Some landscapes speak to you. Outside of the mountains and woods of New England, foremost among these for me have been the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal and the islands of Greece. On the one hand, the crystal clarity of the Himalayas, their snowy summits and prayer-flag festooned slopes, stone stupas and images of the Buddha scattered across the landscape among goats and herds of yak. On the other, the intense light of the Greek islands, the violent blue of the sea, the whitewashed churches and the barren slopes, the endless reverberations in the incandescent air of Homer and Socrates and Dionysus, and the clear waves throwing themselves onto the shore again and again.
I’ve walked across a wildflower-filled high-altitude alpine meadow in Italy, looking out to the jagged peaks of the Dolomites, and been stunned by the beauty of it—and I’d love to go there again some day—but it didn’t seize me in the same way.
It’s impossible to walk between octopus drying on a gate and fishing boats jostling on the clear waters of a Greek harbor and not think of Greek gods and Odysseus plying the wine-dark sea. The landscape of Nepal is steeped in Buddhism and Hinduism, chthonic gods emerging from living stone, prayer flags fluttering in the cold air.
A good landscape throngs.
When I think of the Greek islands and the Annapurnas, I think of light. Brilliantly multiplied by the ocean on the one hand, reflecting through the thin air from snowy mountain slopes on the other. Both landscapes are incandescent, though in different ways.
The Highlands are different: light and shade are always bound together. The lochs glitter against dark hills and dark skies. Sunlight breaks through low clouds and strikes the side of a shadowed glen. Passing rain squalls are backlit luminously against a black ridge. A mountainside flares emerald in the setting sun and then returns to a soft muted evenness.
Light and shadow move together across the landscape until it feels like you’re standing on the back of an immense, shape-shifting creature.
And there’s the heather. Every glen, every slope, is rich with browns and greens and purples. Sheep dot the hillsides, and walking trails often take you up among them, and hares bound among the rocks around you as you climb. There is a sweeping emptiness, the land is vast and open, but sheltered and intimate at the same time. It is this mixture of openness and intimacy, of light and shadow fused together, that makes this place so hauntingly beautiful to me.
A landscape emerging from mist; light emerging from darkness; rock emerging from rough heather, or from the peat-stained tea-dark waters of a highland river; a single tree emerging from an empty landscape—all continually shifting in the ever-changing light. This landscape throngs too—with mystery and change and presence. And a deep, wind-swept quiet.
This sense of emergence may be why climbing the tree at night is such a profound experience. The tree emerges from the dark around you in barest shadows, and consecutive handholds. It is born moment to moment as you climb it, the stars flicker into being between branches and then vanish, your own body is only half-there. The world emerges from itself like a mountain from the mists. Maybe the potency of this experience reflects, and says something important about, deep structures of human experience, maybe even deep structures of being. We are always only just emerging to ourselves, and always receding again. Experience is elusive; being is fugitive.
And everywhere you turn in the Highlands, the essence of wood, water and stone. The trees are ancient or immense, strangely misshapen or draped in mosses; the lochs mirror the changing sky, and dark streams rush down green-brown slopes; and lichened stone rises anciently from land and water. It is as though everything else has been stripped away, and the world is wrought of just these three things. Wood, water and stone: the elemental landscape.
Whatever the reason, it is a continual feast. Eyes devour and the spirit is replete.
[Photographs available here; they can be viewed as a gallery or, by clicking on the first image, a slideshow.]