Burning Teasels

The teasels are enjoying the rain, filling the riverbanks with their stiff, spikes. Their tiny flowers bloom in a lavender precession over their oval heads, so that they look like so many match-heads struck in slo-mo purple flames. 


49.7 °Celsius

A man places an instrument on the ground and stares at his watch. On the distant edge of the gravel desert, indistinct in the dusty heat-haze, tall structures are dabbed onto the sky like a child's uneven drawing of derricks. At the top of the haze-waved towers waste gas burns away like an orange rip in the hot grey-blue sky. The tear reveals the hidden magma of heaven concealed behind the sky from horizon to horizon, making a furnace to beat down on the Earth. I pull at my plastic water bottle.. A dust devil dances in front of me, twisting grit from the concrete into the sky. It is just a little taller than me, and just a little broader. A dozen eyes watch it stroll past. Someone makes a sign of warding of some sort. Someone else scoffs. The dust gathers into spirals within spirals within its inverted cone. The Navajo say that if a dust devil spins clockwise, it is a good spirit, if it spins the other way it is malign. A huge dragonfly skims past, flying in from some distant tiny spec of water, seeking out the pool that had gathered yesterday beneath a leaking air-conditioner. Today the water is gone and the dragonfly skims around the stained sand, settles sadly and I imagine its regret at its fatal errand. A stiff wind starts up, strong and hard, as hot as a hair dryer. The wind causes the dust devil to vanish into the sky, its tail of dust curling to the left and vanishing. There is shade in the form of a shelter, but it has been invaded by hot glare and conquered with these new, hot gusts of wind. Heat rises from the concrete underneath our feet. Men in brilliant red coveralls sit in the faint respite, talking Arabic, Spanish, Hindustani and some English. Two of us are waiting for a ride to some arcane installation in the desert. The rest are taking smoke-breaks. Their cigarette smoke is sucked up and scattered by the greedy wind. The man grumbles, picks up his instrument and switches it off.

"Fifty?" Demands one of the men with his cigarette dangling. "Fifty, right, feels like?"

"Forty nine point seven," says the man very precisely with a sigh of dissappointment. The other men shake their heads.

"Fifty," they say, pointing with their cigarettes to each other as though signing an agreement in smoke and ashes. Who would let fate cheat them if they have to suffer this heat? Fifty degrees it is. The man refuses to write fifty in his log.

The burn off continues in the distance. The falling sun is a laser-cut hole in the sky. The concrete is like white-hot charcoal. Even in this heat, men crave their smoke and ashes. They draw as one. The points of their cigarettes are cool points inside the furnace.


Bucket List Desert Sunrise

The sunrise comes fat and red and perfect. Tiny clouds hide its face like a veil or a strange moko. It settles above the horizon for a moment, gazes down on the flat desert and within fifteen minutes has throttled-up to a merciless molten gold which stings even though it is not yet six am. It is strange to think that if I sit down in this one place and do not move, it will kill me before it falls below the opposite horizon.


Desert Camp

Hot dust like fresh gunsmoke, old tobacco, smoking oriental spices, a puff of sewage.



For Lady Snoutingdingle and I, the perfect holiday is in a remote spot which is all but impossible to arrive at. It should be almost – but not quite – beyond the reach of the modern world and with a bit of weather to shut us off from the rest of the humanity. Well, most of humanity less the one person who knows how to turn the power back on and then leaves us alone, in the nicest possible sense. One year, we spent a week in a lighthouse keeper's cottage on an island off the north coast of Newfoundland and sat side by side reading The Perfect Storm for three days with the mournful sound of the foghorn in our ears. The horn rattled windows as grey outside as a witches cloak. Imagine our pleasure then, to find among the books on the bookshelves in this new place The Perfect Storm sitting right alongside The Shipping News. It must surely be a sign. 

Our latest hideaway is on another island off another island in the Hebrides. The south of the island is more gentle with smoother hills and sheep-filled pastures. A great fault across the top of the island renders the north virtually uninhabitable which is why, perhaps, the landlords pushed all the people to the north built a two metre high stone wall to keep them there and left the south to their precious sheep and deer. The cottage is at a point in the road where the road doesn't so much end but hauls itself over the final rocks panting and gasping, wheezing its last breath and falling down stone dead in its own passing place. The rocks here do not have strata. Strata are bands in the rock, occasionally gently folded and waved. The layers in these rocks have knots like some demented Celtic design and those twisted layers are run through again and again with dykes as though nature took such a thorough dislike to this land that it slashed it mercilessly to pieces and then pushed lava up through the remains. These end-lands break up into smaller islands, some connected by tide-washed stone at low tide. Ruined cottages lie in every sheltered nook, ripped about by ruthless landlords and tough little beech and birch trees. Old paths wind the cliffs. Built to allow children to walk miles to school in all weathers they are lovingly laid and look like the scars on the face of some faded warrior found asleep in the bracken.  In Timberland and Mountain Warehouse it is easy to be seduced. It's easy to think that the daily toil in this place would have been compensated by the sudden bursts of lovely golden light, the sweep of the Highlands across one stretch of water and the mountains of Skye across the other water on the other horizon, the sight of a deer in the trees, or the call of an eagle. It's easy to believe that. I want to believe that. But I don't. The life here would have been so hard that all the beauty in the world would signal no more than a moment's guilty rest. Add to that the cruelty of the landlords and the face of the deer among the birches would be an oppressor and a threat. People's lives lie on these paths like tired butterflies, crushed by Leki poles and Vibram soles. The restored cottages show signs of their previous lives. Bits of old boat, engines, bottles, peep in and out of the walls or rise from flower beds. Rust is as evident as old stone. Or is it blood. It would be fairer, I think, to replace every tenth stone with a human skull.


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