouse, like a black paper cut out against the snow. We startle an arctic hare and it bounds off, all long legged efficiency; a blur of white against white. A small flock of snow buntings; a flurry of white in the whiteness. A ptarmigan cackles as it glides in for a landing on white feathered, insulated feet. Even the sky is almost white as it blends with the snow. Overnight there has been the largest snowfall of the whole winter at this altitude. Part of the beauty of snow is that it is ephemeral and as if to prove the point, at seven a.m., as I sit in the conservatory, mug of coffee in hand, it starts to melt from the glass roof and run, noisily, in the gutters. The environs of the bird table are busy with breakfast guests. A pair of wood pigeons, looking very proper in their bright white collars, peck around. The duck and drake are back, shovelling away the snow with their bills to get at the treats below. A pair of awkward looking sparrows are stirred up by a sleek, orange beaked, blackbird. The finger like branches of the birches are gloved in snow and snow sits precariously on bent fir branches like comical toupees. The other Craggers are off on their snowholing expedition but my bad knee has decreed a day of enforced leisure. On the beach, by the loch, amidst the prints of humans and canines I spot the unmistakable prints of red deer, maybe they come down to the loch to drink. Oystercatchers cluster like a troupe of harlequins at the edge of the water. At some invisible signal they take chessboard flight, reflected in the surface of water as they perform a leisurely right wheel, inches above the loch. There is a real sense of entering another world as I step into the ancient wood. Colour and sound is muted but not smell, which is rich and enveloping. All is damp, soft and shades of green and black. My feet sink into the forest floor which is a mattress composed of countless years of fallen leaves and decomposed vegetable matter. I am surrounded be stately birch and Scots pine while branches and whole trees rot where they have fallen, nourishing plants and insects. The living and the dead (although they are so full of life it is hard to see them as dead) are covered with mosses and lichen and hardly a square centimetre of bark is visible. The really old trees are twisted and bulbous and festooned with bracket fungus. My presence had initially stilled the sound of wildlife but after I had been sitting in silence for a few minutes the birds started, one by one, to sing again like an orchestra tuning up. I can differentiate between several species but am embarrassed to say that I could only name a few. Soon the gentle, soothing, sounds are shattered by the rat-atat– tat of a woodpecker. As dinner time approaches I think of the snowholers and look out of the window up to the snowy mountains which will shelter them for the night. The sky has taken on the colours of children’s sweets and the Cairngorms have turned flesh pink. I am being offered the rare sight of a perfect winter sunset. It is like a brief, radiant smile made even more beautiful by its brevity. I hope they are watching too.