Caithness wind farm on residency at Lyth Arts Centre Amanda Simmons

Residency of land, birds and grief

In November last year I was invited on a residency at Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness by residency officer Karlyn Sutherland and owner William Wilson. I frequently head to North Lands Creative Glass in Lybster when I'm in Caithness but Lyth is further north and more inland. It was to be a pilot project investigating artists working with the Environmental Research Institute based at Thurso. I already had an interest in the Flow country that spreads across Sutherland and Caithness as I'd often find myself there when visiting North Lands, my other passion of birds was to take on another element as I got to meet a research scientist who investigates renewable energy developments and their effect on sea life.

Lyth Arts Centre Residency with Amanda Simmons

The residency was to also give me time on my own work and this is very welcome in a practice going from exhibition to exhibition, with many galleries to keep stocked and a bit of teaching. Finding time to think without distraction or deadline is very precious. I caught up on research, reading and planning a bigger body of work that is coming very slowly together.

My first visit was with Liz Masden, Research Fellow at the Institute. It was interesting to meet a scientist who carried on with her research, a position I could of been if my path had continued in Toxicology research (but glass found me). We chatted about her line of research in sea birds and renewable energy sources and about the very data heavy work of 'modelling'. This involves taking collected data and creating a program that enables the viewer to predict behaviour and a tool to be able to change parameters such as collision occurrences, prey (food), nesting and flight paths. Four large sea bed turbines are going into the Pentland Firth around Stroma (the first in the country so far) and this type of program is instrumental in the design of these machines to help cause the least disturbance to the sea birds in the area. The species most vulnerable in Scottish waters are the Common/Black Guillemot, Razorbill, European Shag, Great Cormorant and Atlantic Puffin.
Scotland has approximately 5 million sea birds and has many inland and offshore turbine developments. Protected habitats exist on land but there are no areas at sea and the numbers of sea birds are declining fast due to shortages of food, habitat problems and climate change (increased storms). One of the negatives of banning the practice of discarding catches when over limits was the available food for sea birds, already in competition with commercial fishing. Liz has published many papers alongside other scientists concerning specific species of sea birds and their behaviour and the assessment of tidal stream turbines and wave energy devices.
Forsinard Flow Country Amanda Simmons residencyEnvironmental Research Institute in the field at Forsinard Amanda Simmons residency
Forsinard Flow Country Amanda Simmons residencyForsinard Flow Country Amanda Simmons residency
An early start at Thurso meeting Rebecca Mckenzie, a field technician based at ERI. We started with a quick tour of the lab facilities with lots of technical information about the sampling we would do at the Flow Country's RSPB Forsinard Reserve and the equipment that the samples would be measured in. It's a long trip out to the site and we hitched a ride with another ERI PhD researcher and visiting intern. Lovely to be driven so I could follow the landscape. It was a good dry and low wind type of day and a short hike to our first site at the natural pools.
From the UNESCO website:
"The Flow Country is widely considered to be the largest area of blanket bog in the world. Together with associated areas of heath and open water it is of international importance as a habitat and for the diverse range of rare and unusual breeding birds it supports.
Covering about 4,000 km2 (1500 miles2), the Flow Country is a large, rolling expanse of blanket bog found in Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland. The property encompasses an exceptionally wide range of vegetation and surface pattern types, including numerous pool systems. These features are usually rare and localised but here they are widespread and a high proportion of the ground remains undisturbed. The range of mire types varies from those of the lowland Caithness plain in the east, with their continental affinities, through to those of the mountainous oceanic west. Extensive areas of active blanket bog, where bog moss Sphagnum and other bog species ensure continuing peat accumulation, occur in intimate association with a range of open water, wet heath, grassland and fen communities. This provides the diversity of habitats necessary to support a wide range of wetland and moorland species. Of particular importance are the birds, many of which are typically northern species found here towards the southern limit of their range. These include red-throated diver, black-throated diver, golden plover, greenshank, golden eagle, merlin and short-eared owl.
The Flow Country is also unusual in that it provides an extensive area of wild land and solitude on an otherwise highly developed and densely populated island. As wild areas such as these are typically mountainous, the associated blanket bog tends to be relatively fragmented and confined to the gentler slopes. As such, large, continuous areas such as the Flow Country are exceptional."
There is much research and re-instigating of the peat land happening currently and the samples we took from the natural pools are compared with man-made pools. The images here are of the pools and the sampling equipment. Rebecca took the more complicated samples and I spent the time emptying drainage tubes and documenting how much is collected (severe syringe thumb by the end of the day).
Environmental Research Institute in the field at Forsinard Amanda Simmons residencyEnvironmental Research Institute in the field at Forsinard Amanda Simmons residencyEnvironmental Research Institute in the field at Forsinard Amanda Simmons residency
The land is beautiful, bleak and peaceful apart from a few low flying jets, at this time of year not much bird action. When we finished our sampling we met with the other two and helped take samples from land that was previously used as forestry but is in the process of being left to return to peat land. The sampling investigated how drainage was working across the site. A long and tiring day but a wonderful experience, a brief insight into the life of a research scientist.
Lyth Arts Centre Amanda Simmons residency
Lyth Arts Centre near Wick: Excerpt from the website at LAC
"Most of the programme is devoted to presenting the work of professional British and international artists and performers and the centre also acts as a stepping-off point for local artistic activity. The main aim is to promote work of the highest standard.
A programme of live performances presents the best work of small-scale touring companies – often innovative and experimental. This includes drama, dance, jazz, folk, classical and world music. The centre goes dark in the winter months and events are presented in other locations in neighbouring towns and villages.
The centre was established by William Wilson, an accomplished artist and musician who trained as a cinematographer at the RCA and worked in film and television in London before returning to his native Caithness in 1977. He saw the need to support fellow artists and musicians in the north of Scotland and decided to establish somewhere to stage exhibitions, drama and live music so that all the exciting things that were happening elsewhere in the country could find a foothold in the north."
A wonderful base for me during the residency, very comfy, warm and welcoming. I had the wonderful Karlyn Sutherland look after me whilst here (a fellow glass artist so we had much to talk about during the week). It was great to have someone to bounce some ideas off and to help me vocalise some of the creative blocks I was having due to grief. It was a time when I was fighting the production of work in the studio and being away from home gave me time and some insight into how grief affects us. I was able to read a good few books that helped me understand some of the feelings I couldn't cope with since the death of my dad.
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it....we do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind...nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."
Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter
"Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix."
"There's a feather on my pillow.
Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.
It's a big, black feather.
Come and sleep in my bed.
There's a feather on your pillow too.
Let's leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor."
H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald
"Deep in the muddled darkness six copper pheasant feathers glowed in a cradle of blackthorn. Reaching through the thorns I picked them free, one by one, tucked the hand that held them into my pocket, and cupped the feathers in my closed fist as if I was holding a moment tight inside itself. It was death I had seen. I wasn't sure what it had made me feel."
"But what I should have realised, too, on those northern roads, is that what the mind does after losing one's father isn't just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with."
Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow - Ted Hughes
Excerpt from Examination at the Womb-door
"Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death
Who owns all of space? Death
Who is stronger than hope? Death
Who is stronger than the will? Death
Stronger than love? Death
Stronger than life? Death
But who is stronger than death? Me, evidently
Crow Hears Fate Knock on the Door
"Crow looked at the world, mountainously heaped.
He looked at the heavens, littering away
Beyond every limit.
He looked in front of his feet at the little stream
Chugging on like an auxiliary motor
Fastened to this infinite engine.
He imagined the whole engineering
Of it's assembly, repairs and maintenance -
And felt helpless
He plucked grass-heads and gazed into them
Waiting for first instructions.
He studied a stone from the stream.
He found a dead mole and slowly took it apart
Then stared at the gobbets, feeling helpless
He walked, he walked
Letting the translucent starry spaces
Blow in his ear cluelessly.
Yet the prophecy inside him, like a grimace,
This prophecy was inside him, like a steel spring
Slowly rending the vital fibres."
My thanks to all at Lyth Arts Centre, especially Karlyn and William, for their generosity and support. It was perfect timing and left me feeling much more positive about my work and life in general. I'd also like to thank Liz and Rebecca at ERI for taking the time to spend with me out of their busy schedules and passing on their knowledge and passion for what they do.
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