Devastation

The title of this blog entry could refer to the location I’m about to describe, or my own reaction after a visit there just two days ago.  At the time of writing, it feels more like my reaction so apologies if this blog seems a little downbeat…

I should probably begin at the start.

I think it was around July 2004, while out walking on Ben Ledi near the town of Callander in Scotland, that I decided to venture off the “official” path and head deep into a thick untracked forest.  The way I took was unmarked, unplanned and almost certainly destined to be forgotten shortly afterwards had I not stumbled upon the most beautiful forest clearing I’d ever seen.

After maybe 20 minutes of climbing (and tripping) my way up a dark, steep, densely wooded slope I stepped out onto a small patch of soft mossy grass, bathed in warm sunlight, which lay almost billiard table flat next to a stream that lazily tumbled over smoothed stones in a glistening parade of gurgling crystal clear mini-waterfalls.  Looking upstream I could see the source of the water was a waterfall which poured over the cliffs below Creag Loisgte high above where I stood.
The clearing was around 30 feet in diameter, an almost perfect circle, and beside one large boulder which sat conveniently close to the water’s edge and served as an ideal spot to stop, sit and admire the view, it was completely clear.
The blanket of thick moss cushioned my feet as I walked across to the stone and, encouraged by the perfection all around me, I removed my heavy boots and socks, unpacked my lunch and relaxed for a while, listening to the sound of the water and the buzzing of the bees.  Small yellow and blue flowers filled the air with the most delicate perfume which seemed to compliment the faint hint of pine from the forest.  It was, in short, idylic, and I was lost in my hidden paradise.

Now 2004 was, for me, pre-digital, and while I had my old film camera with me, I had used the last of my film on the summit of the mountain, so I had no way of capturing the beauty of the location.  I vowed to return, possibly to camp overnight, and to capture something of the beauty I’d experienced.

After a while I descended, following the stream, until I met the main path again.  I memorised the location where the path met the stream and the route back to my hidden space, then set off down the mountain.

But of course, life gets in the way; work and other committments stopped me from returning for what felt like an age, then one day I finally managed to find the time and returned to my secret moss garden, but the weather that day wasn’t ideal for photography as the entire hillside was swathed in a clinging veil of heavy mist which soaked through everything and reduced visibility to a few metres.

I found the boulder again, and sat, chilled and damp, to have some warm tea, eat some sandwiches, and wait for a while in the hope that the mist would lift.

It didn’t.

With hindsight, the clearing was probably even more beautiful in the mist than when I’d first found it, with the faint outlines of trees rising up into the grey gloom just beyond the limit of my sight, enclosing me in my hidden retreat, cut off from the world, isolated and perfectly insulated from what lay beyond.
Spider webs, normally a source of arachnophobic concern for me, hung like fine lace doilys from branches, each one more delicate and intricate than the last, while dewy beads of ice cold water bedecked the mossy carpet like tiny diamonds which glinted gently as the moss yielded to my heavy footsteps before bouncing back as I moved on as they quickly forgot I’d ever been there.

I regret to say that I failed to take any photos on that second visit.  I convinced myself that the conditions weren’t perfect and I so wanted to record it as I saw it in my mind.

I returned to the spot several times over the years.  Once, quite recently, the conditions seemed perfect and armed with my new digital camera I could (and should) have popped up the hillside and finally captured the essence of my hidden eden.
But I was with a group of people last time I visited and somehow it didn’t seem appropriate to ask them all to wait by the path for what would have been several hours while I climbed up to the spot, took my photos, berated myself for not doing it justice, re-took the photos, and returned to meet them.
So, just like all the other times, I put it off until next time.

“Next time” came last Thursday.  The cloud cover was patchy but a strong wind kept the clouds moving and bright spring sunlight swept in waves across the hillside as with anticipation I climbed up from the car park at Bochastle towards the forestry land just over the ridge.

The first sign that something was wrong was when I stopped to gaze out over Loch Venachar.  I shouldn’t have been able to see Loch Venachar from the path as the viewpoint had been obscured by a thick forestry plantation for as long as I could remember.  Undaunted I continued to climb until I reached the ridge and looked out across the now barren hillside.

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My heart sank and for a second I stood dumbfounded and confused.  I continued towards the secret turn from the path up the stream side but long before I reached the spot, it was clear that my hidden jewel had gone. Ripped from the hillside along with all the trees, the moss carpet, churned to mud by heavy machinery, was gone and my stone seat now stood, bleak against the bare hill like a tombstone in an abandoned cemetery, commemorating some forgotten soul who’s name has long since been lost in time and will never be remembered.

I felt hollow.

Now, I’m not some tree-hugging activist, I understand the need to rotate commercial plantations, to free up space and open-up land long kept in the dark by a densely packed canopy and to encourage new growth, new life and new habitats.
My loss is a new start for long dormant forest flower seeds and in a few short years the land will be a riot of colour and sweet smells. Insects will swarm across the fields and all will be well with the world until the trees re-grow and rise to reclaim the sunlight and their strangle-hold on the life giving resource once again casts the forest floor into gloom, decay and accumulating detritus.

I guess I’m just gutted at the realisation that I missed all those opportunities to record such a perfect spot.  I had so many chances to visit, record and enjoy my little refuge and I failed every time.  I don’t have a single photograph of the clearing and now it’s gone.  Yes, the forest will re-grow, but the next plantation may not include the clearing or the moss bed may not form in the same way.  Possibly it will re-grow just as I remember it, but I’ll not see it. In thirty to forty years time, even if I’m still alive, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll manage the climb up to that spot again.

So, perhaps it will sit, silently waiting for another fool to venture off the path in search of solitude and a nice viewpoint.
Perhaps that person will stumble upon the clearing and think they were the first to ever find such a beautiful spot.
Perhaps that someone will do the job better than I did and record it to share with everyone else.

I hope so.

If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s this:
Don’t put anything off until tomorrow, it may never come…

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“loss is nothing but change, and change is Nature’s delight”
Marcus Aurelius

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