East Wind

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 21st March

Icy blue sunshine, fit to rasp the skin off your nose in burns or blistering. I break from dyking for half an hour at lunch to lie in the bracken with my head on a rolled-up jacket. A hundred whooper swans have passed in the time I have been working, trickling north like sand in an hourglass. They sound like old shutters in the wind.

This job is long and slow. Hours pass accompanied only by the rub and scuff of lifted stones. Sometimes I hear a grunt or the plosive burst of breath through tight lips. It takes a moment to realize that I am the source of these sounds, shifting bulky boulders and rolling them onto my chest so that they can be placed where I need them. Every scrape leaves white, chalky lines in the granite, and the age-old smell of damaged stone which came to me strongest that day above Clatteringshaws when lightning came and scored the cairn and all the hill smelled of wounded minerals and electricity.

I love the work of dyking, so I’m inclined to rush towards it. I pound and race through the labour like a greedy child, lifting more than I have to and clawing fallen stones from the grass as if they were treasure. There are times when the right stone has been found to fit the perfect gap and I could almost roll my head back and howl with satisfaction – almost, because I’m already rushing on to fill another gap and puzzle it full again.

So I’m exhausted by lunchtime, and my back is groaning. I stare for a moment at the far horizon and find it trembling in the shallow, firey burr of early spring. The sun rubs upon drab sheets of granite and myrtle to the far horizon.

We used to wait all year for an east wind at the end of March. It’s muirburn weather, and I still feel like I should be out with a flogger on a day like this, but it’s hard work in a maze of trees and commercial woodland. People get nervous that fires will escape, and I understand that. I’ve seen balls of fire leap out of white grass to land thirty yards away and grow and rush in fires of their own. But in truth it’s hard to burn a spruce forest. The trees crowd so tightly together that there’s little left in the way of fuel. A bad fire is often broken by trees, but trees are like sheep to foresters, and flames make them antsy. They’ve put paid to plans for matches and floggers, even though some hills sorely need blackened.

Loose shouldered, the sweat dries on my neck as I look into the tall, vacuum sky and watch a pair of eagles turning together. I marvel at the breadth and glory of my view across this gentle bowl of myrtle and rock, but I know that from their height, they can see Cumbria, Ireland, Kintyre and the Pennines. They’re big birds; no pissing around with wings like sheets of sarking board. They turn the wind and slide against it, black as the comma in a frog-egg. They rise and diminish, and soon they are so far gone as to be gone. I am alone again, and I rise back to work before I stiffen.

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