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Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part ten – Something elusive

Something elusive

 One August morning in my childhood I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my chin on the windowsill. A great flurry of rooks and jackdaws wheeled out over the big field behind the cottage, which had been cut for hay late into the previous evening. The field was dappled by swift shadows as a succession of small clouds blew past high above. I absorbed this unthinkingly, with the sun’s warmth, much as a cat might. The quality of these northern uplands that are, and yet are not, my home, was already settling into my marrow.

Now this is all bound up with a sense of something I can’t name but recognise as related to Don McKay’s notion of ‘wilderness’ as ‘the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations’.[1] But as soon as I write this I feel doubtful. In the past, London friends have interpreted my reluctance to talk about my northern childhood as indicative of some lack; an oblique reference to a problematic exile following the loss of my mother.

I think that’s nonsense, but ….

I suspect my not speaking about certain aspects of my childhood relates to something more complex and elusive than that loss; to my unruly love/hate relationship with the brooding and beautiful land in which I’ve lived and worked most of my life. A relationship that is also bound up with my intense dislike of a system of land ownership and management, based on a largely unacknowledged history of violence, that still determines so much about this landscape.

However, that child with her chin on the windowsill might, if you’d persuaded her, have admitted that her reluctance to speak about such things also had to do with her fear of glaciers. She imagined glaciers as vast implacable and deadly cows’ tongues, slowly rasping away the big salt lick of the world. She must have picked up on something Miss Richardson said at school and glaciers and ice fields haunted her imagination for years. She had nightmares about them freezing and eating everything living in the whole world. This seems so strange now, in a world of rapidly melting ice-caps, but was vividly real to her then. In that nightmare, vast sheets of rough ice came oh-so-terribly-slowly down the valley in the darkness, inexorably crushing and freezing everything in their path as they headed for our cottage. And with them came an overwhelming sense of an icy death without rest or stillness.

So perhaps Mum’s death had a part in my reticence after all.

There’s one other thing that may relate to the glacier business and my associated fear of the cold. I was a beanpole of a child who said she was hungry all the time.[2] (I’m sure now that wasn’t true.) Perhaps it was my way of protesting against being landed in this cold, wet, and windy place where I always seemed to have to find the energy to walk up yet another hill. I do remember early on enduring weeks of cold, unending, near-horizontal rain that so lashed the valley that the sheep and cattle seemed permanently huddled in the lea of whatever afforded them shelter. A rain that rattled on our roof and could even be heard over the sullen growl and rumble of the river, which normally ran so quietly some fifteen yards from our front door. So maybe it’s no wonder that the warmth and bounty of Mrs. Oliver’s Homehaugh kitchen looms so large in my memory. While it’s certainly the case that, as a child, I grew fast and did feel the cold, Miss Richardson was right when she told me that saying I was always hungry was ‘just a habit’. But, writing this now, I wonder less about the habit than the question: ‘hungry for what’?

Mum died when I was nearly seven. She and Dad were work partners too and, I believe, very happy despite problems with Mum’s foster parents. She was twenty-two and Dad thirty-one when they married secretly in a registry office the day after she graduated from the veterinary college where he taught part-time. Her wealthy parents, her adopted father the last of an old Catholic family, were appalled. Dad was a godless Scot of humble farming stock and, to add insult to injury, I came into the world three months earlier than was expected by respectable people.

I used to pretend I don’t know how Mum died so as not to have to talk about it. In fact, Aunt Claire told me what happened. Mum got an infected cut that didn’t respond properly to antibiotics. She developed a fever and then became seriously ill. After eleven weeks of inconclusive diagnoses and progressively longer periods in hospital, she died from complications resulting from a neurotropic virus. It sounds clichéd, but I think part of Dad died with her. As far as I know he never so much as went out with another woman. But then I suppose his only daughter might have been the last to know if he had.

I owe a lot to Miss Richardson, but I took her entirely for granted then. She taught me to look, listen, and think carefully about what I saw and heard. She illuminated our lessons with her knowledge and enthusiasm as a highly competent amateur naturalist and well-respected local historian. She could be stern, even frightening (she needed to be, given some of the children she taught), with a brisk matter-of-factness that almost hid her essential kindness. But whatever our various quarrels with her when we were under her charge, I never heard an adult she taught speak ill of her.


I always enjoyed her stories and, when I heard she’d died, I came up from London for the funeral. Everyone turned out to pay their respects, including lots of former pupils who’d moved away. Her funeral gave me a sense of our community here that nothing before or since has matched. It helped me decide to move back north.

[1] The reference is to Don McKay (2001) ‘Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness’ Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Gaspereau Press MMI, p. 24.

[2] This once led to a strange exchange that Flora didn’t understand at the time but which stayed with her. She wrote in a letter to me that Miss Richardson had an eccentric woman friend, a regular visitor to the village, who was a folklorist from the Highlands. She would often come into the school to talk to the children and, on one such visit, overheard Flora complaining about being hungry and called her over. Flora vividly remember her saying, very seriously: ‘be careful what you say lass, or a just-halver might hear you. You don’t want one of them’. This stayed with Flora because she had absolutely no idea what the woman meant, seemed to be entirely serious, and so frightened Flora. The following passage is from Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan’s Scottish Fairy Belief (2001): “Humans who ate a lot yet never seemed to gain any weight were believed to have ‘a voracious elve’ called ‘geirt coimitheth, a joynt-eater, or just-halver, feeding on the pith and quintessence of what the man (sic) eats, and that therefore he continues lean like a hauke or heron, notwithstanding his devouring appetite” (p. 63)].

RIP Ursula LeGuin

I have always had the greatest respect for the work of Ursula LeGuin, above all because of her astonishing Always Coming Home, which I regard as a classic example of textual deep mapping. News of her death at 88 is all the sadder for the fact that her son reports that her intelligence was, even in the last days of her life, “as sharp as a tack”, suggesting that she might well have had more wonderful narratives to offer had she lived longer.

Listening to David Tuller talking with Vincent Raccianello

In 2014, I contributed a chapter and a half to a book called ‘Art, Science and Cultural Understanding’. One of my core concerns in these chapters is with our cultures inability to recognise the increasingly toxic social role of scientism and aestheticism as secular belief systems. This problem, and particularly the issue of scientism, is linked to the fact that the whole academic institutional complex (which includes the academic research and publishing industries), are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose, something that the vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, started to publically acknowledge back in 2008.  (Interestingly, von Prondzynski later suggested that the disciplinary basis of the academy make it increasingly unable to address the ‘wicked’ problems that we most need to address.

All this is on my mind because I spent some time last night listening to the academic and journalist David Tuller talking to Vincent Raccianello on ‘This Week in Virology’. 

Tuller’s work demonstrates how, in practice, the popular belief in scientism is exploited for their own ends by by lobby groups like the Science Media Centre, by government policy makers, and by academics like Prof. Crawley of Bristol University, whose rather questionable and unethical research activities he discusses and suggests may be fraudulent. Although he touches briefly on the fact that both universities and prominent journals within the academic publishing industry have repeatedly failed to address such unethical and, in some cases, potentially fraudulent research activity, this seems to me one of the most striking and distressing consequences of the convergence between the academic culture, the culture of scientism, and a business ethos in which the only values are those of the financial bottom line.

The complex and unfolding situation Tuller has identified and discussed in his Trial by Error blog since 2015 not only shows, for example, how very senior members of the psychiatric and research professions, aided and abetted by the supposedly neutral Science Media Centre, have benefitted from portraying themselves as ‘victims’ of violent and dangerous patients. (A claim they were wholly unable to substantiate in court). It has also demonstrated the quite extraordinary lengths to which universities will go to protect their investment in academic researchers who are hell bent on defending their own discredited activity. An unethical and highly dubious practice that continues despite the ‘scientific’ work produced by such researchers being identified, as Tuller makes very clear, both as ‘bad science’ and as heavily tainted by vested interests of various kinds.

As Tuller’s blog of 15th May 2017 – ‘Trial By Error, Continued: The CMRC Affirms Full Support for Libelous Esther’ – indicates, one thing both the researchers and universities clearly fear is that their unethical practices will become more generally known and discussed among the communities on whom their reputations and research income depend. Namely, other scientists and academics. It is one thing to discredit patients who are critical of what they know to be dangerous and discredited practices by getting support from the Science Media Centre to brand them as violent; it is quite another to maintain the kind of very serious deceptions Tuller has worked so hard to uncover once they become common knowledge in the academic and scientific community.

If you have any interest in the probity and integrity of either science or Higher Education, please read David Tuller’s blog. It represents a resounding condemnation of a growing tendency within the academic institutional complex to put income generation and reputational gain before ethics and social responsibility. We can only combat this tendency by sharing knowledge and asking questions.


For the last five years I have been working on a text called ‘Convergences’, the last iteration of my ‘Debatable Land’ project. It is an attempt to address what the phrase ‘kith and kin’ might mean to us now.  As I start to bring it to a conclusion, then, the notion of friendship and memory is very much on my mind.  On Saturday I met up with a group of people, including some old friends, to mark one of our number’s departure to China for a year. Perhaps as a result, that sense of being preoccupied with notions of friendship was further reinforced.

To find a poet whose work is new to you and speaks to your heart is to make a new friend. Naturally, having discovered them, you want to get to know their work, to spend time with them. So, having recently come across the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye and been very moved by it, I wanted to read more. I always feel guilty about buying too many books but, despite that, have now bought several of Nye’s, second-hand, on line. Today the first one, ‘Tender Spot: Selected Poems’, arrived in the post. (My wife then opened it by mistake, thinking it was junk.)

As it happens, my new book has a hand-written dedication on the flyleaf, as follows:

For Pinar and Memet, new friends – with all my heart of respect and pleasure!

You shine!!

Love, Naomi Shihab Nye

While I was making dinner, peeling the carrots and preparing the spices for the cauliflower dish my daughter particularly likes, I wonder about Pinar and Memet. At first, I was just puzzled, wondering what, after such an effusive declaration of friendship on Nye’s behalf, prompted them to sell or give away this book that is now mine. Did the friendship simply fail to blossom? Where they just indifferent to her poems? Did they all have a falling out? And just who are Pinar and Memet anyway, and what was it they did that made them shine?

Then, as I prepare to soak the cauliflower, I remember Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful prose poem ‘My Perfect Stranger’. (It makes me laugh out loud and then cry each time I read it.) Her perfect stranger is a five-year old who ends up in the seat in front of her. already a poet and artist. She wears a lacy white party dress, has a little tuft of pink hair, and her fluting voice. The clear, unselfconscious voice that Nye fears might announce their shared identity as Arabs, sitting on an American flight to San Francisco, to all and sundry. So, she doesn’t share the knowledge of their common identity with the child. And, at that point in my wondering about Pinar and Memet, my speculations suddenly become edged with fear for them.

How easy it is for me to idly imagine the disposal of a book in terms familiar to me. A friendship that faltered and withered. or perhaps simply failed to blossom in the first place; an indifferent to someone’s work, or a falling out. But, of course, there are many other, externally imposed, reasons why Pinar and Memet might have had to let the book go. After all, I know quite enough about the difficulties of simply moving one’s family to a new house. (Last time we did that I felt obliged to cull my library by about a third.) How much worse, then, to be faced by exile then, to be forced to ‘travel light’, to leave valued friends and possessions behind simply because you have no other option?

Of course, I still know nothing about Pinar and Memet, beyond the simple fact that Nye saw them as new friends, as people she respected and whose company gave her pleasure, who shined. Yet at this point it seems hard not to care about, even fear for, these two strangers who mattered to a poet whose work I admire.

On keeping quiet

I’ve been neglecting this blog again, and for all the usual reasons. Family complications, the daily round of cooking, shopping and cleaning, working in the studio. But also other activities, like  a visit to Hestercombe  to work with a small group of artists, curators and others interested in art and landscape through an invitation from a friend. A slow and thoughtful process of conversation and response that will conclude with the core group having an exhibition there early next year.

And perhaps because I wonder how valuable it is always to be writing an opinion on this or that. This last though is reinforced by reading the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye, and in particular her poem: ‘I Feel Sorry for Jesus’ (from ‘You and Yours’; 2005, Rochester N.Y., Boa Editions.) Her wanting to be silent, to have:

… A secret pouch

of listening…’

seems such an appropriate response to the twitter storm world. This won’t last, since I’m perfectly sure I can’t keep off my hobby-horses for long.

‘In Praise of Wetlands’ and ‘The Crow Road’.

In Praise of Wetlands (wall piece, 2017)

I have just returned from three days in Sheffield working with Midstream (a collective made up of my friends Mary Modeen, Christine Baeumler and myself). We contributed work to the exhibition In The Open, curated by Judy Tucker, which she organised in association with Cross Multi Inter Trans: Biennial Conference of ASLE-UKI and LAND2. which took at Sheffield Hallam University.

Midstream contributed an artist’s book and the wall and sound piece reproduced above. (A study for this piece, along with a statement, can be seen on the exhibition page on the LAND2 website.) Midstream also presented a collaborative paper, also called In Praise of Wetlands, delivered in three parts.

In addition, Erin Kavanagh and I presented a ‘performed paper’ entitled The Crow Road. Erin is a poet and photographer, artist, archaeologist and academic based in West Wales. She shares my interest in deep mapping and employs poetry as archaeological method for public engagement.     The presentation employed a Powerpoint of her crow drawings, poetry, stories and academic thinking and, I’m pleased to say, was very well received.



Working for a poetics of place

While shopping in Hexham in preparation for the Bank Holiday, I bought a book in Eland’s ’Poetry of Place’ series, Highlands and Islands (2012), edited by Mary Miers. I picked it up because of my ongoing desire to reorient my work in relation to evoking place. I’m trying to combine elements of the relatively ‘prose-oriented’ approach of my former deep mapping work with a small-scale approach that’s closer to the visual ‘poetics’ I associate with the best painting. (In addition to paintings I’ve long admired – particularly by Paula Rego, Ken Kiff and R. B. Kitaj’s early work – I’ve also been looking very carefully again at the work of Prunella Clough, Helen Frankenthaler, Peter Lanyon, and various others).

This project is not, of course, simply about starting to make painted constructions that try to evoke place. It seems to me to require, among other things, adopting a degree of critical solicitude towards reflecting on the complex of family and social circumstances that lie behind my own preoccupation with the Scottish Highlands and Islands. That preoccupation, which has brought with it an abiding concern with upland farming communities throughout the United Kingdom, is central to my work as a visual maker and a writer. Such complexities and their implications seem to me inseparable from considerations of place and so must be addressed if one wishes to distinguish between work that engages with landscape and work that tries to evoke a sense of place.

That thought is prompted by my reading Highlands and Islands. Scanning through the book I found Kathleen Raine’s Message to Gavin (1969), a reminder of both the doomed relationship between the poet (Kathleen Raine) and the novelist (Gavin Maxwell) and of my own contact with them both in late childhood and early adolescence. (A visit with my parents to Camusfeàrna, as Maxwell called his Sandaig cottage, made a very powerful impression on me, as much because of the difficulty of finding that beautiful place, and the size of his two dogs when we did, as with meeting the author of Ring of Bright Water. Among other encounters with Kathleen Raine, her withering dismissal, delivered in her tiny Chelsea flat, of my adolescent preference for Rothko paintings over those of Bacon, is equally memorable).

There is much like about Highlands and Islands. It contains, for example, unexpected work I did not know. This includes a poem by T. S. Eliot – Rannoch, by Glencoe –  which illuminates a place I know, both from childhood journeys and a memorable trip with my two sons, and is part of an ongoing conversation with friends. I also find the book helpful in terms of thinking about reorienting my own work, particularly the way in which each poem is contextualised. This contextualisation serves to remind me of all the different ways in which a poem is grounded in, grows out of, and interacts with, lives that unfold in all the weave of richness and complexity that makes up place. Not just the way in which Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Little White Rose counterpoints his thinking with that of W. B. Yeats, and is taken up by Alex Salmond, but the whole politics of landownership. And so the ways in which these interact with the presuppositions of class, entitlement and attitudes to relationships to the inter-woven-ness of personal, social and environmental realities.

A good deal to think about then.

‘Greening’ the Borders: a personal meander through questions of agriculture, woods and wetlands


Borders mixed woodland



Around mid-summer I spent some time visiting various mosses and other wetlands in the English / Scottish Borders. These included Ford Moss, a lowland raised mire to the south-west of Berwick-upon-Tweed; the three Whitlaw Mosses just east of Selkirk; and the Gordon Feuars Moss, a wet wood, just outside the village of Gordon.

This last is a very particular place, the remnant of a large floodplain mire dominated by a low tangle of birch and willow growing over a variety of fen and bog peatland habitats. It appeared entirely un-managed and, as such, made me think it might be some of the last “natural” remaining native woodland in Britain. However, on looking at a large-scale map later, I found that there are drains marked as running through two sections of the reserve: Gordon Moss Nature Reserve itself and the neighbouring strip known as Minister’s Bog. However a third area, Laird’s Bog, appears to be undrained, suggesting that there has been only minimum human intervention in the area in the past. That was certainly my impression ‘on the ground’.

What interests me is not, however, whether or not such a place is in some sense “pristine’, but how it fits into the shifting politics of land ‘improvement’ and environmental concern that is now starting to shape the Borders landscape.


Marker on the edge of Gordon Fears Moss.


In the ‘Laird’s Bog’ wet woodland at Gordon Feuars Moss


A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Counciltells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region – blanket bog, lowland raised bog, fens or flushes, reed beds, coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, wet woodland, lowland meadows, upland hay meadows, purple moor-grass (Molinia), rush pasture, and lochs. All of these are environmentally important. (Peatlands, for example, reduce global climate change by acting as carbon sinks that capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Twenty percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon is captured and stored in peatlands located in the northern hemisphere). I have two related reservations about this report’s neat definitions, however. The first is that surely one of the important qualities of wetlands is psycho-social rather than environmental as that term is usually understood – their quiet ‘wildness’ in Don McKay’s sense of that word. That is, their capacity “to elude the mind’s appropriations” (2001 p.21), even those provided by scientific organisations like environmental research consultancies. My second, related, reservation is that, in practice and perhaps somewhat ironically, it’s precisely human intervention that so often makes a nonsense of any such neat distinctions. (Wet woodland, precisely because it occurs as small areas of wood or localised patches in larger woods on floodplains, as successional habitat on fens, mires and bogs, along streams and hill-side flushes, and in peaty hollows, many of which border on cultivated agricultural or other land, often combines elements of many other ecosystems).

Repairing the old sheep fank on the Carter Burn near the entrance to Burns in the Wauchope Forest area.

Sign marking the entrance to the Burns.

The image of an old sheep fans above is located in what was once an area of upland hay meadow.  It may originally have been bounded by wet woodland similar to that at Gordon Fears Moss and subject to regular flooding. The fank, however, is a product of the move towards land enclosure and the introduction of large-scale sheep farming. Then, beginning in the 1920s, sheep farming in this area was increasingly replaced by forestry, particularly the monoculture of Sitka spruce that now dominates the Wauchope Forest. Over the last eighteen years, I’ve watched this remnant of old upland hay meadow being further transformed; overrun by a mixture of bracken, reeds, and the beginnings of what may become a ribbon of deciduous wet woodland. While this process of change will continue one way or another, how it will fit into the wider pattern of future Borders land use is an open question.

The Midstream Collective

The Midstream Collective (left to right: CB, IB & MM)

I took the journeys indicated above because I wanted to get a sense of these wetland places ‘on the ground’ and to collect images. I was working towards a celebration of wetlands with my friends Christine Baeumler (an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota) and Mary Modeen (an Associate Dean at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee) for presentation at a conference in September. These are my partners in the Midstream Collective, which we set up some years back to ‘badge’ the collaborative work we wanted to do together.

As so often happens when I visit new places, the explorations with one end in view have set me thinking about another – land use on the Borders, both past and present – which in turn provoked this essay.

Ford Moss and its woodland


Ford Moss Nature Reserve sign

Ford Moss from the south-east

The Ford Moss Nature Reserve, wedged between a mix of farm land and old forestry plantation, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that sits in the hollow of a hill overlooking the Till Valley and the Cheviots. The Moss extends over about one hundred and fifty acres and is classified as a lowland raised mire. That’s to say its ecology is underpinned by a deep peat layer laid down by the rotting of vegetation over many thousands of years. The moss has become dryer over the last 250 years, but retains echoes of its older landscape form, which is undergoing ‘renovation’. The nature reserve includes old mixed woodland that’s adjacent to the moss and contains both mature Scots Pine and Oak.

I was unable to walk into the moss itself, which is fenced to keep people away from its “soft and treacherous surface”. Instead, I (largely) followed the circular two-mile path around its edge. The wildlife, particularly the birds, were present from the start, as indicated by the variety and volume of bird song, most noticeably of thrushes, blackbirds and skylarks. The persistent call of a buzzard hunting high over the moss accompanied me for much of the second half of my walk. I also had the luck to encounter a Roe doe at close quarters.

Broken snail shell – evidence of a thrush’s activity?

A buzzard calling high over the moss

Roe doe caught unawares

As I started walking around the moss, it struck me that the mature Scots Pine and Oak woodland bordering its southern side and situated on an incline, echoed descriptions of woodland I’ve read and thought about a good deal in the past.

Mature woodland on the slope to the south side of Ford Moss

This is the old woodland of the Jed Forest that had once covered an area of land called the Wauchope Forest, now largely taken over by commercial forestry. That area that interests me sits north and west of the Carter Bar pass on the Scottish side of the Cheviot Hills. (This is well down the Border to the south-west of Ford Moss in the old Middle March). The area I’m particularly attached to consists of three parallel low ridges with the Carter and Black Burn running between them into the Jed Water.

What came to my mind was that the woodland at Ford Moss was almost certainly of the same type that persisted, probably with relatively little change, from around the time of the end of the Roman occupation to some point in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when the Lowlands were ‘improved’. (Jennifer Owen, in her magisterial Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study, suggests that by 400 AD. only 30% of England was wooded, although the percentage would have been considerably higher in the Borders). I regularly visit this area between Carter Bar and the former parish of Southdean when I’m in the Borders and have done so for almost twenty years now.

The politics of land use

The remains of Tamshiel Rig, photographed c. 2002. Fifteen years later this site, if it still exists at all, is completely inaccessible due to the density of the Sitka planting. 

I stopped in Jedburgh on my way from Ford Moss to visit the land around Tamshiel Rig – a medieval shieling built on the site of what was once one of the best-preserved Iron Ages farms in Britain (until it was plowed up for forestry). While I was there I bought a copy of Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell’s The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution 1760-1830 (Tuckwell Press, 2012).  Like so much historical research into social conditions in rural Scotland, it’s a stark reminder of how issues of social justice, ownership, and land use are intimately linked, of the complexity of those links, and of how the language of ‘progress’ has been used to justify the imposition of ‘top-down’ changes that have had long-standing consequences. (The authors reckon that the ‘improvement’ of Lowland agriculture traumatised, displaced, or otherwise disrupted, the lives of almost one third of the population. These were for the most part cotters, the poorest members of Borders society. In this context, it’s important to know that even today more than half of Scotland is still owned by less that 500 people, a situation with enormous socio-environmental consequences.

Two views reported in the book are relevant to my visit to the former parish of Southdean, where the population has been steadily declining year on year. The first is that of an establishment orthodoxy that views the enclosures and the improvements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a mark of unqualified progress. For that orthodoxy, the creation of “big new farms in place of common grazing” not only “completely altered the landscape of Scotland”, it ushered in the new, scientific agriculture essential to Scotland entering the modern industrial age (p. 72).

The second view is that of the historian Dr James Hunter. Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, was the first Director of its Centre for History, and the author of thirteen books about the Highlands and Islands and that region’s diaspora. He was the first director of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Federation and is a former chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Unsurprisingly then, he contrasts the “empty deserted glens” central to large-scale Lowland sheep farming and “kept going solely by vast, enormous subsidies from Europe”, with “the unimproved parts of Scotland … the crofting counties”, where “you see a much more viable society”. (p. 148) He also suggests that the people who resisted the ‘improvements’, where, from the perspective of our present eco-social situation, those with the better, more sensible, more economically and environmentally viable vision of the Scottish landscape than the “few subsidy junkies” who now dominate “rural Scotland where improvement was given full reign” (ibid).

Lindean loch information board.

Lindean loch.

The historical link between the loss of wetlands and ‘improvements’ of various kinds is neatly illustrated by what’s known of Linden reservoir or loch, located just east of Selkirk. Prior to the eighteenth century, this would have been the lowest, and possibly most extensive, of what are now collectively known as the Whitlaw Mosses. (The remaining three are ‘Murder’, ‘Beanrig’ and ‘Blackpool’ Moss).

Whitlow moss, looking west towards Lindean Loch

Whitlaw Moss.

Although the loch looks ‘natural’ enough today, it is in fact the product of two major human interventions. As a standing body of water, it’s largely the result of the extensive extraction of lime rich marl (a form of clay), dug by hand during the eighteenth century. Marl that was then used as fertiliser locally to improve the grass necessary for intensive grazing. Then, in the twentieth century, the loch was dammed to provide a public water supply for nearby villages, a situation that continued into the nineteen seventies. Now notable for its lime-rich water and soil, and for the six hundred and more plant and animal species apparently found in and around it, the loch was designated an SSSI in 1977.

Rethinking woods and wetlands – Kielder, Wauchope and other commercial Borders forests

Clear-felled area of hillside north of Kielder


Clear-felled area at Burns in the Wauchope forest

Given my long-standing interest in the area just north west of Carter Bar, someone familiar with the area would probably expect me to visit the Border Mires, the name given to a collection of peat bog sites in, and adjacent to, Kielder Forest in Northumberland, rather than the mosses I in fact visited. After all this area was, until planting began in the 1920s, predominantly open moorland and mire, with remnants of native upland woodland – some of it wet – along stream sides and in isolated craggy areas. Now it’s the largest man-made forest in Europe, with three-quarters of its six hundred and fifty square kilometres covered by commercial forestry, of which seventy-five percent is Sitka spruce. Like all such forests, it is a depressingly monotonous and oppressive environment that, typically, sustains very little in the way of wildlife and provides little employment.

There are, however, fifty-eight separate peat bog sites within the overall forest area. These are in remote locations and largely made up of deep lenses of peat located in larger areas of blanket bog. They can be up to fifteen meters deep in places and are almost all dependent on rainfall to maintain their water-balance. Taken together, they store more water than the Kielder reservoir itself, the largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, which holds forty-four billion gallons, figure that reminds me forcibly of the importance of peat bog in the retention and general management of water, particularly in relation to flooding.

Kielder Water reservoir.

My problem with trying to visit the Border Mires sites is that, not only are they almost all in very remote areas, but they are also designated SSSIs and require permission to visit them. Given the contingencies of our family situation and of factors like the weather, this simply isn’t practical for me. So, over the years I’ve spent time in the area of Scotland just over the border from Kielder in places I would call ‘wet edge lands’. That is, places that historically have been radically reconfigured by climate change, then by human enclosure and, later again, by the forestry practices used to create the current forest monoculture.


The Black Burn, it’s banks damaged by industrial scale clear-felling, is now producing marsh-like areas along its upper length. These are frequently flooded and almost always remain waterlogged. 

Roadside drainage ditch running into Carter Burn (2017).

The management of water in this area is now wholly determined by the needs of the forestry industry, in particular the quick and effective extraction of large volumes of timber. Crude roads built for this reason often disrupt the natural flow of water and, as a result, have a substantive impact on the two burns.  The new drainage ditch pictured above now above runs directly into Carter Burn, and over time will almost certainly impact on its course and water quality. If it speeds up lateral erosion it may undermine the bank that separates the burn from the nearby pool and, in doing so, substantially change the course of the burn.


A standing pool, perhaps originally created by the silting up of an old flood meander in the Carter Burn, also shows some evidence of having been dammed at some point, perhaps to provide water in connection with the nearby fank shown earlier.


The Carter Burn valley

The images above are indicative of the area in which I go to walk, look, listen, and remember; that is to find ways into the numerous processes that produced, and are still producing, this landscape.

What’s to remember here? Many things, but in particular the continuous processes of both sedimented and sudden change. Before it was ploughed up and obliterated to plant forestry, there were the extensive and perhaps best preserved archaeological remains of an early Iron Age farm anywhere in Britain located just above Black Burn. For some three hundred or so years either side of the start of the Christian era, there is evidence that a milder climate made it possible to grow a primitive form of barley here.  Later, in the medieval period, a bothy or sheiling called Tamshiel Rig was built near the site of the Iron Age farm. This provided shelter for those who tended the cattle that grazed here on the rich upland grasses each summer, part of a local agriculture based on transhumance. And to the east of the Rig, if local names are anything to go by, herds of swine once foraged for acorns in the oak woods and wallowed in the high mires above.

Why remember all this?

Because it tells us that present forms of land use are neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable. They are determined by the concerns of landowners and, as James Hunter indicates, there are always alternatives. That alternatives to the early modern culture of ‘improvement’ are now once again on the political agenda is clear from the Scottish Green Party’s policies.


A Borders cow and her calf (2017)

A Borders pig (2013)

Relevant Scottish Green Party policies: an indicative summary

 The Scottish Green Party’s manifesto commits it to working to ensure that Scotland’s land benefits the many and not the few, and that to establishing transparency as to exactly who owns Scotland. It also argues for a radical programme of land reform to transform the social, economic and environmental prospects for communities across Scotland. To achieve this, it is committed to supporting such proposals as providing agricultural tenants with a right to buy their farms in appropriate circumstances, and to ensuring that public subsidy is directed at those in most need of it and to support the expansion of new sustainable forestry. All of which goes against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

The Party is also committed to increasing local community control over public land and to working towards greater democratic control of the National Forest Estate and of property currently administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is similarly committed to promoting community agriculture, involving a step change in making land available for smallholdings, with a shift away from high-input agribusiness to low-carbon, organic farming.

This dovetails into  its proposal to support farming that provides public benefits, including rural jobs, water management, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and shorter food chains. It aims to foster links between communities, local farmers and food co-operatives. It also recognises the need to support new farmers from non-farming backgrounds in getting access to the land and finding opportunities to build experience in environmentally and economically sustainable farming. It is committed to supporting large scale ecological restoration projects of native flora and fauna, including the continued restoration of internationally- important peatlands. Again, these policies largely go against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

In principle at least, all these policies point to what could be a radical transformation of the Borders region, its agriculture, woodlands and wetlands.

A ‘wild’ speculation

So, what might an alternative Borders landscape look like? What, over and above Green policy, is needed to shift the Borders back to reflect something of the ‘unimproved’ landscape values that James Hunter identifies with a contemporary crofting culture, for example that of the Sleat peninsula of the Isle of Skye? The policies of the Green Party, if put into practice, would open the way for the establishment of a hybrid between traditional small-scale subsistence agriculture, alternative sustainable forestry practices, and the contemporary possibilities of tourism and other forms of income such as I’ve seen at first hand on Mull. However, the implementation of Green Party policies would require a radical political shift that would be resisted tooth and nail by those who own or are dependent on the big Borders estates. This suggests that there is little or no realistic possibility at present of reversing the depopulation of the Borders or of breaking the stranglehold of ‘subsidy junkies’; not just the owners of big farm estates and heavily subsidized grouse moors, but the many absentee landowners whose return on investment in commercial forestry depends on subsidy. However, we do not know what the impact of Brexit will be on the subsidy culture.

If I was asked to identify a point of leverage that might nonetheless help to move this process on, I would argue for the ‘re-wilding’ of the vast forestry monoculture of Kielder forest and points north of the Border. By this I do not mean aping a few wealthy individuals to import beavers or wolves onto their private estates. My sense of re-wilding owes more, as already suggested, to Don McKay’s understanding. Not, then, the re-introduction of a single large mammal but, as a start, small-scale human projects designed to reestablish areas of mixed forest, mire and moorland in the vast monocultural hinterlands of commercial Sitka spruce cultivation. Not, however, as stand-alone projects, but as part of a wider eco-tourism and cultural/environmental education initiative build in consultation with local people, particularly those young people anxious to remain and earn a living from the land.

The artist and environmental activist Cathy Fitzgerald has ably demonstrated, through her Hollywood Project, that it is both ecologically desirable and practically possible for an individual to learn how to gradually convert commercial forest monoculture to fully sustainable mixed woodland. What is needed is, above all, opportunity and a desire for environmental change. Given a multi-stranded approach that, for example, seeks to go beneath and beyond the macho reiving-related culture so heavily promoted across the Borders, it should be possible to start to construct a multi-stranded and locally grounded basis – looking both back to a ‘pre-improvement’ agricultural past and forward to new, technologically-enabled possibilities, a basis equivalent to James Hunter’s vision of renewal on Skye.






Criticism of ‘bad science’: again despair

Sometimes it is very difficult not to feel despairing about the lengths to which the beneficiaries of Big Science  – I can’t bring myself to call them scientists – not to mention those business people and politicians whose interests they serve, will go to. A current example of their duplicity is addressed by Prof. Steven Lubet in a recent blog post:  Trail by Error: Questions About Professor Sharpe’s ‘Special Ethics Seminar’. Prof Lubet is rightly highly critical of Sharpe’s seminar, an event closed to the public, and of his likening ME/CFS patients to climate change deniers. A charge, as he suggests, intended to distract attention from the fact that the actions taken by such patients are not, as Sharpe claims, ‘against science’, but against the abuse of science by a powerful group of individuals trying to cover their tracks following the exposure of their poor science (the PACE trail). ‘Science’ then translated into political policies designed to save the Government money at the expense of the chronically sick.

As Lubet points out, Sharpe himself was a principal investigator of PACE, so is hardly an objective observer, and his comments are, perhaps inevitably: “inaccurate, unfair, and insulting”. As Lubet adds, what is worse is that this attack hides the fact that climate change denial – like those who conducted the PACE trial -is backed by powerful political and economic vested interests. In the case of climate change, oil and other fossil fuel companies with “ulterior financial interests in preventing environmental regulation. Criticism of the PACE trial, by contrast, has largely come from patients whose life experience led to them questioning Sharpe’s methodology, but who have no other interest than that those who claim to be investigating their illness find an effective treatment, rather than aiding a group of psychiatrists determined to promote a treatment that can be profoundly damaging.  

As Lubet goes on to write, there are more accurate analogies for a psychiatrist concerned about the implications of patient protests and “the future of science”. One would have been patients’ improvement of psychiatry when, in 1973, they finally obtained the removal of homosexuality as an officially designated “mental disorder” – one, needless to say, to be treated for a fee by psychotherapy. But then today’s pseudo-scientists, and all too often the institutions and universities that employ them, are far more concerned about maintaining power, reputation and earnings than either serious science or the well-being of unfortunate patients. Fortunately, there remain those who, like Lubet, think clearly and honestly and are willing to speak truth to power. This is, after all, one of the few safeguards we have against despair.

To follow the debates about ‘bad science’ and those fighting it in the context of ME/CFS, see the Voices from the Shadows Facebook page.


‘After’ academic knowledge: towards other understandings?

Three academic observations to start with, all taken from Poul Holm et al’s Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action (Humanities 2015, 4, 977–992). They note that: “while empires may collapse, [including, in this context, those of academic institutions] humans do not, and have managed successfully to reorganize themselves in extremely adverse times” (p. 984). The second draws on Helga Nowotny’s view that the current move to: “socially robust knowledge includes employing multiple, even contradictory, perspectives” (ibid. 985). Finally, the article’s authors observe: “We want to emphasize the capacity of the humanities to move beyond models of research that locate the formation of knowledge exclusively within the academy” (p. 986). These three indicative observations will serve to frame the context for what follows here.

Some of the people I most admire, people who struggle to do the real work of tertiary education (rather than passively conforming to the priorities of Academia plc), recognise that the dominant disciplinary realpolitik that covers the economics of education has long been an anachronism. These people are working hard to find ways to teach what now needs teaching; in particularly an ecosophically inclusive thinking that listens and is critically solicitous towards other understandings and towards the world at large.

One way in which they have done this is by moving away from the presuppositions and assumptions of the disciplinarity mentalité, creating enlarged fields of multi-disciplinary study oriented by collectively substantive and common concerns. So, we now have, for example, Memory Studies, Landscape Studies, Geo-Humanities, Digital Humanities, and Eco-Humanities. Given the recuperative ‘neo-colonialist’ practices of disciplinary empire-building, and the concomitant proliferation of ‘inter-‘, ‘trans-‘, ‘post-‘, and other neo-disciplinary formulations, I remain agnostic about many of the claims made on behalf of these expanded fields by those who head them up. What I am convinced of, however, is that a growing number of people who work for universities are using these new categories as portals through which to enter conversations that go beyond the academic and, in doing so, contest the assumption that academic disciplines are the prime locus of knowledge production and understanding. People who now act on the assumption that it is the openness, the skills, goodwill, knowledge and understanding embodied by individuals, not the authority bestowed by the official categories that institutions use to divide and rule, that are now central to creating knowledges and educational experience that’s fit for purpose.

This does not mean, of course, that the work such people do as academics is somehow secondary to their individual characteristics. Rather it means that we need to see their academic work as just one part of the wider polyverse that constellates them as both an individual and a semi-porous cluster of psycho-social relationships. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the same can be said of those who work as artists.

I want to suggest that the struggle for us all, now, is to resist the normative conditions that flow from the internalisation of a monolithic notion of ‘life-as’ some form of professional specialist, for example ‘Academic’ or ‘Artist’. That is, a unitary belief in a ‘life-as’ as authorized by a disciplinary education, one taken as the means to a job organising, legislating for, administering, and generally intervening in, the intellectual, cultural, or practical conditions of others’ understandings and/or lifeworlds. A ‘life-as’ underwritten by the administrative mindscape of the dominant culture of management, whether in relation to business, public services, the media, the creative industries, or the academy.

If we accept that socially robust knowledge requires that we employ “multiple, even contradictory, perspectives”, then we need to begin by acknowledging that we are each a polyverse, and then acting accordingly. This means acting not as a monolithic entity categorised as ‘Academic’ or ‘Artist’, but as a plural and dynamic constellated self that works as, for example: a teacher, an academic researcher, a writer, an activist, an artist – not to mention all those forms of work that flow from being one’s parents’ child, a partner, a citizen, a parent, a neighbour, a family member, and so on.

We badly need to recognise that we are all, in reality, just such constellated selves.

Some years ago, when I had a residency at NUI Galway, I had the good fortune to meet Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin,  an Irish ethnomusicologist, author, musician and historian who is hugely knowledge about Irish music, diaspora, cultural and memory. The inaugural holder of The Johnson Chair in Québec and Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University, Montréal, Quebec, Gearóid is a fourth generation Clare concertina player, a former member of The Kilfenora Céilí Band, and a five-time All Ireland Champion musician, someone who has performed and recorded with both many noted Irish fiddlers and the French Canadian fiddle master Pierre Schryer. Equally important, however, is that he is an open, intellectually enquiring, enthusiastic and generous conversationalist, someone who was happy to talk to, offer advice to, and practically help, a chance-met English teacher / artist / researcher with an interest in Irish socially-engaged arts practices but almost no knowledge of Gearóid’s own many areas of expertise.

The approach to our work I’m arguing for here, as I have done in more detail elsewhere (see my ‘“Incorrigibly plural”? Rural Lifeworlds Between Concept and Experience’ Canadian Journal of Irish Studies Vol. 38, Nos. 1+2 (2014).
Special issue, “Text and Beyond Text: New Visual, Material, and Spatial Perspectives in Irish Studies” pp. 260-275), is informed by a sociological argument that differentiate between two distinct ways of experiencing lifeworlds. In the first, lifeworlds are experienced as given, framed by prior understandings of roles, expectations and rewards that produce a ‘life-as’ an academic, an artist, a farmer, a housewife, a postmaster, and so on. In the second case, they are experienced as a (relatively) open project: multi-stranded, dynamic, as ‘being-as-becoming’ in which skills and understandings flow from productive tensions between different embodied perspectives .” This distinction is, of course, never absolute, but might be seen as approximating one made by the philosopher of place Edward S. Casey. Casey differentiates between a position, taken as “as posit of an established culture,” and our experiencing of place which, notwithstanding its normally settled appearance, he characterizes as “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture.” These parallel understandings can indicate a spectrum across which lifeworlds are experienced, from the given or positioned — whether assumed as such by individuals themselves or imposed upon them by powerful others— which constitutes a ‘life-as’, through to a becoming that requires continual negotiation as to how we are placed in relation to a world always in process. Our experience will, in fact, show us that we fluctuate back and forth between these two poles. If the first position is best described as a given and unitary position, the second is dynamic, experimental, and plural: as located in a “polyverse”—a term borrowed from the late theologian Roger Corless, both a Benedictine oblate and a Gelugpa Buddhist, who uses it to articulate his experience of the richness of both these spiritual lifeworlds without denying the irreconcilable differences between them. Which returns us once again to Helga Nowotny and the view that the current move to socially robust knowledge requires the ability to include multiple, even contradictory, perspectives.

The ebb and flow of our lived experience back and forth across a fluidly constellated lifeworld or polyverse is rarely acknowledged because it raises a host of questions that cut across the normative assumptions our culture has inherited from the monotheistic traditions of the Religions of the Book; difficult questions about identity and self-consistency that open us to increased levels of paradox and cognitive dissonance. However, if we deny the lifeworld as polyverse, with its corresponding sense of plurality and internal difference, we will have to live with the negative social consequences that follow from that denial. These include substantive restrictions on our capacity to deal with change, with the complex, even wicked, problems typical of our age and, centrally, on our ability to accept the plurality and difference of others – in particular, others whose skills and forms of lived understanding do not sit well with particular conceptions of a unitary ‘life-as’. Nevertheless, as I began by observing, many people increasingly experience their lifeworld as a polyverse—whether they do so tacitly or explicitly—and are both managing the resulting cognitive dissonances and welcoming the new understandings that result from abandoning the unitary world of the professional ‘life-as’ Artist, Academic, or whatever.