Spring has at last sprung, and the land and sky around Eight Askernish is stirring with promise of new life. Skylarks soar and sing, and Lapwings swoop and dive …
Indoors, final preparations for our first guests of the 2017 season. Outside, spring sunshine is spurring the willows to bud, so now’s the time to take and plant cuttings, making good the wear and tear of the past winter – from wild storms and hungry deer.
Here’s my new helper! It’s Lucky. In recent weeks she’s got into the habit of flying up on to my back, when I’m bending over in the croft hen house, scraping the floor, or whatever.
When I stand up, Lucky scrambles up to look over my shoulder, adjusting her stance and grip on my boiler suit as I go about my morning routine.
When ‘breakfast’ is served up, she’s off: her little wings flap against my ear as she launches herself over my shoulder, into flight, landing clumsily in the midst of the feeding frenzy.
In fairness we don’t know for certain that she’s Lucky. But it’s likely, because this pullet doesn’t seem to be close-knit into any social group.
Traditionally, counting sheep is supposed to help us fall asleep: it takes a shepherd to really know why that might be. It’s because they’re always on the move, and the shepherd either forgets who is counted and who is not, and starts again – again ; or because the count is completed without hiccup – but the total different to last time. Just keep counting, and counting again, until a consistent number is reached. If ever!
So, this morning, on the fifth count – or was it the sixth? (and that’s just the completed counts!), the majority opinion seemed to be that there were 23 ewes and their ewe lambs present for breakfast. Best count again …
Oh dear, 23. Hmm. Should be 24: 14 breeding ewes, and 10 of last year’s ewe lambs. Not sure who was missing – if a ewe, then she could just have lambed and stayed behind wherever the flock was at the time, as they generally do. She could be pretty much anywhere within a half mile or so radius: indeed she could in theory be anywhere amongst the island crofts, but in practice she’d be somewhere within the usual winter grazing range, from Haun in the west to somewhere over by Belle’s house. And anywhere between the hill fence and the shore. That’s a lot of ground to cover, with lots of ups and downs ditches and rock outcrops – impossible search it all.
Best to start with the nearest places that they are most commonly to be seen. And – thankfully! – it was in just such a place that I found her. From a distance, she could have been just a boulder, thrown into dark relief in the sunshine. Except that the sky was blanketed in cloud. And I don’t remember a boulder that shape just there …
It was the her eyes I spotted first: her head was thrown back, un-naturally held up to the sky, her eyes wild and staring – and worryingly still. No sound or movement – and cold to touch. Gulls calling above – and a couple of ravens hopping about on nearby rocks : they don’t even wait for the sheep to die before pecking out their eyes and tongue. I dropped to the ground a put my cheek against her mouth: faint warmth. I was either only just too late, or only just in time. I called to her, I shouted at her – “Don’t give up, I’m here to help you!” There was a very faint bleat.
She was entangled in discarded barbed wire. A length that had been removed from a fence during repairs, loosely coiled up – and just left. Probably 20 years ago or more – the croft was abandoned by its owner well before we came to Uist. In time the wire would have become swallowed up in a tussock of coarse grasses, and would have become almost invisible. Likely as not, she would have been grazing close by, but looking up suddenly a horn would have caught in a loop of barbed wire. Reacting and wriggling, a lock of wool would have been snagged … and from there on it gets worse and worse until they have no hope of escape, and just wait for death. They can get caught in brambles (blackberry bushes – or other thorny vegetation) by the same means, though generally it’s just the wool that catches, rather than the horns.
The wire had cut into the side of her head, and wire had got caught up in an ear tag: her struggles to escape had torn the ear away partly from the head, exposing muscle. Fortunately her eyes had just escaped being torn out – and I couldn’t yet see any other injury, though her legs were doubled up un-naturally. Above all she was utterly exhausted.
Wire-cutters would have been handy, but they were back at the croft store, and I didn’t want to risk leaving her alone, even for five minutes or so. I struggled – with bare hands – to bend the wire enough to free the lamb’s ear tag … and then one horn … and then the other. That left ‘just’ the tangling of wire and wool. Fortunately I had with me a brand new folding pocket knife, delivered just yesterday, and razor sharp. Starting at her head, I sliced through stretched-taught wool, working back as if shearing, until she was clear.
She didn’t try to escape. She just lay on the ground, quiet and still. I picked her up and carried her back to the croft store, laying her on the floor with her head resting in a bucket, laid on its side, with some sheep pellets to tempt her to eat (and to black out alarming visual distractions). Nothing.
Leaving her to rest, I went off to feed the hens. When I returned, 10-15 minutes later, she was as I’d left her, on her side, head in the bucket. But there were noises – of eating. I sat with her, applying an antiseptic to her wounds. After a while, she tried to stand up: I helped steady her. She thanked me by weeing on my shoes. And for good measure some ‘nuggets’. Oh dear!
After I’d completed a few simple jobs outdoors on the croft, I returned to find her unsteadily exploring the croft store. Time to return her to the flock …
A lucky escape?
There’s something about air travel that turns me into a zombie. It starts as soon as I’ve sat down after checking in for the flight ; and even once I’ve retrieved my baggage it’s difficult to shake off the sleepiness. This time, not even the usual tension-points of take-off and landing roused me from the state of torpor. The night was dark, the flight short – just twenty minutes or so ; and I was the only person on board – other than the captain, first officer – and the paramedic. I was aboard an air ambulance, on my way to Stornoway for a brain scan.
It was a couple of nights ago. I’d been getting ready for bed when I was struck by an excruciating pain in the head, both above the right eyebrow and a somewhat lesser pain on the right side at the back. Plus nauseousness and a swollen neck and throat. A bit like a migraine, but different. And far worse.
I’ve suffered with migraines since my early teens, though thankfully far less over the past 15 years ago – since we moved to Uist, in fact. I can recognize three distinct types: stress-induced ; food/drink-related ; lights+cold. I’ve developed strategies – by now almost subconscious – to avoid migraine getting started, or at least nipping them in the bud. To bed – asap. Warm body, cool head. Light and noise smothered out with a pillow. Empty head of thought. [D > That last doesn’t sound too difficult!] Hopefully I’ll fall into a deep sleep. How long until I wake – well that varies enormously ; but even if it’s just ten minutes later it feels like ten hours has passed, and I feel simultaneously both weakened and refreshed. If I’m disturbed, I’ll be in a zombie state.
So in some ways this was like a light-and-cold migraine, especially as I found myself acutely sensitive to light – even that of a torch. And yet it came on far too quickly, and the pain was atypical in terms of both locations and severity. And above all I couldn’t think there had been any of the usual triggers – there was just the symptoms. Unusually – and worryingly, I couldn’t find any relief with the usual sleep therapy: lying down made the pain and nauseousness intolerable, and sitting was scarcely less aggravating … so I just paced about the house, crying out with pain. After 15-20 mins or so there was no sign of it lessening, and for the first time I called the NHS24 helpline. After describing the symptoms, they ordered an ambulance …
Denise packed up some things, and I settled myself into zombie mode – a tactic for coping with migraine when I can’t get to bed or go to sleep. Eyes closed, stand or sit motionless, blanking out all inputs, responding only as absolutely necessary – my speech becomes very slow and slightly slurred.
Two single-crew ambulances arrived. The two paramedics checked me for life signs, and then … and a half-hour later I was in a bed at Balivanich hospital. Hours of repeated questioning, medical ‘obs’ and samples. Later, the duty doctor announced that an air ambulance had been sent to take me to Stornoway.
A&E at Stornoway plied me with more questions, and there were tests and yet more tests. And then the scan. A CT scanner. A first for me. All I knew of them is the images of scans shown on TV programmes. Not sure whether they use X-rays or … what?
I lay on the bed-cum-carriage of the machine, body held motionless by the head-rest, and thoughts stilled in submission to whatever must come next. The radiographer told me to keep my eyes closed, and I’d not feel or see anything – nothing to worry about. I let go. I sensed the slow motion of the carriage, felt a bump against the stop, and then the return. And then the same again. These were ‘reconnaissance scans’, used to plan the main scan, which would come third and last. So far, I’d experienced nothing more than the movement of the carriage, the whir of the machine, and a cooling blast from a fan.
The machine powered up for the third scan. Suddenly, though my eyes were closed (eyelids lowered, but not pressed tight), I saw waves of light, in shades of blue radiating out from some point behind my head – as if from the focal point of the machine. Brilliant colours, from the pale blue of a winter mid-day, to the deep indigo of a twilight at mid-summer. The waves rippled as they radiated out across my body, towards my feet. But as scanner powered down, the last waves of blue dispersed and dissipated.
The radiographer had never known anyone experience those blue waves. Or waves or any other colour. Or waves. Or anything at all. Nor the consultant. He stopped by to tell me that the scan had not shown any abnormality … and specifically no hemorrhage: I could go home.
Arrangements were made. Home by scheduled flight. Denise met me at BEB – Balivanich airport.
The head pain? As yet, unexplained. The lights? Also unexplained.
Or are they? The only reference I could find on the internet, searching for anything remotely connected, concerned those who claim to ‘see energy’. Which is interesting, because what a CT Scanner does is to project a narrow spectrum of electro-magnetic energy, a range known as X-Rays.
Researching the subject further, I’ve found this on Wikipedia
While generally considered invisible to the human eye, in special circumstances X-rays can be visible. Brandes, in an experiment a short time after Röntgen’s landmark 1895 paper, reported after dark adaptation and placing his eye close to an X-ray tube, seeing a faint “blue-gray” glow which seemed to originate within the eye itself. Upon hearing this, Röntgen reviewed his record books and found he too had seen the effect. When placing an X-ray tube on the opposite side of a wooden door Röntgen had noted the same blue glow, seeming to emanate from the eye itself, but thought his observations to be spurious because he only saw the effect when he used one type of tube. Later he realized that the tube which had created the effect was the only one powerful enough to make the glow plainly visible and the experiment was thereafter readily repeatable. The knowledge that X-rays are actually faintly visible to the dark-adapted naked eye has largely been forgotten today; this is probably due to the desire not to repeat what would now be seen as a recklessly dangerous and potentially harmful experiment with ionizing radiation. It is not known what exact mechanism in the eye produces the visibility: it could be due to conventional detection (excitation of rhodopsin molecules in the retina), direct excitation of retinal nerve cells, or secondary detection via, for instance, X-ray induction of phosphorescence in the eyeball with conventional retinal detection of the secondarily produced visible light. Though X-rays are otherwise invisible, it is possible to see the ionization of the air molecules if the intensity of the X-ray beam is high enough.
Note the bit about dark-adaptation. One of the symptoms of this episode had been what the medics referred to as ‘photophobia’ – extreme sensitivity to light. I’d kept my eyes shut for most of the night, even though awake – to protect myself from any stray light. I’d become accustomed to darkness – that’s what’s meant by dark-adaptation. In short, my eyes had become so sensitive that I could see even the glow of molecules irradiated with x-rays.
Well, that’s the only explanation I can offer. What do you think? I’d be particularly interested to hear from anyone who has experienced something similar.
I did wonder whether to entitle this post ‘The man with X-Ray eyes’, but I dont like to be sensationalist. Or misleading! So I made do with Night Flight – Blue Light.