Living in mist


Once in the Lake District I lived for a week in the thick mist up in the hills. I had a telescope with me and when there was a brief gap in the low cloud I would look down far away beneath me and see people unpacking walking and climbing gear from the boots of cars. Just out for the day. I found I liked living entirely in the mist, though it was wet, with sheep turds and bleating. No-one came to where I was. Made me think of the poem 'Seeking but not finding the recluse' by Jia Dao, the end of which gave Alan Watts the title for his book of essays, 'Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown'.

I had enough food with me to last a while. When I walked down a little lower sometimes I would become conscious of leaving the mist and suddenly walking out into a clear day overlooking the dales and lakes, but I would quickly go back into the clouds where I saw nothing but the grass and the white mist all about. It wasn't easy, it can seem boring to spend all your time in wet cloud seeing nothing, and you find yourself alone with your demons. I had Seneca's letters with me, and would read them if I felt in need of fortification of spirit.

Sometime later I lived in the mist on Rannoch Moor, where I heard the curlew cry unseen, reminding me of the second line of hexagram 61, 'calling crane in the shade'. The curlew's call (250 Kb) is mysterious and soothing, especially so in the mist. That and the gentle lapping of the loch on the shore where I was camped was quite enough to occupy me for days on end. There I found the most solitude I have ever found, and the clamour of the world utterly died away. I made a point of saying to myself, just in case I might later forget, that this is a place where the world no longer exists. It is good to know such a place. It also happens to be the most apocalyptic landscape I have ever seen. It is not what one immediately thinks of when picturing a paradise, but nonetheless I found a peace there like I have nowhere else.

Grey petrified-looking wood, the remains of the old Caledonian forest, sticks up out of the peat bogs. A lonely outpost where hooded crows patrol, strutting through ribcages with fleece dangling. The air hangs silent on eagle's wings, when the prevailing wind has dropped. Insectivorous plants like sundew and butterwort grow there, along with bog cotton, the cotton permanently teased by the nimble fingers of the wind, such that if you arrive there when the wind has dropped you can tell which direction it will be blowing in by observing the way all the lint-white bog-cotton is teased. It makes it look like there is a wind blowing all the time, but one you can't feel or hear, the leaning landscape bent over, stuck like that from so many great winds before. Then later, when the wind comes, you should have realised it would be ferocious. But how still everything is when it suddenly drops. And clouds roll down from the mountains like a paintbrush loaded with white watercolour dipped in a jar of clear water, and now the mist is so thick you can't even see your feet, you have to literally bow your head before it just to make sure you keep to the meandering path and don't stray off into the bogs.

They say people have disappeared into these bogs, particularly when building the railway line, but they may just be stories. Nonetheless, the stories keep you mindful. Sometimes you see nervous footprints at the edge of the black peat basins testing the strength of the surface, like a skin on cold custard. You don't like to risk going too far relying on it to support your weight, not even to retrieve a piece of bogwood to feed a warming fire for the night. But I loved that sometimes when the mist came I couldn't even see below my waist when standing tall wandering over this landscape. You have to walk like an old man hunched over to see where you're planting your feet, the path twisting like a snake through these treacherous peat basins. You imagine you see ghostly figures walking towards you out of the white, every step has to be paid attention to, you don't know where you're going, you are just a point of presence and the world has gone. Once I saw a huge white archway looming out of the distance, it was a fogbow, a rainbow as it appears in thick mist, but the first time you see such a thing it is otherworldly, you soon forget the consensus reality that was so easily accepted before you came here. The things that I love about the place are the things others might easily become unnerved by, because they unnerved me until I made it my world and forgot any other world.

I came across an abandoned cottage there, used by shepherds every so often. I looked through the window and saw more things of the world than I realised I had seen for some time. There was a tall and ornate grandfather clock in the living room. A table and chairs, a candelabra. I imagined some elderly man used to isolation 30 or 40 years ago quietly rowing a rowboat here transporting his prized grandfather clock across the loch. Perhaps he enjoyed hearing its chimes standing out in the mist, smoking a pipe on the shore. Rannoch Moor moved me. I spent a lot of time simply sitting with my eyes filled with the tears of an all-encompassing grace that has dogged me all my life. A grace that explains everything but answers nothing. That fills you as if you were a sponge soaking it up and all you can feel is gratitude without any holding back.