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Revisiting Dalmally

“Dalmally is much prized for the peace and tranquility of its setting. Norman Bruce, in his book Twilight in Scotland spoke for many a visitor when, gazing at the village and its ‘enchanting ring of silence’, he wondered who had put a spell on this countryside.”

-Dalmally: Story of a Highland Village

One of my favourite parts of the day here in Dalmally is when I step out of my caravan in the morning. I leave the cozy brown walls of my small little space and step down into the crisp morning air and see the world unfold around me. Sometimes the ducks, chickens and sheep are out grazing in the field. The chickens come right into my little fenced yard and rest underneath my table. By the time I wake up at half eight the farm is already full of activity, with Farmer Graham running back and forth and Liz carting around baskets full of produce and weeds ready for the compost.

But the highlight of the scene as I step out of the caravan is the view across to the mountains, the five hills, starting with Ben Cruachan, which slope down into the valley, across the River Orchy, where they all meet by a gentle stream. I love to hike up the path that runs up the glen, and look back and see how tiny Dalmally looks, a spec in the distance which becomes hidden behind the curve of the rock. When I look out at that valley from the front steps of my caravan, I think back about the magic of being there, of being surrounded by vibrant greens and wild thistles on all sides, immersing myself in the Highland landscape.

The other favourite part of my day is when I head back to my caravan at night. As I latch the gate behind me, I pause and look out over the hills beyond, the light fading from between that gap in the mountains, the last drops of daylight lingering, casting gentle shadows across the slopes.

I want to trace every curve of every hillside with my eyes, feel the rugged texture of their slopes, hold their crests in my memory and never let them go. But they will fade, as I settle back into my home, the hillsides will linger and leave me until they form no more than a distant memory of my summer in Argyll.

I wrote that back in August, two months ago when I left Dalmally. I tried to sear that image into my mind, the meeting of the hills, the feeling of sitting on the platform day after day, drinking coffee and watching the trains go by, living in the mountains, amongst the sheep and all the oddities that come with Highland village life.

The past two months in Glasgow have gone by quickly. At first I was enthralled by the luxury of modern convenience - daily showers, indoor living, and the fact that the most difficult thing I had to do was feed myself. When you live alone, especially during a pandemic, there’s very little responsibility that needs to be taken. My first few days at home I sat on the couch all day, knitting and drinking coffee and not doing very much at all. The sudden inactivity surrounding me caught me off guard, and I didn’t quite know how to fill my days anymore.

Work got on, and I took a few short trips, first to Aberdeenshire, to Edinburgh and then to Fife. The High Holidays came and went, and I got caught up in the intricacies of daily life. I love my work, and it’s very busy. We launched a project where we send out surprise packages celebrating upcoming Jewish holidays to over 130 Jewish children across the country, and a lot of my time is now spent sourcing plastic dreidels and divvying up craft supplies. It’s important work and I love it, but I also love being outside.

Dalmally in Autumn is beautiful. The valleys are filled with trees in hues of rust and gold, crimson and eggplant. The leaves dry up and hang, crinkled and papery from their branches. The air is brisk and fresh, and when the sun shines through, the hills are cast in beautiful golden shades of rolling heather. Every season in Scotland brings a whole new experience, the same landscape reimagined over and over.

One morning I climbed up to Barr a' Chasteilean, the ruined village which lies on the hill above Dalmally. I would go up there in the summer almost every day, perched on the crumbling remnants of houses belonging to families long gone, knitting, singing, drinking coffee, and taking in the beautiful summer sunshine. In July the light setting behind Ben Cruachan cast golden halos over the greenery, blowing gently over the hillside.

In October the mountains were cast in different shades, but the beauty of the moment remained. I sat, gathering warmth from my thermos of coffee, and took in the spectacle before me. What I can’t get over is the enormity of the hills - how since the last time I sat there I’ve gone back to Glasgow and taken several vacations and watched 6 entire seasons of Community and been stressed out at work and all of that has not even taken the blink of an eye in the time scale of the mountains. I picked a few strands of grass from the hillside and contemplated the enormity of creation.

Rebbe Nachman, the late 18th-century Eastern-European Chassidic Leader wrote:

ליקוטי מוהר"ן, תנינא ס״ג:א׳:ב׳

כִּי דַּע, כִּי כָל רוֹעֶה וְרוֹעֶה יֵשׁ לוֹ נִגּוּן מְיֻחָד לְפִי הָעֲשָׂבִים וּלְפִי הַמָּקוֹם שֶׁהוּא רוֹעֶה שָׁם, כִּי כָל בְּהֵמָה וּבְהֵמָה יֵשׁ לָהּ עֵשֶׂב מְיֻחָד, שֶׁהִיא צְרִיכָה לְאָכְלוֹ. גַּם אֵינוֹ רוֹעֶה תָּמִיד בְּמָקוֹם אֶחָד. וּלְפִי הָעֲשָׂבִים וְהַמָּקוֹם שֶׁרוֹעֶה שָׁם, כֵּן יֵשׁ לוֹ נִגּוּן. כִּי כָל עֵשֶׂב וָעֵשֶׂב יֵשׁ לוֹ שִׁירָה שֶׁאוֹמֵר, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת פֶּרֶק שִׁירָה, וּמִשִּׁירַת הָעֲשָׂבִים נַעֲשֶׂה נִגּוּן שֶׁל הָרוֹעֶה.

Likutei Moharan, Part II 63:1:2

Know that each and every shepherd has his own special melody, according to the grasses and specific location where he is grazing. This is because each and every animal has a specific grass which it needs to eat. He does not always pasture in the same place. Thus, his melody is dictated by the grasses and places in which he pastures. For each and every grass has its own specific song which it sings - this is the concept shared in Perek Shirah - and from that particular grass’s song, the shepherd’s melody is created.

I sat on the hillside, examining the different grasses. I couldn’t name any of them, although I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the grasses that I encounter - what colours they are, what scents, whether they’re hollow or solid or frail or flexible.

It’s a beautiful idea, because if each and every single blade of grass, of which there are seemingly infinite amounts, has its own tune, its own story and purpose in the world, then surely we too must merit some consideration in the overall scheme of the universe. And if the minutiae of the individual personalities of blades of grass are enough to alter the countenance of the sheep, and if the song of each individual sheep can be reflected by the shepherd who has so many sheep to care for, surely the things we do for others have some effect on the overall state of the world.

Coming back to Dalmally felt like slipping back into a comfortable environment. I soon fell back into the routine, already knowing which dishes went where and how to clean out the coffee grinds in the morning. Sitting on the platform, watching the trains go by, eating produce from the garden and being greeted by sheep on the way to wash up at night feels like something I’ve always done, like I never left.

From Dalmally I took a day trip to Oban. It’s been a while since I visited the West Coast of Scotland, and the meandering coastlines clad in rockweed and mosses reminded me of Vancouver. Looking across the water to Kerrera, so close that you can hear the voices of the CalMac workers loading the ferry on the other side, feels like the islands I spent my summers on as a child. The coastline coddles and curves all the way through the Inner Hebrides, connected by a thick mist hanging in the salty air.

It’s lovely to get away, but it’s also lovely to come home. It’s important to go out and meet new people, new places, and then to bring those experiences home with you. Even though the mountains may stay here in Dalmally, the wonder they fill me with can come home with me. I’ve been noticing the bits of nature around me even in the city, the bits of moss creeping up through the concrete, the distant hills visible between the houses.

In his book God in Search of Man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.

As I leave Dalmally this time, I’m bringing home with me a renewed sense of wonder, the ability to wander, and a lot of love for the place I find myself in, and a continued desire to wake up every morning and really see the world around me.

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