Shortly after arriving at the residency in Inshirach, I remember a game I played when first moving to Scotland. I sought to find a landscape that would be impossible to recall in my imagination. I wanted to look at a scene, that when I closed my eyes and tried to picture it in all its detail, I wouldn’t be able to do so.
When making up this game I had been thinking a lot about whales, their scale and the algae and lice lodged within their barnacle-covered skins. Like a specific landscape, it was similarly difficult to conceive of these micro and macro scales. Revisiting this idea, I now wanted to beach the whale, stranding it and all other too easily evoked figure-of-speech spectres. It was an analogy, but also a simplistic solution to mask a complex dilemma.
On the bothy table were four magazines purchased at the nearest Tesco in Aviemore. Two fashion, one on the economy and another dedicated to science. Never do I buy magazines, a splurge. There must have been a reason. Sitting with these four—unread and on the table—they already seemed out of context. The florescent yellow headlines and diagram of an erratic heartbeat were harsh compared to the subtle hues of the Scottish winter with its earthy tones lit by dim light. Perhaps my brain needed to be clamped into the brazen content as a reminder of all the information and image junk I had inadvertently carried into the Cairngorms. Perhaps my aim was to grit the ‘nice’ notion of the picturesque, something like sandpapering a video projection.
Getting out some paper, I wanted to make drawings from visual memories that were too complex to retain, testing my attention to detail but also the limits of my memory. These drawings were to require an intense observation of what was no longer in front of me, making decisions about what and what not to emphasise and focus on; expanding further the micro-intricacies of what one imagined was possible. Going back to these drawings was also a return to self-consciousness about the entire pursuit. To those whom I had asked about where I should do these drawings, this process of recollection seemed like a strange and pointless task. Many respondents returned my questions with a sceptical smile that shrunk my inquisitiveness back inside me.
When first arriving in Scotland I walked on the hills often. But none of the landscapes were quite what I was looking for. I was fascinated by the amount of open space, where vast sections of the land were low lying, and had been cleared by people and industry. After some time I came to understand three things. Firstly, the areas I had been walking in were mostly forestry areas filled with monoculture woodland species. Secondly, Britain’s landmass is (statistically) 69% agricultural. And lastly, I came to the realisation that what was missing for me was the upfront diversity—as well as density—of the New Zealand bush I had grown up with. Unconsciously I was looking for something that did not exist in the form or vocabulary I understood. With this newfound awareness, I resolved to situate myself and actually look around whilst attempting to exclude any preformed images.
Since then (before the residency started) I had walked through parts of the Caledonian Forest where the ancient woodland is complicated and expansive: a challenge. The ancient forest is an abundance of different temporalities. Serpent-like Scots pine tree trunks bind the land and its uneven dirt surface. Mosses provide tiny homes for creatures absorbing air and water supplies around them. Yellow, pink, purple flowers grow in accordance to the different types of soil, season and exposure. The heather looks so different in the summer than in the winter. Each ‘subject’ to study has visibly different characteristics. All these visual elements work as lures, producing an enchantment, then a connection, an understanding of place and finally, an anaesthetic that reduces feelings brought with me from my previous habitats.
Back to the bothy: a few hours pass and my body is cold, having been sitting too long in the same spot. It is becoming dark and I need to get the fire going to prepare some food. Notes scribbled on paper towards some kind of unresolved score, are in front of me. Collecting up my papers into a pile, I wish I wasn’t bothered again by these reoccurring ideas.
While wondering if anyone else has similar issues, I remember something. Someone recently told me they had asked a group of people to do a series of similar tasks, but not for the same reasons. They asked the group to make a drawing of ‘nature’. Then asked them to draw ‘environment’. And after that, to draw the ‘landscape’.
Sitting back at the table, I write out my own answers conceiving how to respond to the exercise without too much thought. For the first, I envisage overlooking a body of water toward a collection of mountains. For the second, I visualise the top of my street at an intersection: on the corner, a successful local organic supermarket boasts bright signs espousing eco-friendly and aspirational values; along the street, roadworks on either side are intended for the creation of a new cycling lane; nearby, a park leads to the allotment I share with friends. For the last, I become distracted. Looking down at my calves there is an array of insect bites—large welts all over my skin. There is no imagining anything then. All my thinking is focussed on a blitzing itch and the number of strange insects that have come in through the window from the outside.
I am cycling along the path beside the B970, a busy road that stretches between Glenmore, Aviemore, and Kingussie. The road experiences heavy traffic as loggers, lorries, holiday-goers and commuters all pass, weaving through different sections of the Rochiemurchus and Glenmore Forests. I pass someone walking away from me, alone, as if straggling behind a larger group. He is walking in the opposite direction of the main flow of the traffic, off the walkway and along the edge of a row of large old Scots pine trees. With light grey shoulder length hair and a purple-magenta outdoor jacket, ripped jeans at the crotch and klompy white sneakers, the lone figure is definitely eye catching. There are few walkers along this stretch. He is stopping every so often at each tree, he reaches towards it’s trunk, balancing himself with his hand and leaning his head towards it. It looks like he is in need of support—he can only walk a few steps before he leans on a tree again. Curious. Is he okay? Whatever is happening, it is odd. I turn around, walking my bike across the road towards him. I am a little hesitant to move closer to him but there are cars passing so I am not alone. I ask if he needs any assistance. As I approach I notice he is wearing a white plastic glove on one hand: it was this hand that he uses to lean on the trees. Is he performing some kind of repetitive ritual? I have no idea. As I get closer he turns his head slightly, reacting to my advance. Then, he continues as before. I ask him whether he is alright.
‘Oh yeah’, he says and continues to walk along as I wait. ‘I just want the trees to know they’re loved—they’re cared for.’
Continuing to observe him, I stare, wanting to better understand him. I realise he is actually pressing his mouth against the tree. I probably pull a face. One of those reactions you have unconsciously, but realise you shouldn’t have. Not believing what I am observing, I ask if he is drinking the sap? It is a leading question, but plausible.
‘No’, he replies. ‘Kissing!’
Confirming what I was already suspecting; my eyes avert from his lips, wary of intrusion. I have a violent feeling, as if imagining what I would feel if I force him to kiss me. I focus on the thin plastic sheath over his bulging fingers, resting against the rough, uneven, crumbling pine bark. It is strange not wanting to touch the tree with his bare hands but wanting contact with his mouth. The gloves suggest protection from disease. I notice he is fingering a hole in the tree first and then engaging his mouth. Taken back, I am embarrassed to interrupt him. Equally, I am embarrassed that I might appear embarrassed because I am actually quite excited. Very unexpected. Mumbling a ‘sorry’ and ‘have a nice day’, I leap onto my bike and cycle away. I look back. He continues on as he has been, unbothered. Had he actually been kissing the tree, or, on this very public road, was he doing something else and simply didn’t want my interference?
I cycle along the path in the other direction. Quite quickly the wild trees change into plantation, Sitka Spruce soldiers guarding the way. I feel a mixture of boredom and uneasiness and have the uncanny sensation of being observed by the trees. I recognise most of my attention is towards the rocks dislodged from the road’s surface, threatening a puncture, pinging my wheel off course, wobbling my ride. Cycling quite fast, I enjoy the ride, the speed exhilarating. Then thinking about where my ride had taken me and where it am heading, I have little concern for my exact whereabouts. Rather, the speed keeps me at pace with the city I had recently left. I am transported to another place, my mind filled with wondering about whether I should do ‘this or that’. I am remembering my overdue tax return and thinking how I must confirm the location for a meeting the following week. Replaying conversations with myself, I am reminding myself of where is most familiar. My mind busy, returns to the city. Still cycling.
I ponder about the different speeds our senses are supposed to work at, whether they have changed over evolutionary time. Has technology trained us to be faster or lazier and therefore slower? A big SUV passed. I deliberate whether I trust my senses in the Cairngorms more than in Glasgow. I wonder how fast our predecessors would have travelled, how fast their senses and bodies moved along a given path.
The kissing man I passed before had been very certain about the speed of his activity. It was sustained and committed. I like thinking how he walked in defiance of the traffic’s direction and the speed I was travelling at. Perhaps with concern for the life that lives around the road, responding performatively or sincerely to everything that scenario communicates.
The road continues. The further I travel, the more it grows into a very long sign, a ribbon tied around the message that human life dominates this area. The length of this road (and the driveways off it) lead towards clay shooting, a conference hotel and a ski-hire shop. This begins to signal to me that people have controlled and managed the area for some time, all for leisure-makers’ benefit. Seemingly, the most important service that this forest area provides is allowing people to pass through, to be entertained, to get to and from where they need to go.
I cycle in the direction planned, though as I reflect on my encounter earlier, the road becomes less familiar. I continue my journey into nature as it is presented to me, tarmac and saliva sealed.
Setting out from Inshriach towards Loch Eilein, in the Rochimurchus forest, I begin the anti-clockwise loop towards the interlocking Loch Gamhna. The entry to the walk is not clear. The sodden ground squeezes out so much water under my shoe I wish it would actually sound a squelch or even squeal. I am definitely not where I am supposed to be, trying to twist around thin and dense branches which jab and obstruct my access. Eventually I end up on what might be the ‘right’ trail. Starting on an easily discernible dirt path, I go on to meet a steep and fairly strenuous, overgrown, unmarked path which, from my recollection of the map, is called Coire Follais.
I wonder whether Coire Follais is an ancient part of the forest. There are some rugged crags and a tumbling burn. A lot to look at. I have to stop walking to take some of it in. Even as I pause, the light shifts and compels me to look again. Nature switches surface and direction in an inconsistent rhythm every metre. The scene is gentle. It does not ask the attention of my audience. It is rich in its autumnal velvet mosses and intricate lichen—airy threads and filaments that interlock like lace. The water glides over debris from further up the hill and over rocks, catching light and defining shapes momentarily. Bending down, I reach over to test the temperature of the water— a fresh thrill— cold, clear and constant. Its touch runs through my body. Reluctantly I decide to keep going. But first I close my eyes and try to recall what I have just seen.
Turning my sweaty back on the expanding views of the Cairngorms, my attention is calibrated. I prefer the details; so many different patches of texture in amongst the dry purple heather, interrupted by bare muddy areas like large scuff marks along the side of the hill. Small pines exist on this exposed site, as well as juniper with its blue berries and dry spicy scent. Breaks in the cover measure the extent of human activity on this hill: it is a barely marked path, despite the strong presence of those who have walked here previously.
Three hours later the cleared patches of heather have closed in, making it tough to walk. Heather, grasses, scrubby shrubs and moss bolster my step to make a dense second floor. There are a number of fallen trees and large rocks to negotiate. Walking on plants is unavoidable. Aware of my weight on the growth underneath, movement feels destructive. I remember the score Native by composer Pauline Oliveros which instructs us to, ‘Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.’ It is true. I think to myself that ear and foot are learning to trust one another, adjusting to new obstacles and senses.
After another hundred metres of similar terrain, I wonder whether I’ll ever reach any of the landmarks mentioned in the guidebook. Stopping to drink, I look upstream and see the possibility to walk on the other side. I am still unsure which way makes most sense. Leaves me wishing the guidance provided by unofficial paths would reappear. I turn to look at how far I’ve come. Quite a distance. Once I get to the plateau of the hill, I will know where I am. Confused about my exact location and unsettled by my decisions up to this point, I begin to feel vulnerable. If Clach Mhic Calein, or ‘Argyll Stone’ might somehow emerge as a mirage at this point, it would be a relief. In the back of my mind I am fooling myself because I have not reached the Cairn that is supposed to come before the Stone.
I check my phone to work out with maps where I am and where best it might be to go. But my phone does not work. It shuts down immediately as if it has lost all battery. I have no compass or map. Up to this point no one has passed me and it is unlikely anyone will come into sight further on. My water bottle is light in my hand, with only a little left. To coax myself from concern, I convince myself I’m having a nice time and doing what I’d planned. The sun is out and it is warm. I’m soon thinking that the best reassurance I have is taking a direction. I walk faster. Adrenalin and necessity drive me to trust myself and walk with conviction.
I stop again. Standing and reviewing this new location, I feel very alone. No one knows I’m here. The pace of my breath changes slightly at the higher altitude, the air is slightly thinner. In contrast, my feet are heavy. I follow what appears to be someone else’s route, but this is simply damaged forest fauna. The sun is noticeably starting to lower.
The whole of the valley is behind me and nothing is recognisable other than the overall undulations of the land. The wind’s strength is changing as I enter a dip in the land and a more sheltered area. I continue along the exposed plateau. While the view is remarkable, I am also disinterested in it, distracted by my inability to make an assessment of where I am. I rest a while. Eventually, a little later, I pass the cairn I am looking for. I walk around it and think about the people who made it. It is beautiful and eerie. Beyond this, I should find the stone but don’t. I don’t come across anything that is an obvious marker but the light is changing, the temperature too. Perhaps I might find a sign of some sort? I look over the hills. My romantic notion of the Cairngorms’ changeable weather is dissipating. A low mist is rapidly moving in. I need to get moving. My phone is still acting up and making my way down the mountainside is now a pressure. I can’t be that far away from somewhere surely.
Where is Chris! My dad? My boyfriend? Dammit, all these men! They would know what to do. I remind myself that at least one female friend would have the required skills as well, probably more. Nan, whose books I have been reading, would have them without a doubt. And in that moment, I appreciate that I know things too. I am annoyed at myself but am briefly encouraged. I think back to walking long distances as a teenager. Usually in groups of friends and family. We would do it so regularly that we barely thought of directions, each of us finding where we were by tracks mostly, and when not on the tracks, reading the sun, the wind, the trees. We helped each other and I always felt safe. A vibration of thoughts, a resurgence of calm, and a moment of self-awareness all arrive. I realise I had lost my sixth sense, my innate understanding of nature’s compass. I had become so dependent on a phone to navigate.
Weary from my journey and bothered by such a long period of apprehension, I finally return to the bothy and rest in the enclave of the kitchen. As if testing myself, I try to list ‘keys’, recalling anchors that had once directed me when walking in New Zealand growing up. It is difficult to put these keys into words because they weren’t given much thought to at the time. Standing up, intending to stretch, I act out the memory of tuning into the direction of the wind. While waiting for water to boil for tea, I consider closing the bothy’s wooden shutters. Looking outside, tracing the shapes of the trees by sight, I remember that there is a way to get direction from the shape of the tree. It must be to do with the wind and the light. In the darkening blue sky, it is too hard to see the trees’ silhouettes. I assume that this way of reading the landscape would also work well in Scotland. Again, my predecessors spook me with their riddles—ancestral semiotics I am trying to access.
Sitting in the bothy, with my phone now working, I see my friend Matt has called. I am at ease yet uncomfortable. Protected, pleased and ‘home’ but lost in the specifics of knowledge that had not been used or considered by me, dismissed even, for some time. Even though solitude was something desired, other people’s noisy voices drift in and among the many dithering voices of my own. I think about being an adolescent again. My bedroom walls papered with favourite bands, radio recorded mixtapes, notes from friends affirming this gossip or relaying that advice. But also the memory of living through a full range of emotions from angry to sad, excited, frustrated, stroppy, susceptible and always full of will power. Unlike as in those teenage years, my confidence in the outdoors had been lost today, but at this moment I feel it begin to return. Of course, I’m compelled to try another unmarked path the following day.
Sarah Rose is an artist interested in where literary roles of narrative, imagination, metaphor and ‘making’ in human thought processes are evidenced. She is resident at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh from 2019-2021 and is involved in tenletters, a space in Glasgow dedicated to supporting work that intersects visual art, publishing and writing.
Thanks to Scott, Anna and Poppy, Alice, Bothy Project and the Hope Scott Trust for supporting my residency at Inshriach.