Prelude 2020: Still, Life

Amanda Thomson


Still Life

Amanda Thomson responds to the events of 2020, inspired in part by Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude. Commissioned by The Willowherb Review and Aerial.

In Still, Life, Amanda Thomson writes on being present, and contained, relatively speaking, in a rural, Highland location during lockdown. Accompanied by short filmic extracts she writes of an awareness of the slow unfolding of the year with the coming of spring and the attendant species of flowers and birds; what it means to be remote, and in a ‘rural idyll’ at this point in time when our connectivity to the world and what’s going on has never been so immediate and wide-ranging, considering ideas of precarity and what the sublime might mean in this early part of the 21st century and in these current times.

Still, Life
Amanda Thomson

These are strange times. Perhaps every era has its odd moments, but this feels stranger. We were brought to a physical halt (though our hearts raced), and within that stillness, perhaps because of it, we’ve had time to watch the year unfold, the world unravel around us, in its own mostly quiet, occasionally violent way. We have become strangers even more to each other. I’m in a place with poor broadband connectivity and no TV. I grabbed my news sporadically, reading newspapers online when I could bear to, and occasionally following Twitter threads, before Twitter became too much.
I’m struck how when I recall these first few weeks of lockdown, I have no recollection of what happened, or what I did, apart from remembering a worry, a dread, a feeling of powerlessness, unknowing, and a sense of foreboding that felt even more pressing than usual, even as the trees sprouted their first buds, and snowdrops pushed their way usually through sodden earth, occasionally through a thin crisp of snow.

I’m not in the Lake District but in the Scottish Highlands, and I’ve stayed in the forest, where I live, though I’ve longed for the Cairngorm Plateau and the view down the Lairig Ghru from the top of Ben Macdui. I’ve dreamt of the 360 degree view of Sutherland from the top of Stac Pollaidh that always snatches my breath: mountains fading into other mountains, moorland dotted with lochans and to the west, the sea and the Summer Isles. But there’s a comfort in our circumscribed movements closer to home, through the woods, and through the woods again in another direction, then another. I’m in the Highlands but not immediately near those headline vistas that have so drawn people in, vistas similar to those iconic places sought out in the Lake District that speak of the sublime, a word coined in the time of Wordsworth, an almost philosophical conceptualisation of nature and landscape that describes a combination of wonder and fear that you might feel when encountering, say, a volcano or a cliff edge, the Victoria or Niagara Falls, or the Lake District, the mountains of Assynt…. Perhaps it’s the rush of adrenaline you get as you move towards or along an edge, or when you are in close proximity to something almost overwhelming and awe inspiring—but not too close. 

In Savage Dreams, Rebecca Solnit writes of this sublime, ‘the overwhelming scale of time, of the earth, of violent natural forces gave sublimists a pleasing sense of their own smallness’. There’s something about that vulnerability that you feel when you are in the huge landscapes I wish for above, that I totally understand. But as Solnit notes ‘the sublime they enjoyed came from natural phenomena or artistic representations of natural phenomena; the unnatural disasters of the present offer no such containment within the bounds of the natural’.

Like the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands are coloured by expectations and people coming in search of some kind of awe—from Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, painted in 1851, to Scotland’s North Coast 500, a road route established in 2015, skirting along some of the edges of Scotland’s land, north and then down to the west, to areas of the country touted as ‘remote’ (though not to those who live there).

Throughout the Highlands, with the lockdown’s easing, there’s been a surge of people who want to flee the confines of the grey drab of buildings and city streets, and who wouldn’t after all this time? But sometimes I’ve been reminded of that infamous image of a long, multicoloured queue of climbers snaking the narrow ridge of Everest as people waited to reach its summit, or the paired photographs I’ve seen of Roy’s Peak in New Zealand. In one, a solitary figure waves to the camera, behind them, a phenomenal backdrop of lakes and snow-capped mountains and azure blue haze. In the accompanying photograph, taken from the viewpoint of that lone figure, a queue of people waiting to replicate that image themselves. The truth of things is always different from our initial perceptions.

In truth, I don’t remember much from the start of lockdown. I took photographs and these tell me, relatively speaking, what I was noticing, but not what was going on:

25th March The Scots pines at the house, grannies, and the birches, still bare.

26th March An old fencepost with an array of lichens and mosses and grasses on top of it. A line of sheep, staring; and I remember thinking about social distancing; how we gather, or don’t; the beginning tyranny of crowds and an associated fear of them.

27th March The moon and a star, I think Venus; and the photo was taken at 9.50pm, the late gloaming, but now I think that even then, there was still light in the sky. And lighter then than now at the end of August.

4th April A shot from the wildlife camera I’ve placed at the door, triggered by a windy rainy night and a bucket blown in front of the camera.

7th April Just fleetingly, 4am, a pine marten comes and stands in front of the wildlife camera. Looks. Moves on. And a photo I took with my other camera earlier that night, another moon. Full, bright, a supermoon.

9th April A song thrush on the fence post. Head hidden by a thatch of hay in its bill. Nesting.

13th April Another Scots pine, a granny, and I remember that walk which was a walk to see where it might join up to another path and direction. Our longest, farthest venture since the constraints and cautiousness of lockdown. We failed to meet our predicted outcome (too boggy) but we had a better sense of the terrain and journey between one derelict croft and another, and wondered when last these routes had active, desire-lines walked by those other than sheep.

16th April Timberman beetles, two, mating on the decking. Male’s antennae grey to black to grey to black; curving around, each four times the length of its body.

Another one, alone, two days later.

19th April A comma butterfly. The only one I’ve seen here and I was lucky to catch it on my phone—for it landed only fleetingly before flying off.

A pied wagtail. Back as they are every year. They breed in our neighbours’ shed, but this year he found the female dead, just before he expected her to lay; and while the male found another partner, we have not seen any young this year.

The first celandines, and wood anemones too.

The wood sorrels suddenly in abundance.

21st April A black redstart, newly arrived, perched on the cable support for the electricity pole.

23rd April The loch at its stillest; picture postcard day, blue sky fades to white at the horizon, and I remember hearing the first, falling, melancholy notes of willow warbler song. They have returned.

A beetle I’ve yet to identify; ridged carapace flecked with yellow.

24th April A garden tiger moth caterpillar. I remember hearing the first cuckoos of the year.

26th April A double rainbow; and my favourite light—sunshine on and before me, and the purple-blue rain and storm somewhere south east. I imagine a thunderstorm somewhere across the Lairig Ghru.

28th April A hare caught on camera, and now we start to see them in the field.

2nd May A pied flycatcher, in the alders next to the burn. I learn later that it’s a first for the area in 30 years.

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In May, I decided I needed to give my days more structure to root me in the here and now. I started to write a page a day, following a practice the writer Jenn Ashworth suggests—100 days of writing,which my partner adopted too.

And so I went on to map these days, these moments of noticing, continuing to take photographs and write about them too. Most are rooted in what’s around me: the flowers, the birds, the changing light.

Now, from the Highlands, I Google for a timeline of what’s been happening in the year. There are so many events easily missed.

My search turns up: heavy rains in Brazil; floods in Jakarta; severe weather and tornadoes in the US; a super cyclone hits the coasts of India and Bangladesh; another cyclone hits India. A record Arctic heatwave sees Siberian wildfires burn areas beyond the size of Greece. There have been avalanches in Turkey and Pakistan, earthquakes in the US, Turkey, Puerto Rico, Croatia. And I know that in Scotland, someplace I think of as being relatively benign in terms of weather events, we’ve had flooding and landslides.

I watch the new force behind the Black Lives Matter movement because of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and know that these are the names that have made headlines across the world; we know that there are others. Each country looks for and calls out its own equivalences. We hope that this (newfound for some) awareness of racism that has swept the
world, and prompted all kinds of institutions to say they will ‘do better’, will stick.

The list goes on. California is ablaze, and another Black man, Jacob Blake, has been shot in Wisconsin. A hurricane has battered Louisiana’s coast, and India records 77000 new cases of Covid in a day. In better news, there are reports that four years have passed since the last record of wild polio on the African Continent and, at least at the height of the lockdown, carbon emissions fell. But amongst the hardships and grief that many people face, these feel distant, abstract successes.

Recently, I came across a note I’d written in 2009 about something that the Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky had said about the documentary about his work, Manufactured Landscapes: ‘To me it’s always interesting to show the man-altered (sic) landscape as man (sic) dwarfed in a theatre of his own making. That new sublime is actually our own technological and human expansion and progress. We no longer fear nature, we fear ourselves and our force upon the planet’. There’s an apparent beauty in some of Burtynsky’s almost abstract-looking photographs, before you realise what it is you’re looking at—aerial views of landscapes that look like cubist abstractions are tar sands or quarries that can be seen from space; a beautiful orange-scarlet swathe of colour that bisects an almost monochrome view of a landscape is a river red in toxicity. He’s photographed devastated landscapes: mountains of circuit boards and rusting tankers, aground and unimaginably huge against the tininess of the humans, in bare feet and t-shirts, that will dismantle them for scrap.

We fear ourselves and our force on the planet. We fear the unknown and, no matter where we are, at the moment it’s hard to balance awe with any kind of adrenaline-soaked positive fascination. I think back to the sublime, a fear where we have an element of control. In these uncertain times, we fear ourselves; we fear the harm we might do; the harm that might be done to us.

In 1770, the year that William Wordsworth was born, to quote Wikipedia ‘James Cook claims the East Coast of Australia (New South Wales) for Great Britain.’ In Wordsworth’s lifetime, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and in his lifetime he would have seen laws to abolish slavery fail before the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833, witnessed British colonial expansion, as well as the effects of the Industrial Revolution including the rise of the Chartists, and I read how much of the Industrial Revolution was based on the proceeds of slavery.

We each have to hold so many things, so many lives—our own, and our family’s, our community’s (however we define them). When we look at this new need for social distancing here in 2020, or a longstanding worry about walking home late at night, or having a fear of the police, we can see that the reality is that for some of us, our knowledge of the dangers we face isn’t new; we’ve always feared (for) ourselves, known our force on the planet.

Sadiya Hartmann, in Lose Your Mother, writes about the ‘afterlife of slavery’, saying, ‘If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.’ Hartmann takes us further back to the complexities and complications of who became enslaved, and writes about the idea of the stranger, how that dictated who would be captured, who would be sold. It was not kin or clan who were kidnapped, but those who were outside, foreign, alien, disconnected. I wonder about the idea of the stranger, the idea of the other, us/them and how we value—or devalue—one another. Who we mean when we think about ourselves.

On the 25th of May, the day that George Floyd was murdered by a white cop, at the cusp of the summer’s night, I stood at the window watching a herd of six red deer jump the fence from the trees at the far side of the field, and graze in the long grass beyond the burn, before skittering back into the woods. On the day that BLM protesters pulled down the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, 11th June, my motion sensor nature camera filmed hares in the garden, eating the bladder campion. Last week, as I saw the creeping ladies’ tresses that always signal the endgame of summer, filmed melancholy thistles, and watched the swallows gather before their long migrations south, I read that Covid cases reach 25 million worldwide, and that there have been over 800,000 deaths. How to get our heads around these numbers? How to imagine what it’s like some place else—in Kenosha Wisconsin, or Portland Oregon, or Chicago, where I lived for a couple of years. What if I wasn’t Scottish and living up here; Or, or, or, or…

We live within such contested times and are on one side of a wall or the other, on one side of an ocean or a channel or a strait. We look at gathering clouds and might hope for rain for our gardens or anticipate the theatre of a storm, or we may worry about flooding, or that the boat that we hope will take us to safety might be swamped and capsized, or that a lightning strike might start another wildfire.

It’s been easy, easier, easiest perhaps, to concentrate on what’s been immediately before me. I don’t quite know what to do with the other stuff of the world. The swallows returned from their long haul flights from Africa; cuckoos arrived too after taking much the same journey; these returning birds, the summer migrants, have shifted and changed the tones of this ever adapting forest, adding harmonies and competing, overlapping choruses to the colours that shift and shimmer in various lights and wind directions. I’ve seen how the sun rises higher earlier to touch the roof then spill into the living room and onto the garden, and how, in high summer, the legacy of its light remains through the whole of the night. In our tiny plot we have planted a wildflower meadow, and it’s overrun now with what I once thought were dandelions but know now to be a mixture of dandelions and hawkweeds and cats-ears, but whatever, it’s been a swathe and sway of bright points. If I look closely, there are little asterisks of maiden pinks hiding between them. I didn’t notice before how these hawkweeds and hawkbits and dandelions and cats-ears (that all, still, look the same to me) wait for the sun to hit them before they open fully, and when they do there’s a mass of yellowheads. We’d hoped for more diversity in this tiny patch. For more bladder campion and red campion, and red clover, but the hares had come into the garden with far more frequency that we had thought, and they certainly had favourite plants to devour.

It’s the end of summer now, and the blaeberries are out and the creeping ladies’ tresses grow unobtrusively amongst the pines. Scotch Argus butterflies flurry up before me in the nearby meadow where the melancholy thistles grow, and it’s the first time I’ve paid these flowers any attention, see how they stand singular and proud. I used to think they were called melancholy thistles because of this singularity, but I read that when decocted into a wine, it was used to cure melancholia. And anyway, while they stand as singular stems, there’s a community of them dotted about this long grass, each flower in easy sight of another, and butterflies flit between them, and bees go from one to the next to the next.

Beyond the garden, the world is trying to return to normal. Schools are back, restaurants are open. Life begins to go on, and suddenly there’s a swathe of dandelion clocks, and a breeze lifts the seeds, sometimes intertwined, into the air, and out and away across the field. It doesn’t feel, yet, like the time, to decide to hope or to despair. Instead there’s a wait that feels sometimes manageable, sometimes interminable, and a wish for a new normal that is somehow quieter, slower, kinder and more equitable than what has gone before.

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Amanda Thomson is a visual artist and writer who teaches at The Glasgow School of Art. Her creative practice fuses traditional and digital printmaking techniques, photography, bookmaking, video and sound and creative non-fiction. A lot of her work—in art and writing—explores how we are located (and locate ourselves) in the world, nature, flora and fauna, and is often rooted in the highlands of Scotland. Her first book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature, was published by SarabandBooks in 2018.

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