Above the Plain
The Flow Country – at least, the bit she can see from the station - is not as lunar as she’d imagined. She’d wondered, disembarking from the train, if she might feel like Neil Armstrong climbing down his little ladder to the surface of the moon - but actually the landscape is not completely barren or devoid of human life. There’s even a postbox and a couple of roads and, on the other side of the tracks, a house. Lucy wonders who lives in the house; whether, in the event of dire need or train cancellations (there being only one train back down the track for the rest of that day), she could knock on the front door, seeking refuge.
She has arranged to meet a moss expert– technical term, bryologist - whose name, funnily enough, is Dr Fern. In a Zoom meeting the previous week, Dr Fern (first name Kenneth) had told her that over thirty-five species of moss grow in the peat bogs there. ‘The whole of this part of the Highlands,’ he’d continued, screen-sharing a map called Flow Country: kilometrical extent, ‘is pretty much what you would call bog.’ Which is, of course, why so many moss species grow there: it is one of the most significant areas for moss in the entire world. And also why the Flow Country is basically the finest place on the planet for capturing carbon. Because the moss and other plants that live there don’t decompose, as such, meaning they don’t release their carbon.
Not a lot of people know that, he’d added. ‘Did you know that?’
‘Well no,’ Lucy said.
‘It’s also why we want to avoid damaging the blanket bog, at all costs’
‘Yes,’ Lucy agreed – suddenly realising how much she didn’t, in fact, know about mosses and carbon capture. She’d hardly even known the term blanket bog before talking to Kenneth.
‘And not only that! We even have our very own carnivorous plant species!’ he added – on a lighter note, she presumed. ‘It’s called a Sundew. You’ll find it growing around the sphagnums’
‘Look,’ he’d added, ‘here’s one,’ and he’d shown her a picture of a Sundew – a quite pretty, pale green thing, fringed with short, coral pink spikes. It looked delicate, exotic; more the kind of plant you’d expect to see on a tropical island. Or maybe under the sea.
‘So what do… Sundews eat?’ Lucy asked - having only ever heard the name applied before to a type of melon you might find in Sainsbury’s, say, or Morrisons.
‘They eat insects,’ Kenneth said. ‘It’s OK, they don’t eat journalists from London!’ And he began to laugh.
‘Right’ she said again, wondering if he’d ever given a presentation entitled ‘How to encourage urban hacks to the remote Scottish Highlands’. She suspected he might not have done. The name sundew (she thought, but didn’t say) also sounded quite endearing for a carnivorous plant. But she didn’t think Kenneth would necessarily agree with this idea: she had a sense that their take on things might diverge quite a lot. I’m mainly going for the birdlife, anyway, she wanted to say. For the cuckoos and the plovers and the larks. And alighting from the train at Forsinard station, she’d discovered there was in fact an RSPB centre right there, on the platform - un-staffed, but containing information leaflets and postcards and a hot drinks machine and a short film about the Flow Country. Presumably, she thinks now, a centre like that is not there for nothing.
The publication she works for – thrillingly named Wild Life - is mainly, in fact, a glorified lifestyle magazine. One whole section in the last issue had been completely devoted to sustainable garden furniture. For the latest edition, she and two of her fellow freelancers had been asked to cover three different, environmentally important parts of Europe, the resulting write-ups to be published in the autumn edition, and the three parts of Europe being the Scottish Highlands, Andalucia and Sicily.
Lucy’s colleagues, Hannah and Joe, had got Andalucia and Sicily respectively, while Lucy had got the peat bogs of Caithness.
Hannah and Joe had both found this quite amusing. They’d both laughed, for quite a long time – ‘with you, Luce, not at you!’ as Hannah had reassured her, even though Lucy couldn’t help feeling that ‘at’ might be in there somewhere. They’d also both remarked on May being the perfect month during which to visit Andalucia and Sicily because they could both take in, while there, the balmy but not over-hot weather, the beaches, the warm, healing seas, the various cultural delights, the local cuisines, the gorgeous wines.
‘Are there likely to be midges in Caithness in May?’ Lucy had asked Kenneth the previous week, during their Zoom chat: she’d suddenly felt the need to ask practical questions like this. And Kenneth had looked quite serious for a moment. Then he’d said
‘It would be advisable to bring midge repellent, yes. Also,’ he’d added, ‘you’ll need to beware of picking up ticks from the deer’
‘Ticks…’ she said, writing this down. She looked up. ‘Anything else to… be aware of?’
‘Yes: stick to the boardwalks,’ Kenneth said.
Planning her journey the previous week, she’d considered driving nearly all the way up the British mainland, from central London to Caithness, but having discovered this was a journey of over six hundred miles which would take at least twelve hours, she’d decided on the train instead – a journey involving four changes, at King’s Cross, Edinburgh, Perth and Inverness, and which had, itself, taken almost eleven hours. She could have flown to Wick Airport, she supposed, as she’d sat looking out of the train window, but this would hardly have been in keeping with her environmental brief.
Hannah and Joe had both flown, of course, to Andalucia and Sicily. Given the copy date (as they’d both pointed out during an editorial meeting a couple of weeks ago), there would simply not have been time to take ferries all the way there and back. ‘Can’t you file your copy from the boat?’ Lucy had asked, but no-one had seemed to hear this.
‘Well – have fun in Sicily!’ she’d added to Joe as they were heading out a little later.
‘Thanks. I will.’ He’d paused. ‘I think you probably drew the short straw,’ he’d added. ‘Wading around the bogs, while Hannah and I are in the Med…’
‘On the contrary. I’m sure it’ll be fine,’ she’d replied, robustly.
‘Have you got any particular… species you’re hoping to see? I’m very much hoping to spot an Aeolian wall lizard,’ Joe had added - the Aeolian wall lizard, he’d discovered, while conducting a little light Google research, was on the Red List of critically endangered European reptile species: it was very much the canary in the coal mine, he said, as far as biodiversity in Sicily was concerned.
‘Yeah, well, good luck with that!’ Lucy said. ‘Seeing as the Aeolian wall lizard is so incredibly rare. And you’re only there forty-eight hours. I mean, I’ve probably got as much chance spotting a lizard in Caithness!’
‘Ah, but Luce,’ he replied, sadly, ‘lizards like warmth and dry conditions! They like sunning themselves on walls! I’m not convinced a Scottish bog is entirely their natural habitat!’
Which – she had to concede – was probably true. But can the Aeolian islands capture nearly thirty per cent of the world’s land carbon, Joe? she wanted to say. Can they store 400 millions tonnes of carbon, like the Flow Country can? Because this was also true: during the little presentation Kenneth Fern had given her, he’d explained what an incredibly important role the Flow Country had to play not only locally but on the world-stage – how the bogs that existed in that particular bit of the world acted as a massive ‘carbon sink.’ The far northern Highlands were basically, he said, the crème de la crème of carbon capture. But then, what did she truly know about environmental matters? She’d grown up in the countryside but had spent the past eight years of her life working as a journalist in Croydon.
‘Anyway,’ Joe had concluded. ‘Just make sure you don’t fall in any peat bogs, Luce.’
‘I’ll try not to’
‘And it’s not supposed to be a competition, is it,’ he’d added. ‘About who’s got the coolest wildlife to write about. Or who’s bagged the best bit of Europe. Even though I am heading off to Sicily,’ he’d concluded. ‘And there are going to be chameleons’
Then he’d headed off, to catch his flight.
On the train up from London, somewhere between Newcastle and Edinburgh, she had found herself thinking again about Joe and his Aeolian wall lizard – and she’d also thought for a while about her late grandfather, who had always been something of an amateur expert on wildlife and the natural world. He’d really seemed to know what he was talking about as far as nature was concerned, and in the year since his death she’d often wished he’d known about her new job at Wild Life - which at least purported to be about nature, even if it was often more about sustainable bamboo furniture. Her grandfather’s own garden in Nottinghamshire had had a fruit-cage as well as flowerbeds, a herb garden, a compost heap, a woodshed and a little pond, full of tadpoles in the spring and baby frogs in the summer. For years, he’d also used to have a couple of bags of Irish peat propped up against the side of the woodshed. Lucy remembered that, suddenly - with a little burst of recollection: how the words Finest Irish Sphagnum Peat Moss had always been printed on the side of the bags, alongside an image of a bright green shamrock, and how, as a young child, she’d wondered what sphagnum was, and whether (because of the letters it contained) it had anything to do with spaghetti. She also remembered that one summer there’d suddenly been no bags of Irish peat propped up by the woodshed, and that in their place were bags of something called peat-free compost. ‘Why aren’t you using the Irish peat any more? The one with the shamrock on the bag?’ she’d asked him. This would have been in the late nineties: she would have been nine or ten.
‘Because digging peat up is very bad for the environment,’ he’d told her.
And really, right up to that week, when she’d listened to Kenneth Fern giving his Flow Country presentation, she’d never properly considered why. She hadn’t really given any thought to peat and mosses and carbon capture. She wished she could talk to her grandfather about it now, and tell him what she’d learned.
And now here she is, waiting for Kenneth Fern at Forsinard station. For the briefest moment, as she stands there on the platform, she experiences a terrible sense of abandonment; almost an existential panic. Because it might not be entirely lunar, but it really is very remote, still; a really very long way from Croydon. It might as well be Iceland. But then, after a short while she hears the sound of a vehicle in the distance, and she turns to see a dark green Landrover thundering along the road, its wheels picking up the early summer dust, like something in a Western, before it pulls up sharp in a layby beside the house. Then Kenneth Fern gets out.
‘Lucy,’ he says, heading towards her, his hand outstretched.
‘Hi,’ she says, smiling. Like everyone these days, he is an approximation of the person she’d spoken to on Zoom. In real life, he is taller and slightly older looking, with more of a beard.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he says. ‘I was dropping the kids off at school’
School? Where could a school possibly be, around here? she thinks. We are literally miles from anywhere.
‘They go to school in Helmsdale,’ he says, as if he has read her mind. ‘It’s about twelve miles away’
‘You have to pretty much go everywhere by car around here, I’m afraid’
‘And you’ve traveled a long way, I take it?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘All the way from Croydon.’ She pauses. ‘But I stayed the night in Inverness.’
‘Well, it would have been an achievement to get here from Croydon in a day!’ Kenneth says. ‘Or, at least a challenge to the time-space continuum’
‘Yes…’ She is suddenly aware how odd it is, to finally be there, in a tiny hamlet in Caithness, with a stranger called Kenneth: to have come all this way, for this purpose.
‘So: great you could be here, anyway. Do you want to grab a quick coffee first,’ he asks, ‘before we head along the boardwalk?’
‘A coffee?’ she asks, looking around, as if a Costa might suddenly materialize in front of her.
‘From the coffee machine in the station’
‘Or shall we just head along to the lookout tower, while it’s not raining…’ he adds, looking up into the sky.
She looks up too. It doeslook as if it might rain. It does look as if it might not be quite the beautifully sunny day Hannah and Joe will be experiencing in the Mediterranean. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘let’s head along the boardwalk first, to the look-out tower. What’s it for, exactly?’ she adds, ‘the look-out tower?’
‘Well, it’s to look out from’
‘Yes. Of course…’
And they set off, heading over the level crossing and a short distance along the road, before turning abruptly right, onto the boglands proper. It is clearly not going to be a particularly long or arduous walk to the look-out tower: she’d imagined leaping and springing across soggy terrain, but the boardwalk begins almost as soon as the road ends, and the boards are weathered and wide beneath her brand new walking boots. She is reminded very slightly of the only other work trip she has undertaken so far, for Wild Life – a joint assignment to Florida with Joe and Hannah the previous year, to cover the Everglades, where they’d walked along a boardwalk called John’s Pass, reputed to have been created by a pirate named John Levique in eighteen-hundred-and-something. In most other respects, though, this boardwalk in the Flow Country, and this landscape, are nothing like John’s Pass or Florida at all. Just as they are nothing like Sicily, or Andalucia.
‘So, my colleagues have lucked out, in a sense…’ she says after a moment, plodding along behind Kenneth, ‘because they got to go to Southern Europe.’
‘Lucked out in what way?’ Kenneth asks, over his shoulder.
‘Well, I mean, it’s lovely here…’ she continues, politely, looking around her at the vista – the virtually silent, brownish plains beneath the wide, pale sky – ‘but they did – you know - get the sunshine…’ she adds, feeling a little melancholy suddenly - at a kind of loss - ‘and maybe they have a bit more… diversity of wildlife to write about, and… variety of terrain…’
She hardly knows what she is talking about. She is mainly talking to make herself feel better about her lot. And Kenneth doesn’t reply anyway: he has suddenly, in fact, stopped dead in his tracks, causing her almost to walk straight into him, and he is pointing at something on the planks of the boardwalk; some little creature. ‘Ssh!’ he’s saying, ‘look!’
And she looks, and sees that there is a lizard: there is a tiny, greyish-green lizard, just sitting there on the wooden board, in a sudden burst of sunlight. She has only been there in the Flow Country about five minutes – they haven’t even made it to the lookout tower yet – but she has already seen this: a lizard. She could easily have missed it because it really is very tiny. Its size and shape reminds her of the little plastic dinosaurs she used to place around the pond in her grandfather’s garden when she was small, imagining a tiny Jurassic world.
‘Zootaca vivipara,’ Kenneth whispers, crouching to look more closely at it. ‘Or, common lizard’
‘But - not that common…?’ Lucy whispers back.
‘Not if we don’t protect where it lives,’ he says, as, sensing their presence, it suddenly darts away beneath the boardwalk.
Lucy doesn’t speak for a moment. Then she says
‘It’s funny, because I remember my granddad buying these great bags of peat once, for his garden. Of sphagnum moss peat. Then one year he suddenly just stopped. And when I asked him why, he said it was to protect the environment. Only it never really occurred to me before, quite what he was talking about. I mean, what kind of environment’
Kenneth stands up again. ‘Well, he’s obviously a wise man, your granddad,’ he says.
‘He was,’ she says. She breathes in. ‘One of my colleagues,’ she adds after a moment, ‘the one who’s gone to Sicily – is on the look-out for an Aeolian wall lizard this week.’
‘Really?’ Kenneth says. ‘An Aeolian wall lizard. Well. Good luck with that!’
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘He didn’t think I’d spot a lizard here. He didn’t think they’d even exist in this kind of climate’
‘Ah well, it’s a surprising place, the Flow Country,’ Kenneth says. ‘There’s an awful lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s ten meters deep, for a start. And not far off the size of the Great Barrier Reef. I mean, it’s pretty vast’
‘Yes - so I see…’ she says, looking around – because she feels she does see; or is beginning to. The scale, at least - of the problem, and the solution. She sees some of what her grandfather was talking about. And she and Kenneth stop talking and carry on for a while, walking the turns and curves of the boardwalk, past the pools of mosses and sundews, and over to the look-out tower. They climb the steps and look out at the drifts of cotton-grass covering the earth like snow, and down at the pools of standing water, and across at a little herd of deer running along the horizon, and up still further, into the sky, at a bird of prey – a hen harrier, Kenneth says –– ‘now, that is rare…’, he adds, watching as it soars silently, circling the currents like a blessing or a harbinger, high above the plain.