Ten Reasons to Stay Alive

1. The scent of lavender and pine on a summer breeze.
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2. Sitting under the cherry tree in the noon day sun, light filtering through the leaves like gold satin.

3. Fast-moving, shape-shifting clouds carving up the sky.

4. The premonition of rain in the air and when it falls, the softness on my skin. The way raindrops gather and trickle on the window pane making patterns. The way rain strengthens the colours of leaves and flowers.

5. The miraculous existence of rabbits.

6. Birds that sing at night.

7. The rhythm of the sea, white surf boiling up on the beach after a storm.

8. The cool smoothness of sea pebbles.

9. The darkness of forests, the dry crackle of twigs under foot.

10. Biting into a ripe nectarine, the juice trickling down my chin.

 

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Photo by the author

 

Before the Storm

Mast bells peel strange lands, humans float
confetti in dark pools. Through the crimson door
beyond the promised mountain, the sun stills
my enemy, my friend. The oak tree
marches shadows across blue fields. Birds sing
grey lullabies to the dispossessed
and marsh marigolds play torch songs.
Stone eagles wait for night, fly, swoop high
in peach schnapps skies. My breath, in out, in
out, my chest shrivels old party balloons.
Skin stings, cold bees devouring ears, eyes
don’t see, fingers don’t.
My pen is not mightier,
the world ink fades.
I become invisible
wind turning pages,
the last ship leaving.

 

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Photograph by the author

Highland River

Everywhere you look in the Highlands there are wild seas, sparkling waterfalls,  crystal rivers and lochs.  Rain falls almost every day.  Northern Scotland is a realm of water.  Perhaps that is why so many people choose to make it their home.  Human beings, like other animals, have an instinct to gather near water.  Water is a source of sustenance, essential to survival.

Many of the novels of acclaimed Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (born 1891 – died 1973) focus on a watery theme:- Morning Tide, The Silver Darlings, The Grey Coast, The Drinking Well and Highland River which won the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.  Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath, a tiny coastal village which is a half hour drive from my home.  His father was the captain of a herring boat and Gunn’s writing explores the harsh lives, isolation and landscapes of Caithness fishing communities.  Gunn was a socialist and a political activist committed to Scottish Nationalism and independence.  His writing has a Zen-like intensity with an underlying mysticism, detailed descriptions of landscape and the slow unfurling of events.

 

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Photo by the author

 

Visitors to Dunbeath harbour today will see a striking bronze statue of a boy wrestling with a huge salmon.  The statue illustrates a dramatic scene from Highland River when nine year old Kenn captures a salmon with his bare hands.  The novel contrasts this childhood struggle for survival and dominance with the brutality of World War 1 when an adult Kenn joins the British army.

Within the first two pages Gunn introduces the novel’s main protagonist, establishes the remote community setting and the landscape whilst building dramatic mood and tension.  It is an example of Neil Gunn’s great skill as a writer.  Here is a short excerpt describing when Kenn on a cold morning, reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea just before he sees the salmon:-

“Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.”

 

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A tangle of creel baskets at Dunbeath harbour where small scale crab and lobster fishing has replaced the thriving herring industry of the early nineteenth century.