I love walking after reading Neil M Gunn. In today’s practical, busy world, his words are a welcome reminder of the magic of everyday, bringing alive the worlds ephemeral, intangible qualities.
“Many are susceptible to the peculiar power of the twilight, particularly in lonely places. For me it can evoke figures I knew as a boy; tranced hunting moments at the back of woods, in a glade, eyes staring at cleft rock, ears harkening for the inaudible. Two orders of being, the visible and the invisible, pause on the doorstep of this grey hour, and which is going to advance upon you you hardly know.” (The Other Landscape p 13)
I step outside, just before midnight, into Shetland’s simmer dim. Colours of sunset remain, the sky a patchwork of pale pinks, yellows, purples and striking duck egg blue. Lightly rippling, the sea glows opal like, gently splashing the rocky shore. It is not quite dark and the light takes on an unusual quality, seeming radiate from land and sea to be reflected by the sky. The still air is filled with the piping cries of oystercatchers and the haunting bubbling call of curlew. Stories of trows, witches and smugglers are all the more real and present tonight. I sit, enjoying the moment, wondering about all those unseen who may share our world.
When I first visited Shetland I was struck by a feeling of presence; of the history visible in the landscape and alive in conversation of the wind. The experience was so strikingly different other landscapes I have known. On returning to central Scotland, as I walked the wind was strangely silent. By silent I don’t mean it made no noise, barn roof rattled, leaves on branches rustled but something was different. Turning my face to the wind and finding it with nothing to say was the first moment I knew I’d move to Shetland.
Studying at Aberdeen University, my academic life has been profoundly affected by the work of Tim Ingold. When he spoke of how people and place are intertwined and that human and non-human are not discrete, separate bounded categories and I knew I was in the right place. During my research into relationships between people, animals and place in Shetland I have taken as my starting point Ingold’s words that “through living in it, the landscape becomes part of us, just as we are part of it (2000:191). Ingold work critiqued the popularly held theory that people understand “nature” in different ways because their culture creates a particular idea of nature which then mediates their experience of the world. Such constructionist approaches effectively silence the world, making it no more than a blank canvas onto which cultural ideas are projected.
Ingold reminds us of the importance of experience in how we learn about the world “a place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there – to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its specific ambience. And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people’s engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance. Thus whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape, they are gathered from it (ibid 192). People dwell in a world that is continually generated through experience and it is from such experiences that knowledge and understanding grows (Ingold 2007:s28; Ingold 2010:s12).
As I walk in the simmer dim, I think about that silent wind and wonder about how we experience the ways in which the world communicates with us. Has the world become silent in some places while remaining vocal in others? Do some places simply communicate more effectively with certain people? Is it our attitude and approach to place that renders some landscapes mute as they no longer wish to talk to us? How do our thoughts, feelings and conversations affect these relationships?
I agree with Ingold, that people and places become known through everyday practical engagements and that too much focus on the power of representation can blind us to the power of place to convey something of itself. I am also fascinated by the roles of stories and representations on these relationships. How does what we have read or been told about a place affect our phenomenological encounters? That simmer dim walk, I thought first of trows as those are the stories I knew of the place and so was more open to their presence.
Stories help keep places alive, or maybe just keep us alive to the possibility of communicating with place, of experiencing more than the everyday tangible elements of landscape. Although while walking my first thoughts were of the stories I had heard, it was not only that which made the night magical. As I sat, watching the light from the glowing land fade, listening to the curlew, thoughts drifted to feelings. A sense of not quite being alone, uncanny but not unpleasant, the place hinted at worlds not directly seen but whose presence saturated that night.
To return again to Gunn; “He perceived, with an effect of astonishing discovery, astonishing not in a disturbing way but merely with a divine lucidity, what philosophers were arguing about when they discussed the abstruse concept of subject and object, the knower and the thing known, being one. Only, unless he has ever been a blind fool, most of the philosophers whom he had read on the subject had themselves never achieved this wordless fusion, this momentary oneness of the seer and thing seen. Doubtless this is why they had been so arid” (Silver Bough p 192)
People and place do not co-constitute each other in a vacuum. Places do not simply reflect our ideas, nor communicate to us in a world free of prior experience. As we interact with places and the human and non-human presences within landscapes, we are immersed in a world of experience, presence, absence, story and memory.
Gunn, N.1948. The Silver Bough
Gunn, N. 1954. The Other Landscape
Ingold, T. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood Dwelling and Skill Routledge: London.
Ingold, T., 2007. Earth, sky, wind, and weather. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13, pp.S19–S38.
Ingold, T., 2010. Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16, pp.S121–S139.