Our Time is A Garden was a series of nature poetry workshops for women and non-binary writers of colour in Scotland in partnership with the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH at the University of Edinburgh. This series is part of a collaborative research project led by Junior Anniversary Fellow at IASH, Dr Alycia Pirmohamed.
Below are the recorded presentations of each facilitator, Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo, Samaneh Moafi, Nina Mingya Powles, Amanda Thomson and Churnjeet Mahn.
You are welcome to watch and use the videos to inspire your creative writing practice.
You can access captions by selecting the “cc” button on the YouTube media player. To access the full transcript, select the “plus” button underneath the player.
A free anthology collects poems from contributors, with commentary from Dr Alycia Primohamed, is now available: download Our Time Is A Garden (PDF, opens in a new tab).
Present, not Pristine featuring Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo
(Workshop welcome page with a leaf graphic, the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH logos on a teal-grey background. There is text that says “Our Time is A Garden” in white text. There is text that says “Present, not Pristine: on colonialism’s erasures with Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo.” in black text. There are two narrators: Alycia Pirmohamed (who opens the video) and Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo.)
Alycia Pirmohamed: Hi, welcome to Our Time is a Garden, which is a series of nature writing workshops in partnership with the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH at the University of Edinburgh. Workshop 1 was facilitated by Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo, and their talk was titled Present, not Pristine: on colonialism’s erasures.
Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, is a Trinidadian Scottish writer of poetry and non-fiction. Capildeo’s eight books and nine pamphlets include Like a Tree, Walking and Gentle Housework of the Sacrifice. Their interests include plurilingualism, silence, traditional masquerade, and multidisciplinary collaboration.
They are Writer in Residence and Professor at the University of York, a Visiting Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, an Honorary Student of Christ Church, Oxford, and a Lay Dominican Enquirer.
Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo:
Hello, and thank you very much for being here. And I do apologize for the peculiarity of a laundry rack together with secondhand cushions. But I think this is very true of the sort of environments in which we find our minds creating gardens of words, that they don’t necessarily correspond or they correspond in odd ways to the environments we find ourselves building with found materials, as 21st century willing and unwilling migrants.
Now. I do apologize if my eyes seem to be going in all directions. As I was saying just before the workshop began to the organizers, my printer is not working, so I’m going to be looking at a different screen.
Okay, so present not pristine, is the title that came to me when I wanted to give this talk, partly in reaction, and I do want to get away from the sense of writing as as a reaction or writing against or writing to or with, but partly in reaction against the unconsciously, ethno-fascist creation nostalgically of perfect landscapes.
So the perfect landscape is very closely allied to the landscape where there is nothing that – and this is going to be offensive – but one of the bad sort of non joke jokes about the name of Canada, for example, is Ca-nada, that nothing is here.
That way of looking at a landscape and deciding to read it as nothing is typical of a colonial gaze. Because if you read a place as nothing, you can not only obliterate history, but you can free yourself, not just free yourself from engaging with whoever was there and whoever is there, but even make it heroic, that you have refused to do so.
So it’s – there’s a lot of spin and the gaslighting and the word nothing. And what I’d like you to reflect on, and this is one of the things we might do in the writing workshop, if you want to take that direction, is the difference between the related words vast, and waste. So TS Eliot’s the wasteland, for example, feels free to appropriate to everything, including Sanskrit, which many scholars writing in the poem are completely incapable of dealing with, or indeed, acknowledging the way that non-western philosophy and poetry was being received in the late 19th, early 20th century in Europe and the Americas. But TS Eliot feels free to take the post-war landscape of the place of this called things that are broken the garden of the dead, and call it the wasteland.
Because the wasteland suggested previously there was a garden, there was a paradise, there was Eden in the fall. Consider the difference if that poem had been called the vast, the vast would have that sort of Columbus feeling that you are setting out upon the Uncharted, the deep, and then anything you name is also something you create, you become the magician, Prospero. So there’s that dynamic between the vast versus the waste.
And I would quite like us to be sensitive to that also, in modern writing. Now I would also like to be particularly controversial and political, which is one of the things I do as I only have a floating attachment to most institutions. And it’s a peculiar sort of freedom.
And, I would like to call the attention to what places have been bombed. In the last 30 or 40 years, the places that have been bombed, such as Baghdad, Aleppo, Kabul, are the great places of ancient civilisation, the places with libraries, and jewels, and architecture, and to return those places to sand and stone is literally to obliterate the call to engage with our long history, and our shared history, because they’re also places of incredible mixing.
And if you don’t want to read the historical mixing, you also don’t have to learn the languages. So I talk both of the literal bombing, I just name it here, but also I talk now of the destruction of our universities, and just – capitalist destruction for universities, but also the distrust of expertise, and the dumbing down of the public.
So people prefer postcards or cage fights, the discovery or the individual romantic item version of history, rather than the complicated history, whereby you have to look at how silver has traveled, or how many people – you know why it is that there are so called Viking runes in Istanbul, what exactly was happening, who was talking to whom. There wasn’t a point, when people weren’t talking to each other.
The only thing is that we can refuse to reckon with that as poets and writers, or we can decide to reckon with it. Reckoning with it doesn’t mean becoming an academic historian necessarily, it can also just mean being sensitive to the layering of the voices in any one instant. Okay, so I’d like to stop that sort of weird preamble now. And make four points – four sub points, my first main point, which is the sense of inhabitation versus the romanticisation of loss, and the built versus the natural. And the first of those four points has to do with invisible thresholds. And I would like you to reflect on how, under the pandemic, invisible thresholds have or haven’t been felt by you in your personal life, and also haven’t haven’t been noticed, in your experience of policymaking in your institutions, or the media is that you read or consume. What I mean by invisible threshold is for example, can the public park – public parks were closed off in Trinidad where I had my first lockdown.
But can the public park be a place of safety? If, for example, You’re escaping domestic violence, you want to escape domestic violence, then the public park can be where you make that phone call, or meet that key worker. And the threshold that you cross from the dangerous home to the safe park is the opposite to what you often get major narratives around personas gendered female, and safety. Another invisible threshold in COVID would be for example, the linguistic threshold.
So what language or languages are spoken in your workplace, versus what or where you go to buy your work lunch, if you’re employed, versus what language or languages are spoken in your home, or the building you happen to live. And that live in another kind of quite dizzying shift for some people, whereas the other people that have been a continuity, that’s not the invisible threshold.
And this is why in the prep materials for this talk, I had included the wonderful conversation that Dionne Brand had with me, as we were walking along Bloor Street in Toronto, and some of the invisible thresholds along those streets with a linguistic threshold. As without conflict, you just shade naturally from one community into the next, you might hear Greek you might hear Spanish, as you walk along, you might hear Chinese and it’s just the sort of shading of where people have begun to congregate. And there isn’t really a visible threshold unless you’re super sensitive to things like the signage of shops or the content of shops.
There might not even be that marker. Okay, so there’s sub point number one. I’ll just very briefly talk again about invisible thresholds not related to COVID, but to colonialist moderations, but there’s a kind of related to COVID as well. So activists from the Orisha community in Trinidad, such as the writer Attillah Springer, Orisha, of course, being a West African derived polytheism, made the point to that as for the Hindu community in Trinidad, the rivers, the riverbanks, certain Forest Groves or the edge of the sea are actually necessary places for the rituals to shape and give meaning to everyday life, and where people meet, so not to be – because the beaches have been closed off in Trinidad.
According to the COVID rates, to close off those places of trees and running water isn’t just a question of policing, leisure activity, or luxury space. It’s also a question of not understanding or understanding how ritual is inscribed in the natural environment, and how a particular groove or river carries as much meaning as a statue or cathedral. And I’ll give a concrete example – what I would recommend to you the writings of Attillah Springer, who also writes us Tillah TI, LL. AH. But I’ll also talk very briefly about the forest meeting house.
There’s a forest meeting house in Trinidad, which is now a meeting house of the Orisha. But it’s also traditionally many hundreds of years ago, where Indigenous people who, despite what is said in history books, still survived – gave shelter to the African enslaved people who followed the traditions and helped them survive their colonialism. And it’s only now a built environment. And when I tried to get a taxi there to go to a ceremony to which I had been invited for cross community purposes, I could find almost no taxi driver who would agree to go, and even nowadays, okay, it’s a point to point two is the peculiar echoes.
I’m going to look at Jane Eyre, very briefly in this prep point two in our sense of inhabitation versus romanticization of loss built versus natural.
And most of you be familiar, I hope, with Mr. Rochester, the Byronic brooding hero antiheroine Charlotte Bronte’s 19th century novel Jane Eyre, who unfortunately has his first wife, Bertha Rochester, the Creole who looks like a vampire, enclosed as a mad woman in his attic while he woos the lovely, introverted, pale Jane Eyre who’s half his age or whatever, and the model of virtue and I was thinking how this is very similar, in fact, to the Portrait of Dorian Gray, that an easy reading of that situation would be that both Rochester’s are kind of quasi racialized, dark secret in the colonial master’s house literally.
But another way is to see Bertha not just Jane’s adverse, but to see her as Rochester’s adverse. Mr. Rochester is seen as a consumer, he wants to buy fine dresses for Jane Eyre. And it’s part of her apparent virtue that she refuses that sort of showy pink silk, which we aren’t told, of course, in the novel, would probably have been important from somewhere like India or China, somewhere that has been erased in the novel as a colonial place with an extractive relation to Mr. Rochester’s England, but Mr. Rochester consumes, for the presumably Eastern silks, he consumes women – as well as having his Creole wife, he’s had a French mistress.
So despite Mr. Rochester being seen as the consumer, both the Rochester his wife is depicted as resembling the full German Spectre called the vampire. And so would suggest with the vampirism there, there’s a kind of floating vampirism for the vampire and the attic, is showing us the truth of Mr. Rochester’s colonial master. Just like the ugly faded portraits in the attic, is showing us the truth of the youthful seeming Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novella.
But you have to be able to look across gender boundaries to identify Bertha and Mr. Rochester. Then the third point, which is just really more sort of memoristic thing in this sense of inhabitation versus romanticization of – of loss. This is a memoiristic anecdote from when I was researching the growing of cocoa in modern day Trinidad. And again, it was taking a taxi.
But this was a shared taxi that only went twice a day and would stop anywhere along the route if people flagged it down from the capital, up a hill, to a very remote area where there are still people of mixed indigenous descent, carrying out traditional ways of cultivating cocoa. And because they wanted to learn things, the cab driver instantly started giving away to me, natural, how natural looking roots were actually cultivated roots. So what looked like just forest look to my uneducated, my colonial educated eye, it just looked like rain forest falling away from the precipice.
So he started showing me how to read it, according to paths of fruit trees and other trees. And explaining that there were pathways, you could safely walk in the forest, that will take you from valley to valley. And they were hundreds, if not 1000s of years old, and he’d tell me what they were. And it made my heart break, when I suddenly felt like a Spaniard in the 15th century. And that all I would have to do is smile or give him a glass bead.
And suddenly the island would be given away to me, not because he was stupid, but because there’s assumption that the desire for knowledge goes with the desire for participatory good faith. And I don’t think there’s anything naive in that, I think that should be a form of community we aspire to.
But in how many in how many texts is that written up as naive, you know, you show a kindness to the native, to show you the way into the land. I think instead it should be written up as our corruption when we fail to understand that that’s a really delicate and elaborate way of inflecting knowledge as community wisdom. And literally how you get a law around the land. While, letting land appear pristine, you can be present in it.
And then the fourth kind of sub point here is quite odd. And this is a bit which is going to sound not sane, but I don’t particularly care because as I say, I only have a floating relationship to institutions. It’s a dream as diagnostic tool. And I’m very interested in how speculative fiction, for example, by Nalo Hopkinson or the earlier ghost stories that people like Jean Rhys speculative fiction genre fiction, also by a writer like Wilson Harris, whose father of course was a surveyor who literally knew the land of Guyana, inch by inch by on foot.
How Wilson Harris’s experimental magical realist forms, for example, these are the better ways in anti colonial fashion, about the human in the landscape, and the riches of the imagination and intractability of the landscape, not of being in some kind of opposition, but in big and big and an ever more elaborate, mutual relation. And here would recommend the dream as diagnostic tool.
That’s a bit that sounds not quite sane. But I have had repeated dreams ever since I left Trinidad, of returning violently to Port of Spain. And these dreams follow the conventions of the ghost stories, usually the colonial labor ghost stories, that I read eagerly in my late teens and early 20s. And in one such a dream, a captain being returned to a place I knew was Port of Spain, but didn’t recognise it, because the rivers were running there in different places.
And then I eventually realised after speaking to some older people, that what my mind had done,what my brain had done, was processed physical geographical cues in the environment as to where the rivers had been diverted underground. To make the present day reservoirs. And my unconscious mind picked up, again, on patterns of trees and dampness and watered water courses, and had a reconstituted the Port of Spain of the 1700s, where rivers would have run – rivers would have run visible boundaries, rather than being driven underground.
That suggests the fact that I had lived there in one place in my mother’s house, for the first 18 years of my life, that house hasn’t changed the whole time, it’s been there, because I had that ability to have continuity of place, that my brain was able to unpeel layers of place. But weirdly, I didn’t do this through academic research, or through the conscious wandering of the edge lands of the privileged sacred geographer who’s convinced that he and usually he can uncover the secrets of the past that are rarely just by dwelling, and being somehow physically sensitive to things like damp and green, that my mind processed through the ghost story, or perhaps the narrative of reincarnation, what has rarely been done in terms of urban planning, and therefore what would have been encountered more by Indigenous people about early colonists.
I think the creative writing takeaway from that is to use the dream as tool and to take your dreams seriously, to keep a notebook, and don’t feel too mad. if you go looking at archives and old maps, or go on foot with your notebook through the landscape, you can also use your dreams as a guide. And also oral histories, talking to older people, including and especially those without formal education.
[coughs] Sorry, I’ve done two other events recently. And I don’t have the vocal cords strength to keep talking, because normally I live alone.
The sec – The second point is what ruins have you known? And how do you feel about them? And here my slightly provocative take is there can be romanticisation of ruins either belonging to war. I think recollections of war are quite pernicious, especially as ethno Fascism is rising, or creeping in, even to people who want to be sweet and soft and nostalgic about the land.
Because if, if the ruins are related to war, people can either be performing heroic suffering, or heroic being put upon. This is where my grandfather lived in half a potato where his leg was shot off. But he was a pacifist, you know, Sorry that’s a horrible kind of satirical thing to say. But what I was thinking is, if you look, for example, at the Old English, not Anglo Saxon elegies, like the one which is commonly translated and edited under the title, The Ruin, you’ll see how the Old English invaders were living with what were actually the ruins of the Roman invaders.
But it’s sort of poking around them and wondering what they were. And vaguely thinking, well, maybe these were the Giants from the Bible, and, or maybe these were the people who knew about dragons and all that. So they’re quite happily inventing a mythological past.
There’s something rather gentle and weird about that which I enjoy, because it’s not violent. And I mean, it shows they’ve been colonized. Obviously, they’ve been sort of Christianly colonized. That’s why they’re reaching to the Old Testament for an origin narrative, but they’re also living among these stones.
And in a way I find refreshing that there isn’t a possession of them, there’s a dreaming with them. And that made me ask the question of writing of place the same question I want to ask with love poems. So when you read a love poem, do you put yourself in the position of the lover or the beloved or the narrator? Do you own or do you serve? Or neither? Are you an eavesdropper?
So similarly, if you look at ruins, or you imagine ruins, what language do you speak? What language do you imagine being spoken among the ruins? And what do you imagine your life would have been at the era of those ruins? Would your life even have been there – could it have been – and why I said to Jean Rhys story about somebody who used to live there, in what’s obviously the ruins of a kind of estate or plantation house, is I realise that I’m imagining a white Creole ghost, I’m imagining the people who live there now might be mixed race, or not even mixed race there might not even be white at all, in any way.
And imagine the person who lived there might have spoken French or Spanish or Portuguese or Dutch, or Creole based in one of those where the people living there now might be speaking English in the very proper way of someone who learned it in school. And then the dialect that’s based more on Bhojpuri or Hindustani, based.
And then the other thing of imagining is the ghost died young, and therefore too young to leave, because we’re imagining a colonial trajectory for a young white girl who should go abroad to boarding school and marry a nice white doctor in England or Ireland or somewhere, and so too young to leave. So to live is to leave, and to die on site is to be trapped to haunt, is to have the unexpected outcome.
So, do ruins belong people – do ruins belong to people who are mobile, to people who are expected to own them, to leave them, to come back, or maybe not to come back, or are the ruins places in which you are trapped as a ghost, whose ghost, or are you forever a tourist in those ruins?
And when you’re reading the writing of place, so the writing of ruins, and the writing implicitly or explicitly makes the claim ‘because I love it.’
What’s the quality of that love? Is there the expectation that the narrator has ownership or has a voice? Or is the expectation of exile or microaggression or being misunderstood?
How were we present in a non-pristine way to that place that the writing loves. I personally have a particular fascination with ports because the wrong people are always fetching up on ports, and sailors are always having relationships with the wrong people. And whenever you’re in a port, you could take it for granted that if you didn’t do DNA testing or focus on research, the results would be deeply upsetting to many.
My last my last point, because I think we’re heading up to 20 minutes now, living traditions versus learning about living traditions, that also the recognition of what’s there, which is why I set a piece of the preparatory reading from Tracy Assing the Indigenous photographer filmmaker and journalist in Trinidad, whose heritage I wasn’t aware of for the first few years I – I knew her and who very kindly did free sensitivity reading for me for my book Measures of Expatriation which was published in 2016.
And I hadn’t realised that I was writing about her people as extinct, because I had been taught that at school. And also because she and others like her had grown up expecting
that hiding was a form of living, and therefore not declaring themselves until you’ve been friends for a decade or proven yourself in some way. So I’d like to interrogate who the text is dead but present, a present but dead.
Like which tradition do you know are there? But they aren’t there? Do you know what things aren’t supposed to be around? And the second thing is literally what are your expect expectations of a modern building? One, for example, how many should sleep in a room? Two, if for example, you’re living in a stone house, do you either know people who are quite poor and live rurally in stone houses?
Or have you been willing to learn from Tories who are living in stone houses? Or are you taking it seriously, when a new bourgeoisie wants a stone house that looks nice, but then effectively kill the stone by doing things like injecting damp courses are expecting every room to be hot all the time, rather than making one or two rooms livable in the winter, living in a nest in the winter and then expanding out.
So are we as modern people willing to learn about a kind of systolic, diastolic – systolic diastolic rhythm of living in vernacular architecture? Or is the kind of capitalistic way of living in architecture? And do we ever look back at what we consider to be the texts we know about?
Like Dickens or the Brontes? Or Hardy? Do we ever look back and see how people are actually living in the built natural environments and those practical ways? And can those be clues to our expectations, as we do a new equal imagination for how we might reclaim the housing we have now, or the environment through which we are forced to live in with less and less oil, ideally, less and less oil. So that’s living traditions versus learning about living traditions, and recognition of what’s there.
And just to go back to what we might use, in Skin Can Hold, I both write from a dream I had of a library in a bombed Middle Eastern country and then write an explicit poem in couplets.
In this book, I talk about loving places that you don’t necessarily own. And in this book, which is really interesting to me, I use forms of nocturne lullabies and walks to talk about the same walks, in Port of Spain and Trinidad and reading the deep landscape. What’s interesting to me is that reviewers in the UK have tended to see the real walks as very literary and imaginative, when I’m just describing the sort of deep dive into the Creolised landscape.
And the one that’s purely imaginary, set in imaginary France, is taken to be the real one. So that is my conclusion. And our three main points were sense of inhabitation versus romanticisation of loss. What ruins have you known, and and how you feel about them, and living traditions versus learning about living traditions and recognition of what is there. And thank you so much.
On Forensic Architecture featuring Samaneh Moaf
Content warning: this talk mentions war and civilian death, and other content which might be triggering.
(Workshop welcome page with a leaf graphic, the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH logos on a teal-grey background. There is text that says “Our Time is A Garden” in white text. There is text that says “On Forensic Architecture with Samaneh Moaf.” in black text. There are two narrators: Alycia Pirmohamed (who opens the video) and Samaneh Moaf.)
Alycia Pirmohamed: Welcome to Our Time is A Garden, which is a series of nature workshops for women and nonbinary writers of colour.
Workshop #2 was facilitated by Samaneh Moafi on Forensic Architecture.
Samaneh Moafi is Senior Researcher at Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London. She provides conceptual oversight across projects and in particular oversees the Centre for Contemporary Nature (CCN), where new investigative techniques are developed for environmental violence.
Samaneh earned her PhD from the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture with a dissertation on the contemporary history of state initiated mass housing in Iran and the class identities and gender roles it informed.
She acquired her Masters degree from the University of Technology, Sydney where she specialised in environmental urbanism in conflict zones.
Before joining Forensic Architecture in 2015, Samaneh practiced as an architect in Australia, taught BA Architecture at the University of
Technology, Sydney, MArch Urban Design at the Bartlett School, University College, London, and led a number of short courses at the Royal College of Arts and the AA.
Samaneh Moaf: So, what I thought I would share with you today is something – is a kind of a proposition around the context that we’re in today.
I mean, I feel like also, it’s something that – that that I’ve been thinking more and more about with the war in Ukraine, the fact that contemporary conflicts and human rights violations are increasingly taking place in urban areas, amongst our homes, in our neighbourhoods.
And it’s the nature of an urban war, if you want to call them urban war. That’s the kind of proposition that I’m making– one of the things that I’m putting forward, is that the parties in the conflict wilfully blur the line between a civilian and a combatant.
If – on the sixth day of the Russian war on Ukraine, we saw a TV tower being attacked, and, with the kind of like, with the idea that this is a strategic kind of military performance to do, but in fact, the site that was attacked was Babyn Yar, mass grave.
So as this is happening, as these urban wars are, are increasingly happening, we’re also seeing a new phenomenon. I mean the urban is saturated with media, as in every citizen is holding a camera, has a camera in his hand, is a witness, is making a video testimony if you like, of what they are witnessing.
And that’s – you know, this [ ] relation of smartphones, it means that human rights violations in conflicts have never been so thoroughly documented as we see them being documented today.
So what I wanted to share with you is around this, around these urban wars, about the way that we use these video testimonies to provide a kind of, an architectural analysis that would then unpack these.
Because also the nature of the media is that things look out of place.
It’s kind of like – it looks chaotic. It looks – it’s hard to make sense of things that are happening, and so I wanted to share with you some of the work that we’re doing with these, with witnesses, with urban witnesses, and with their testimonies, and so I wanted to actually start with, with this footage. It’s from the city of, what we’re looking at, it is kind of like, it is taken from a grain silo building.
It’s a worker that was taking it. I’ve slowed down the video so we can see what is filming with a bit more detail.
The metadata of the video says that it’s from fourth of August 2020. But there’s no mention of hour. You can see that, the kind of like the smoke is coming out of this building. And, and the city is Beirut.
You could see it in the background of the of the footage. You could see the cranes on the other side of the of the warehouse. So this is the warehouse.
This is the silo building, and the worker who’s on the rooftop is filming this. And then we can see in this, in his footage, a kind of a fire that is – that is coming up.
The worker is actually risking his life, right? He’s so close to the warehouse. He can see how much it’s burning. And nevertheless, instead of kind of like running away, he’s taking out his camera and he’s filming this.
And then he’s filming all this, he’s also like sending it on WhatsApp to a friend of his. And this video becomes something that is, that is quite important to us.
So, this fire, the location of this fire, because the video was untimed – this fire matches with another video that we saw from kind of like much further back, from the city side if you like.
We could synchronise that video with this image. This image was posted on Twitter at 5:54pm. And it’s by a kind of like a journalist who would have probably heard the sound of an explosion, took out his smartphone, taken the picture, opened his Twitter, typed down huge explosion hashtag Beirut, and posted the image.
So, in a way if the time of the tweet is 5:54, it would have been taken, the image actually would have been taken a minute before it
We looked at the footage kind of like very closely. We analyse the location of the fire in relation to the warehouse. And we positioned the kind of like – it was important for us to understand – we tried to map the progression of the fire on this day.
Because if we could map the progression of the fire we could also map what it is that is burning, where in the warehouse, that was the plan.
So we could see that this fire is located, that the source of the smoke plume in the senses is in the northeast of the building. We then built this into our model.
So this is the 3D model of the smoke plume. And, and so we started repeating this kind of work with different types of images that we had gathered.
This is another testimony from a building, a tower building that is called the Skyline, designed by this architect or people in the balcony we’re filming it.
This is from that balcony. So the fire, this footage is from a little bit afterwards because you could see the progression of the fire was a bit more.
This is the kind of like the progression of the fire. You could see it being a bit more aggressive, so the fire would have accelerated at this point.
This is another footage that I’m going to show you. It’s from a building near the hospital.
And here we have the story of a medic, if you like, who hears there’s something happening. He thinks it’s cool to film this, he puts his phone on the balcony in order to film this, and so we have this uninterrupted footage of the warehouse.
You can see the colour of the smoke is changing, and the change in the colour of the smoke suggests that the material that is burning is actually changing.
It’s something that has – that it’s kind of like, very likely a tire or something like that because of the colour.
Now we can see something else happening. Now this time on the other side of the warehouse. And we can see the sparkles in the smoke plume as well.
It’s as if something that has small explosives and it, like fireworks. That’s – that’s what this other plume is referring to. So we’re looking at, this film is distinctly different from the first one that we saw which was on the other side.
We then looked at the, this moment of the fire, and we used the shape of the, of this fire ball, if you like, in order to synchronise different kinds of footage that we had gathered.
So we model that, and then we use that in order to understand exactly where the centre of this plume is. And so therefore the centre of the explosion, where would it be in relation to the warehouse.
And then we use the shape of the sphere in order to match and synchronise other kinds of footage that we had gathered, and that were circulating on social media.
For example, this footage from here was taken from a rooftop terrace.
This one here was taken from someone walking on the ports.
This one here was taken from further back into the sea from a kind of a jet ski. This footage is in fact the one the most further away, it is the only one that shows the entire happening that follows.
This is the explosion that is associated to [ ] rate and you can see the size of this orange colour plume that rises. It’s because of the distance that the witness manages to capture the whole thing without kind of dropping his camera.
So if we do a recap, at this point, and I’ll kind of come closer. This was the first plume that I showed you, which you could see from the camera of the witness who was very close to the warehouse who, was kind of like a silo – I’m sorry– who was a silo worker and was filming it also was smashed with the tutor image that I showed to you.
This is the dark plume that’s associated to tires. And this was taken by the kind of like the medic near the hospital who was filming, was taking a time lapse of this. The smoke plume that is associated to fireworks because of the kind of like, the sparkles in it, which was on the other side of the warehouse. And then afterwards the the sphere that’s associated to the explosion of ammonium nitrate.
These four types of smoke each speak of a different kind of material that would have been inside the warehouse, so in a way they’re giving clues to what would have been inside.
With the same kind of thing, from witnesses that would have been inside the warehouse, but at a different time. So for example, this image which was leaked out from the interior, we used it.
We kind of like realised that you can see the number – the bay numbers on the top of the image. And so this was incredibly important for us in order to be able to locate the photographer in relation to the warehouse, and then use the same technique in order to model what was stored inside.
We repeated this technique with other kinds of images that were taken by the same photographer. So for example, this image which he takes, there is another actually footage that is leaked out at a different time about a month after the images that I showed you from the interior.
This is by an inspector that is coming into examine the status of a door that’s behind us, if you like.
This is a door that was broken and so the entry would have been possible through the storage into the warehouse, and you can see all of these bags, very closely packed, to the door on one side.
This is the the storage room, and if we zoom out these are the kinds of, the bags of ammonium nitrate that we could have mapped. Now because of the information that we had about the location of the explosion, we could then go ahead and, which was kind of like here at Bay eight, we could then, and this was kind of like this is what it referred to, we could go ahead and map, put the remaining bags of ammonium nitrate that were allegedly positioned inside the warehouse.
We did the same technique. So for example top here, where we knew the smoke associated to, with the sparkles was coming from, we put the fireworks in here.
And then over here where we knew the first smoke would have come out from, we put here the tires. This was the layout that we could calculate. And this is how it compares to what standards of storage say according to which ammonium nitrate should be stored according to UK standards and Australian standards.
Our findings around this were used in the human – Human Rights Watch reports on the anniversary of the fire, and they were used as evidence in order to bring liability to those who are in charge of the storage.
All the work that we did was in fact thanks to this – to this moment where we were able to locate the first smoke plume that was coming out.
In a way it was thanks to this image where a witness from the city side further back has had taken the minute that he had heard the sound of an explosion.
And it was very much thanks to this witness who was very close to the warehouse. Who’s probably I mean, he no longer is with us because he wouldn’t have had the time to run enough to kind of like be safe from the explosion from ammonium nitrate.
But nevertheless, he took this image and posted it on kind of like on social media or to a friend in order to socialise it, right, with a kind of a hope that there might be a way to bring liability to whoever is in charge, kind of like who – who is belligerent in in the happenings here.
Now I want to kind of like go from here to what happened afterwards.
After the explosion, days after, people were enraged and they, kind of like, they staged these protests, and their protests, asking for liability, asking the state to hold those who are in charge liable.
Their protests were gassed by tear gas, they were suppressed by tear gas. It was as if one clouds was used to enable another cloud, where the cloud of ammonium had enabled this other cloud of tear gas.
Now I want to quickly in the time that I’ve left go from here, this context where we can see this policeman who is firing tear gas on the protesters and he’s holding his hand as if, as if questioning the rage.
I want to come from this policeman to this image. This frame shows a police officer in a nice uniform holding a cord and tape. She looks away in this frame, she’s looking away from the videographer, away and outward.
In the frames that follow– Sorry, let me just play this – in the frames that follow, the camera pans the surroundings. A dozen or so residents are gathered behind the police barrier.
They too are looking up. The videographer herself would have been among this group. Why did she form the witnesses? And not the scene they were witnessing?
And why was the police officer looking away from the videographer, she too was looking upwards and away.
We geo located the video to a spot near Latimer Tube Station in London, in London’s borough off Kensington and Chelsea. The timestamp of the video is 4:14am, June 14, 2017.
This is the night of the fire that broke out in Kensington’s 24 storey Grenfell tower. 72 residents, as many of you know, lost their lives.
The majority of them brown and black bodies, migrant bodies, among them, 32 from North Africa and Middle East. Okay. Notice that all of the people who are watching are also kind of like, people of colour.
They’re residents, the residents who would have been in the walkways and abandoned walk, for example, who would have come and gathered and they’re kind of like trying to see, just, just witnessing right?
Another video recorded from the same spot an hour earlier documents the fire as it wraps around the building.
The only part of the tower yet to catch the flame at this point is a small wedge on on this side, on the west face.
I’m going to play this video a little bit. So he’s standing, he’s being pushed back from kind of like where the residents are – kind of like, no he’s in the same area as I was saying.
He’s filming in the tower. This is an hour earlier from the footage that I showed you. And, and so at this point, the witness instead of you know like, he’s filming the tower at this point.
Sometime in the middle of this clip, the videographer notices something and he points towards it. He then zooms in and kind of like, keeps keeps his, his phone zoomed in as if trying to kind of like see through his camera what’s going on, like making sure what he’s saying is actually, is actually correct. What we can see is the silhouettes of two bodies trapped beneath a flame.
They’re looking down towards the witness on the ground. It is then an hour after this that the videographer starts filming the witnesses around – around. The morning after she shares what she witnessed with her smartphone camera on social media platforms.
Circulating virally, her videos are sites where evidence and testimony collapse on one another.
Eyal Weizman, my colleague and the founding director of FA has written about the way the introduction of such images in court trials leads to complications that are [ ] political and ethical.
These occur not because the image provides a stable and fixed alternative to human uncertainties and anxieties, but rather because the complexities associated with – with the testimony, that have the subject, echo into the image object.
Many of those who were trapped in a tower did not have a camera or it didn’t occur to them to film. They’re – like to film what they were seeing, right?
Some survived, but their testimonies lack this image object evidence.
What their testimonies are like, they are memories. And one of the effects of the trauma – of trauma is that often, it often causes some understanding of situated experience to be lost in many cases.
In many cases, it is seemingly unimportant details that allow for the piecing together of witness accounts. And if those seemingly unimportant details are lost, and it’s hard to kind of cross reference witnesses’ testimonies.
In the absence of video testimony, developing alternative evidentiary methods are kind of a necessity. Throughout our history and over the course of a dozen projects, we have been able to develop a very specific interviewing technique for this purpose, and we call it situated testimony.
And so I want to kind of like end by a clip from this work that we did with a witness. Her name is Rashida, who was inside the tower. She didn’t film what she had witnessed, but she sat with us and we helped her remember many of the details of what had happened on the night.
So this is her sitting on one side, she’s holding a stick pointing to this kind of like rendering in front of her. This is our screen, which we’ve kind of like enlarged so that it’s a bit immersive for her. My colleague, Nick is sitting on her right hand side. This is – this is Rashida’s legal representative who’s standing on, who’s sitting on her left hand side.
And I’ll just kind of. Let’s say just when I find out it’s the first time, when I start smelling something, it was from my window, my window was open. Yeah, that was when I start smelling, youknow, like plastic burning.
Like it was a bit of a smell. But it wasn’t a strong smell. It was around 12, 12:30 – Okay – that time. I opened the door window wide, wider and I looked out and I saw the smoke, a little smoke, lighter smoke coming from this side to this side, but very light, you know, like, like the light cloud, clothing, light grey, like more, very light.– Okay we’ll enter the smoky bits.
Yeah, it was yeah, it was like, but it’s light, like light grey, very light. So it was coming from the right. It was coming from the right, and then started to disappear slowly.
Okay, so this is where I kind of like, I’ll close my contribution, I think, and so, you know, like, in a way us sitting with her, it allowed her remember that moment where she was near the window, and she was looking out, remember what she was seeing, remember the direction with which the smoke was coming.
And, and then that was kind of like an important detail in the larger scale of work that we’re doing around Grenfell.
So kind of like, I thought I would share a snippet of it. But – But yeah, so in. I think like the kinds of things that I feel like, you know, like, maybe I’ll leave it here or maybe, I don’t know. There are a few things that I feel like were common across the two cases that I shared with you.
It was the cloud, and it was the cloud that is kind of like, that is changing a lot and it’s, and it’s never static.
And – and how to, you know like what it means to remember it and what it means, what this cloud means in in building and constructing an incident.
I talked about witnesses, and I talked about witnesses with cameras and witnesses without camera. I talked about urban wars, right, and I see both Ukraine, which is kind of like our present condition, the Beirut port explosion and the Grenfell fire, both as, all as examples of these urban wars, right?
Different different shapes, different speeds. But yeah, maybe I’ll kind of like I’ll leave it here.
On Small Bodies of Water featuring Nina Mingya Powles
(Workshop welcome page with a leaf graphic, the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH logos on a teal-grey background. There is text that says “Our Time is A Garden” in white text. There is text that says “On Small Bodies of Water with Nina Mingya Powles.” in black text. There are two narrators: Alycia Pirmohamed (who opens the video) and Nina Mingya Powles.)
Alycia Pirmohamed: Hi. Welcome to Our Time is A Garden. This is a series of nature writing workshops for women and non-binary writers of colour based in Scotland and is in partnership with the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH at the University of Edinburgh.
This talk is facilitated by Nina Mingya Powles and is on the topic of small bodies of water Nina Mingya Powles is a writer and zine maker from Aotearoa New Zealand and author of the books Magnolia and Small Bodies of Water.
She holds an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from Victoria University of Wellington. In 2018 Nina was one of three winners of the Women Poets’ Prize and in 2019 won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing and the Landfall Essay competition
Nina is the founding editor of Bitter Melon, a very small press that publishes limited-edition pamphlets by Asian poets.
Nina Mingya Powles: I thought I would start by speaking to you briefly about the shapes and forms of nature writing in nature poetry, that I have come to find most suitable for my work, I think or rather, the ways in which I’ve escaped the confines of form repeatedly in my work, and I’ll also read a little bit from my poetry and also from an essay and in my head I’ve kind of been calling this mini-talk bodies of water.
And that that will also cover the workshop that we’ll do together, which is really nice. But yeah, I wanted to start first though, with the words of another poet Victoria Chang whose most recent book, Dear Memory, which came out last year, I think, is a really wonderful hybrid book, I think it says essays on the back of the book.
But I would say it’s really a crossover between poetry and essay, or a kind of prose poetry is published in the US. I haven’t got to compete with me now. But it’s a beautiful book and I really recommend it.
But in dear memory, she writes maybe my memories, are never really just memories, but are fragments of memories and stories from others.
And that memory for many of us is shaped by motion, movement and migration. So I came across this quite recently, like just in the last few months, but I feel like it really articulated something that I’ve been trying to put into words or that I’m always thinking about in my writing, which is that I think the way that I write and also almost anything I write is shaped by motion, movement and migration.
As Chang writes and yeah, so I feel that that that really summed up something for me as someone who grew up in a few different places. And was moving around a lot when I was growing up.
And also as someone who’s mixed and grew up with several different languages around me but ones that I don’t necessarily have fluency in as an adult, but but which I really feel a deep kinship with.
Which I’ve written about a lot and I really feel unsure though about calling myself a nature writer even now, even after having kind of written nature memoir.
But I think, yeah, I think I realized that so often, I am constantly writing about landscapes and about place and I’m really grateful to more recently learning about a broader definition of nature writing and I include poetry in this of course, as place writing, and writing that can include of the body, particularly, urban landscapes, as well as rural landscapes, food writing, one of my favourites and all other writing on politics and climate destruction, of course, as well and all of this is so connected as I think sometimes it’s like maybe we are all nature poets or nature writers.
For me anyway, it’s kind of unavoidable. I don’t like labels, though.
So for me I’m trying to think of it more as a wide reaching and shifting category or genre, one that we can really break open, whether we’re writing in prose or in poetry but yeah, I’m gonna –
Before I keep rambling about that. I am going to read a little bit. I’m going to just read a couple of poems, and then another short excerpt. And yeah, as I said, I think all of I think everything I write really touches on the landscape. But these pieces, maybe in particular do.
So this is a poem called “The first wave.”
And I wrote it after there had been a quite a bad earthquake here in Wellington, but I was far away. I was living in China at a time.
And so I was through the night I was like listening to the online radio, live stream of the tsunami alerts in New Zealand, and thankfully, it wasn’t there wasn’t a real tsunami, there was no distraction in Wellington, at least no one was injured.
So it was fine. But that experience of being far away at the time of natural disaster was really memorable, and anxiety inducing.
So I wrote a I got a poem out of it at least the first wave.
They request that we inform
You are standing on soft ground.
The ceiling lights are swinging in the background.
The waves crash then dissipate.
The first wave may not be the largest.
This is a flow on event so do not go near
do not stay and watch the land slipping.
It has triggered other faults like a network
of nerves, and this seabed has risen out of
There are visible ruptures running along the
This is a flow on event but the moon does
not cause earthquakes.
The ceiling lights are a typical pattern of
aftershocks and they request that we inform
You are visible rapture running along the
Do not stay and watch your nerves slipping.
There will be strong currents in the background.
The moon has risen out of the sea.
The first wave crashes then dissipates you
are standing on such softer ground
sonnet with particles of gold Today scientists
discovered the origins of gold.
The sound of egg noodles crisping up in the
Officials the way my phone corrects that are
mighty summer to rainstorm.
The day after my grandmother died was wiped
A star explodes and wings are found among
the debris along with pieces of a character
I never memorized our only name for her poor
a woman beneath a wave drift she makes softly
in English what is drift my mother translates
into her language, not one of mine.
I tried to make myself remember by writing
pour over and over on squares of paper covering
So I’m surrounded by the women and the water
radicals they hold close the tips of waves
touch me in my sleep.
I’ll just now read a short a short bit from small bodies of water which is not poetry. That said though, I think I’ll talk about this more later with you in our workshop.
But I think that kind of everything I write is actually rooted in poetry and I am always even when I feel like it’s too hard to write a poem and I can’t do it.
And it may and then I want to turn to prose instead.
I am always thinking of bits of prose very much like a poem and thinking of them as physical things with physical shape and form and the shape of them on the page.
So yeah, I think I’m always writing somewhere in between. But a called a girl swimming is a body of water. Where’s the place your body is anchored?
Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all?
The answer lies somewhere in between.
Over time springing up from the in between space, new islands form my first body of water was the swimming pool.
I was like when I’ve gone gongs little silver fish with silver eyes.
Like one of those he catalogued and preserved in gold liquid in jars on the shelf in the room where I slipped, tracked the glimmering forever it was hear that I first taught myself how to do an underwater somersault for swim and deep water.
First learned how to point my toes.
Here we spent hours pretending to be mermaids, but I thought of myself less as a mermaid and more like some kind of ungraceful water creature since I didn’t have very long hair and wasn’t such a good swimmer.
Perhaps half Orca, half girl to swim in Wellington harbour is to swim in the deep seam between two tilted pieces of land that have been pulled apart over time.
Repeated movements along the Wellington fault have caused the cliff formations to rise up above the harbours western shore. Little islands Mikado, Matthew and mokopuna which punctuate the narrow neck of the harbour, actually the tips of a submerged ridge that runs parallel to the tiny fast shaped Miramar peninsula.
Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind.
Dried eggplant this pots, the exoskeletons of cicadas, tiny ghosts clinging to the trees the discarded shells of quail egg sample pause plate, cherry pips in the grass, the Drowned present the man bird in the bottom of the teapot.
Some things are harder to hold in my arms, the smell of salt in sunscreen, mint green blooms of lichen on rock, wind bands who took our trees above valleys of driftwood.
I’ll leave it there with my reading.
But thank you so much everyone and yeah, if you do have any questions now would be a great time if you have any but also I think I just to finish off, and I know we have a break in a minute, but I saw a great tweet the other day from the poet and Professor Dorothy Chang encouraging poets to create their own forms.
Like and that really excites me so much and I don’t actually wouldn’t say it’s something that I’ve done, kind of to create your own signature form.
An example I think, is one that I’ve come across by Natalie Lihn Balderston, the London power who’s created a form called German nations.
I think that’s what it what it’s called. It’s almost looks like a grid and it’s like, lots of little stanzas.
Each one has like a little triangle and I think they can be read, like left to right and right to left.
So amazing and that really excites me and I think that’s something we’ll talk about more.
But it can I think it can be even looser than that. Like they don’t necessarily doesn’t need to be so rigid with rules like that.
And I think what I’m saying is that I kind of have found that my form in both poetry and prose is like, body of water in that it’s fluid and shifting and very, very difficult to categorize.
And I think that’s a deliberate choice on my part.
And I realized that many of my memories, as Victoria Chang writes memories shaped by migration. For me that’s true, but also memories are very often shaped by water, different bodies of water and the way that water moves and it makes me think of, I think, Toni Morrison’s words.
Of course, all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. And I think this often captures what I’m trying to do in my writing, like very often tracing the outline of a landscape or a memory and letting myself follow. Follow the form and discover what it’s going to be because I really often can’t explain rationally why.
One thing is a poem or one thing is an essay. And I think it’s that sometimes I kind of have to start and then find out somewhere along the way.
Yeah, she’s a bit like chaotic. I know, but it does happen that way sometimes. But I’ll stop there, because we’ll have a little break for our workshop. But if Yeah, if you’ve got any questions, please do pop them in the chat.
And thank you for listening.
Queering Postcolonial Travel Writing featuring Churnjeet Mahn
(Workshop welcome page with a leaf graphic, the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH logos on a teal-grey background. There is text that says “Our Time is A Garden” in white text. There is text that says “Queering Postcolonial Travel Writing with Churnjeet Mahn.” in black text. There are two narrators: Alycia Pirmohamed (who opens the video) and Churnjeet Mahn.)
Alycia Pirmohamed: Welcome to Our Time is A Garden a series of nature poetry workshops for women and non-binary writers of colour in Scotland.
Our fourth workshop was titled Queering Postcolonial Travel Writing and was co-facilitated by Churnjeet Mahn. Churnjeet Mahn is a Senior lecturer and chancellor’s fellow in english at university of Strathclyde.
Her primary interest is in writing about margins and border crossings from travel writing to accounts of migration and displacement. She began her research on British Orientalist accounts of Greece and is currently working on postcolonial queer travel writing.
In 2015 she was the lead on an AHRC-funded project on creating LGBTQ spaces in a refugee organisation in London and since 2016 she has been a co-investigator on the AHRC Large Grant, Creative Interruptions, which investigates creativity at cultural margins. Currently she is Principal Investigator on a project exploring EDI in Scottish Heritage.
Churnjeet Mahn: So I didn’t have a chance to do alternate text for all of your images, but I’m going to do that after the session and email that in if that’s okay.
I am going to briefly describe each slide. So the slide up right now is like I have so many feelings about this that it’s really hard to describe that with like being supervised.
So we can see a horizon in the distance, a mountain landscape and there’s lots of grey clouds.
The sun is presumably setting there is a man with camping gear, standing in the foreground looking and scanning the horizon.
This is a travel bug from a group called the Transformative Travel Council and in the centre there is text that says trouble like a hero hero is capitalized.
I just want to read you something from this campaign. From a transformative travel council about traveling like a hero so here’s a quote, a hero travels with heart is fully engaged practices resolve and is wide open to the unknown within every journey.
And when travellers do that they can transform themselves and transform the world.
Travellers are seeking to reignite their sense of wonder and are craving deeper and more fulfilling travel experiences a fact backed up by research as the tribe it’s our load to carry and it’s on us to rise to the occasion guide and support the traveller in pursuit of transformation.
To do this, we must reimagine our relationship with the market the traveller, the trip designer and a seeker because of this, we at the TTC have set out to transform travel no by adding more exotic locations new levels of luxury or unknown heights of extreme sport but by amending what the traveller understands travel has to offer and nearby pursuits.
We want to set travellers on a course to transform the world by transforming themselves.
This really isn’t anything new humans have always travelled romantically curiously and often in search of deep personal meaning. As an industry we should look forward calling the wisdom of those who have walked the path before us in many ways travellers are seeking to reconnect travel to its roots and to its power on quote.
To me the summarize is so much of what is going on in our assumptions about travel or nature or the way in which ideas and images of a travel in nature are transmitted to us is transmitted to us from a perspective of a white man who is able bodied who is not necessarily straight, but coded with straight privilege.
And that’s part of what we recognize here is that nature is feminine waiting to be conquered and penetrated.
So it’s irrelevant whether he’s straight there’s there’s a street privilege which is operating in that posing and that he is in some way exceptional This is a man who is unchallenged no one lives here.
Nothing else lives here apart from that which can be seen recognized surveyed, surveilled catalogue and collected by the traveller. It’s romantic, and by that I mean obviously alluding to the Romantic poets who, you know, pioneered and made popular this trope of the lone figure in landscape, communing with nature, but that personal connection to empty landscapes and promise with the connection to something that is beyond us, whether we want to call it the sublime, or the picturesque, there’s something which is coded from a very, very particular perspective.
So it’s a form of whiteness which constantly erases itself. Or makes itself illegible for the viewer but which is omnipresent.
And I think that’s what is so hard in approaching especially travel writing, about nature and thinking about queer trouble writing about nature because straightness and whiteness is so omnipresent.
There’s it’s impossible to see anything beyond so hardwired in this perspective of this kind of like romantic connection with this empty depopulated landscape that because it’s depopulated only belongs to the person looking at it is imbued a type of objectivity.
So, in a court that I read, is backed up by the idea of research you know, obviously this is a universal truth, because research shows it and you too can step up and be a hero if you’re willing to, you know, follow this campaign.
The use of a word tribe in the quote that they’re using, okay, so that goes straight back to the ideas of like the love of the primitive or the primitive becoming a space or a concept or an idea, which becomes better shows in highly consumer orientated and wealthy contexts.
So the only reason this campaign can talk about travel tribe with any kind of innocence is because of hundreds of years of particularly Northern European and North American constructions of non white spaces as primitive and which has an assumption that is bound up in capitalism and ideas about good progress.
The court uses a term exotic I mean, the I mean, I mean there’s so much, you know, it kind of like lost for words when you kind of come across these terms.
But let’s think about the logistical seriously, what is this campaign trying to refer to when it’s talking about exalted, so it’s not here, it’s somewhere else.
And that is a distance that simultaneously has to be maintained.
I mean, that’s where the exotic works, right?
It’s like far away, but it can’t be so far away that it’s completely threatening. We still have to have some kind of access to it. And this idea, which comes at the end of the quote that I read out now, we’ve always travelled.
Yeah, the production of the modern leisure industry is a by product of capitalist capitalism, as indicated in colonial enterprise. So yeah, travel is tied to power.
So just to read, just to read the last quote the end of the quarter game in many ways, travellers are seeking to reconnect travel to its roots and to its power and cool.
That’s, I mean, that’s the idea of power. There is so tied up with everything I just mentioned about the exceptional white figure in the field, who gets to be somewhere who gets to travel.
Who gets to access that I think that one of the things we need to think about through our recession and through our writing is what we mean by power.
How we redistribute power, how we reroute and power away from dominant forms of writing. And when I mean when I think about travel, and like the language to name who is a traveller in this context, often think about the fact that if, for example, white folk live in India or live somewhere abroad, they’re expats but if like Indians live here, they’re migrants.
Like, we have a very elaborative elaborated language, which maps on to good types of mobility and bad types of mobility, which are tied into histories of travel.
So, even no travel in its very contemporary codification has been completely tied to the leisure industry.
We could never think about it outside the colonial encounter. And colonial context is just that we have a more sophisticated vocabulary for doing different kinds of sleight of hand to arrays that so I don’t introduce talk when I think about anti-heroic ways of writing, because obviously, I’m critical, the hero in this context, and when to think about the different kind of routes into thinking about what we can do in creating, making visible unpicking this existing relationship with travel and writing, and how even just making some power relationships visible, can help to seed other types of creative enterprise that unpick some of the heteronormativity and whiteness of existing rain.
So my talk today isn’t a linear series of progressive points or more like snapshots into different issues. And then at the end, I’ve got some questions.
So slide two.
This is an image from Kew Gardens.
In this slide, I want to think about curating nature.
So one of the ways in which we’re encouraged to think about natural world is that it is pre-existent that it somehow exists beyond language, but obviously the minute we’re rendering it in language, it becomes loaded with like sets of ideological assumptions or perspectives that are bound to a cultural moment and in a set of ideas.
And what we see in the botanical gardens that were created during the Victorian period is this neat, visible ideological approach to the world which was about collecting and cataloguing things out of context and domesticating them for and making them accessible.
For an audience in Britain.
In a second happens from plants to people, there isn’t much differentiation.
And so part of the challenge I want to think about is what happens when plants, people, objects, possessions, become part of the circulating narrative by nature, which are tied together, which then become things to be displayed and consumed in places like Britain.
And in that sense, I think one of the most radical things that we can do and think about is thinking about ourselves and our connections to this natural world and how we have been curated with it.
So when I, when I was thinking about this from a career perspective, there were two things I was thinking about for today’s talk.
One was actually thinking about examples of queer travel writing and then I was like, actually, I want to get away from identity politics and a wave from individuals articulating something that is queer.
And think about queer as a way of challenging some of the natural order that is imposed in these views of the natural world. Because in that ordering of nature, comes the assumption of heterosexuality or heteronormativity.
Comes the assumption of whiteness and I want to see them as imbricated processes, which shaped the reality of how we understand sexuality, full stop.
I think there’s one example I want to use to kind of make that like, explain that more fully.
So I grew up in Glasgow. My whole life was in a city. I didn’t have much contact with nature.
I’m still probably slightly suspicious of nature because of them.
But my mum and like all of the generations of my family before me were farmers in Punjab in India and they so my parents had this really close relationship with nature and all this knowledge about living with the natural world from things to do with crop rotation to working with animals in a in a form of subsistence farming, which was not about extracting maximum yield, which is what farming has become especially in Punjab, but it was about working with the land and with what was available to to live together with the natural work.
And I don’t want to romanticize that too much. Like, obviously, there are still problems of resource and exploitation involved in that.
But that, to me was a very strange place and when my mom would tell me stories about what life was like there and the rhythms of life, which are obviously completely tied to the temperature, like when when it’s hot, when it’s cold, when it’s going to rain, and different forms of festivals around harvest or or other in cycles and near she would talk about different types of rituals and and the people involved in them.
And one of the groups that she told me about were hitters so hedgerows are recognized as a third gender in India are have been present in Indian mythology and accounts of Indian life for 1000s of years and have been part of a social fabric.
So for someone like my mum, who is illiterate the idea that there’s more than two genders it was kind of completely uncontroversial, of course.
Of course, because they were there. They were part of the social fabric, they were part of the rhythms of the year.
And anytime there was a marriage or a child was born, so these moments when you see an important kind of social reproduction, which has played an important part.
So the complicated way in which the stories of gender diversity tied into rituals and practices imbricated in a natural environment, were told to me spoke to a world which seemed so so different from the world that I was growing up in.
And I think in that sense, two things that I just want to flag are one gen gender, and sexual diversity has always existed in the world.
So the idea that what happens if we start thinking of it? Heterosexuality is so as a type as another type of fiction, or is a story or is a structure that we have been told is natural?
What happens when we denaturalize it and say actually, it is another social story?
Actually, a natural state is just diversity that actually we can’t walk in with assumptions about what that looks like.
And for me, that’s part of queering the idea of the of nature in the natural world stay doesn’t have to be about queer identifying individuals.
It’s the entire structure we’re using to think about nature to begin with.
And then I suppose the other thing that I want to think about in terms of like gender diversity has existed is then thinking about how representations of nature and your curation as natural, which in itself is highly artificial process, that that sleight of hand raises queer and non white presences.
And to me, I suppose the reason I picked this picture of Kew Gardens which is showing lots of different leaves and in finance in close proximity in a traditional Victorian pavilion is that it shows that Victorian architecture for artificially pulling together all of these examples from nature which are not necessarily in dialogue in your innate places, but had been placed in dialogue through Victorian architecture, and rendered natural to us.
So that we walk in and we believe and we see and we recognize it is not true. Played free nature and Paradise.
I’m going to I’m going to embarrass myself by telling you something really, really stupid about myself.
When I was little I saw Hawaii was a synonym for Paradise.
I didn’t actually believe it existed. Because all of all of your source associations with Hawaii was that it was like just just paradise, paradise on earth and I’m sure many of you are familiar with the just what settler colonialism has done in Hawaii and militarization of Hawaii and what that’s done to communities who have just or who are there to be part of a service industry so that other people can come and consume this idea of paradise and nature and they have to perform their local primitive novel rituals for the entertainment of wealthy Western tourists who come for their two week vacation in the summer.
I mean, the power imbalance there it’s hardwired into our into the operation of modern tourism. The hero I just want to ask those those questions that we should always be asking like, who makes paradise or or produces the idea of paradise whose paradise is a who lives in paradise who works in paradise?
And I suppose, especially when in terms of juxtaposing these two images, one of the things that I was thinking about was and surveillance, culture and border monitoring, especially in terms of visas and passports and who gets to travel.
And I suppose that’s a fundamental question that we keep needing to go back to because that person in the first slide that I showed you on that side of the mountain, part of the coded assumption here is also he can be anywhere in the world.
But not everybody has the right or the access, and actually queer people of colour are some of the people who struggle the most when it comes to crossing borders, being in relationships or kinship structures which are legible to the state and which can be rewarded with the documents you need to cross the border.
This is a slide which shows a collection of Edinburgh of a series of human skulls collected and a friend chronology society in the 19th century and which is I think, still held in the anatomy Museum.
There are lots of human remains which are collected as as curious as research objects as collectibles in British institutions.
Now I want to I want to juxtapose this with what I was saying about Kew Gardens, to just think for a moment about the ways in which people and plants and objects have all been lumped together into material artifacts that can be used to bolster white supremacy or justify white supremacy.
That material from across the world can be collected and arranged into a pseudoscience and, and it’s like curation and production of the idea of natural order, which obviously wouldn’t be critical here.
Because part of what phonology did and it’s it’s no completely discredited. Pseudoscience was used scholarships to justify why especially Northern European people were the rightful heirs of the world and of all power because they had the closest proximity to Greek statues, or ancient Greek statues and statues from ancient Rome.
So if enlightenment philosophy said, and by the way, the greatest achievements in human civilization were from Periclean, Athens and from Ancient Rome, there were like, and by the way, we look at the most like them.
Therefore, we must be also the people who are part of the pinnacle of Western civilization. And here’s the material evidence for why everyone else isn’t.
And I think that I suppose, in many ways, I worried about the fact that there’s so much contemporary science which happens or so much contemporary scientific knowledge, especially in biology, in chemistry and other disciplines, which has literally been made from the exploitation of people of colour, which is not acknowledged, which is not written about which is not understood our very understanding of nature, and of biology has come from the exploitation of people of colour.
What does that mean and how do we think about forms of restitution, of acknowledgement of holding what that means?
And there’s been recent research on like, say, for example, the number of people of colour who wouldn’t grants from the Welcome Trust, or other big funders of like, biological and other natural science research and then still Black people and people of colour are still way underrepresented in that grant country.
So to me that that history of racism persists in the present, it still persists in the present in terms of who gets to work on ideas of nature. And that intersection, especially between nature and science, because still, for us, that seems the most objective truth about the natural world.
People in collecting the most obvious example of to show you is, you know, this example is from the British Empire exhibition in 1924.
Where entire there’s many Empire exhibitions. It’s really easy to find information about them, and information about human zoos. And the reason I picked this one to briefly touch on is obviously because Wimberly is where there’s a humongous South Asian diaspora.
Now, I think it’s really interesting to think about this incredibly this highly curated racist space, later becoming a space of racialized resistance to the state and what that might mean.
So here on the left, we see a postcard from the Empire exhibition in 1924.
It says the Sierra Leone village, there is a group of fingers standing in the foreground, and we see in straw huts. On the right there is a poster from a British Empire exhibition, which shows an illustration of what was the walled city of West Africa.
Then, so, various walls, straw in background and foreground some figures, and an a perimeter is covered with various maps from across the Empire.
The collection and curation of life people taken out of context and put together for the consumption of British audiences, is, I think something we continue to see in our representation of other places.
I think it’s really easy. I mean, I’ve showed images like this to my students, and you’re horrified. I don’t think it’s a million miles away from what the tourism industry does today, when it sells us, other places or exotic places.
And so, in terms of that, I think we have to think about how the representation of the exotic or or difference now is always tied to these moments of collection and curation of the natural world and the natural world as being something that is understood written about collected disciplined by people in colonial centre.
Another thing I wanted to think about very briefly was like rerouting or renaming or rewriting our ideas about places.
One of my earliest experiences in India was really weird because I had never left Scotland and then I was in this place where I was like looking at a map.
I know these place names like Dalhousie and McLeod Gun. I was like who these Scottish dudes? Have ended up in the foothills of the Himalayas and we still live with a legacy of need names and your transposition or translation into English.
And I think that then gives us and it’s not this is not a question I have an answer to. I really hope you have an answer to her ways of thinking about it.
If English has been a language, which has held has held all of his problematic work, right of rewriting places of doing all of his cataloguing, and curating work of, of, and is constantly in scripting scraped racist assumptions with things like the exotic etc.
Is it more powerful to write against or rework those in English, or do we multiply language or do we turn our back to English?
And then if we multiply languages, how do we put them in dialogue together?
Is it just juxtaposition? Or do they interface in some way? Can they unmake each other? How do we think about language and power in those settings?
And they have really, I mean, I know this is something that comes up all the time because obviously there are lots of English texts where you will have like, other languages put in but like, I always feel the hierarchy there is that it’s in English, and there’s another language so the other language which is invariably in metallics, or is marked out differently in some way becomes the kind of the different thing is there a way that we flip that or, or is English just too problematic?
And then what do we do in terms of like reach even though do we want to talk to a rich with these words, what kind of parody in effect and I put these road markers up?
So these are road markers and in Scotland, which have a Gallican English together? To think about that, because I’m sure many of us have seen that right.
And what power does Donostia is it important for us to see the Gallic even if we can’t read it or understand it?
Or does it not make a difference? Are we always going to look at that and read it through English.
I am going to stop similar problems. So this one, the slide on the left we have I know it’s maybe strange calm, cute I can. I think Tasmanian devils are cute.
We have Tasmanian devils and then the right we have a lizard which is now extinct in Jamaica. The reason I want to put these two images up was to think about the ways in which part of what we see in colonial enterprise and through capitalism is the endangerment of the natural world.
So let me just dwell on the lizard very briefly. This is a I like this poster because it’s like a it’s an ironic poster.
It pretends to be a vintage travel poster, but it’s pointing out what tourism and travel has done to the natural world.
So this lizard became a problem in the 19th century to various forms of implantation and to sugar plantations in the Caribbean and what people did was transport a mongoose from India who then ate all of the lesser lizards.
And they basically disappeared from view so you can see there that there were different parts and different locations were being exploited and different types of natural environment being brought into conversation to create these destructive routes. So just flagging up that point about what makes us queer.
There is a huge amount of writing in an 18th century about why queer lives are unnatural.
And I think I want to just read them as part of a vast repository of language which talks about what is good nature and what is bad nature and what you do with it.
And I’m not going to read out this quote, but it’s, I make the slides available. Later.
It’s from Richard Burton, and he thinks about what some of the coolest places in the world are. Primarily the Middle East. And North, India, China, Southeast Asia.
And he sees them as a deviation from nature or something broken that needs to be fixed. So we can see that these interventions in the natural world during the period of colonialism have all kinds of consequences that we still live with today.
And then my final point is just about thinking about the ways in which different writers so I’ve got some book covers up by Octavia Butler, have used aspects of nature.
So one of the things we see here are through the use of science fiction, Butler riffs on ideas about like, empathy, and biological exchange, especially through vampirism.
She uses biology and ideas about nature to critically unpick these racist legacies. But by doing it in a fantastical environment, she can suspend some of the rules of realism in our world to create a speculative environment which I think opens up questions about, again about what we need to leave behind in order to imagine differently or to write differently and yet the opportunity of non realistic or non realistic environments.
So in terms of like those challenges for us, when we’re thinking about doing this kind of writing, I suppose it’s like not not thinking about being anti heroes.
Because anti heroes are still in a relationship with the hero.
I think that ends up being a weird binary like we need to think about other ways of being in the environment.
Embodied connections with the world around us where we are part of an imbricated and co-dependent ecology know someone or something that stands above or beyond.
How do we write without owning something without disciplining nature?
And because the moment we do that we make assumptions about what’s natural from race to sexuality.
What happens when we suspend the natural order of white supremacy and heteronormativity and waiting?
What’s even the work we have to do to get to that place? And what language or techniques can we use to make visible destructive tunes of power?
And I think in that it is denaturalizing. Some of these images that we have been being transmitted to us as being natural.
And you see that in various writing provider making nature seem sinister or changing relationships or doing something with it to denaturalize it in some way.
But I will finish it.
On A Scots Dictionary of Nature featuring Amanda Thomson
(Workshop welcome page with a leaf graphic, the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and IASH logos on a teal-grey background. There is text that says “Our Time is A Garden” in white text. There is text that says “On A Scots Dictionary of Nature with Amanda Thomson.” in black text. There are two narrators: Alycia Pirmohamed (who opens the video) and Amanda Thomson.)
Alycia Pirmohamed: Welcome to Our Time is a Garden, which is a series of nature poetry workshops for women and non-binary writers of colour based in Scotland.
Our final workshop was titled On A Scots Dictionary of Nature and was co-facilitated by Amanda Thomson.
Amanda Thomson is a visual artist and writer who is also a lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art, and makes work in and about the Highlands of Scotland.
Her creative non-fiction has appeared in The Willowherb Review, Gutter, for the online Aerial Festival, the anthology Antlers of Water, Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie, The Wild Isles, an anthology of the best British and Irish Nature writing, ed by Patrick Barkham, and Gifts of Gravity and Light, an Almanac for the 21st Century.
She’s recently read an audio essay on BBC Radio 4. She earned her doctorate in interdisciplinary arts practice, based around the landscapes and the forests of the North of Scotland, in 2013.
She lives and works in Strathspey, in the Scottish Highlands, and Glasgow.
Her first book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature, is published by Saraband Books, and a collaboration with Elizabeth Reeder, microbursts, a collection of lyrics and intermedial essays was published by Prototype Publishing in February 2021.
Her second book be/longing will be published by Canongate in Summer 2022.
Amanda Thomson: That’s lovely. And so I’m just going to share a screen to show some images so that you have something else to look at apart from me. But yeah, I’m really delighted to be here and speak with you for about 20 minutes and I’m really just going to talk about my work in place.
And hopefully, we’ll have a really kind of interesting kind of discussion after it. Don’t think I’m jumping ahead yeah. And I’m going to start kind of talking about A Scots Dictionary of Nature but also kind of just go on to talk about my other work as well.
Really focusing on my practice as a writer who makes work about Scottish Highlands, landscape and the environment but more I suppose I’m really interested in how we come to know place, how we may articulate places given their multi-layered histories and possibilities.
But I’m also really interested in how we bring the kind of confluences of different knowledges that we might have and our own experience, and how that kind of impacts and how we read interpret and make sense of place.
And, and it’s interesting, I’m invited to come to you to speak as kind of about eco-writing because I’ve never quite seen myself as an ecological artist or a writer particularly my trajectory comes from loving birdwatching, loving hill walking and being in the outdoors, and it’s really rooted in personal experience.
And I don’t necessarily have a specific message in mind, either, I suppose, like, we’re all really aware of the Anthropocene climate crises and things like that, but that’s not I suppose that’s not something central to what I want to write about.
But I think as time goes on, fundamentally what I’m interested in is quoted as to pay attention and what it is to care how we might care, and how important noticing is for caring and that kind of things, I suppose at the root of my work.
And from then perhaps other layers start to begin to form and but having a way of working that explores the nuances of place hope places are made, in a way in the work/ I suppose I see it as being ongoing. I see it as being late place unfinished, you know, so what I find is that everything I’ve done is just building and building and sometimes it feels stops.
And sometimes there’s kind of discrete things I’ve written that for me, builds into this ongoing kind of exploration. And so it’s also often dependent on what I see and what I learn from repeated visits and different days, at different times with different people.
And also the different elements of place of where I am that come to the fore at different moments. And sometimes it can be due to do with memories that are triggered either of previous visits or how one thing can have sparked something else in my head. And but I thought I’d maybe start by reading just a couple of paragraphs from building which is going to be the the book that’s coming out. We can get him in August and it’s changed its title. It’s belonging: natural histories of place, identity and home.
On a walk with my ecologist friend counting regeneration of Scots Pine trees in an area of moorland browsed by deer.
We finished the last transect at dusk. As dusk was falling suddenly almost almost imperceptibly, it became hard to see when I was walking, or even what was underfoot, a place that had been somewhat familiar and daylight became uncanny.
The contrasts and separations between sky and air and solid became indistinct As night fell as you will back eventually in near darkness to where the car was parked. It was only in the last 10 minutes that I realized where I was, and the quiet anxiety that had been building within me, in proportion to the feeling light only became apparent with relief I felt when I knew where I was again once at a symposium I had a conversation with someone who mentioned the conference on black women artists.
And my first thought was that work about birds and forests and trees wasn’t about being a black woman artist, though as this is what I am, of course it is. So for context, for years now, my work has mostly been about the Highlands of Scotland, where I did my PhD and what my PhD was about, and it’s where I stay. It’s a place for those of you who don’t know, that holds the largest area of ancient Native Scots pinewoods and just to the south, lays the highest range of mountains and Scotland, the Cairngorm plateau it’s a nature reserve is the National Park is incredibly beautiful and it holds many rare species dependent on this kind of habitat.
And it’s also a layered place where social, natural and ecological histories I’m trained and in part my writing came as a way of sewing together the complex threads of this place. Writing’s gradually come into my practice as an artist and now I really do think it kind of sits in balance.
I started off as a printmaker so making etchings and lithographs, and I’ve never, never ever stopped to printmaking. I’ve always looked for the best ways to articulate whatever ideas as I’m working on. So sometimes it’s been Prints like an etching. Sometimes it’s been an artist book.
And sometimes it’s a collection of pieces that need to come together to speak to the different layers and stories I want to tell about something I’ve never been one to have one thing that does everything, somehow.
And I think probably taking that same approach to writing as well now. So you’ll see I’ll talk about word lists, there’ll be some kind of really kind of small, almost flash nonfiction pieces. There’ll be other pieces that are longer and more contained, but have different elements that come into it.
So I have, you know, there’ll be other elements where you know, when Alycia talked about the book that I co-authored with Elizabeth Reader in that book, which is really about her parents illnesses and death and grief.
A lot of the stuff we were looking at in that book was actually the form and how you could play with the space of a page or you could play with images of a page that you could play with the format of the words in each page, as well.
So there’s always that kind of way of experimentation within even writing the best form that works for what it is you want to do. And quite often I find there’s a Spark where one thing leads to another and hopefully we’ll be able to show you that with how I write and what I’m writing just now.
And there’ll be little side tracks and there’ll be little culs-de-sacs there’ll be a little kind of outline of projects or perhaps emerge. And whenever things kind of comes together again or seem together again it can take another whole will form another whole
And what I really love about the potential of Art and Writing in all its forms is its ability to open doors and trains of thoughts and to connect seemingly disparate thinking, but also for its capacity to ask questions without necessarily providing answers.
Or to ask different questions or provide different answers from the ones that you’re perhaps expecting. So I have these questions maybe that we could think about later, but I probably hold myself.
This is about how might we use what we do or what we know to draw attention. Whether it’s how we embody or use our bodies in space, whether it’s how we make links to the past.
This idea of hauntings and what the past may conjure up to the present how we might meet deal and make sense of the treaties that have gone before perhaps enlivening. them, and how we make use metaphors poetry, the poetics of space, our creativity to do that, but also what might our own skill sets, bodies and knowledge add.
Being open, receptive and also just gathering without necessarily knowing what will come of it, I think is really important, as well. So I think you can never know what will spark your attention or what will grab you or make you want to make work.
And my first book came out or a chance encounter in a second bookshop with an old 19th century Scots dictionary. I’d already been aware of the unfamiliar language, some ecologists and foresters I was walking and talking with in relation to my PhD we’re using they’re using words like browsing.
To describe how deer nibble at new growth. We watch transects there’s a lovely, slightly disturbing word called called grallic, which means to remove the intestines and innards Of a deer that’s been stalked.
So coming across as an 18th century Scots dictionary really kind of created a new direction for me and I’m going to read an introduction so apologies if you know the book and how I’ve read it but the genesis for a Scots dictionary of nature started in 2010, my second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh when I came across an old 19th century Dictionary of the Scottish language compiled by John Jemison, published by John Johnson and published in 1846.
In opening random pages of this dictionary, they come across words such as Temer bricks, timber choses meaning coffin, and deer shack the sound made by a woodworm in houses so called for its clicking noise, and vulgarly supposed to be a premonition of death.
I love these words, and there were so many of them that related to place landscape and being in the world, words that had a resonance and a particular feeling to them that was sometimes poignant and affecting, and sometimes can read a prosaic descriptiveness but nonetheless spoke of close connections, and an attentiveness to Nancy’s landscape.
What it contained how he moved through it. And even specific times of the year, I came across words like break back, the Harvest Moon, so called by the harvest laborers because of the additional work entailed, and who, the warmth of an hour in the warm day of summer. This whole dictionary made me begin to wonder a bit loose connection to the land in place, and perhaps even ways of seeing and being in the world.
And I began to wonder what they also might find There was a found offered access to Lost Worlds. I suppose, and had a real they had a real kind of poetic visual and imaginative appeal, but also a connectivity with a different time and a different generation in the generation of my grandparents and your siblings.
And so I started to gather these words in relation to land, water weather words, walking birds, and and actually they started off as a collection of these are the dictionaries.
They actually started off as a collection of handmade books made by typing them out transferring them into InDesign, which is a design programme, and then just printing them through just an ordinary photocopier and hand stitching them using a pamphlet stitch really, so a really simple kind of handmade set of books that eventually became A Scots Dictionary of Nature.
And I was really interested in how words tell us stories. How when we look through the book, we find links from words that sit separately, but that reveals so many histories, lives and ways of being sometimes that we no longer have that sometimes.
That we actually still have but we just don’t take the time and space to look and realize.
I was aware there is a danger of becoming nostalgic and sentimental.
But there’s some words that take us away from that. So there’s words like bearscape, which means very poor land yielding little, really little return for labor, or sour Land, land when it’s left until it becomes worthless with too much moisture, or produces nothing but says grasses are worthless aquatic plants, striferigs, debatable ground parties of land that are common to all but may
I suppose may include some fighting about who owns what and who can use it and how.
And herezell which is the best in the land, which was given to the landlord on the death of a tenant. There’s also descriptions that are incredibly beautiful, like leither, which means a yielding sky, when clouds undulate or certain, which means to emit a plaintiff cry, some birds do.
And there’s also words that reveal an even more kind of everyday connection with the press and natural faintergrun to ground which is ground in passing over, it’s deemed necessary to have a bit of bread in your pocket to prevent fainting.
So it really interesting for me how the words also began to take on a different narrative when they were taken out the context of a dictionary and placed with or near associated words. And one of the things I’ve started doing and it’s been really lovely to do is to kind of create almost word poems or word lists, including one which is 62 words for rainy weather.
I’m not gonna read the whole thing just know but there’s words like sapless, which means rainless and dry. Lunky which means sultry denoting the oppressive state of the atmosphere before rain or thunder heavy hearted, which means the sky is low and threatening rain.
Scouthery means abounding, flying showers. Land lash is a great form of rain. Accompanied by a heavy wind. And what the dictionary’s going to do is we’re going to talk a little bit of going from the dictionary to where else have gone because it really made me think about movement in place, but also that slowing down and time.
So I’m just going to read an excerpt from biding, which was a piece that was published in the Irish pages that was written during lockdown.
Let me see how we’re doing for time. I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. Perhaps it’s because it’s been because for the first time in ages, I’ve been in one place for an extended period in the spring to summer of 2020. I’ve watched the first birds and the larches and alders seen a thin film of yellow pollen from Scots pine cover every – sorry, seen the thin film of yellow pollen from the Scots pines cover every surface and the end of me and waited for and watched for swallows.
And Martins return. And these long summer hours of daylight, my understanding of duration alters and in old Scots language dictionaries, I find words and phrases for the nuances of light and how a northern thread of it lingers from the end of one day to the end of the next at the head of the dim mid summer.
Twilight between sunset and sunrise. Greyish – the first appearance of Dawn grey of the morning, Dawn of the day, day sky, the appearance of the sky and the break of the lengthening dawn.
Morning moon increasing daylight between the sun in the sky. The interval between daybreak and sunrise.
In a sense, it speaks to the importance of time and taking the time to slow down. Listen and look and see what comes to you so that question and what happens it comes to us when we sit and watch for a year and a half or so.
I sat my camera in a corner fence post pointing towards this tree. It was occasionally two or three times a day it was occasionally once a week and sometimes it was just once or twice a month.
But the resulting work reveals a slow and shifting changes of seasons late and time passing. Are is a Scott’s word for older but also includes notes from a shared diary of recorded sightings.
Or if it was the first flowers. Or migrant birds that were seen. Or heard cuckoos house mountains geese, primroses, anemones, tormentor a lot of the writing kind of spoke to what was simply notice that was there in the course of the day, but over time, they build a picture of the changes of seasons and time and weather when birds arrived or they don’t the dates the first flowers bloom, but over time, that also becomes a record that perhaps is there as a resource that you can pull on and bring to become something else.
So you have this kind of retrospective kind of gathering. And at the time when I was filming at the time, I was just making notes of what was seen and didn’t have it in my head. at all about what it might become.
But actually just having that information, having the ability to notice and gather and record was really important for something that became something else and this idea of looking and pausing.
And thinking and noticing becomes important, I think for me because there’s also something important about the unseen in nature. And what happens when you start to see things and record things that maybe perhaps other people don’t and you start to bring them to the attention.
I’ve just finished having an exhibition in the CCA which was a bit moths and moth trapping, the moths are a really important part of Scotland biodiversity.
There’s over 1300 species of moths recorded in Scotland and they’re incredibly important part of the ecosystem and indicators of the health of the environment. But for a while it took me a while for them to come into focus as being something I suppose cool and important.
This is one of the images from the exhibition at CCA. And while, it was really interested in the ecological significance of moths. So I was really interested in the kind of uncanniness of moth trapping, which is a more of a bright light that is set in a forest and pulls moths to them.
And then the next day the moths are kind of gathered and counted and named. And that’s going to result in another essay which I’m not going to read here, but I also made a sound work and you can see people kind of listening to the sound work as they’re in this kind of more immersive space.
And but the sound work kind of lists the names of moths which themselves are incredibly poetic and beautiful. And there’s also information about the kind of different food plants that the moths are drawn to as well, but then from this human side, how the humans engage with the same plants in relation to kind of folklore and medicinal material reasons.
So this gathering of these different things may also create other forms. But there was also a wall piece that listed the names of moths, which themselves are beautiful, poetic and complicated in their own way because they start to consider what it is to name things as well.
But you’ll see here on the right hand side, there’s asterisks which actually some moths are called immigrants or suspected immigrants. And that immediately takes you to a completely different place and what we mean by that language.
And so, being able to jump from moths and nature to actually a consideration of where they are and who they serve in relation to courts named what we mean by immigrant who loaded that word immigrant as even though we see it in a neutral, neutral or kind of beautiful nature and who looking for poetics of how moths are named, but where that word kind of leaves us and takes us to as well.
And I think I really like and I’m interested in how you can have that starting point of nature, but then it can start to pull in these other themes. And how am I doing for time?
Yeah, you’re totally fine for time. You can take a little bit more or you can pause. Yeah. So this kind of question, I think about how you combine narratives and stories and connections. I think it’s just something that will always keep convincing back to in the book, Colours of Nature, Culture identity in the Natural World.
Lauren Issa Hoya and Alison each Deming ask what it is to write from your fingertips, your memories, your emotional and sense of beings.
They talk about writing cross threads of identity that are around and within us. Those defined from within those impulses from a quote to understand more fully are placed on air and connections with each other.
How might we bring in and combine other narratives experiences that are perhaps personal, perhaps social, perhaps historical, sometimes whole mix of things?
A piece I wrote about Crows, which was published in the Gutter in a magazine edition you’re talking about and delicious started from observing how crows gathered at dusk called warming, and then I made a video I made after watching and filming crows and play, but in the essay I was able to contextualize crows in a much more layered way.
Than the video was able to convey the so I’m just gonna read a couple of excerpts from the essay as well. Rooks pair for life and research and on rooks seems to show that they remain in the sites where the breed.
Some rookeries are many decades old, and they often nest in the colony where they were born. Such reliability and loyalty to place may explain why the first Sunday in March used to refer to as crow Sunday.
The day crows were traditionally supposed to start nest Building, which takes me back cross Sunday is something that I found in the 19th century. Scots language dictionaries I was talking earlier or as the Gilmore wrote in 1873 D when crows commenced housekeeping for a year.
What I found and we’re starting to write this though, is that nature can be this way into other connections which may be apparent to us and less upon to others. So this is another excerpt from that same essay about crows. Still, there’s more to what draws me to these birds.
Perhaps it is the very blackness and their othered yet connectedness. Crows have always spoken to and had a close relationship with us humans, they speak to our humanity and their connections to nature.
When I look at them, they see their intelligence, their cooperation and their power, how they control the air and wind currents of other standard cheese.
But I’m also aware of their association with the means more disquieting and unnerving. That is, after all an unkindness of ravens. A Murder of Crows language of cruise pulls us into a myriad of different eras, frames of reference, attitudes and realms both everyday and pet are natural to the facts and fictions of them and how they continue to speak and crow to us.
So where do I want to finish? I suppose it’s about the details you observe which aspects you want to bring out. For me taking time close slow looking and a slow percolation to get the final form feel really important.
And you always have at the back of my mind the question of what it is to care what it is. To take care and to be careful.
And what are the myriad ways each of these considerations intersect in our lives. In my own work, I have become even more interested in the personal and personal history and how personal history and other aspects of self and family has come into view.
And for me, the essay form has been an important method of being able to combine a myriad of different approaches knowledges and perspectives.
But also, I think it’s helped me to think about how much of myself I want to bring into view how much you can rely on metaphor, or the metaphors within nature, or the stories of nature to bring to light these other kind of questions that all of us carry and a lot of us have and how might we bring in these different knowledges and knowledge is a think of words and language of place and experience.
But how important the micro can be for kind of pulling out these kind of questions that are much bigger without necessarily feeling you have to know everything about these kind of bigger problems or questions that can almost feel overpowering and overwhelming.
You know, I think there’s a lot to be said for just the smallest details that can just kind of start to bring these questions to light I was going to read one more piece from Gifts of Gravity and light U wrote about walking up in the Cairngorms plateau. Would you like me to read it or do you want to?
So I don’t know if people know this is this is a picture taken in winter of the Cairngorm plateau. There’s a vastness to this landscape. And even if there’s a steady stream of workers, you’ll see some sometimes just the tiniest speck on the horizon line.
You’ll have to look twice to see if they’re there people, deer or rocks you’ll see bright dots of red blue mustard, purple Gortex, a couple of miles further on or behind and congregations form at cairns where people stopped to catch their breaths or tracks converge total wantings ptarmigan and mountain here are so infrequently seen.
It’s usually it’s usually a movement out of the corner of your eye that alerts you and even then, once they’re at rest, you really have to peer to find them.
Sometimes you have to stop and scan the landscape crouch down below any horizon line so that you to become for a time part of the land. Dato can sit So still going their mottled plumage is exactly matching the grassy tussocks and shadows and light of the Heimer ptarmigan blend with granite and grasses and the last dirty patches of snow and it’s so easy to listen if we stand stockstill the mountain hare is just another mound of snow until it bounds away.
Rocktime again are found only in the highest parts of Scotland, specialists of tundra and sub Arctic alpine vegetation and habitats. They have the capacity to survive the most extreme conditions.
They molt three times a year with the seasons to adapt to the habitat to better evade detection by predators that rely on sight. They’re mottled brown in summer and turn white in winter with a grey face which Scottish birds keep for longer than other subspecies on these pursuits build mountain heroes which also change their clothes to suit the season.
When I do see a ptarmigan on a mountain hare. It always feels like a gift, they are of course, striking creatures, but I love how they hide in plain sight and that it’s these most inhospitable of habitats without to be found.
Growing up in Scotland, it’s been easy to feel both visible and invisible, sometimes at the same time, here, like elsewhere, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, can all come into play.
But I’ve never felt this strange from the country,
the countryside or from getting out into nature.
Quite the opposite. In fact, I feel much more at home living in rural north of Scotland than I ever felt in all my years of central belt city living any hesitancy and getting out into nature, as related to longer routes and remoteness and is entirely totally sensible.
These places can be scary and dangerous, and I try not to treat being in them blithely. Vulnerability is a strange thing. There have been times even when I’ve known exactly where I am at and hills, but I still felt exposed and just too far away.
And there have been times that I’ve been out in Glasgow, London, Chicago, walking home, wherever that may have been sometimes at night, sometimes during the day, but I felt an instinct of bodily fluttering to that’s a different kind of vulnerability altogether.
And we’ll stop there.
A free anthology collects poems from contributors: download Our Time Is A Garden (PDF, opens in a new tab).