Thursday, November 13, 2008

Middle Ground

Two friends of mine, Bonnie Maggio and Ruth Atkinson have a great exhibition on at the Birnam Institute at the moment. Both being very creative people they work in a variety of forms and genres from felt to words to music to paper and ink. But in this show Bonnie is exhibiting her shimmering glasswork which includes gorgeous bright jewellery, and Ruth a series of lino prints inspired by her explorations of Highland Perthshire.

I feel rather proud by association with the latter as one series of prints arose from a walk she took by Loch Tay, in response to a task I set for participants in a walking and writing workshop run in association with the Aberfeldy Watermill. She has written her walk and illustrated it with lino prints - including the entwined cherry trees above - and bound them together in a delightful pamphlet called 'Middle Ground'. The title refers to the level at which she prefers to walk - between hilltop and shore line, which as she says: 'in this part of Scotland at least, this is where people lived. It is empty of people now but they left their meanings behind in marks on the rock, names on the map or stories on the page.' Middle Ground also refers to this 'heartland' of Scotland.
Her walk and the story of it is a hunt for these ghosts. It is rich in observation, and also draws on her deep knowledge of natural history and botany. If you can, get your hands on a copy now - and get along to the exhibition, on till January 15th 2009.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Isle of Mull colour

A zig-zag in the path took the boy in red shoes in a moss-softened silence up between the trees. The narrow mud path led him through a port-hole fashioned by the interlacing of two beech trunks, and into the dark. A wall of trees pushed from his right and he was aware of a steep rock-tumbled slope on his other side where trees glinted luminous in the sub-marine sun that seeped through the canopy. He kept his eyes on the rise and fall of the strawberry-red Clarks shoes against grey, green, brown, copper, and he kept on looking…

But what is the boy with red shoes doing on that secretive high ‘pram walk’ in Aros Park, and what’s going to happen to him? I have no idea, at least not yet. But such are the things that happen when you take a pen for a walk, as a small group of us did last Saturday.

The purpose of the workshop I went to Mull to run in association with the Mull and Iona Ranger Service, and An Tobar, was to use the rhythm of walking and the opportunity to really look as we walk to sharpen our senses and release our imaginations.

We used blindfolds to deny sight, sensitising us to the feel and sound of our surroundings. We looked at colours – with autumn blazing at us, defying us to trap it in words – and searched for names for them as if for a paint chart. We developed metaphors as a way of describing difficult things – tree bark as dinosaur skin, and the naked core of the trunk as sinewy silk or cool marble. We gave voices to things – an argument surfaced between the abandoned roofless turbine and the jubilant burn that has escaped its power. And then we invented a character and took them along the pram walk to understand what they would see and feel and think. By the end of the walk, the alchemy of our feet on the land had kicked up stories, and we nursed them back to An Tobar where we crafted them into words.

As Rebecca Solnit says (Wanderlust, A History of Walking, Verso, 2001), ‘Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains’. On this visit to the Isle of Mull I witnessed minds sparking against autumn trees and clear skies, steps transforming into words.

Now back to the boy in the red shoes, where are his parents? What if…?

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Book of Silence

I can't recommend Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence, enough. Published this week by Granta, it charts an intellectual, spiritual and often physical journey that she has taken in pursuit of silence and an understanding of its part in her life. As a walker and a writer, I found startling resonances with my own experiences in the sister state to silence - solitude - and gained new insights into the lives of hermits, mountaineers, divers and writers, amongst others. Having been introduced to Saint Cuthbert by Sara's short story, After Life, I spent some time recently walking between places he chose to be. The pull I understand him to have felt between the life of silent reflection and prayer and a life of public duty out in the noisy world, made Sara's exploration particularly fascinating and pertinent. It's a book that draws together many aspects of culture and nature, spirituality and creativity, and the risks we must each take in 'designing' a life that makes us happy.