Sunday, 4 March 2012

At the Watershed on the Last Day of Winter

The leap-year day's morning sun shone low and wan, but yes; surprisingly warm - record-breaking warm, in fact - on that windless morning last week above the town. I was between, on one side, the utterly deserted championship golf course at Hazlehead and, on the other, the scrubby edgeland which is made up of the not-quite urban, not-quite rural landscape to the immediate west. Horseriding centres, market-garden smallholdings, deep-infrastructure municipal reservoirs and pine-forested monoculture woods along with all the other usual edgeland ephemera form a patchwork of land use at the western edge of the town. A never-to-be completed network of paths for walkers, equestrians and mountain bikers waits to be discovered or ignored - relaid or allowed to overgrow into desuetude. 

Exploring edgelands like these, where the town frays into the country you might find a path you'd never noticed before. You might follow it through a forested area then between a field of scrubby grass with a magnificent white stallion on one side and on the other, the newly tilled soft rich black soil of this good earth, moist and shining in that warming sun. Your newly-discovered path might bring you to an area you recognise, ah yes, connecting round from a way you'd never come before. And you'd experience an odd mix of feelings. Satisfaction, yes - happy that you'd found a new route that joined up with paths you already knew. But a sadness too - the regret that comes with finally completing a collection, a closing in and rounding off of knowledge, the expiry of a mystery; is that all there is?

Exploring another path - you might find it not-quite-yet overgrown, but hard-enough going, gorse-barbs nipping your arms and legs. Was this an old farm-access road? Was it a drover's road? A tight avenue of mature trees and dry-stane dykes, the once-made now unmade road beneath your feet now grassy green with a desire-line muddy trail up the middle. Who's were the last feet to walk this way? When? And what for? Then the route just stops, cut dead by a recently-built embankment, upon which a commuter's dual-carrageway thunders; Evoque and Focus alike, Hi-Lux and Transit shouldered upon heroic-high revetment thirty feet above your extinguished desire line. You'd have no choice but to turn around and retrace your steps.

And on that anomalously-hot morning last week, that's where I was. Exploring the paths beyond Hazlehead and marvelling at the morning's dew - now sunshine-liberated steamy mist, atmospherically drifting between the pines and highlighting that low-slanting sunshine. Then, secreted somewhere in this liminal zone between the barely-used paths, deep in the small woods I found what I was looking for.

There I found nature's centred silence. A serene stretch of silver-surfaced shallow water amid the trees. These still waters spread wide; a labyrinthine mirror, serpentine between the pines. A seasonally-natural reservoir of the late autumn, winter and early spring months. Then to be exhausted; just-drying cracking mud or even dusty parched concrete-hard in the hottest of summers.

Pushing branches aside, there I stopped and stood by the edge of the still water. As my consciousness slowed and expanded, I began to perceive the sounds which are embedded in silence. A single bird sings to establish territory, or maybe to attract a mate. A sudden gentle breeze ruffles the treetop canopy, it sounds like a breath. Above - dewdrops on the pine-needles come together and surface tension overcomes the tendency to misty evaporation; gravity becomes the major motive force; a drop forms at the end of the needle gathering weight; and more and more, then poink! First one drip, then poit-poit! Two others drip from the branches into the water and make ripples that radiate, disturbing the mirror-perfect surface. Now I can hear, now I know, that this landscape is a waterscape is a soundscape, subtly it is dominated by the gently soft sound of the slowly running trickling gurgles of water flowing from the reservoir. The drips that plopped from the trees above, I knew would find their way to the sea in time; how would they get there?

I perceived that from this reservoir the winterbournes trickle out slickly, slowly propagating and shallowly leaching, following inevitable gravity - reaching down through the woods to the three watercourses which originate nearby. Water branches, like the bifurcations of the trees' branches above, radiating out through the sphagnum carpeted, cone-strewn winter-wet forest floor. This landscape is alive with sluggish silvery gurgles; some streams as wide as I am tall, some as thin as my wrist. A temporary and ever-changing dynamic wetland, the channels altering week to week - day to day. I stood perfect still, slowed my breaths and harkened, listening to the trickles of this three-way watershed. And I sent my thoughts out through the landscape, accompanying the waters on their journey to the sea. Down through finding folds in the landscape; rushing tumbling through gushing gorges and dens; sluggish broad floodplains; dead straight constrained in dug channels; sometimes in the open behind the terraced homes of west end; then covered in concrete culverts and brick-vaulted crypts, audible beneath manhole-covers in the town centre. 

Out from this secret reservoir, those flows which run to the south find their snaking way between the two municipal golf courses, and eventually become the water of Holburn then the Ferryhill Burn which empties into the big famous River Dee near Union Square's shopping complex car-park. And water which spills west from the watershed trickles to Countesswells and adds to the source of the Cults Burn, rushing spectacular and steep down the Den of Cults hanging valley, again into the Dee. But water which runs from here to the north and east forms seasonal streams which empty into the finger-pattern drainage ditches of the woods and become an ornamental stream which is wrangled to run picturesque through the plastic-wrapped-bouquet-strewn garden of remembrance at the City Crematorium, then to swoop down and beneath the Skene Road commuter route, emptying into the Den of Maidencraig and the Denburn, the nearly-river which gave our town its name.

My feet had gone on paths new and old, discovered and forgotten, and came to be standing at the three-way watershed on the last day of the season. The drop of water with its choice to make - to be made for it - from three options, three ways to go. A small change in initial conditions will lead to radically different results. I went to walk away through the trees back to the path, and as I looked at the sunlight shining through the mist between the trees, I realised that there was, of course, a fourth option, for some of the morning's dew had, as I had noticed earlier, formed that thin mist in the woods, now rising high to the sky, absorbed into the air, part of the atmosphere and away. Far, far away.


Miss Melville said...

Breathtaking, thank you. Precisely what I needed this morning (and maybe every morning).

OtherAberdeen said...

Thanks for that, Miss Melville.
If you liked that, you'll probably like this:

Bruce Murray said...

I agree with the above poster. I've just discovered this blog and am glad to have done so. Most of the psychogeographical writing i've come across has been about places i've never been. Though Edinburgh based now i grew up in Aberdeen and am very much looking forward to reading back through more of your fantastic writing.

Marta said...

Thank you for this great pictures.
I love It!

Anonymous said...

Any chance of an update? Aberdeen needs sites like this!