The shortest night; the longest day.
Since moving to Scotland several years ago, and moved by the markedly longer summer days than the southern-central England of my growing up, I have desired to camp out on that oddly beguiling day. A previous attempt at a solstice summer wildcamp ended in a hasty retreat to the car: both partner and I red-raw from midge bites; the springy ground, lochside view and under-the-trees cover proving no match.
But that was a few years ago, in the west of Scotland, where midge numbers are high. This year, I will try again. This year will be different. I set out alone (this was, after all, my dream, not ours), on my heavily laden mountain bike. I know my destination, having camped there in the mild spring. I check the midge forecast, which gives a confidence-inspiring 1-out-of-5 for the nearest spot. This time I chose a bivouac bag over a tent: it’s light; but really, I want that sheer weather-on-your-face exhilaration.
Although I had slept at my chosen spot before, I did not know it well. When I first stayed there, I tried to make a mark on the map for future reference. Having nothing to write with, I attempted to score the map with a key. But I cannot see where this mark was left. I recognise some junctions in the woods, but that monotonous green of industrial silviculture confounded me. A deeply-tanned, topless and well-built man with snarling dogs, running past me with no more than a sinister glint to his expression only heightens my nervousness of finding a spot to sleep.
Some landmarks really stand out in this woods. The five-ways junction. The line of pylons. The communication masts on the far-off hill. But alas not my sleeping spot. I cannot stay on a path, such is my worry of conflict with those less understanding, but I cannot find a suitable clearing hidden behind tree cover. But like so much in life, with a fortuitous turn of the map, a rarefied glint of light, I see that light scratching on the paper: my bed for the night.
My camp is on a clearing on a slope. This forest is full of such clearings – I managed to find this one, despite its entrance being well hidden from the double-track. It’s an interesting space. That pervasive (literal) forest green of earlier gives way to myriad colour. Just a single tree shows the near-luminous verdant of fresh shoots, the deeper shade of established needles, the chestnut-brown of the ruptured pine cones, the rich brown of the trunk. And there’s more besides. But to that later.
I’m not ready to bed down. It’s still daylight, so I read my copy of the rather apt A Year in the Woods by Colin Elford. As his account goes, so I see the signs of which he speaks. Mostly, these take the form of the passing of deer: hoof marks in the soil, rutting marks on trees. He also mentions the clouds of midges that appear in the Dorset New Forest every year: I am only too aware of their presence around me.
At first the midges don’t bother me. Every half hour or so, they start to swarm, my carbon dioxide the beacon that shines out to them, so I walk within my clearing, and read some more. But after a while, the tiny bugs get wise to my movement. Now I am slowly becoming choked in a cloud. I am walking every ten minutes, 5 minutes, 30 seconds… I have a wooly hat for the cold, but that makes more sense as a midge net, along with my buff from just below my eyes, cycling glasses and long-sleeved base layer. It’s hot, but I feel I have no choice. I also put on my bright yellow cycling coat on: apparently midges don’t appreciate the colour. It seems to serve no purpose but to make me warmer.
This clearing is maybe not as clear as one might imagine. There are still trees that grow here: but short and young. Long grass abounds, but it hides old, near-white dead branches. There’s cotton grass, tiny yellow flowers, bog-loving plants. The more I walk up to avoid the midges, the more I see. Like the delicate young pine tree growing from the middle of a large, rotten stump. The seemingly dead moth that hasn’t moved, despite disturbing its settling place every time I pass on my loop.
Across the valley, towards the cluster of tall communications’ masts, I can see some heavy grey cloud lowering. It looks so cool and refreshing. I wonder: will a blast of cool air deter the midges? Will it soon be raining? The masts vanish, and a cold air comes over my spot. The wind picks up too, another good sign. The sun is still in the sky, but it is reduced to an inky dish of pale light. But despite the promise, the cold air soon parts, and the wind drops. The cloud across the valley still swirls around the masts, but no longer extends to my spot.
I call my partner, someone of wiser stuff, and enquire about the weather. Will it rain at all tonight? If so, when? Does the internet know what plants deter midges? She suggests I should consider coming home. But I’m committed now. If I was to leave, I would be fighting through darkness on unfamiliar tracks. I could end up cycling for hours without knowing where I am. I have to stay.
I feel as though I have been on my feet for hours now. My legs feel heavy. I’m stumbling over the hidden dead branches, and I begin to imagine myself tripping and breaking my leg. The light is falling, but still the air remains warm and still. When I stop for just a few seconds, the midges swarm so heavily that their buzz is audible, like a bee swarm, but of a far bigger choir and yet with smaller voices: a mass harmony.
I have walked up and down so many times. My time stretched up and down the clearing in my walking’s wake. I think I have seen everything there is to see. The lifeless moth; the tiny tree from the massive stump; the branches like bones; the green-burgandy-pale yellow patina of grasses and other plants. But I see something new.
It’s dark, but I see glowing-white creatures, maybe four, maybe eight, maybe more. They are flying around each other, floating and swirling, in a sort of three-dimensional figures of eight (or should that be figures of infinity?). They seem to carry their own light; have the luminosity of the moon. But there is no moon, and there is no sun to reflect on these creatures. What could they be? I stop to look; to ponder. I’m tired. I can’t hold a thought too long. I can’t help but think this must be an apparition, or forgotten beings.
Can they be faeries? I banish more rational explanations. What else would be fluttering around this clump of grass, on this most special of nights? A frolic of solstice faeries. I secretly hope they are tiny guardian angels; that they will chase away the midges so I can sleep. But they don’t; they just keep on dancing: dosey doeing, waltzing to imperfect time.
I walk on, as the midges’ presence becomes obvious again; forget about anything but the biting insects. But now I have seen these faeries, I keep seeing them, lost in their summer revelry, indifferent to my existence. My thoughts drift between anxious din and enchantment. I never consciously seek out the faeries; but my subcounscious always leads me to them, and each time I pause, lost momentarily to their movements.
Eventually I decide to bed down; to stop pacing, start resting. I try. But I have to fight the flies away, the swarm, the buzz, the bites. This is not relaxing. I argue my way into my sleeping bag, and then the bivvy bag. The midges are everywhere: throughout my sleeping bag, all over my face, under my clothes. I pull the sleeping bag over my head to seal me from outside: the midges too much. The bivvy opening is so tight I can hardly breathe. I lay still and cannot help but pant: all I can do to get enough oxygen. But No! I can’t open my bivvy bag, not even a bit. I hear my sleeping bag rip as I pull tighter. I rearrange myself, manage to get an opening but without an influx of midges. I can breath again! My panting slows; heart rate lowers. I relax easily, mostly from exhaustion. But I shift again and the midges find a way in. I’m pulling the bivvy bag tight again, my breath condensing onto the inside of the waterproof bag.
I’m dipping in and out of sleep. Drift off from exhaustion; reawaken through itchy anxiety. Finally the rain comes, that rain my partner promised me. I feel so relieved. There’s no wind; the water falling steadily. I lie with my bivvy bag open, let the water cool my face and its itches. The midge numbers don’t drop much, but it’s wonderful, the cooling, the relaxing, the slow drubbing of rain, so sweet, so relaxing. I smile, drift off, and dream of snow-white faeries…