On deciding to use my time to relax as well as work, I have been faced with other interesting concerns. One observation is how much of my time I fill with activity and conversely, how ill prepared I am if not fully occupied. I have known for years that activity can help with suspending cerebral activity and at times of stress I can make important decisions by spending a day in the garden, realising at the end the days work that I now know what I need to do without consciously making the decision at all. This must be why horticultural therapy is so effective with rehabilitation but it also teaches me something about the role of activity in both physical as well as mental wellbeing. I have always preferred a country life where exercise is part of life rather than a gym membership but when you strip all that away, the sound and feel of having nothing to do is a challenge. There is also the problem of lethargy, which must be the converse of anxiety driven activity. But being as old as I am, (60 next birthday!) at least I have acquired skills and understanding of where this comes from and how to manage the emotions. Perhaps the reason I found painting in a storm last year on Iona so enlivening was the easy connection into the world of emotion. The Deep Blue Blue of the sea sky and sand that this week has so unexpectedly brought us after the wettest summer memory can recall, has been much harder to access with a visual vocabulary.
I have a complaint to make. I have told you of the wonderful bird life here. Made even richer by the landscape and the big skies. Last night I watched a murmuration of starlings (I think that is the collective noun? Better than the collective noun for ravens; an Unkindness of Ravens so my aunt always emphasised; very apt in my family’s’ case.) Anyway, throughout my stay, I have been mildly disconcerted by the occasional sighting of a group of men dressed in camouflaged fatigues of the modern sort, the photographic printing of a whole forest on their back, legs, arms and head! What happened to tweed? I have noticed this group of men sneaking about in the undergrowth of the wilder places and they make a marked contrast to those equipped with lurid florescent fitness clothing who has every sort of outdoor kit. In fact it all seems very tribal.
Outside Machair Cottage, across a field and the road, is a large rushy bog and a freshwater loch. There have been summer grazing cattle on the marsh and many many water birds as well as incessant windsurfers sailing up and down with remarkable persistence. This morning however the camouflaged tribe are there in strength and I thought perhaps Tiree was practicing for Syria with the tribes having declared war. But no, I was wrong. There is no wind and so the sailing tribe are grounded today. The poor unsuspecting enemy is the bird life. When so much of the world is open warfare for wildlife in our modern age, why do these men have to come here to what must be one of the last refuges for these wonderful creatures who have the sky as their universe? I have had this argument before and unfortunately much closer to home, and the tired old argument is that bird life can thrive and prosper if someone is paid to manage biodiversity to enrich the countryside to create the killing fields for those who think it smart to kill. The change I yearn for is when managers realise that there is a much more enlightened approach, which would use the wildlife as the attraction and teach those who understand land management that wildlife and its care is the way to go. Have you heard the statistic that British birdlife is changing and that the Blackcap, once a rare sighting, is now flourishing due to the number of gardens that provide bird food? Surely there is ample evidence that wildlife does engage the public and if funds are needed to maintain these places, then the obvious answer is to market the enjoyment of the biodiversity, not market the permission to kill it?
Indirectly, this concern for conservation and the role art has to play within it, is the reason I am here on Tiree. As you know, I have been invited to do this self funded residency by Nick Turner and Mary Ann Kennedy of Watercolour Music. The Kennedy family come from Tiree and this is their family croft. A couple of years ago Nick and I made separate applications to Creative Scotland to work on a collaboration between science and art. Mine was about botany and painting, based at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Rahoy Hills Reserve and was made in conjunction with someone with whom I went to art school and who is now a botanist with a speciality in bryophytes. Nicks application was about the marine soundscape. At that time neither of us were successful but Nick has since developed his idea and has been given seed funding to develop a more detailed proposal. He has bought himself a little boat and is to be seen trailing a microphone underwater in all sorts of places round our way. It coincides with a more national concern of the Scottish Government with the development of fish farming. Outside Oban there is a fish research centre that is doing work on noise pollution underwater and its effect on our sea creatures including the whales and dolphins we are lucky enough to have on the West Coast. Did you know that a blue whale in the western Atlantic used to be able to hear another one swimming off the east cost of America? Those of you who know Ardgour may also know that we have a fish farm in the village, so mechanised that you hear the rattle of the fish food being pumped down tubes, which continues all day and I expect all night, although I haven’t been to listen. Son John worked there for a summer at the weekends before the mechanisation and a round of redundancies and has never eaten salmon again! In testing his sound equipment, Nick took his boat several miles up Loch Linnhe to opposite the isle of Lismore to see if he could start his recording. You may be surprised to gather that the only sound he could detect was the underwater seal alarms from the Ardgour fish farm. The seals are so adept at stealing salmon through the nets that they eviscerate the fish by sucking and at the end of the growing cycle the nastiest job of all is that described as Deading or the removal of body-parts of decomposed salmon from inside the nets, the bits the seals don’t eat.
The conversation Nick and I are having is what role art has to play within this debate? It is clear to me that you cannot make painting about conservation, that would either be propaganda or the job of a graphic designer. I think my role is to continue to engage with the places that are so fragile and on the edge of the recent waves of development and finding the poetry within the subject, try and engage the participation of an audience to prevent further corruption of our natural world. There are several places up and down the west coast asking the same question but many have moved away from painting and into conceptual and community art. Perhaps that is seen as less elitist but I am of a generation who still likes making painterly images.
Two other friends are also engaged in this dilemma, this time as aerial photographers. Pat and Angus MacDonald use their backgrounds as academics at Edinburgh University and the ownership of a light aircraft, to photograph much of Scotland from the air. During this summer they took me to a glen in the Grampian, where Pat had worked with my brother Andrew, on a large deer cull in order to enable the afforestation of the old Caledonian forest. Pat showed me with total glee, how the granny pines, as she called them, in fact had no children but after the deer cull under Andrew’s leadership, now had hundreds of grandchildren, great grandchildren and subsequent generations. Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my brother’s untimely death and so my visit with Pat and Angus to Glenfeshie was on my mind. The question Pat wished to discuss was how her photographs from the air of what is known as a braided river, could be used visually to describe the process of soil erosion and landscape degradation which occurs through deforestation without the work becoming propaganda. She had taken some photographs twenty or thirty years ago of the river and everyone responded to the beauty of her images. With her understanding of what it shows about degradation, she wanted to discuss how to use this work in a more fine art context. Pat knows how to give a scientific lecture…. what she muses over now, is how to use this knowledge to make art.
As well as working out and about as I usually prefer, I am also working in a small byre next to the house. It is rather spartan as studios go but with a plastic garden table, which I have shrouded in an old sheet and several deck chairs adapted with drawing boards into side tables, I have established a good work place. After each outing, I return to the byre and look at what I have achieved, seal the work with a stinking fixative, so best kept out of the house and then mix colours. I have remained totally alone whilst doing all this and am accompanied by the gentle soundtrack of bird life. With my Heath Robinson bird table, I have been putting out scraps and even forget to eat a bag of pears which became over ripe and mushy. I don’t think starlings had ever seen pears before but the fruit slowly disappeared throughout the day. Starlings are very conversational with a broader vocal range than most of the garden birds we have at home. I often sit outside at home and try to identify birdcalls and although I don’t know more than three or four, have noticed many are repetitive. Not so with Starlings. They even have a bigger range than our hens, one of whose charms is how chatty they are. Perhaps starlings need a broad range, given the size of the flock? As the time passes the number of starlings seem to have increased, not because of my measly offerings; it seems more likely that it is the time of year. As I worked after lunch this afternoon I heard the loud rustle of silk like a grand lady making an important entrance. It was an entrance but that of hundreds of starlings coming into land on the field next door.