The silent moor

I feel nervous. Apprehensive. Scout is below me waiting for permission to jump into the stream. I watch the water, the blackness edged with silver, the whole mass moving down through gritstone boulders as one continuous body, it’s sound drowning out any noise from the road nearby. I give the command and Scout moves his body as though to dive, then hesitates and looks back at me. A line of cars crosses the bridge that Scout stands below. I give the command again and in he goes, all excitement into the blackest part, and then disappointment that he didn’t float. He crashes along the stream bed, looking for deeper water, hacking at bubbles with his mouth. Then he gets out, and runs back to his launch pad, turns to me and waits for another command. My eyes though are on the stone arch of the bridge which was beautifully tooled, made from the same stone that lay in the stream the same stone that held back the waters of the great dams further up the valley. I am always gladdened when I see workmanship like this, skill that would hardly be seen, but care still taken in its creation. In the weak sun the stone added a little honey warmth to the brown of the decaying bracken and the greyness of the muddy path. I give Scout one more moment of fun and then call him up to me and we stand to one side whilst a woman with a small dog comes through the gate. She’d been watching Scout in the stream and said that her dog liked to do it too and I watched as it tried to steer her to the stream, but today she wasn’t having anything of it and shoos him forward along the muddy path, she tiptoeing around the edges, her feet slipping precariously on the grassy slope. We cross the road, go over a stile and stand on the track.

My apprehension escalates. No dogs says the sign, a picture of a dog and a red line striking it out. I know we shouldn’t be there, not the two of us, not Scout. If we are stopped by a gamekeeper I have three strategies going through my head. The first is to ignore and keep moving. The second is to engage and tell them Scout was an assistance dog, he is attached to me via a waist belt and this may lend the excuse credibility. The third is to engage, but in battle. The least attractive. Of course there is a fourth, which was just to leave. But the track invites onward travel. It winds up through trees as it moves away from the road head, the sun casting a glow as it leaves the small plantation of Scots pine, the curve of the track leading into the realms of fantasy at the top of the blind summit. I move along trying to relax and feel the beauty of the place, but my eyes scan the skyline looking for the gamekeeper, my ears search for the sound of a quad bike. There is no one and nothing but silence. The silence will not impact on me until the day after, when it will dawn on me that I heard not a single bird, saw not a single form of wildlife. What I did encounter was the loamy smell of the wet peat and the tang of water and gritstone and the brown mediocre bracken and grass. And something else that my body sensed, but my mind did not. But Scout did.

It is easy walking with the views opening out across the valley and out to the west. Scout is fixed to me, this land is full of snares to keep predators low in number, never giving them the space to gain a toe hold in the landscape. And to prevent Scout getting a paw in a wire noose I keep him close to me, which is not to his liking. His nature wants him out there on the moor, and his training has underpinned his right to roam freely. But not today. He pulls occasionally, wanting to drift off to follow up some interesting scent that is barrelling across the moor with the strengthening wind. He keeps putting his snout high in the air, taking in ribbons of information that flow with the wind across from the south, skimming the moor top then dropping down into the small clough that we are working our way out of. A few minutes later we are on the top working our way along a thin edge path that winds through shin high heather, the wind from time to time banging into me as gusts reach forty miles per hour. A couple of hundred meters later I begin to cough, something is catching in my throat, stinging the soft tissue. Then I can smell acrid smoke, but the only smoke I can see is from a tall industrial chimney and I don’t think this is the source. The smoke is woody as though someone is burning old tarred timber. Would they be heather burning today? It seems improbable but I lack the knowledge to be certain. As we work our way across the gritstone edge a couple walk towards me. Can you smell it I ask? No, they reply. Can you feel it in the back of your throat? No, they cannot. They move on, away from this strange individual that is asking about smell. The clough is now a good kilometre behind us and I realise that is where Scout first sensed the tang of the wood smoke, first showed an interest in the anomaly that was present in the land. Reaching the summit there is a group of Chinese students taking selfies with their phones. They are all wearing paper face masks. For a moment one removes the mask and giggling, poses against the backdrop of one of the few peaks around. Then they put the mask back on, walk away from the gritstone edge, and only then do they gather around each other and look at the image. They seem pleased, and another one rushes to the edge, hands held out for support as they step across a small gap, the giggles drifting away on the wind. Scout lays at my feet his coat moving in waves as the wind runs through it. I cough some more, my lungs trying to eject the foreign molecules that are slowly coating the inside. Turning away we head down wind and the sharp smell leaves me. The ribbons flowing through me now, driven onwards, away from me by the wind, the acrid smoke no longer being driven into my lungs. And there is silence and no birdsong.