Season of Mists

Published: 4th July 2017

Susan Wright talks to nature writer Jim Crumley about his new book, The Nature of Autumn (from John Muir Trust Journal Autumn 2016)

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Jim Crumley and I are sharing a moment. Standing atop Ballengeich Hill, the outline of Stirling Castle’s ramparts to our left, we’re staring through ground-licking August cloud in the direction of the mountains of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. But beyond the narrow string of M9 motorway, a swathe of sun is cracking open the drizzle, painting a wow moment over hill, field and tree.

“I didn’t bring my camera,” says Jim. “I thought this was just going to be a straight walk in the rain.” Which is funny, because Jim, one of Scotland’s greatest and prolific nature writers, is a master of capturing moments. In his latest book, The Nature of Autumn, he treats us to some of the best: a special encounter with a green woodpecker in autumnal woodland, an ankle deep venture among naturally regenerating trees in Glen Finglas, the reaction of 30 whooper swans to a microlight in the Carse of Stirling, the savouring of a crab roll and coffee in Crail. Then there’s my favourite, a matter of minutes when the skies break apart during a ferry trip back from a gloomy, rain-sodden Harris.

“The miracle, when it happened was as sudden as whirlwinds, as startling as rainbows. It began in the south. A far headland of Skye appeared where none had been visible moments before. A hole appeared in the dark smother of cloud, and sunlight poured through in a tilted column that smote the headland and lit it from stem to stem.

“It was the precursor of a kind of Hebridean rebirth that made all the visible world new again. The sky fissured open and began to leak sunlight with the energy it had recently channelled into leaking rain, and in a hundred different places at once. The ocean that had been dull grey was suddenly ablaze, then slowly turned deep green and deep blue, and an unbroken band of molten white light as vivid as a Luskentyre breaker lay all along the horizon.”

All of us who love the outdoors have drawn breath at moments such this. It’s one reason why The Nature of Autumn is so enjoyable. It’s a freewheeling romp around Scotland – a nature book but part-travel, with a little bit of history, some environmental commentary and a poignant foray into the author’s personal memories of his father who died in autumn time. 

It offers insight into the complexity and unknowns of nature – when he muses on why turnstones are the only waders tolerated at close quarters by seals, for example. Or when he sees the green woodpecker eating rowan berries – a fact not observed in any bird guides he has read.

The idea for the book came to Jim years ago while he was driving from Skye listening to Roy Orbison’s song, It’s Over.” There’s a line in it, ‘Golden days before the end, whisper secrets to the wind’. It made me think there was a book in it. I had the autumn idea sitting in a notebook for years after that. I would keep coming across it and like all good ideas it eventually found its time and place.”

Writing The Nature of Autumn allowed Jim to revisit some of his favourite autumn places, such as Glen Etive below the Buachaille, and Loch Tulla, where he discovered “perfect alignment of all the defining components of the season – beautiful light, the hill grasses an amazing orange, lots of trees and the red deer rut.”  

It also gave him freedom to explore ideas and be a bit more contemplative than was possible in his previous, more-focused books such as The Last Wolf, The Eagles Way or Natures Architect: The Beavers Return to Our Beavers to Our Wild Landscapes

“In between the framework of the beginning and the end I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. And I just went where it took me. I spent the whole of autumn 2015 sitting in different places, scribbling sketches, really getting close to the season. And it triggered memories of previous autumns. When I sat down to write it, it just poured out.”

Jim has been described by the Los Angeles Times as “the best nature writer working in Britain today.”  Nature writers that have influenced him  include Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac is, he says, “the single best piece of nature writing ever. It was written in the 1940s and it just gets more true.”

Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water had a huge impact on him when he read it aged 18. He was also affected by Margiad Evans’ Autobiography, an out-of-print book by an English poet and novelist which he stumbled on by chance and bought for 75 pence. “It’s a book of intimate, closely observed nature written on a very local scale. It’s about her love affair with the land and her symbiotic relationship with it.”

In The Nature of Autumn, he mentions several Scottish writers, including George MacKay Brown, Seton Gordon and Frank Fraser Darling. And he includes in the book a touching poem, Instruction for the Bard, in which he implores Robert Burns to write about the destruction of Scotland’s land.

“The reality is a lot of our landscape is in a mess,” says Jim when I mention that poem. “There’s nothing more artificial than a deer forest or a grouse moor and there’s an awful lot of them. Also, the depopulation of the highlands has impaired the landscape. The population of the highlands was highest when nature was at its most diverse. The two aren’t incompatible.”

In this latest book, he also turns his gaze to wider horizons, describing how 95 per cent of the sea-based part of the Zachariae Isstrom glacier in Greenland has been lost since 2005, and noting that more of Arctic ice sheet melted in the first decade of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th century. Climate change is not a subject he’s written much about in the past, but he now talks eloquently about the global threat.

 “I spend a lot of time outside sitting around and I’ve been getting the sense that everything is restless. When the storms came this year they felt significant too. We’re in a time where nature is trying to tell us something. It’s manifesting itself in all these extreme weather events.

“We’re treating the earth abominably badly and the least we can do is listen. All indigenous people have the idea of listening to the land. People in the developed world need to do this too. Governments need to act in the interest of the sea and the land because there’s a tipping point after which it can’t be recovered.”

Although born in Dundee, Jim has lived in Stirling and surrounding area for more than 40 years. There’s a lovely bit in his book where he seeks out his local wild patch, this hill where we’re standing now, following a near-catastrophe when he just misses running over a stricken motorcyclist lying on the road. Up on the hill, he watches sparrow hawks ducking and diving for prey above the urban skyline.

Here in the same spot now, chatting, it’s a different moment. We’ve seen a bullfinch but no sparrow hawks. It’s been wet though. Which is why we can’t see the distant mountains and why we’re standing with sodden jeans after a short trek through thick face-high raspberry bushes, wild flowers and weeds.

As we make our way back down the hill, on a different path this time to save our wet legs, two young Canadians stop us to ask: “Is the beheading stone near here?” Jim directs them back up above us, to the site, amid old cannons and tombstones, where a number of executions were carried out in the 15th century. It’s a reminder that wars, killings, destruction are nothing new.  

But nature is our life force. Writers like Jim Crumley remind us of this in their books. As he says, the land is everything. We need to start listening.

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