Spirits soar on a walk on the wild side

Looking west at the end of a stormy day.

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Last weekend, a good friend came to stay. I’d been on a treadmill of ‘things to do’ since the festive season, and felt slightly breathless after Christmas house guests, an overseas holiday and the start of a busy new job.

However, as I opened the door, I realised I’d let her down.

We all aspire to be the sort of friend that’s always there – but recently, I knew I hadn’t been.

Jo (as we’ll call her) was going through a difficult time. I had read it in her messages, but now I could read it just as clearly in her face. Dove-purple smudges told of wakeful nights. The bloom had left her cheeks, and her pretty freckles looked stark against this new, paler skin. Even bundled up in her winter hat and scarf she seemed thinner. As we hugged, her shoulders shook.

The weather had been terrible for weeks and the wind relentless. February’s palette was subdued after October’s exuberance; wrung out and exhausted by the bleak, dark months.

Yet, between punishing hail showers there were still bright spells. Sitting side by side in the car, we watched patches of light canter over last year’s rusting bracken.

Jo was quiet. While she occasionally laughed at my conversation, these surface visits were brief. I turned back to the window, worried.

A bolt of silver flashed across our view and we pulled over. This raptor – near to the size of a buzzard – was the shimmering blue of a thunderhead; a perfect match for the brooding sky. Though its slim body was buffeted by the wind, it remained buoyant, peering owlishly into the tussocks and dangling its daffodil yellow legs.

Encountering a hen harrier is always a thrill. This male bobbed like a fishing float on wings that might have been dipped in Indian ink. His limbs described a graceful ‘V’ as he quartered the wet flush. When I turned to Jo, she was smiling with delight – but tears trickled out from behind her binoculars.

We walked together through sheep-nibbled fields, and the wind cut at our clothes like a whip. One chilly hand clamped my bobble hat to my head. The other was curled like a dormouse to warm up in my pocket. White horses clattered through the Tiree Passage and we struggled to remain upright, shouting with surprise. There were no boats that day.

Runny-nosed, dry-mouthed and skelped by the wind, we sheltered in the lee of a small wooden building. Behind us an ominous curtain of weather loomed; but, for the moment, it was pleasant to sit, lean back and enjoy the brief kiss of sunshine on our stinging cheeks.

From a ridgeline, massive deep chocolate wings unfurled. I propped open one eyelid, watching.

The bird approached and passed low, hanging awkwardly as it tilted its head to fix us with a quizzical stare. White-tailed eagles sometimes lack that dusting of finesse that lends goldies their haughty edge. While this youngster was physically imposing, its unwieldy, blinky-eyed nosiness provoked a chuckle and an odd desire to say hello. It flapped heavily and turned to pass again. I was pleased to see Jo following it; animated, keen and chatting for a few moments.

As the eagle tacked for the forest, the hailstone vanguard tinkled onto our waterproofs. In this last brightness, the crystals glowed like embers as they fell.

There is an escapism in watching wildlife. Suddenly and unexpectedly absorbed, we can’t help but experience the world from another perspective. For a moment, we feel a lightness, a buoyancy, as the wind smooths our feathers and our cares are cast like water droplets.

The next day Jo left to go and stay with family. On her final evening, she had been a little more like herself.

Somehow, the birds had drifted through into a place that was beyond the reach of words. Their brief presence in that lonely and introspective landscape had brought some temporary relief.