Monday, 10 May 2021

The Benefits of the Wild

This piece was written two years ago for Scotland The Big Picture's Think Like A Mountain newsletter, well before Covid-19 arrived. After the lockdowns it seems even more apposite. So many more people have discovered how important nature is to them. If I was writing the piece today there would be many references to the pandemic. As it is, I decided to just mention that in this introduction and leave the piece as written.

The forest path stretched into the distance, walled by the dark green trees. The feeling was calm and placid, almost soporific. Walking was relaxing, effortless. I was barely aware that was what I was doing. My mind was floating through the woods, detached and tranquil. Nature can do that, even in a forest like this, which wasn’t spectacular, awesome, glorious, exciting or any other of the Instagram-essential hyped-up descriptions. Just a pleasant wood with a little path weaving through it. But its effect was magical. I was in another world, far from the problems of the bigger one outside those trees. The walk left me feeling refreshed, revived, and much more able to cope with that often overwhelming and frightening human-made world.

That nature and walking in nature can have such a healthy effect has become widely accepted in recent years, with many studies backing this up. For those of us who’ve revelled in nature and wild places all our lives this isn’t new. It became part of me when I was a child, exploring local woods and fields. It’s something I’ve always known, though it took me many years to realise this was something special and important. Wild places matter for our mental and physical health. They take us away from the frenetic, noisy, confusing world of cities and industry and return us to our true home. Over a hundred years ago John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” This is as true today as it was then and even more urgent as now even fewer people have much contact with nature while our wild places are diminishing even faster than in Muir’s time just as more of us are discovering how important they are.

In the words of Joni Mitchell “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Some of us do know but not enough and it’s important we do everything we can to spread this knowledge and get more people committed to protecting and restoring wild places. We are part of nature. Forgetting this can only lead to disaster.

The peace of wild places, the comfort of nature, can soothe the mind. Physical activity in these places can keep the body healthy. Walking, mountaineering, kayaking, swimming; the actual activity matters less than where it’s carried out. All those who take part in these outdoor pursuits gravitate towards wilder places, and not, I think, just because of their aesthetic qualities but also because the wildness feels right, helps make the physical activity feel appropriate, helps make the experience complete and whole. When I walk through wild places, especially day after day, I feel I belong, I feel part of where I am, the detachment I feel in cities disappears. The physical and mental benefits of wild nature combine to give a feeling of contentment.

It might seem this doesn’t matter to most people. That it’s just a few outdoor lovers and wildlife enthusiasts who are concerned. That this isn’t so was brought home to me during the foot and mouth disaster many years ago. Much of the countryside, including even the wildest places, was closed. Tourism fell away. If people couldn’t leave roads and experience nature, even if only for a stroll or a picnic in a wood or field, they didn’t come. Just looking at the landscape wasn’t enough. They wanted the freedom of being in nature, not just observers of it.

During that sad time I met two walkers from England on the summit of Cairn Toul, deep in the Cairngorms. With access to the English hills still restricted they’d come up here for the freedom of walking in hills that weren’t regulated and controlled, where they could wander at will. Wild places are free places. We need them. “Wildness is a necessity”.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Photography Post: The Biggest Lens I've Ever Owned & Some Photographs Of Birds & More.

Bynack More, May 7, 2021. Sony a6000, Sony E 70-350mm @ 350mm, 1/1000 & f8, ISO 200

Until last year the longest zoom lens Sony made for its APS-C range of cameras was the 55-210 f4.5-6.3, a lightweight lens at 379 grams and one that produces reasonable quality images, especially given its low cost. I've had this lens for over ten years and have been generally happy with the results, even when cropped (quite a few have been published). However I have at times wished for a longer reach and several years ago I purchased a Sony 1.7x tele conversion lens that increases the long end of the 55-210 lens to 357mm, which is equivalent to 535.5mm in full frame/35mm terms. The combination works reasonably well in good light but is a bit clumsy and awkward to use and I haven't actually used it much.

Sony E 70-350 with lens hood reversed, Sony a6000

Then last year Sony issued one of it's rare new APS-C lenses, the 70-350 f4.5-f6.3. This received excellent reviews, as it should given the cost. As well as expensive I noted it was heavy and dismissed it from my thoughts. However during the lockdown periods of the last year I took many photos at home and on local walks and started using the 55-210 more often, both for wildlife and for a different perspective on familiar scenes. I got out the 1.7x tele conversion lens as well but found that the image quality really wasn't good enough for big crops. My thoughts returned to the 70-350. Maybe there would be secondhand versions around now. There were and I bought one described as in good condition for much less than the cost of a new one. It looks as good as new anyway.

From the top, Sony 18-135, 55-210, & 70-350

At 697 grams the lens is heavy. It's big too, by far the biggest lens I've ever owned. I doubt I'll be taking it on long backpacking trips. However it doesn't feel too clumsy on my little Sony a6000 and NEX 7 cameras even when fully extended.

It's a slow lens, which means combinations of low ISOs and very fast shutter speeds need bright light, as in the photo at the top of this post. However the lens has Sony's Optical Steady Shot stabilisation and with care I can get sharp shots at shutter speeds down to 1/100 second and lower if I lean on something. Of course with a tripod this isn't a problem, though the lightweight one I take on walks won't support the weight. I do have a much heavier tripod which I might end up taking out at times.

Sand Martin. Sony a 6000, Sony E 70-350mm lens at 70 mm, 1/400 @ f8, ISO 200. Cropped.      

After some initial trials I took the lens on a short walk beside the River Spey hoping to see some birds  photograph with the intention of cropping the images. The walk on a dull day beside the swollen river was a joy and I took photographs of pied wagtails, common sandpipers, goldeneye ducks, and, sand martins. The last were very difficult to photograph as they never stay still, except for fractions of a second as they hover above the water to seize an insect. Watching them was a delight - there were at least twenty - and I was quite happy to get one passable image, especially as it's a huge crop, as you can from the full image below.

Other photos that were much easier to take also cropped well. Here's a selection with the full originals, all taken the a6000 camera and all handheld, sometimes leaning on a bridge.

Common Sandpiper. 350mm, 1/40 @ f8, ISO 200

Willow. 93mm, 1/60 @ f8, ISO 200

Pied Wagtail. 350mm, 1/250 @ f8, ISO 200

Goldeneye. 350mm, 1/320 @ f8, ISO 200

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Scottish Election: Vote Andy Wightman Highlands And Islands Regional List

Tomorrow is the Scottish Parliament election and I'm voting for Andy Wightman on the Regional List. Why? Because he is a champion of decentralisation, local control, conservation, and land reform, and was one of the most impressive members of the last Scottish Parliament. 

Andy Wightman is the author of two key books, Who Owns Scotland and The Poor Had No Lawyers. I first came across him through the first of these, a work of astonishing research and great importance, some 25 years ago. His concern for land reform and the environment long predates his becoming an MSP. I've met him at conservation events a few times and been impressed with his dedication, intelligence, and commitment. 

So I'll be voting for Andy. I hope many others do too. I have no idea how likely it is for an independent candidate to win a seat. But I really hope Andy Wightman does. We need him in the Scottish Parliament. Though I'm sure some big landowners will disagree.

You can find out more about Andy Wightman and his campaign here.


Sunday, 2 May 2021

The 'Thing' On Cairn Gorm

April 30, 2021

On the last day of April I went up Cairn Gorm in a mix of stinging hail showers, dense mist and blasts of startling sunshine. Fresh snow lay on the ground, deep and soft enough to make me regret not bringing skis or snowshoes. No sense of spring up here.

The mists cleared from the summit while I was there, the sun lighting the snow and ice encrusted weather station, which looked dramatic against dark clouds. I posted a phone picture on social media and it's had a huge response, some of the comments showing that the posters had never seen it before, several commenting it was like something out a science fiction movie. (The picture at the top of the post was taken at the same time with my camera).

Having been up Cairn Gorm at least once a year for over forty years I'm very familiar with the weather station. Trying to look at it as if with fresh eyes I can see that it is a strange edifice to find on a mountain top, especially when coated in snow.

February 6, 2015

My picture also elicted many entertaining comments. One poster even came up with the opening scene for a film:

Others referenced Star Wars  (A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...  @TheBlueLady3) and other movies.

January 19, 2019

The Cairngorm Automatic Weather Station was erected on the summit in 1977 by Heriot-Watt University Physics Department and has been recording data ever since, building up a valuable collection of information on the weather on one of our highest mountains. On Jan 3rd, 1993 at 11:48 (it's a scientific instrument, it's precise) the weather station noted the highest recorded windspeed in the UK, 176 mph. I've been up there in some horrendous winds but that would blow you off the mountain and far away. 

November 25, 2007

I find the weather station most mysterious in dense mist when it suddenly looms up in front of you, huge and strange. Then it really does seem something has landed from outer space. If the heated cylinder that records the data then rises into the air with loud mechanical noises, as it does every half hour, you do wonder what else is going to emerge.

April 13, 2005

Without snow the weather station is a little more mundane, though the sound of the recording cylinder, seen protruding in the picture above, is still weird when it echoes through the mist.

December 22, 2019

Unless the weather is vile I usually spend some time on the extensive summit as it's a good viewpoint. I love revelling in the sense of space and looking across the vast rolling Cairngorm Plateau to distant Ben Macdui. The summit is popular, being reasonably easy to reach. I usually plan on being there late in the afternoon after everyone has gone but I don't mind sharing. It's a great place for everyone who loves the hills.

December 11, 2012

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Exciting New Outdoor & Nature Books


Some excellent outdoor and nature books have been published recently and I have this collection to read. The difficulty is knowing where to start. I've dipped into all of them and then decided that trying to read all five at once would be too confusing so I've settled on The Earth Beneath My Feet as that's one I've been waiting to read since the author told me about it when I met him in Colorado back in 2019. I haven't got very far yet but the start is exciting and gripping.

I'll post reviews of each one in time.

Monday, 26 April 2021

A Look At The May Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The May issue of The Great Outdoors has a wild camping theme. I review eleven two-person tents in the gear section and consider tent weight in the latest Hilleberg sponsored better backpacking guide. Alex Roddie tries three backpacking meals and Plas Y Brenin instructor Iona Pawson has a general look at food for the mountains. For those beginning James Forrest answers common questions on wild camping.

To whet your appetite Helen Iles goes comet-spotting on a camp in the Rhinogydd mountains while Andrew Terrill describes an ascent and camp in Italy during his 7000 mile walk through Europe in an excerpt from the first of his two books on the walk, The Earth Beneath My Feet. Both features are illustrated with stunning photos by the authors.

There's further superb photography in a piece by Alex Nail on the Fisherfield Forest area of the Northwest Highlands. And the opening spread in this issue is a wonderful photo of dawn on the Cuillin ridge by James Roddie.

Also in this issue TGO contributors, including myself, talk about their plans for the mountains post-lockdown, Hanna Lindon talks to female walkers about how safe they feel in the outdoors, Jim Perrin describes his affection for little Win Hill in the Peak District, and Roger Smith calls for positive action on the management of the countryside as it opens up after lockdown. Roger also reviews Cameron McNeish's latest book, Come by the Hills.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Book Review: Wild Winter by John D. Burns

For his fourth book John D. Burns returns to non-fiction. The themes however are those of his third book, the novel Sky Dance, and this is a book more about nature than the mountaineering  and bothies of his first two books, though both those do appear. 

This is a book of discovery, both of nature and, I think, of the author himself. Over the winter of 2019-20 Burns sets out to see wildlife in the Scottish Highlands and to learn about the place of nature in the landscape and our place too. As the winter wears on an ominous shadow begins to grow, the Covid-19 pandemic. Burns captures well the way a vague rumour becomes a realisation that lockdown is coming.

As the author travels Scotland in search of whales and pine martens, beavers and mountain hares, he also describes how impoverished the land has become and how everything in nature is interdependent. Amongst the burnt grouse moors and overgrazed hillsides he also finds regenerating forests, reintroduced wildlife and hope for thr future. "A rural economy funded more by the binoculars of wildlife tourists than the guns of blood sports enthusiasts".

Wild Winter is contemplative and profound but it's not a heavy read. Burns has a lightness of touch and a feeling for words that makes for easy reading even when the subject matter is serious. There's humour too, especially in the adventures involving his long-time friend Martin, firmly stuck in the 1970s with his woollen trousers, tartan shirt, balaclava, and giant ice axe.

The mix of adventure, wildlife, comic incidents, intriguing characters, and thoughts about the future of the land make this an entertaining and thought-provoking book. I've enjoyed every one of Burn's books. I think this is his best yet.