‘The growing season, such as it is, is fast and brief.’
Extract taken from The Nature of Summer
By Jim Crumley
Published by Saraband Books
Simmer’s a pleasant time
Flowers of every colour
Water rins o’er the heugh
And I long for my true lover
Consider the mountain sorrel by your left boot. If you failed to spot it don’t worry, you wouldn’t be the first. At 4,000 feet on the Cairngorms plateau, there is bigger and more handsome stuff to look at. But summer is the Goddess of Small Things. So now that I have drawn your attention to it, why not give the mountain sorrel the time of day? I know, I know, it looks like nothing at all; it’s basically a high-altitude dock leaf. What’s this one…four inches tall? Yet up here, things have a habit of not quite looking like what they really are. That sparse cluster of kidney-shaped leaves at ground level is what botanists call a basal rosette, which is arguably too grandiose for what actually meets your eye. And those things at the other end of a skinny stem that morphs from red at the bottom to green halfway up, those are what pass for flowers, and it is true that they are on the nondescript side of insignificant. But let me show you something. Look closer, look deeper, look inside the flower. See the whole plant. The way to see what’s there is to get down on your knees. Peel the petals apart. Do you see it? This is the fruit of the mountain sorrel, not a berry but a nut. I told you we were dealing with small things. It’s about an eighth of an inch long. Three millimetres, if you don’t do fractions. Turn your binoculars upside down, put the eyepiece almost against the nut and look in the wrong end, for now you have a microscope in your hand. And now that you can see it larger than life, what do you think that is, that green canopy to which the nut clings? Can you see how beautifully formed it is, like an open book; and can you see that it is exquisitely edged in red, the way the finest book pages are edged in gold? It’s a wing. So when plateau winds blow (and the wind has a considerable repertoire up here, from the easiest of breezes like this July morning to an all-Britain all-time record of 176 miles per hour in January 1993), the nut flies until it eventually touches down and – in time, in time – it pushes a root into the tough plateau soil and a new mountain sorrel plant begins to come to terms with high living.
Now consider its neighbour. Notice that unlike the mountain sorrel’s erect stem and spike of flowers and winged nuts, its neighbour is a horizontal, ground-level straggle of shining leaves. Such is the nature of summer in the high Cairngorms that ten days ago this strange growth showed not so much as a leaf bud. Plants of all kinds bloom late and wither early here. The growing season, such as it is, is fast and brief. These leaves are fully open. And if you care to lift up one or two, you may find a yellowish non-leaf growing among them, and if you have the capacity to set aside the evidence of your eyes and think outside the box, it may occur to you that it looks like a tiny catkin – because that is what it is. What you are looking at is a tree, an inch-high tree with its “branches” underground, a dwarf willow. And this is its Scottish homeland, the highest, pared-to-the-bone upthrusts of the Cairngorms, and what passes for summer up here is a short, sharp shock of a season (in the forty-something years I have known these mountains, I have acquired a complete snow calendar: that is, I have been snowed on in every month of the year, so including June, July and August). So short and so sharp that the leaves of some specimens have turned yellow in July, while others just a few hundred yards away are still in bud or have yet to bud at all.
When I chose the title for this chapter, and having written it on a notebook page with a fountain pen (my preferred way of writing), I thought I would begin with a list. This was it:
Goldcrest eggs and nests and chicks, wild strawberries, wild raspberries, blueberries, brambles, cloudberries, cloudberry flowers, small blue butterflies, small coppers, small tortoiseshells, small whites, small pearl-bordered fritillaries, small skippers, dingy skippers, chequered skippers, orangetips, northern-brown argus, Rannoch brindled beauty moth, sea pink, sea spurry, sea holly, newborn lizards, scales on the petals of fragrant orchids, small white orchids, seventeen species of speedwell, wild mountain thyme, mountain avens, mountain sorrel (and nuts), alpine lady’s-mantle, dwarf cornel, eyebright, bedstraw, house martins, sand martins, sandpipers, wrens, merlins, little-ringed plovers, little auk, little tern, azure damselflies, all damselflies and dragonflies apart from those ones that look and sound like Sopwith Camels, spotted flycatchers, headdress of redpolls and reed buntings…
Then I ran out of ink, and I thought better of the idea and that perhaps you might just like to make your own list, now that I’ve shown you how to get the hang of it.
The Nature of Summer by Jim Crumley is published by Saraband Books, priced £12.99