by Robin Lloyd-Jones

This is the first in a series of three essays which explore the same sort of themes and wisdom that emerged when I interviewed twenty writers over seventy for the book Autumn Voices: the importance of letting go; recognising that later life can hold many joys and that, as one door closes, another opens.

As I get older I tend not to drive as far as I used to before beginning a hillwalk or launching my kayak. A long drive was worth it when a typical day in the mountains or on the water lasted seven or eight hours and occasionally went into double figures. Now, at age eighty-three, I am pleased with myself if I manage three or four hours. Since my rule has always been not to spend more time driving there and back than I spend on the actual activity, the distance I am prepared to travel is becoming shorter and shorter.

These days I visit the places I overlooked and drove past on my way to the bigger mountains, the more challenging waters and the remoter parts of Scotland. And very rewarding it has been. However, what I want to write about here are the places which are really near, places not more than two or three minutes from my back door, five minutes at the most. That is to say, I am going to write here about our garden and the sea shore beyond it.

A high stone wall marks the garden’s western boundary. Constructed of sandstone blocks held together by mortar, it was built in 1850, at the same time as the house. Since then it has received only a minimum of repair. In places the mortar has disintegrated, leaving gaps between the stones – little crevices and caves, Bug Hotel and des res for minibeasts of all sorts. With a torch in one hand and a large magnifying glass in the other an hour can easily slip away as I become lost in another world.

The wall is cracked, pitted and eroded by salt winds and the frosts of 168 winters. I like to close my eyes and run my finger-tips over its uneven, abrasive surface, exploring its variety of gritty textures. Its Braille-like messages are ‘eloquent to my hands.’(1) I encounter a miniature moss maze where circular grooves have been chiselled into the stone, for what purpose I do not know. The lichens feel rather like a thick coat of peeling paint, sometimes crusty and fibrous, sometimes powdery. Then my skin informs me I’m touching a lichen described as squamulose – one with small, leafy scales. Lichens cover about 6% of the Earth’s land surface. They are certainly covering more than that on our wall. Lichens are not plants, but an organism that emerges from a partnership between fungi and algae. The fungi protect and house the algae; and the algae, through photosynthesis, provide food for the fungi. These miniature eco-systems are among the oldest living things on our planet. Opening my eyes I am treated to a visual feast of whites, greys, and orangey-yellows. The lichens’ shapes are food for the imagination, too – archipelagos, mythical landscapes, coded messages from Mars, abstract paintings.

On the other side of the garden, in a corner between another wall and a boundary hedge, is a small pond. This was dug about twelve years ago by my wife and me for the benefit of the wild Mallard ducks which fly in most mornings. Here, in this protected space, overhung by the branches of a lime tree, the ducklings can safely swim, watched over by their mother. Anywhere else in the garden or on the shore crows and seagulls pick them off. Watching the ducks gives immense pleasure, so does watching the pond itself. Although we change the water in the pond regularly, it doesn’t take long in Summer and Autumn for it to develop a greenish hue and for leaves, flowers and petals to fall into it. They drift in constantly shifting patterns and juxtapositions of colour. I spend hours recording these amazingly beautiful natural happenings with my camera. As I write this I have in front of me several photographs. One shows a fragment of down, afloat in liquid jade, sailing over a submerged leafy shape in soft, dark emerald. Another shows a red and purple fuchsia flower lying on a golden autumnal leaf. Around it are more leaves, half rotted, their skeletons revealed against a background that slides from viridian into turquoise and aquamarine. Translucent bubbles overlay some of the leaves as does the duckweed, its small oval shapes in the palest tea-green like the brush strokes of a pointillist painter. This humble pond is a gallery of ephemeral aquatic art and I could fill a gallery with photographs by way of praise and celebration.

Our rhubarb patch is another source of delight and wonder. Of all the plants in our garden it has the largest leaves – Leaves upon which rain can loudly drum or gently patter. People buy CDs of rain falling on leaves to help them relax and sleep. Just as calming is the way, in a wind, rhubarb sways and quietly creeks. I like to lie flat and peer between thick red, pink and purple columns; to look up and see the underside of the leaves backlit, their ribs and veins clearly defined. I am no rhubarbarian. I don’t just eat it; I enjoy its superb architecture and structural engineering; and the way the sun shafts through holes in the canopy made by munching caterpillars, stippling stems and mottling moist shadows.

There is no wall where the end of the garden meets the shore. Instead there’s a short stone-faced drop that forms a rampart. The height of it varies according to the extent to which storm winds and high seas have piled against it shoals of pebbles. At spring tide (2) high water the sea is no more than three or four feet away from the end of the garden, bringing with it a huge variety of rubbish, driftwood and dead seaweed. Plastics I remove and put in bin-bags. The rest is grist to the tumbling waves. Although my beachcombing is mostly confined to this strip of shore, the ocean’s offerings are bountiful. Today I found two rings just big enough to fit on my little finger. One was a conical limpet shell, the top two thirds of which had been snapped off, leaving the frilly circular base with a hole in the middle. The other was the last quarter inch of the neck of a green beer bottle, its jagged edges long since smoothed away. I have become a seaglunter – a sea-glass hunter. Almost every week I add to my collection of curving, opalescent sea-gems in bottle greens and browns or almost clear, all slightly frosted and transformed. Once man-made objects, they have been claimed by nature. I include ceramics in my collection. The other day I found rounded pieces of blue-white willow pattern china lying among a heap of exactly matching empty mussel shells.

When the tide is far out at spring low tide a kelp jungle is exposed. This particular species of kelp is oarweed. Without the sea to support its weight, it lies in a tangled mass. When submerged, however, it becomes a swaying upright forest, designed to move with the waves as they crash onto the shore. Its flexibility allows it to survive in situations when more rigid plants would snap or be torn from the rock(3). The Scottish Natural Heritage publication Kelp Forests says:

‘The oarweed forest marks the junction between land and sea. It is probably one of the most natural environments that can be explored by a land dweller, in that, around most of Scotland, it is only rarely affected by human activity.’

Early one morning, at low-tide and when the sun was newly risen and shining horizontally through this colony of kelp, I walked to the rocky outer margin of the inter-tidal zone. The kelp’s thick wet gelatinous blades gleamed and glimmered in shades of brown ranging from amber to umber. On the underside of the blades, or among the stems, were sea slugs, squirts, sponges, small crabs, tiny five-armed starfish, sea anemones and a host of other miniature marine life that I could not name. Cautiously I manoeuvred across the slippery surface. Writhing shapes shone like luculent, pellucid gold – a magical kingdom existing for less than an hour before the sun rose higher and the turning tide hid it again..

Within a short walk from where I live many more adventures for the eye and mind await. There is always more to learn, more surprises, joy and wonder to encounter, fresh ways to grow. I have touched upon only a few. I have said nothing of the flowers, trees and bushes, the birds, bees and butterflies, the sunsets and cloudscapes; the sculpted driftwood, the seashells, the countless ways light falls upon, passes through or is reflected by an immense variety of surfaces. Step outside and almost immediately all five senses are fully engaged. Take any square meter of what lies immediately beyond my backdoor and a team of artists, botanists, biologists, micro-scientists and philosophers could write an entire volume on that alone. In experiencing the close and the small there is as much to be discovered as journeying to the far corners of the Earth. I do not need to travel great distances in order to reach new realms of the imagination, attain new heights of understanding and depths of feeling.

NOTES

  1. From Helen Keller’s poem ‘The Song of the Stone Wall’ (1910).
  2. Spring tides occur twice a month just after a full moon or a new moon. At spring tides the tidal range is at its greatest, advancing up the beach to its highest point and receding down the beach to its lowest point. The name ‘spring tide’ comes from the notion of the tide ‘springing forth’, it has nothing to do with the season of the same name..
  3. Seaweeds do not have roots (which draw nutrients from the soil). They have holdfasts, which act as anchors.