I’m staying in the Scottish Highlands this week, in the middle of nowhere. On Monday, I drove four hours north until I had reached absolutely nowhere, threw a left up a hill, further into nowhere, and finally I turned right down a dirt track until I reached the very heart of nowhere. Trundling the last 100 metres, while praying my suspension would withstand the potholes, a red squirrel darted out in front of me. It felt like a suitable welcome. Having then stayed indoors for almost three days, looking out upon a seamless fusion of slated hills and sky draped with diagonal rain, I began to get bothy-fever. This morning, the dust cover that had been thrown over the landscape was temporarily lifted and, under a chink of rainbow and four layers of clothing, I took a walk.
My chosen path was a one-track road with intermittent scoops of flattened ditch that the sign called ‘passing bays’. The verges were soft, filled with rushes and running water but I was sufficiently booted and mostly able to find a spot that wouldn’t suck me under when the occasional car passed. One forefinger lifted from the wheel seems to be the wave of choice around these parts. The locals are friendly, the animals not, their stares convey a total lack of interest. The Shetland pony; the herd of McCowan’s Toffee cattle (remember the logo – the famous cow looking out at you from under its fringe and curled horns?); the buzzard circling overhead: curiosity was all one-way, all mine. A profusion of unappetising looking mushrooms had found their perfect haven in the sodden land. Inky, False Deathcap, and Destroying Angel are all some of those that do for you of you eat them. I don’t know what variety those I saw were, but they didn’t resemble anything I’d fry in butter. The trees are bearded up here, especially those I stopped to look at in the hollow, the ones that were paddling in a marsh. The grey-green crust of lichen gripping their slender bark made them seem etched with worry, and the pale yellow moss that grew from the elbow crooks of branches in unkempt tufts was like the hair from an old man’s ears. It gave the trees character, brought them alive, which, in equal parts, I found magical and faintly chilling. The latter feeling won out as the sky darkened and I quickened my step and turned for home.
Almost home, my final encounter was with a caterpillar in the middle of the road. Having since read up on him I think he was a ‘Fox Moth’ caterpillar who had forgotten what month it was. The nature reference I found said that large, hairy larvae can be seen when they come out to bathe in the heat (what heat?), but that between the months of September to March they hibernate in leaf litter. Fully-grown caterpillars are up to 7cm in length (that was about the size of mine) and they have long brown hairs on the sides of their body (mine looked a little more black) with shorter dark orange hairs on the upper surface (yes, there was plenty of orange). It went on to say that these caterpillars hibernate fully-grown, but emerge to bask in the spring sunshine before pupating in April – clearly mine hadn’t read the handbook on how to be a good caterpillar. He moved so slowly that it was hard to gauge if he was covering any ground or not, but when I marked the tarmac behind him with a twig I could see, after a minute, there was minuscule movement. I wondered if should stand there, like a lollipop lady, seeing him across safely. Cars were infrequent, but there were cars.
Deciding for me, on came the rain and I hurried on. I know just where I left him: by the huge white salt bin at the side of the road, for when the snow comes. Tomorrow I’ll check that section of road for evidence as to how he fared. I hope he made it. I wish he hadn’t thought it so important to cross that road in the first place. Maybe it’s a message to me that staying put this week isn’t such a bad thing; to go slow by all means, but do it indoors and enjoy these few days of hibernation.
Caterpillar, by Christina Rossetti
Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.