Wednesday, August 2

carried away

. . . the snow had almost stopped and the sun was out, glittering on the rivers and thaw-streams, illuminating the land so that what had seemed like grey, monotonous scrub a few minutes before was now full of subtle colour: the rich browns and soft purples of the birch twigs; the pale yellows and greens of Salix lapponica; the soft oranges and blue-greys and reds of the mosses and lichens . . . I wanted to go for a last walk in this sudden theatre of light and colour: just a short hike to carry home the silent chill of the tundra in my bones and my nervous system . . . I struck out, heading along a reindeer track beside a wide, frozen lake, picking my way through the snow, listening to the thaw-streams as they trickled down the gentle slopes . . . I skirted the lake for a while, letting the May sunshine warm my face, then I turned back. The great thing about the sub-Arctic is that a few days, or an hour, or even a couple of minutes can be enough: it is a land full of signs, a land of sudden, local miracles. All you have to do is learn how to find them. That day, I thought I'd had my gift, with the sun and the colours and the sound of the thaw-water; then, a few hundred yards from where I'd left the car, I disturbed a flock of ptarmigan and they flared up out from the snow-covered scrub, white birds in a field of white, their wings whirring, a sound like tiny wheels turning in my flesh—and suddenly, with no sense that anything out of the ordinary was happening, and perhaps for no more than a few seconds, I was rising too, flaring up into the air, just like the birds, wingless, dizzy, my head full of whiteness. I don't want to make of this any more than it was: it lasted less than a minute, and it was in no way mystical or even inexplicable. At the same time, though, I do want to give that moment its due, because I did take to the air, I did fly and, for a few moments, I was one of those birds, attuned to the flock, familiar with the sky. Some miracles are purely personal and may be entirely imaginary, but they are miracles, nonetheless. I'd disturbed ptarmigan like this more than once—it's difficult not to, out on the tundra—but I had never felt this sensation before. For the first time, I had come close enough, and I had been caught up, carried away, offered the gift of a moment's flight.

-- John Burnside, from 'How to Fly' Granta 94