13 May Bleak? – How To Brighten Up Your World By Seeing Things Differently
Celebrating Living Landscapes as the Countryside’s Crowning Glory
Scottish Highlands and islands represent some of the world’s most evocative landscapes. Dramatic mountains, glens and braes. Plunging cliffs and jagged coastlines. Whether it be the Cairngorms, Findhorn Valley, or Shetland’s Hermaness, those deeply wild topographies send tingles down my spine. Drawing me back time after time. In search of a glimpse of eagles in the uplands, and dippers and deer along the valleys. Sea cliffs are brought alive by bustling puffins, and offshore there can be the tantalising chance of the odd basking shark.
These are living landscapes defined by their rise and fall. Open terrain, often treeless and windswept. When the weather’s not so good, they can seem remote and unwelcoming. But when the sun shines, they become glorious valleys and vistas that enliven the soul.
Scotland’s lofty lie of the land stands in sharp contrast to The Fens of eastern England, an agricultural breadbasket so flat it barely has the hint of a ripple let alone a hill.
Though strikingly different, spirit-level landscapes too can evoke a similar response of spine-tingling wonder.
I’ve often found myself drawn to The Fens, a naturally marshy region stretching through Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Most of The Fens were drained several centuries ago. Now largely flat and featureless farmland, they’re strangely beautiful. All it takes is a good sunset and some mist and you’re transported back to a medieval landscape.
‘My God, it’s flat here, isn’t it?’ said the late botanist Sir Harry Godwin when he arrived there from Yorkshire. His remark was met by the reply of a local: ‘Aye, but any fool can appreciate a mountain. It takes of man of discernment to appreciate The Fens.’
On a Fenland visit recently with the rain beating down, wiping away any sign of sunrise, the word that came to mind was ‘bleak’.
To be honest, I like bleak. It brings me out in a feeling of excitement, of not knowing what one might see. A sense of adventure. A battle against the elements. An exploration of an untamed landscape.
Yet, scratch beneath the surface and there’s very little wild here. Certainly not in the sense of ‘rewild’.
No, this is very much a once flooded landscape that has been drained then tamed by agriculture. Exploited. Mined. Sucked of both water and soul. At least on first sight.
But wait a while and that farmland can show a remarkable resilience. A feral stubbornness that draws me to it in much the same way as that magnetic pull of mountains and remote islands.
To my mind, farmland is very much the countryside. And the countryside is where wild things can be found. For me, it holds an almost boyish fascination. A deep love of the land. And that’s the reason why I love living on a farm.
But back to that word, ‘bleak’. When I say that I like it, I don’t mean in the dictionary definition sense of the word: a place that seems empty, unwelcoming, or unattractive.
No, I embrace it much more in the thesaurus kind of way of being open, exposed, perhaps treeless. An open landscape where people are visitors and nature the resident.
‘Bleak’ has always come with the promise for me of wildlife. Of seeing something unusual. A flash of something half-seen or partially hidden. Of something out of place or unexpected. Like the stare of a tawny owl by the roadside. Or the bubbling call of a Curlew. The melancholy piping of a plover. A glimpse of a fox or deer or scampering hare.
Searching for sound
I’ve always been the same, even as a small boy: electrified by being outside with mud, grass, trees and treeless. Wired for sound in the nearest bush. I learned early on that the secret to spotting birds wasn’t so much about looking out for them. It was listening out for them that mattered. I would hear them first, then watch for movement. Bird-listening more than birdwatching.
As a young boy, I spent many a day hearing birds that I just didn’t recognise. It always caused a stir of excitement. Something new. I would then creep up on them, heart in mouth in anticipation at the big reveal. Something new. Something I’d never seen before. Yet, once I’d clapped eyes on them, their sound was memorised forever. A sight and sound association that has stayed with me for a lifetime.
It was this simple process of ‘hear, stalk, remember’ that helped me learn just about all the bird songs and calls I was likely to encounter, at least in Britain. And many more beyond. Those that I didn’t recognise were probably rare or exotic. Well worthy of following up.
It set me up for a decade-long career taking people to wild places, often bleak places in Britain and around the world, in search of that call of the wild.
So ‘bleak’ to me came to mean something good. Something exciting. Something filled with anticipation. The apparent bleakness of a landscape then isn’t something I see as a problem. Quite the opposite.
The trouble with bleak is much more about how all too often, wild has been driven out.
Leaving, well…, just bleak.
My hope is that ‘just bleak’ is something we can do something about. Something temporary. Something reversible, transitory even. An aberration in the history of how we manage the countryside. A lesson that we, as a society, could do with learning as if our future depends on it. Because it probably does. Bringing wild back to bleak then is very much in the interests of us all.
Long live bleak.
Note: This is a version of an article that first appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 8th May, 2023