Take on Nature: Shifting sunlight can change the shape of drained winter landscape

Sunset at Rossglass Beach looking towards the Mourne Mountains. Picture by Mal McCann

THE top of Slieve Donard looks as if it has been blown off and a spume of volcanic ash is pouring from it to form an expanding mushroom cloud.

It burns, an angry burnt-orange with flecks of red and yellow and dark black edges – it is ominous; sinisterly reminiscent of those images of an atomic bomb exploding that have been flash-burnt into our modern psyche.

But there is a harsh poetic beauty to it as well, as if the sky has been set on fire by some ancient deity to demonstrate his might and power over nature to the cowering humans watching from below.

“Sunset through a snow shower moving over the mountains,” according to a more scientifically minded friend when he saw a picture of it. He would probably offer some equally logical explanation as to why the line of snow seems to cut the slopes of Slieve Donard and Commedagh in two, into an above and below.

The irrational tells me that a snow goddess has laid out her territory, drawing a line across the mountain range and declaring that everything above it is hers and then cloaking it in mystically swirling snow drifts.

More pragmatically of course it is the point at where temperatures have fallen to such a point that the snow will not melt as it lies on the ground.

Nearly three weeks after the winter solstice we are in that liminal place of stillness from which hibernating nature is still not ready to emerge. Some days it seems as if our landscape has been desaturated of most of its colour to leave a montage of black, whites and sullen greys. The most prominent birds are crows, magpies, blackbirds and gulls. It is only the smaller species that bring the occasional splash of colour.

Like the sky over the mountains, deep, intense reds are the most noticeable colour – on the breast of a robin, the legs of a redshank or the beak of an oystercatcher along the shore. Out across the otherwise calm sea, dark hummocks seem to rise on the horizon where the waves touch the sky, mirages of islands that shimmer briefly into existence before being submerged again.

The nature that thrives in these winter months is more subdued, slower growing and less vibrant, but maybe that is its way of giving us a life lesson in these times of stillness and painfully slow change.

Even on those chill damp mornings there are ancient mysteries to be pondered as mushrooms and fungi appear among moulding, fallen leaves where there had been nothing just a few hours before.

The superbly named yellow brain fungus (which looks like its name suggests) and witches butter (a black globular eruption) spew from the trunks of dead trees. We talk about the darkness of winter, but it is this darkness that seems to throw the light into sharp relief and provide a much more intense contrast than during the brighter times of year.

The stars and planets gain more definition, last week's waning moon sharper and more in focus and still visible in the sky until late morning.

And that sky, ever-shifting colour tones of deepest blue, impenetrable black, brooding grey, rich golden yellows, end-of-world reds and all-devouring whites when the sun is just rising or setting and its intense light obliterates your surroundings as you walk towards it.

No film-maker has ever been able to match the slow hypnotic intensity of an Irish winter sky and how that shifting sunlight can change the entire shape of our drained winter landscape in just a few brief seconds.

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