“’Time for an hour or two of the dark arts,’ said Ian a few days after we had got back from the Shiants. He went upstairs and returned with three charts, a tidal atlas and what looked like a brass gannet’s skull with a wine cork on the end of its beak. He unrolled the charts on the kitchen table, opened the tidal atlas, popped the wine cork off the gannet’s beak and squeezed the skulls hinged circle, such that the points of the dividers – for this is what they were – first crossed and then became legs, with which he could stride across the charts.”
From Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, p.123
The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane is an investigation into the ancient and modern paths and tracks that criss-cross the coasts, fields and moors of the UK and beyond. It is a celebration of landscape creation and manipulation by our feet. While landscape is at the centre of the book, there is also an interesting commentary on the nature of objects and their use in our memory of places and spaces. Throughout his journeys Macfarlane comments on the objects he encounters or claims as tokens and souvenirs. In each case these become more than simple objects but are uniquely elevated by having been or being deeply connected (often both by memory and by the nature of their materials) to the landscape.
In the passage quoted above, a voyage is being plotted to the island of Sula Sgeir, an important gannet colony where men go from the Isle of Lewis to harvest the birds. The passage mentions several objects (the charts, the atlas and the dividers) and each is connected to the sea-roads around Lewis in a unique way. Each represents a vision of the sea, but it is the dividers that evoke in Macfarlane’s mind the skull of a gannet, which speaks to him of the depth of human place-knowing and the long traditions of guga (the young gannets) hunting. Charts and maps can record certain qualities of landscape, but it is with the image of the gannet that the island of Sula Sgier comes to life – flocks of screaming birds buffeted around the cliffs, a great blizzard of noise. The abstractions of maps or images – the process of transferring a place into two dimensions seems to me to draw something immeasurable out of these things as memory objects. For me, these objects must be tangible – part of their power comes from their form and texture – our ability to see with our hands – to feel the coolness of a stone or the light brush of a feather discovered out walking.
It is in the gathering and the gradual accretion of these objects that they attain their ritual power. In their handling and celebration on a shelf or on the edge one’s desk we relive places in our memories, and the edges of these memories are sharpened by the textures and weights of our artifacts.
Over the course of the past few years I have travelled back and forth to Baffin Island. On each visit I have walked the tundra, sometimes on hunting and fishing trips, on other occasions as simple evening rambles. On each visit I have seen new sides of the land, experienced new sights and smells which have changed and varied day by day, season by season. I have collected over these walks a handful of raven feathers, huge night-black things, often trapped by stalks of willow as they blow loose across the tundra. Now they sit, upright like flowers in a basket on the shelf reminding me of the Arctic and the guttural squawking of the great black birds. They are souvenirs I suppose, but I think of them as more than that. To me they are journey tokens, imbued with the space in which I found them, and capable of transporting me back.
Off Route Recommended Reading:
The writings of Roger Deakin and his literary executor Robert Macfarlane are well-springs I return to regularly:
The Wild Places, 2008 – Robert Macfarlane
The Old Ways, 2012 – Robert Macfarlane
Waterlog, 1999 – Roger Deakin
Note: While we have and do from time to time gather things to remember places by, we do not recommend or agree with the removal of anything which might contravene local rules – always treat people and places with respect. If everybody brought something home all the time there would be very little left. Tread lightly.