Putting Flesh on the Bones

It was April and still winter. Although I was longing for a sign of spring and a first glimpse of the swallows returning, I travelled north and further north. I travelled 450 miles north to an isolated steading near Loch Ness. I arrived to see snow on hill-tops, trees bare of leaves and a steady battering wind that would keep me indoors for two days.

Why was I here? A lowlander cast up on a Scottish hillside; a haunter of coasts washed up on a bleak land of moor and conifer plantation.

I was preparing to “write the wild” in the company of women wild writers. I was about to become a member of a tribe and, I hoped, embarking on the start of a fresh initiative for women writers to raise their profile, to share their knowledge, their curiosity and their thirst for changing attitudes towards the natural world .

The week was intended to explore our relationship with the wild and to find new ways of communicating its importance and our connections to it. It took as its theme “Singing the Bones”, a mythic tale about telling stories to bring life back to the bones of wolves. Twelve other writers settled in to Moniack Mhor, with a fireside for story-telling, a kitchen for cooking and sharing meals and bedrooms that peeped out over flat in-bye and across the valley, views to the snow-covered mountain ranges of Strathfarrar & Wyvis.

I shivered in the perpetual wind that seemed to scream in the fireplace and knife under doors. But there were consolations – curlews with their bubbling music of the moors, hen harriers scanning the valley below us, a hare that sat patiently outside, ravens patrolling the rocky outcrops and wood anemones hugging the burn.

We agreed that our writing would be more than descriptive; something must change as a result. We explored whether there was a difference between men and women writing the wild.  We felt this could be better described as writing from the head (air, intellectual) or the heart (earth, intuitive). We read from Jay Griffiths, Susan Griffin, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Oliver and many others. But we also found time and space for our own writing.

Our writing would celebrate the beauty and the joy of the natural world and acknowledge what we have now; it would explore the role of myths and culture in shaping views and attitudes. In fact, we believe we need new myths and stories to show current ecological issues and encourage more people to care. We need to re-unite the head and the heart; link science and art. We need rage and celebration.

We wondered if we could give a voice to inanimate things such as rocks and was it right to take anthropomorphic approaches when writing about animals and birds. We decided that we are part of the land and we share an evolutionary trail, perhaps an inherited memory, with other living things.

But all that was still to come. On the first morning I looked out to the mountains, unfamiliar territory, mesmerised by the way the clouds and the hills seemed to be in a perpetual dance. I wrote of my feelings, being out of place in an alien landscape, hills unknown to me.

I look out towards a rounded back of hills, drifted in snow, crouching under low grey cloud. The hill is asleep; turned away from me. The head is low against a dark pillow of conifer forest. Now the cloud is lifting, light sprinkles colour as it dissolves into the hill. I understand the fascination for these mountains; the way you can see a storm coming; the way hills appear and disappear, dazzle or glower. But it is alien country; it doesn’t welcome me and I don’t know its ways. The landmarks crave recognition, beg names, and finally lure you in.

I can see how ancient people would have waymarked the land; told stories; seen the natural world reflected in shapes of hill and peak; their imagination assembling and reassembling familiar animals. I search for some ancestral understanding of this land but it is four generations since a great grandfather left Scotland in search of better times.

By the end of the week, I had walked out into the landscape, listened to its sounds, tasted its wind and felt more attuned. I had also shared the writing, the stories and the lives of twelve marvellous and talented women and found that, when people care about the natural world, when they care about connecting to it, when they share their writing, they are singing the bones and the bones become whole and live again.

This is from my report of the 2013 Singing the Bones workshop with Sharon Blackie and Rosella Angwin based at Moniack Mhor near Loch Ness






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