“The half-light of a November morning lit the horizon, the faintest slice of pink catching the underside of the clouds in a wash of colour beneath the towering blue mass. Through the smallest breaks in the cloud a pale sky held the suggestion of a clear day and unknowable infinities just out of reach. Mist cleared from the field nearest the house, dissipating in the weak sunlight, to reveal brown shapes moving across the grass. We watched the scattered forms as they came together, the dispersed again.
‘I can’t believe they’re here.’
‘I didn’t think they would ever come, but just over a year and here they are’. I squinted into the binoculars to get a clearer look. The curlews had come. . .” (Winn 2020 p 272).
I enjoyed the book and Winn’s honest and thought-provoking account, not only of real-life events, but also the role that nature plays in their lives is compelling. I recognise her need to be in nature every day and am interested in her clear connection to the earth underneath our feet, encouraged by her reading of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (2020).
The title of Winn’s book fascinates me, and I was keen to understand what she means by the wild silence. The explanation comes right at the end of the book and refers back to various experiences through her life:
“I closed my eyes and let the sounds come, let the voice come. Calm and hushed on a rising wind hissing through rocks, in clear water falling through the sunlight. Carried on a gull’s cry over sea against cliff, somewhere beyond the blurred line between water and air. The sound in the leaves as I’d hung in the branches of the willow tree, and crouched in the dark woods. It had always been there, whispering with the water voles in the ditch, the deer on the mountainside, the seals calling beneath foggy headlands. The voice behind it all . . .” (Winn 2020 pp273-274).
As I reflect on Winn’s words, and my time out in nature, by the loch and the seashore or close to the lone silver birch, I feel that perhaps I am not immersing myself in nature in the way that she is able to do. Maybe I am not being attentive enough. I cannot hear the wild silence.
When I write about my time taking photographs, I realise that my stimulus and expectations are predominantly visual. The reason I spend time in nature is in order to produce something that fulfils an aesthetic purpose. This feels rather one-dimensional as I commit my thoughts to the page. My responses and engagement with nature needs to be more rounded – incorporating all of my senses, and my emotions and experience of them. And, in so doing, perhaps my image-making and words will become more intense as a result.
And with that in mind, I intend to spend time, during my next period of practice, listening more deeply to the sounds around me. It is all too easy, for me to focus on what I see, rather than attending to my other senses – particularly what I hear, but also the smells and what I can touch. I realise that the words that accompany my photographic work are almost entirely describing what I see and this needs to change as does my photographic work as I engage more fully in nature. I plan to spend more time walking, slowing down my practice and writing more extensively in my journal in the field. I also intend to record the sounds as I work and replay them as I am processing my images and writing down my reflections on the day of photographic practice. I hope this will encourage me to become more aware of the sounds of nature.
This realisation about my deficit in attending to all the stimuli around me was reinforced as I read The Creative Writing Coursebook – Forty-Four Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry (2001) edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. The first exercise was to write down five sounds you can hear and then list down what associations you have with the sounds. I realise that I appear to sometimes blank out the sounds around me. I wonder whether this comes from an intense need to be silent, and among my own thoughts. I am a pensive person, somebody who thinks a lot but does not necessarily speak about those thoughts. Having said that, I recall a time when I was sitting by the side of Loch Cill Chriosd (where I do much of my photographic work) and I heard a loud flapping noise overhead. It was a buzzard, flying very low, and I remember being enchanted by the sound of the wings in flight.
So, all is not lost, I need to be more aware of, and more attentive to all my senses. I think rather than reducing or limiting my responses to visual stimulus, I need to enhance my attention of sound, smell and touch to improve my chances of being aware of being in the landscape.
Bell, J. and P. Magrs (2001). The Creative Writing Coursebook – Forty- Four Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry. London, Macmillan.
Macfarlane, R. (2020). Underland – A Deep Time Journey. London, Penguin.
Winn, R. (2018). The Salt Path. London, Penguin.
Winn, R. (2020). The Wild Silence. London, Penguin.