I was excited to contribute an essay to Granta: a long piece of reportage in which I travelled to the far north of Scotland to wander in the vast peatlands of the Flow Country.
North of Helmsdale, the land opens up. It is a rare and unusual landscape, stripped back and open to the sky … what strikes you first is the utter absence of the picturesque. A single sweeping line demarcates the heavens and the earth: God’s rough draft, the Earth formless and empty still. The cow-brown flats tussocked and pockmarked by puddles and pools. Slow gradients slope off in every direction; in the distance a few low hills poke their noses into the air.
In it, I uncover the story of how this environmentally significant area was ploughed up and block-planted with plantation forestry in the 1980s, impinging on the habitats of extremely rare bird life and threatening the future of this most enormous carbon sink: the Flow Country bogs are estimated to contain more than double the amount held in all British forests put together.
In more recent years, following an enormous public outcry, much of this land has been bought by conservation charities like the RSPB who have begun to chop down the forests and leave them to slowly recover
The peatlands are timeless and time-rich both, the story of the Holocene threaded through the fabric of its foundations: the pollen of plants that wafted on the air 4,000 years ago are all carefully filed away in this natural archive. Further down, the preserved remains of the roots of trees – silver, skeletal fingers – which once carpeted these now deserted heaths. Here they are long gone, but further up the line there are plenty of trees – controversial trees – some still alive and queueing up in their long lines, many more recently deceased, lining ditches in their thousands, sinking back into the earth after their disastrous parlay into the north.