Multidisciplinary artist Anthony Bennett shares the inspiration behind sculptures on the crucial role of the usually disregarded fungus in returning life to soils following mass extinction events — and what this offers us in imagining possible human extinction.
Dead Kids Fingers is a project I started some years ago now. I’ve always been a political animal. Over the years I’ve been involved in many kinds of political causes. Environmentalism, for the last ten years or so, has reinvigorated my passion for social justice.
Through the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, which I co-conceived with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, I met a number of scientists at the University and through conversations with them, I started to learn about the tasks and the enormous issues which their research is focused upon, facing society now, and in the near future. Research concerning climate change, food security, all sorts of things, including depletion of global resources.
The fungus factor in our soils
I was particularly inspired by soil scientist/mycologist Professor Duncan Cameron. Our conversations have resulted in a number of artwork projects, and continue to do so. For one such project, I considered the worst-case scenario facing the human race; that if it doesn’t adapt and change its ways, then it could become extinct. The idea of human extinction really knocked me sideways. I suppose it fascinated me.
I learned that following the three last great Mass Extinctions on the planet, the organism that took a lead in restoring life on the planet was fungus. I learned that it originally created the soil itself, and that it has built the soil ever since by means of its mycelium rotting matter and repurposing it as soil. That we owe our entire existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. The concept of ‘The Wood Wide Web’, coined by Duncan’s teacher and colleague Professor Sir David Read, the revelation of the hidden but active connectivity of mycelium, reinvigorated my lifelong yearning for active and purposeful collaboration, creative and open, with no proclivity to compromise or to dumbing down.
Through my research I came across the fungus Dead Man’s Fingers. Considering a post-extinction planet, and the fact that fungus is the thing which will restore some sort of life-forms, I employed the idea to use the device of a child’s finger, emerging from the earth, as a metaphor for post extinction life re-emerging, human or otherwise.
Dead Kids Fingers
I started creating sculptures at my studio, and then created installations in woodland areas and forests nearby. I took photographs which I shared online, and exhibited some of them in group art shows, with the statement:
“Dead kids fingers address the fact that: With or without humans, fungus will revitalize the earth, as it has done following previous global extinctions. And that all life on earth is connected. In the hope that future generations will embrace the mycelial world, learn from it, and engage with it in mutualistic symbiosis.”
Maybe the lessons learned could then be put to use to actually fend off the next extinction? A purpose to life in the Anthropocene.
NB: click on image to enter slideshow and then view full size.
Check out Anthony’s Instagram feed @absculpts for up to date and ongoing artworks. Anthony contributed Ace of Wands to Week 3 of our Quarantine Connection series in 2020.
You can explore the most recent Festival of the Mind schedule, for 2020, which includes a series of podcasts on various climate change, extinction and health topics — among them, Anthony’s Bittersweet Air exhibition and podcast on his work on soil in collaboration with Professor Tim Daniell.
You can find out about Professor Duncan Cameron’s work on resource fluxes and chemical signals in plant-microbe symbioses in agricultural and natural systems at his website.
This piece by Taylor Kubota of Stanford University (15/5/19) for Science X describes how scientists built on the pioneering work of Professor Sir David Read on fungal symbiosis to map the global Wood Wide Web.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?
1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes
Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.
“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”
It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,” a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”
An Ice Age in miniature
In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”
The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”
‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’
Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.
Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.
“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”
Find out more
The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.
John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).
You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.
Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.
Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.
1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes
“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape
My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…
Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.
It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.
Desert Quartet — desert life
Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!
Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.
My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.
No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories… Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.
My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways.
A desert calling
Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.
At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.
I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…
“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.
Find out more
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).
You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, atUnusual Places. And there is more to discover atRomney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. “It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”
Extinction Rebellion Rewildingis the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”
You can watch James’ filmSteadfast, and more of his films, onVimeo. And don’t forget to check outFinding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts,“Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.
Poet Clare Crossman was inspired to respond to a public call for Letters to the Earth and her poem is included in the publication — a book which offers “a spelling out that we are interconnected with nature.”
1,700 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes
Early in 2019 a call went out on social media, I think I saw it on Facebook. Culture was also proclaiming an emergency. They were looking for ‘letters to the Earth’ from writers all over the country, to be read out loud during an event linking the Globe Theatre to the streets, the protests — anywhere people were gathering during a one-day event in April, when it was planned that everything they had been sent would be read out loud by someone, somewhere for the Earth.
I had recently written a poem in the form of a monologue about climate change. It had arisen on a dark winter’s night in 2018 when I found myself in deep discussion with a science journalist, a theatre director and filmmaker at an arts get-together. We were looking at the stars and wondering. It turned out we all had entirely different perspectives. Someone said they believed we were just part of a geological arc of years and that we were facing extinction. The Anthropocene was the Sixth Mass Extinction and it was as predictable as the cycles that had brought the Ice Age. It was a point in history, we as human beings had ruined the natural world and there wasn’t much that could be done about it.
The act of naming
It was such a starry night and we were outside in the dark looking up. This conversation stayed with me in the way certain experiences do if you are a poet. I think it lingered because the landscape of Cumbria and other, southern, landscapes formed my writing. I grew up in a profoundly rural place, close to a farm that still had a field called The Meadow that was left to go wild and filled with buttercups, clover, speedwell and eyebright in what I see now as a deeply held tradition for the dairy farmer who lived opposite us and spoke in Cumbrian dialect.
Earlier, I also was brought up by a countrywoman whose father had been a carter in the depths of undeveloped Kent where she lived on a farm. She knew the names of all the wildflowers I asked about. The rare, the common, the folk, alternative names and some of their herbal properties. I was always walking into stinging nettles, she always supplied a dock leaf. When hot, we sucked the honey out of the bottom of clover petals.
So I have a sense that the natural world was part of me and it is to my great advantage and by luck that I have a connection and can name these things. In the north, an occupation on a summer’s afternoon was to walk or go and swim in the wash pools of the beck at Mungrisdale. So, this is why I wrote the poem, The Night Toby Denied Climate Change, which found its way into Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis. I was delighted and surprised when I received an e-mail asking for permission to publish it. I thought it would become part of the wind, which was good enough for me.
As Simon McBurney writes in his piece included in the book, The Act of Naming: “To be unable to name is to be cut off because we cannot read. If we cannot read, we cannot connect or orientate ourselves or know that story you, our earth is telling”. I am not going to write on this now but, needless to say, if you want to know the recent statistics on the numbers of children who never go into nature and don’t see it as part of them, look no further than Fiona Reynolds’ The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future.
The Night Toby Denied Climate Change wasn’t the kind of poem I usually write. I wanted what I had to say to be carried on someone’s voice, so I wrote it as a monologue in the voice of someone who I imagine was sitting around a fire pit with Toby and others. I started my working life in theatre and still love its democratic openness of forms.
The book of a hundred poems and prose pieces selected from all the letters they received is broad and lovely in scope. As it says on the flyleaf, “The book you are holding contains letters from all of us: parents and children; politicians and poets; actors and activists; songwriters and scientists. They are letters of Love, Loss, Hope and Action to a planet in crisis. They are the beginning of a new story. They are an invitation to act.”
There are some very august writers and thinkers in this book, as well as many young people. In Katie Skiffington’s letter, Procrastination, she begins every paragraph with the word ‘Sorry’, after beginning ‘Dear Future Generations’. Her whole letter is an apology describing all the things we did not do:
Sorry. We didn’t get there in time. We were late. Except we had time.
Sorry that instead of seeing trees as graceful homes for now extinct species, we view them as nothing but paper; money. Great big money-making machines.
There are also pieces which create new metaphors and stories for Earth. Peter Owen Jones redefines his relationship with the earth as milk which was given him. Mark Rylance creates a fairy story based on a canoeing excursion he has just made down the Colorado River where he sees cities and skyscrapers fall. There is Yoko Ono’s writing and of course Mary Oliver, Jay Griffiths, and Caroline Lucas. The poet Nick Drake and the novelist Lyndsay Clarke.
Letters to provoke
Even though they are many established famous names, these are all pieces of new writing balanced with each other in tone and ideas from many others and so Letters to the Earth should not be seen as a coffee table book. Oh no. It is a book full of a hundred very different thoughtful pieces which may be of use in teaching or inspiring writing and, of course, thought. The range of all reactions to climate change is there to provoke the reader and all emotions — despair, hope, loss as it says on the flyleaf. In his piece An Apology/A Prayer the playwright Steve Waters says:
OK, In our defenceBy way ofJustificationThe prospects for theFOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTIONThe prospects forPOSTCAPITALISMThe prospects forFULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISMLooked, and on one of the good days still look ExcitingAnd perhaps we found ourselves so gripped by the narrative OfGLOBALLY ACCELERATED GROWTHOr theINTEGRATION OF THE SOUTHERN ECONOMIESOr the advent ofNANO-TECHNOLOGY(I mean you have to realise some of us were born in a period when we could use the words‘the future’Say them:‘the future’
Entirely without irony or dread)
There is wit, delight and sorrow in every page of this book. It forms a beginning to show what is happening in the world: a response, perhaps even a first base, or a spelling out that we are interconnected with nature. In a world where temperatures are rising, the ice is melting and mass extinction of many species has already happened.
Find out more
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, with an introduction by Emma Thompson and edited by Anna Hope, Jo McInnes, Kay Michael and Grace Pengelly, is published by Harper Collins UK (2019). All royalties go towards ongoing creative campaigning for environmental justice.
The wider initiative which led to the book came about in the spring of 2019, when a small group of women came together around a kitchen table to talk. “We’d not even met before. But we had been profoundly shaken by the increasingly dire news of climate and ecological collapse, and inspired by the work of Extinction Rebellion and the Global Youth Strike in bringing that news to the forefront of the public conversation. In our working lives we are theatre makers and writers and we felt strongly that we wanted to find a way to facilitate a creative response to these times of emergency.” As well as Extinction Rebellion, and Global Climate Strike, Letters to the Earth was inspired by and works in sympathy with Culture Declares Emergency.
On the Letters to the Earthwebsite you will find a range of resources, including short videos of readings of some of the letters, an open call to write your own letter, suggestions for local events, and further reading. As well as Clare’s poem, The Night Toby Denied Climate Change, the book also includes contributions from two other ClimateCultures members: social scientist Dr Stuart Capstick (Finding Dory) and poet Nick Drake (The Future).
You can read The Night Toby Denied Climate Change and other poems of Clare’s at her website. And do also explore the Waterlight Project, her collaboration with fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White and others on the natural and social history of the River Mel in Cambridgeshire. Clarerecently wrote some poems for the jazz trio Red Stone about another river, the River Gelt in Cumbria. Entitled Green Shelter, it was premiered at Tullie House in Carlisle on November 30th 2019, with the poems, Red Stone’s music and an accompanying film. You can see a promo for the film, including one of Clare’s poems, Green Shelter.
Artist and illustrator Jackie Morris — creator with Robert Macfarlane of The Lost Words: A Spell Book (published by Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK, 2017) created the swallow logo for Letters to the Earth and Culture Declares Emergency. She has written about her experience with the book on her blog: About time: or, Letters to the Earth.
Writer Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.
710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes
Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.
In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.
An Arctic outpost
After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.
As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.
First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.
Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.
I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.
When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.
In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.
It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.
At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.
Find out more
With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.