Sunday 29 March 2009

Book Review: Muir and More: John Muir, his life and walks by Ronald Turnbull

Whilst I was reading A Passion for Nature, which I reviewed in my March 27 post, I went on the backpacking trip described on March 23. Now A Passion for Nature is a fairly hefty book, with 535 pages and a weight of 607 grams, so I didn’t want to add it to my load. As I also didn’t want to be distracted from thinking about John Muir I took instead Ronald Turnbull’s much smaller Muir and More, just 182 pages and 281 grams. Published by Millrace it’s a lovely little book, beautifully produced with high quality paper and proper binding. It’s a joy to hold and needed packing and handling carefully not to be damaged in the rucksack or the tent. It’s well-illustrated too with sketches by Colin Brash. I particularly like the one entitled “John Muir in bivvy”.

The book is based on the author’s walks along the John Muir Trail in California and, much more briefly, the John Muir Way in Scotland. Around these walks the author spins many entertaining tales and anecdotes, jumping from history to geology to traveller’s tales to ecology to literature, sometimes with startling leaps of logic. The author’s style is deceptively informal, almost languid in places and humorous in others, but don’t be fooled. This book contains hidden depths and repays concentration and thought. There is much going on here. Let your mind wander and you may miss the connection with yet another tangent. At one point I was very surprised to find myself reading about hiking in Polish National Parks! I was also surprised to discover an anecdote of my own about bears. The tale as told by Ronald is true and I did walk the Pacific Crest Trail, as he mentions. However the bear episode and the PCT walk took place at a distance of 21 years. (I should point out that I have met the author at various outdoor writers’ events and have corresponded with him by email so this is not a completely detached review though if I hadn’t liked the book I wouldn’t have reviewed it anyway).

Although John Muir and his importance today does appear in the book Ronald Tunrbull himself is an important presence and I suspect readers may finish knowing more about him than Muir. Turnbull’s own message, presented with gentle forcefulness, follows on from Muir “it’s not necessary to do everything. All that’s needed is for everybody to do something ……. Trees and the wilderness are a place to start”. They are indeed and John Muir would of course have agreed.

Friday 27 March 2009

Book Review: A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster

I first read John Muir some 25 years ago when I bought a second-hand copy of The Mountains of California. I didn’t know much about Muir then – he was little known in his native Scotland – but my interest had been piqued by walking the John Muir Trail through the High Sierra in California and by the founding a year earlier of the John Muir Trust in Scotland. Since reading that first book I’ve read much more by Muir in the two wonderful volumes edited by Terry Gifford: John Muir The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books and John Muir His Life and Letters and Other Writings. I’ve also read much about Muir, in particular Frederick Turner’s 1985 biography Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours and Michael P.Cohen’s excellent The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, an analysis of Muir’s philosophy and how it developed and was expressed in his writing. Now there is a new book about Muir, written by historian Donald Worster. Whilst this is a biography like Turner’s it also examines and analyses the development of Muir’s thoughts and beliefs and looks more critically at his decisions and actions and how his trust in wealthy business friends to always defend wilderness was naive. As such it is more rounded and interesting than Turner’s book. Packed with detail and revealing comments it’s thought-provoking and stimulating. Worster places Muir in the context of his time and shows how he fitted in with the growth of liberal democracy and became part of the American intelligentsia. Muir is a key figure in the development of a wilderness consciousness, the belief that nature is worth preserving and has a value separate from its practical usefulness, so this excellent book about him is worth reading by anyone with the same concerns. (Those of us familiar with Scottish history will have to forgive the author’s surprisingly basic factual errors regarding Mary, Queen of Scots and the Covenanters – I presume that the author, who is a Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, is more accurate regarding American history).

The end of the book discusses Muir’s defeat over Hetch Hetchy, a remote and spectacular valley that was dammed and turned into a reservoir despite being in Yosemite National Park, and the type of attacks made on him by the development lobby, which sound depressingly familiar. Muir and his supporters (many of whom were women) were called soft and effeminate as opposed to hard-headed and practical like the developers. Today they would be called tree-huggers. Destroying nature is still seen by too many as sensible and realistic whilst conservation is for those with their heads in the clouds, day dreamers who don’t understand the necessity of constant exploitation and development. Yet it is the practical nature-destroyers who are the cause of our environmental problems and who may well create an earth unfit for human habitation. The global threat to a natural world with room for human beings (nature will continue with or without us) wasn’t a consideration in Muir’s day but his understanding of why we need wild places is still relevant, as is his belief that having the power to alter nature gives us a responsibility about how we use it. At the end of his book Worster writes “Looking back at the trail he blazed, we must wonder how far we have to go”. A very long way, I suspect, but Muir can still help light us along the way.

Monday 23 March 2009

Welcoming the Spring

The dark days of winter are passing and the light of spring is now upon us, an event that always leaves me feeling light-hearted and restless to be in the wilds. Winter in the Scottish Highlands can be marvellous and it has been especially wonderful these last few months but even so the long nights and short days can feel confining and limiting. To welcome the spring and the lengthening of the days I went into the mountains and walked the ridge of hills from Beinn Eibhinn to Carn Dearg that lies between Loch Ericht and Loch Laggan. The morning of the equinox I was camped beside a stream below the ridge. I woke before dawn to a frost covered landscape and watched as the spring sun rose over the mountains, bringing warmth and colour. The sun shone all day and I needed no jacket, warm hat or gloves for the first time since last autumn. The hills though were still mostly snow covered and I needed my ice axe in places as I edged down narrow ridges close to sagging cornices. The gently swelling dome of the highest hill, Geal-Charn, was completely white with not a rock in sight. The snow at the summit was two feet deep. That evening I camped on the lip of a high corrie near a still frozen loch. The first day of spring had been a shining welcome to the months to come, to the increasing hours of daylight and the opportunities for long days, wild camps and light loads.

Photo info: Sun rise on the Equinox. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@21mm, 1/1600@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Backpacking in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Photo Essay

Last autumn I undertook a 2 night hike beside Loch Lomond and over Ben Lomond in stormy weather (see post for October 21, 2008). Backpacking has just published a photo essay on this trip with sixteen images, all with extended captions telling the story of the walk. The photo essay is available to non subscribers to Backpacking Light and can be found here. All the images bar one were taken with the Sigma DP1 compact camera, which I reviewed on Backpacking Light.

Photo info: Rainbow over Loch Lomond. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@30mm, 1/160@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Saturday 14 March 2009

Edward Abbey

Twenty years ago today Edward Abbey died and the world lost a defender of freedom, a protector of the wilderness, a desert anarchist, a cantankerous troublemaker, a controversial iconoclast and a damn fine writer. Abbey wrote essays, stories, novels, adventures, letters and more. All are worth reading. And his message of wildness and liberty is as valid today as it has always been.

But just reading Abbey is not enough. We need to think, feel and act as well. Abbey wrote to provoke anger, dissension, discussion, disturbance. He wanted readers to react to his words, even if it was in disagreement, and to go out and do something, anything, to show they were human, to show they cared enough about freedom and nature to defend them. Those of us who remember him and hold his words important need to do more than read and agree.

I’ll finish with two quotes from Desert Solitaire, arguably Edward Abbey’s finest book (though he wouldn’t agree).

“Love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need - if only we had eyes to see”.

“You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”

For those unfamiliar with Edward Abbey more information can be found here.

Friday 13 March 2009

Rohan Memories

Many, many years ago when I was starting out as a hiker and backpacker a new outdoor company was also starting. This was Rohan, now well-established in outdoor and travel clothing, but back then tiny and unknown but also, crucially, innovative. Wool and cotton were the standard clothing fabrics back then and there was shock and horror in the outdoor industry when Rohan suggested stretch nylon and polyester-cotton could perform better. Rohan was right though and I wore Rohan clothing on my first long walks.

I haven’t had a close relationship with Rohan since the 1980s but recently co-founder Sarah Howcroft, who left the company a long time ago, told me she was involved in a new venture about Rohan and its history and asked if I would like to contribute. When I’d stopped reminiscing I said yes and wrote a piece about my first contact with Rohan that has just been posted on the new Rohantime website. It can be found in the Flashback section under the name In The Beginning. There will be other posts in the future.

My Rohan involvement was long before digital cameras so all my photos from then are transparencies, which I’ve never had scanned. However Sarah offered to scan some to illustrate my posts and two have appeared, one taken on the Continental Divide Trail and showing me sitting by a camp fire wearing a polycotton Moving On windshirt and polycotton Bags trousers, both of which lasted the almost 6 month long walk well, and one taken at a campsite on my length of the Canadian Rockies walk showing me wearing a T Major shirt and Bags trousers.

As I haven’t any digital images of myself wearing Rohan clothing the photo accompanying this post shows a friend climbing Suilven a couple of years ago in his old but still functional Moving On windshirt. Sarah will be sending me the scans of my photos soon and I’ll post some here.

Photo info: On the ascent of Suilven. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm @22mm, 1/125@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Friday 6 March 2009

Bynack More: Snow & Helicopters

The morning after posting about the coming of spring and the first lapwings I woke to a snow-covered landscape. Across Strathspey Bynack More out on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms shone in the sun while the hills just beyond were cloud-capped, as is often the case when the wind is from the west. A few hours later I set off from Glenmore on a glorious morning through trees sparkling with fresh snow for Ryvoan Pass and the Lairig an Laoigh path over the shoulder of Bynack More. Long before I reached the high point the path had vanished into the snow, which varied in depth from a few inches to a few feet, making the walking rather stop and start – crunching across the surface one minute, floundering knee deep the next. Leaving the path I crossed the high moorland and climbed the boulder-strewn north ridge of Bynack More, pleased to find that the pink granite was warm to the touch even though the snow was not thawing. The ridge seemed longer than it should, a feeling that I always have here, even though I’ve climbed this hill many times.

As I approached the summit cairn I heard the metallic whirring of a helicopter approaching fast. As I looked up an RAF Search and Rescue Sea King flew slowly past, two figures looking down from the open door. As the helicopter slowed I stopped as the downdraft was already blowing light snow over me. One of the people inside was winched down and came running towards me. Two people had gone missing on Bynack More the day before, he told me. I’d seen no one except for a distant party of five descending towards Strath Nethy. Call 999 if you come across any sign of them, he said, before heading back to be winched back up. Within minutes the helicopter had gone and I was sitting on the summit in the sunshine imagining what it would have been like here in darkness and driving snow. (Later I could find no mention of anyone missing or a search so I presume they turned up okay).

Bynack More had held the promise of the morning, remaining clear and sunny along with Beinn Mheadhoin and Ben Avon. All the other summits remained in cloud that swirled and twisted into grotesque shapes but never quite dissipated. Firm snow led to Bynack Beg then increasingly soft snow in increasingly thicker heather for the increasingly awkward descent into the shadowed and cold cleft of Strath Nethy. It had been one of the best days of the winter. Maybe now spring will really arrive.

Photo info: Beinn Mheadhoin and a cloud-capped Ben Macdui from Bynack More. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@55mm, 1/640@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Thursday 5 March 2009

April TGO: Stephenson's Warmlite & Wild Walks

The April issue of TGO, just out, has my review of an interesting single skin tent, Stephenson’s Warmlite 2X, and two accounts of hill walks in the Wild Walks section; a winter crossing of the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui and a spring round of the Munros west of the Drumochter Pass. In the gear front there’s also an entertaining story about the curiously ice axe-like ULA Helix Potty Trowel by Eddy Meechan, a trawl through a large selection of lightweight three-season boots by John Manning and a look at heavyweight base layers that double as insulation by Judy Armstrong. Away from gear there are features on Dan Bailey’s top ten Scottish ridge scrambles (but no Liathach, no Sgor an Lochain Uaine/Cairn Toul, two of my favourites), and a ski tour in the Vanoise by Judy Armstrong, which brought back memories as that was where I made my first overseas ski tour many years ago.

And in case anyone wonders the tent in the little picture on page three under “what have the tgo team been up to” is the Tarptent Scarp 1 taken on the same trip as described in my post for February 10, A Camp In The Snow.

Photo info: The Stephenson’s Warmlite 2X pitched beside Loch na Creitheach on the Isle of Skye. Ricoh GR-D, 1/160@F6.3, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

The First Lapwings

At this time of year, when winter is still here but the coming of spring can be felt, I often feel an urge to be outside in the woods and fields. In midwinter it can be an effort to step out of the door, especially when the sky is dark with cold rain, the wind blows and the outdoors is grey and unwelcoming. Snow changes all this, an exciting renewal of the world that calls out for exploration. But for much of winter in the Highlands there is no snow below the high tops, just chilly unwelcoming dampness. Now though the days are lengthening and mild weather suggests warmth and brightness rather than rain. The birds are starting to sing again, the chaffinches, great tits and robins becoming increasingly noisy and excitable, as they sense the changing season. A few days ago the desire to venture out for a few hours, away from the computer and the fire, was strong so I wandered into the local fields and woods.

The day was mild, the sky patchy with ragged clouds and spots of blue. A wind blew from the south-west. The high Cairngorms to the south were cloud-capped and snow-streaked. The grasses were still brown and yellow in the rough pastures and there was no sign of the tight leaf buds on the birches starting to open yet I still felt as though nature was changing. The land was mostly still and quiet apart from a few rabbits scurrying for their burrows and the sudden explosion of a startled pheasant. A buzzard drifted high overhead, mewing softly. Then I heard a closer, sharper, cry - p’weet, p;weet, peewit. I had barely registered the familiar call before I saw the birds tumbling and whirling above the meadow. Lapwings! The first of the year, back from wintering on lower ground and the coast to the grasslands where they nest. I stopped and watched and listened as a pair of these graceful plovers circled and called. My heart felt uplifted and the day became glorious. I have always loved lapwings since a boy, when I used to watch them as I walked through fields of cows on my way to school. And for the two decades I have lived in Strathspey their return marks the start of spring and I always look out for them.

Satisfied, I was heading home when two more pairs appeared twisting and turning in the sky and then landing on the sparse rough grass where they were surprisingly camouflaged. Lapwings are beautiful birds with delicate crests and rounded fingered wings. At a distance they look black and white but closer to a green sheen can be seen on the back and wings. Their flight is lovely and gives them their name. They are also known as peewits from their distinctive call and, more prosaically, as green plovers. The Latin name is Vanellus vanellus. Lapwings have declined significantly in recent years, mainly due to changes in farming methods, and I wonder if they are still found in the fields of my boyhood on the Lancashire coast. Here they return in the same numbers each year. Long may they continue to do so, bringing joy and springtime.

Photo info: Three lapwings in Strathspey. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS@250mm, 1/500@F5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and heavily cropped in Lightroom 2.