This post was originally delivered as a talk on 6th July 2019, introducing my Meander Further Artist Walk at Hospitalfield Arts.
Three years ago, I realised I had never truly seen moonlight.
For a long time, I had known that light pollution was keeping me from seeing all but the brightest stars in the night sky, but the moon’s white orb had always loomed large; whether surrounded by a halo of clouds, rising behind the jagged apex of The Shard, or reflected in the waters of The Clyde. Having lived all my life in towns and cities under the sodium glow of artificial streetlights, it was not until I found myself crossing a moonlit field on the northern shore of the Solway Firth, under a sky that is one of the darkest in Europe, it became apparent that I had never really seen the moon’s reflected light touch the ground.
The moon, as the writer James Attlee observes in his 2011 book Nocturne, “connects us to a longer cycle than the artificially speeded-up one we have devised to regulate our time on Earth”; and in the month I spent under the dark skies of Dumfries and Galloway I came, albeit briefly, to know the waxing and waning of the moon not only by the shape it took in the sky, but the effects of its light upon the landscape. But if it was a strange feeling for me to realise the absence of something I never knew was missing in the first place, stranger still was the realisation that if I had never before known the cycles of the moon, neither had the robin who sings outside the window of my flat in Glasgow.
Most of the robins native to Britain and Ireland are sedentary: they defend their territories all year round and rarely venture for more than about three miles, meaning this particular robin has probably never been beyond the borders of the city. If you have ever walked home in the dead of night and heard a bird sing from under a streetlight, there is a good chance the notes you heard were those of a robin’s song. Robins have always been one of the first songbirds to wake with the rising sun, but birds who nest near sources of artificial light are often heard singing throughout the hours of darkness. Scientists believe this is in part because the light receptors in a robin’s large eyes are particularly sensitive to wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum—especially those emitted by neon lights—and that continual night-time exposure to artificial light sources is disrupting the bird’s circadian rhythms; making them think that dawn has broken.
Much has been written in recent years about how we have created a world for ourselves in which more and more of us live apart from nature, but we are not the only creatures who have to live in the world we have created; and the robin who sings in the night is just one example of a bird who is feeling the impact of human development. Time for us may be regulated by clocks and calendars, but birds live attuned to the natural rhythms of the Earth: their lives shaped not only by the light of the sun, but seasonal changes in weather and the availability of food. Birds are one of the planet’s natural barometers, and learning to read them is a process which not only opens us to the Earth’s natural rhythms, but to the forces which are now disrupting them.
In her 2005 book Findings, the poet Kathleen Jamie writes that the birds live at the edges of her life: “between the laundry and the fetching kids from school”, she hears oyster catchers “during a lull in the traffic”, sparrows chirping from the eaves in the school playground; in which she also glimpses the abandoned nests of swallows. Like her, I like the sense that the margins of day-to-day life are semi-permeable; and what I want to propose today is to use photography to slow down, look, and learn to see those birds on the edges.
As an artist, I have never been especially interested in capturing photographs that look as if they might have been torn from the pages of National Geographic. For me, the sense that a photograph—even one which withholds its subject—marks an encounter with something in the world has always been a far more powerful, and more potent, draw to the process than the idea a camera is a tool for generating life-like images. As the artist and academic Joanna Zylinska puts is, “photography is a quintessential practice of life” and it is “through photography the world becomes something for us.” The practice of photography, in other words, is not simply a way of picturing the world, but of knowing it.
Photographing the birds is a way of getting to know them; of learning to see the diversity of bird life around us, and their comings and goings throughout the year. If you let it become habit, over time you will get to know their perches, the places at the tops of trees where their song carries furthest; the times they feed, whether they prefer berries or blossoms; and to see the mechanisms of the sky in the comings and goings of migrants. But, perhaps most importantly in this era of climate emergency, we might also learn to see when they are not there; and to imagine what the world might look like if the hedgerows fall silent, the migrants no longer arrive with the summer sun, or cliffs once alive with thousands of seabirds become still and lifeless.