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Mountains on Jura

I went north this week. Ostensibly the reason was to mop up a few sites I wanted to see for the book.

As I moved up the country, the wires above the train caught fire and we were held stationary for hours; it wasn’t long after that they closed the East Coast Main Line. Once we got to Newcastle I found the the local metro, too had melted.

I made it: in the end. But I felt like some kind of desperate surfer, always just an inch ahead of a tsunami of heat, even as my own activities contributed to the warming that was its ultimate cause.

I’ve burnt 700 miles worth of diesel since. I’ve used it to reach hills in the Borders made of the solidified inner furnace of the Earth; hills I found it impossible to climb, such was the power of the climate-heat.

I’ve used it to reach an artificial mountain in West Lothian made of discarded shards of shale oil, each piece of which clinked below my feet like burnt wood, all of them processed to provide energy for man.

In the Firth of Lorn I visited places that were once islands, and are now flooded reefs of slate: places hollowed out and vanquished by the need to roof an industrialising world.

And at one point I stood in baking air on an empty plateau; and knew that on this spot 1300 years earlier a missionary had stood in a magnificent timber hall and tried to describe what it was to be alive.

It was like a bird, he said: a bird that accidentally enters a hall such such as this, and savours the life and the warmth, before vanishing into the unknown again.

Throughout all this a destination lurked at the back of my mind that had nothing to do with the book.

I found myself googling possibilities, using social media to make last-minute connections, making bookings on the hoof, and in the end driving for three extra hours into the short Highland night, simply so I could find myself on the first ferry-sailing of the following day.

I never quite admitted to myself I was doing this. And yet I did it. And it wasn’t until I was on the ferry, and we chopped across grey waters and seals lolled on stray rocks, that I realised that this was the actual reason for the entire trip. Remarkable, it was to respond in this way to something at once fundamental and utterly hidden.

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I’ve being brought up against all kinds of realities these last few years. That we are embodied. That the cells that comprise out flesh change over time, and not always in the way one might wish them to.

I’ve spent too long trapped in NHS chairs, pinned down by tubes down which kindly, masked figures put into me some very expensive chemical poisons.

Wherever the imperative came from, it had something to do with this. Crossing the water was part of it: freedom, space, the elements. But at its heart was an 8-hour walk into a deserted peaty bog, from which I pushed these 60-year-old legs up almost 800 metres of hard quartzite, to find myself surrounded by fog and at the summit cairn of the highest point on the Hebridean island of Jura.

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What is it about mountains? Like the imperative that brought me here, the reason for their pull is not always clear to us. We pretend it’s all about conquering things, rising to challenges, pushing one’s frame, showing your body who’s in charge.

But the reality is different. In places like this it is just you, and the forces that are actually in charge, and nothing else. Just this little complex bundle of quick carbon — and the mighty power of the physical world: the tectonic power of time, of change, of energy moving from one state to another. The power of time: the power of place.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Michael Butterfield
    July 25, 2022 at 9:16 am

    To Jon

    This is inspirational stuff.

    I admire your energy and determination.

    Thank you for including me on your mailing list.

    Best wishes

    Michael

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