At the end of November, the weather in the Highlands turned cold after having been relatively mild throughout most of the autumn. The unseasonably warm temperatures we’d had in October and much of November resulted in many of the deciduous leaves remaining on the trees for longer than usual. So it was that when it finally became colder and the first snowfall took place, we had what is a relatively rare experience in Scotland – fresh snow on the autumn-coloured leaves of the trees.
Heading out to Glen Affric for the day, I was hoping to make the most of this opportunity to document two seasons simultaneously. As I drove up into the glen and got as far as Dog Falls, I found various eared willow bushes (Salix aurita) and hazel trees (Corylus avellana) that still had some brightly-coloured leaves on them. These were standing out vividly from the white background, and as I got out of the car, it began to snow heavily, adding to the layer of frozen moisture that was sticking to every branch of the trees.
The snow shower only lasted for a few minutes, but it turned out to be the first of many short but intense squalls or blizzards that blew through the glen during the day while I was there.
The snow seemed to enhance the personality or character of the trees, particularly some of the old lichen-encrusted silver birches (Betula pendula), giving them a presence similar to that of the Ents in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. Treebeard is the best-known of the Ents, due to the success of the films based on the book, and the parallel is perhaps quite fitting, considering that many of the most prominent lichens on this birch are beard lichens (Usnea filipendula). In the absence of Ents to protect the forest in Glen Affric, it’s up to people to do so instead, and it was that calling which led me to found the Trees for Life project to help restore the Caledonian Forest in 1986.
It felt very special to be in the glen on this magical day of two seasons existing simultaneously, side by side. There was a special atmospheric quality about the forest, which seemed to enhance the life-force and presence of the trees, and the arboreal lichens they were supporting, despite the fact that much of their energy was withdrawn into their roots for the winter. Lichens of course persist throughout the year, and are more visible when the trees are leafless. They are also especially vibrant on days like this one when there is a lot of moisture in the air.
In between the squalls the wind was blowing intermittently, so the snow wasn’t persisting on the small branches and twigs, but it was remaining on the larger areas of wood, such as the branch stubs of a dead alder tree (Alnus glutinosa).
One of the alder snags in particular had a very evocative shape, which was highlighted and enhanced by the snow, and seemed almost like the fluid, dancing shape of a deity from the Hindu pantheon, such as Shiva or Kali. In my mind I imagined that over the lifetime of this tree, a sequence of time lapse photographs might have shown its growth and changing shape in a dynamic sequence that resembled the dances of eastern cultures, such as those of India and Thailand.
I was quite enthralled by the visual combination of the bright yellow leaves of the eared willow together with the pure white of the fresh snow, and spent a while watching this scene. It was in fact constantly changing, as each squall deposited some more snow, only for the wind to remove it in the periods between the snow showers. It was another example of the dynamic variation in Nature, and a reminder that although I often think a place is the same all the time, in fact the reality is that is always different, if I take the time to observe and appreciate it for a while.
The temperature was fluctuating just above freezing point, and those variations, together with the wind, meant that the amount of snow lying on the ground and on the vegetation was constantly coming and going, almost like the tide on a shore line. It was as though the weather couldn’t make up its mind as to whether it was really going to be winter, or whether it was going to let autumn, with the bright yellows of the eared willow matched by the reddish-brown of the last of the bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), persist for a little longer.
I walked a little more to the east, further downstream from Dog Falls, and was surprised to see a very large dog rose (Rosa canina) still with all its leaves, just below the road. It’s one of the largest of its species I’ve seen in the Highlands and I estimated it must have been close to six metres in height. It had multiple stems, and was spreading over quite a large area, with its vertical extent helped by the proximity of several birch trunks, which must have forced the dog rose to grow taller than it usually does in Glen Affric, reaching towards the light.
This section of the Affric River here, between Dog Falls and Badger Falls further downstream to the east, is the richest in the glen in terms of its tree species. In addition to the common birches, Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) of other parts of Glen Affric, this area has wych elm (Ulmus glabra), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), oak (Quercus petraea), goat willow (Salix caprea), aspen (Populus tremula), hazel (Corylus avellana) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) growing there.
This is the result of several factors, including the relatively sheltered nature of the area due to the narrowness of the gorge, the mainly south-facing aspect and the comparatively rich soils, as indicated by the presence of dense bracken and other plants such as dogs mercury (Mercurialis perennis). This same combination of factors is probably what enabled this dog rose to grow so large, and I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed it before. It was only now, with its leaves making it stand out from the surrounding leafless trees, that I had discovered it, although I’ve passed it by hundreds of times before – there is always something new in Nature, even in an area like this that I think I’m very familiar with.
There are a lot of young hazels growing beside the road in this part of the glen, and perhaps it was because of their youthful vigour that they still had some leaves on them, whereas the older hazels had already lost all of theirs.
Some intermediate-aged hazels had a very few leaves still on their branches, all of them yellow and soon to be shed. Each individual leaf seemed to act as a colourful visual counterpoint to the otherwise grey and white monotones of the background, which was delineated by the vertical linear pattern of the hazel and birch trunks. To my eye, it was another expression of Nature’s endless artistry, in this case taking the form of a rather minimalist style.
I’d not noticed this phenomenon before, of the younger hazels retaining their leaves for a longer time than the more mature trees, but it seemed quite obvious this day. I wondered if it’s similar to the characteristic called marcescence, whereby the younger individuals of some trees such as oaks (Quercus spp.) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) retain their dead leaves throughout the entire winter period? These hazel leaves were indeed being shed, but just later than those of the older trees, so perhaps it’s a less-developed version of the marcescence of those other tree species?
As I walked around, I could see that these last leaves of the hazels were being lost, and my attention was taken by one particularly evocative example, where a bright yellow leaf had landed on a solid patch of snow, creating a beautiful contrast of colours. I suspect that this leaf had probably been blown down by one of the squalls a few minutes before, as it still looked very fresh indeed. There hadn’t been time yet for the loss of vitality to begin, which occurs once a leaf loses contact with the flow of sap in the tree.
Although it was only just after 3 pm, the available light was rapidly dwindling, and the opportunities for photography came to an end. It’s one of the realities of life in the Highlands that the days are very short in the period close to the winter solstice – we get a little over six hours of daylight around the shortest day of the year on 21st December. On this occasion, the approach of another squall truncated the daylight still further, so I finished up for the day, and I’ll finish this blog now with a compilation of video clips from the day, which show the intensity of the intermittent snow showers that came with each squall.