Tracking badgers with Nan Shepherd

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I wrote a short postcard from the foot of the snowy Cairngorms for The Guardian’s Country Diary, while doing a week-long residency on the Inshriach House estate with The Bothy Project. It can be found on the Guardian site here, or after the fold.

(Edit: If you’re interested in staying in this beautiful contemporary bothy at Inshriach, but aren’t in a position to apply for an artist’s residency, Inshriach House takes private holiday bookings during the summer months – find it here.)

(Edit II: The Artist Bothy is now available to buy as a pre-fab cabin, from Bothy Stores. I love it, would very happily live in it, and just need to get a patch of land to put one on….)

Country diary: flat feet, long in the claw. A warlike creature

Inshriach, Aviemore Tracks revealed the badger and I had been cohabiting all this time. I just wasn’t looking hard enough

The bothy at Inshriach sits alone in a clearing, with a view through the trees across the Spey to the Monadhliath Mountains. When I arrive, all this is under a foot of snow: juniper hunched over with the weight of it, silver birch cryptic against its white backdrop, the whole glade swathed in an ethereal mist. The sunlit uplands to the north are glossy and white like Italian meringue, dolloped on with a spoon.

I get the stove going and settle down to work, but my eye is drawn through the window to the unfolding spectacle of the winter sky. Pallid shades play out across the heavens: grey, rose, waterblue, lilac. The snow a paper pressed against the painted sky. It is a peaceful landscape, a silent one. When I emerge for firewood I walk out into the vacuum and stop dead to listen. The only movement is the blue of the woodsmoke, drifting soundlessly over the roof. I think: I am entirely alone.

Two days pass like this. My only company is the endless drama in the sky and a single crow, for whom the shifting mists draw apart like veils. By Tuesday, however, the snow is in retreat. It slumps, wet and heavy, on the doorstep. It sinks underfoot. I fetch water from the river and on the way back cross the footprints of a great many others recorded in the slush: delicate bird prints, the slim-ankled trot of a fox, and another – flat feet, short and broad as a dwarf’s, long in the claw. A warlike creature. A badger.

His path is easy to trace: he follows an old logging track then splits off towards the trees. The prints wind between pillowy contours in the heather for ten metres before disappearing into a tunnel of snow and from there into a sett. We’ve been co-habiting all this time. I just wasn’t looking hard enough.

I retreat to my own cosy den – the fire burning low – and think of Nan Shepherd, who loved this place. As she wrote of tracks like these: “One is companioned, though not in time.” They are a reassurance. Outside the landscape is transforming too slowly to see, but quick enough that each time I look up from my book it is changed. The balance of light and dark shifts, the mountains leopard-spotted with snow.

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