Working the Temperate Zone

Ask any tree in the Highlands and they’ll tell you – despite most of Britain believing the north of Scotland to be a wild, terribly cold place with 6 month winters, it falls into a the category of splendidly temperate

Aviemore’s in the big blue puddle

There are some frosty areas, like Aviemore, where winter temperatures sink lower and stay that way longer, but on the whole all kinds of trees seem to very much enjoy northern Scotland. Which means, as someone generally employed to make sure things stay that way, I have an interesting time roaming the hills and glens to find and protect them. “The climate of Scotland is temperate and oceanic and tends to be very changeable, but not normally extreme”, according to Wikipedia. Ha ha ha, according to me.

Accessing their many, various and sometimes mysterious locations is one thing, but having to do this at all times of year, in all kinds of weather is a considerable challenge. As discussed in many another post, and contrary to what most people would stress as an essential prerequisite for my job, I’m not the outdoorsy type. Wide open spaces scare me and I’m actually phobic about large, flat stretches of inland water. That’s why I tell people I must somehow be answering the call of the trees – not because I have some fantastical notion about my spiritual bond with nature, but because I can’t for the life of me work out how I, of all people, come to be doing this. There has to be some kind of supernatural intervention operating or I’d be married to a country vicar and doing a part-time stint in a cotswold branch of Laura Ashley.

A Cotswold Vicarage

Working in the summer is glorious. You get the light you see? Almost 24hrs of it. And you can quite forget how long you’ve been out so that the working day, and all associated travelling, stretches very productively. I have to say, it never gets truly HOT. I’ve lived here for 27 years and I’ve never been too hot. Never. That’s the truth. Which is also good if you’re working outside, and it’s good if accessing your trees-of-the-day involves a bit of a taxing hike and a lot of shouting out tree numbers to an assistant somewhere in the undergrowth. One of my young assistants supplied me with something called an ‘energy drink’ during this kind of demanding up-hill tree-tagging sesh. I’d never had one of those before. For a full 20 minutes I stood on rocks directing the tree tagging with vigorous arm movements and loud, decisive instructions, then I collapsed onto a mossy tussock and couldn’t be roused. Never again, as they say.

Summer light

Insects are the biggest drawback of the short, bright, Highland summer. Everyone’s heard about the midges, yes? Oh but there are so many others I don’t even know their names. Clouds of them hang above your head, where you can’t actually see them, you just hear a soft background buzz. I don’t know what they do….luckily nothing much likes to bite me….but I’m as disturbed as the next person when I suddenly find something small with several wings and a possible exoskeleton, in a swarm, exploring me with excessive interest. The ticks, of course, are the absolute worst. They’re very small and very nasty. The fact that they’re around, in apparently increasing numbers, means that some hill-climbs have to be undertaken in full waterproofs. Even in the cool Highland summer this is exhausting – but when you stop for breath and spot dozens of the tiny ******s roaming across your jacket and leggings just desperate to find a way in to some soft skin, you’re very glad you did the sensible (sweaty) thing.

Autumn and spring are, of course, my favourite times to be striking out across this wildly interesting and very beautiful landscape – though spring is usually bitterly cold due to relentless Siberian winds, and autumn can be dominated by high winds and awesome precipitation, but that’s nothing when compared to the acting-up  winter does.

Great – so the trees are where?

I’ve never been anywhere, ever, that looks more breathtakingly beautiful than full January snow-cover here in the Highlands. As I’ve probably mentioned in other blogs though, having to work in it gets tricky.

That’s Treewoman’s car parked right there

Assessing trees involves not only accessing their general location, but finding a way to get really close, whatever the conditions on the ground, then spending as much time as it takes crawling around them and staring up into their bare branches while snowflakes as big as 10p pieces drop into your eyes. This activity is only sustainable for a short time in the snow/hail/ice/bitter wind so you need a thermos or 2 in the car to fall back on. Just occasionally though, once you’re out there, you’re out until you’re finished. Sometimes this isn’t discoverable until you’ve actually found the trees and started work. It’s barely light, your nose is an icicle, it’s difficult to move your limbs because you’re wearing so many layers, you have unwieldy equipment to look after, the ground beneath your feet is either snow-covered to the tops of your boots or an ice-rink. You know that the sun, hovering on the frozen horizon like it doesn’t really want to be there either, will be gone completely in under 3 hours, so there’s no time to slither back down the hill to the car for a mid-assessment warm up. You just have to go for it. And then drive home, in the dark and the snow, in your spare leggings, with the car’s adjustable heating vents pointed at your hands on the wheel, because managing to stay on the road is going to involve getting some feeling back.

Click to sample the winter

I guess it’s all just nothing really. Splendidly temperate, non-extreme, and endlessly delightful to look at. Till the trees, who don’t feel a thing or, if they do, seem to like it, send an invitation you can’t refuse and you end up with your frozen hands and a tape measure round the stem of a craggy Elm in a wild, snowbound place with a name you can’t pronounce.

Yes. I love it.


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