Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 22, June 1, 2022
A short distance from where I was yesterday lies Rannoch, or as the poet once designated it, “Rannoch, by Glencoe.” I try to imagine T.S. Eliot walking these hills. An American from St. Louis, desperate to be an Englishman, travels to Scotland, and surprisingly, in the first stanza evokes something of the mood that accompanies a long day’s walk on the moors:
Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
In a few lines he captures ecological, almost geological, history. The great Caledonian Forest (tonight I am sleeping next to a faint remnant of that wood—dead giant trees standing silver on the hillside) was decimated by many factors, not the least was the transformation of this land into hunting preserves— a sordid history, but here to this day, the “patient stag/ Breeds for the rifle.” I passed many on my descent into Glen Loyne.
But what Eliot does even better is capture the sublimity of these moors. Of course the sublime is an aesthetic category, one all too often invoked by nature writers, but here I’m generalizing (perhaps unfairly) the phenomenon in chemistry. Sublimation describes the change of state of matter directly from solid to gas. To me, it also describes any of those phase changes crossings— the moment of state change. The moors are sublime because they waver, almost tremble, between states. Is that spot where you are about to step solid or liquid? It usually turns out to be a little of both. Eliot’s repetition of the word “soft” here is key— softness is either tactile and can only be known by direct touching, or it is visual, indicating a lack of sharpness, clarity, focus. On these moors, “Substance crumbles, in the thin air.” Tonight I sleep in my tent by the Loyne River, in an isolated, almost magical glen that bears no marks— all is a green softness.
T. Hugh Crawford