“The birds were talking to me. It was an entirely different kind of consciousness.”
I blinked in the twilight at the bright-eyed fellow stoking the fire in front of me. Yes, the stove was burning. In the last days of June. Because this was the isle of Skye. I had pushed further north up Scotland’s west coast, to places that cling to daylight’s fringes. Places the sun barely leaves. Solstice was only days behind us.
“I lived in the forest for four years,” Ludwig said. He was a fellow with a piercing stare. I recognised it. The eyes of wild people are always brighter. Sharper. Uncompromising.
“What did you live in?” I glanced about the spacious wooden house. Evening was slowly sliding beneath the roof, smudging its lines. I couldn’t believe I was chatting to someone else barmy enough to completely lose themselves to nature.
“Erm, I rescued a 100-year-old tent from the skip, and made it waterproof using resin from the pines from the land. People came to help. I hardly used any money. About £25 a week. Sometimes I busked. That was hard work.” Ludwig closed the stove door, and wandered over to a shelf. Reaching up, he grabbed a cardboard box and placed it on the table.
“Did you grow your own food?” I asked, peering into the box. It was full of pieces of birds: Claws, feathers, wings. I blinked, and recoiled slightly. I couldn’t quite decide if I was talking to Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf.
“Not in the beginning. That took a while. People brought me food sometimes. Other times I foraged in bins. You wouldn’t believe what people throw out.” Ludwig pulled a chair from under the table opposite me.
“Yes, the West is nuts! It’s not like that in Turkey. No one in my village would have thrown anything half decent in the rubbish. Not even bits of old wood.” I felt a warm glow as I remembered my village back in Lycia. How my neighbour Dudu would covet plastic bags and water bottles. How we’d fight for fallen trees.
Dusk settled into the corners of the house. Ludwig sat back and grinned. He was far from his forest now. Just as with me, Gaia had nudged him along. And it was hard not to view it as a promotion. Because the homestead we were now chatting in squatted within 15 acres of land, all of which was now under Ludwig’s stewardship. It was one of Skye’s most secluded peninsulas and comprised a clutch of coves, beaches, and ensorcelled forests. Otters and seals dipped in the green water. Spirit eyes peered at me from the trees. It was one of those special spaces. Where nature and humans create alchemy.
“What’s this box of dead bird bits for?” I asked at last, unable to ignore it.
“I use it for teaching. It’s great for children.” My host pushed the box a bit closer. I stuck my hand in and rummaged about in the grisly, ornithological lucky dip. A game is a game. You have to play.
“Which bird’s feather is this?” I asked pulling a black and white striped plume from the box.
Ludwig sat back, formed a bridge out of his hands, and shrugged. “What do you think?”
I shifted on my chair. “I’ve no idea. I’m hopeless with bird names, especially in this country. I haven’t lived here for 20 years.” Well, I thought I’d better have some excuse for my ignorance, didn’t I?
“Which part of the bird is it from, do you think? The breast? The wing? The tail?”
I turned the feather over and stroked it. It was soft and silky. “I’m not sure. Not the breast. But could be the wing I suppose.”
Ludwig’s face was deadpan. I held the feather up, and peered even closer at it, hoping to see the bird in it somewhere. But no amount of hard staring drew the answer out. Turning back, I asked again, “Which bird is it?” feeling my eyes straining in curiosity.
Bilbo Gandalf shrugged and sat back. He was giving nothing away. I pulled my chair closer to the table while I racked my brain, trying to haul out mental images of black and white stripy birds that might live around the Scottish west coast. None came to mind.
Eventually, the bird collector stuck his hand in the box once more. He pulled out two more stripy feathers, much longer than the one I was holding. Then he bunched them all together and held them upright. Immediately I saw a tail.
“Pheasant! It’s a pheasant!” I grabbed the three feathers and stroked them lovingly. “Well, that was a bit tricky, you have to admit,” I chuckled. Carefully replacing the feathers in the cardboard box, I mused on the art of teaching. The patience required. How brilliant teachers always stand back and allow students to own their learning experience.
“What do you have in mind for this place?” I asked at last, pushing my chair back.
Ludwig’s face became animated. “I want to create a living, breathing example of permaculture in action. I’m a qualified permaculture instructor and have been teaching it for a while now. But my real passion is to get more people to reconnect with nature. To really feel it. Because without that…”
I moved to the edge of my chair, and gripped the wooden handles. Twilight lingered in the windows creating lucent holes in the dingy walls. “Yes, I feel exactly the same way. We’ve totally lost the connection. No one feels it. That nature is their home. That it’s full of magic.”
“Yeah. And you’ve really got to abandon yourself to it. It’s not a head game. Not something you can read a few books about.” Ludwig stood up and reached for the wine.
“Exactly!” I chimed in. “You’ve got to get your arse in the dirt and put yourself on the line. Because if you don’t, you never feel nature come through for you. You never really trust her.”
Through the windows I saw a silver glow had descended over the trees. They stretched silently into it. The house was a carved hollow in a fantasy weald. A witch doctor’s cavern. Birds cooed outside, their haunting twitters tumbling from the air in a melodic rain.
“Oh no!” Suddenly, Ludwig leapt from his chair. Even through the murk, I could see his face was aghast. “I forgot the chickens and the ducks! The pine martins will be out. How did I forget? I never forget.”
I stood up too, shuddering at the thought of the chickens, huddled on their roosts, waiting in terror for the predator. It was well past eleven, time to return to my van. Stuffing my feet in my wellies, and my arms in my raincoat, I followed Ludwig outside. The sky was an eerie swirl of mist. Pale. Glowing. Dripping with the spells of dusk.
As we cantered through the mud and the moss, I felt the forest speaking. And it was in a hushed voice of relief. Because she knew she was lucky. That a guardian had arrived. And that he had ears to hear her.
Ludwig Appeltans is a very well qualified and experienced permaculture teacher. I can personally attest he knows what he’s talking about. He runs the Earth Ways permaculture project, aiming to reconnect people, land and nature.
Read more about Ludwig, and the Earth Ways organisation.
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Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.