Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | December 31, 2013

Fieldwork Reflections

January 2014 will be my final month living as an anthropologist in Caithness before returning to Aberdeen to write my thesis. As 2013 draws to a close, I have been reflecting on what I’ve learnt whilst I’ve been here – and how much I’d still love to find out. As I sit listening to the wind whistling around my little house, I thought I’d share just a few of my favourite thoughts with you – and some of the more unexpected aspects of fieldwork! A quick warning: don’t expect many philosophical musings here – this post’s just for fun!
My favourite line of inquiry has been asking people about the wind. When we think about the way we live our lives, we rarely consider the impact that the wind has on us, yet it influences so many of our habits and customs, from the way we plan our towns to when we do the housework. Still, I have been surprised by how difficult it is to converse with people about the wind. Whilst people are often able to tell me about a storm or other bad weather incidents, the more everyday relationships with the wind are often forgotten about. I have learnt that it is often easier to observe how people adapt their behaviour to the wind, than to ask them directly about it. Similarly, many people have a very intimate knowledge of how the wind affects certain aspects of life, although they may not frame it in those terms. Rather, by talking to them about surfing or gardening or forestry practices, I am able to glimpse how their knowledge of the world is being informed by the wind.
One of the biggest surprises for me has been the scope, innovation and expertise of industry in Caithness. I am, of course, showing my ignorance when I say that I had expected Caithness to be a fairly traditional farming and crofting county, so exploring the so-called ‘Dounreay effect’ has been a source of fascination for me.
A recurring theme throughout my time here has been the concept of belonging. The typical Caithness query, ‘where do you belong to?’ has been given new meaning as I have talked with people extensively about what belongs where. From plants and animals, to people and turbines, what belongs and where the ‘right’ place for something is, is a never ending source of debate.
Most memorable have been those aspects of fieldwork that were entirely unanticipated. Whilst any anthropologist will tell you that every encounter brings fresh insights, who would have imagined that PhD research would involve some of these adventures?

Coming second in a zombie race

Coming second in a zombie race

Chatting to a film director

Chatting to a film director

Appearing in the local paper

Appearing in the local paper – several times!

Acquiring some HUGE blisters

Acquiring some HUGE blisters – fieldwork isn’t all fun and games

Being Mrs. Christmas - twice!

Being Mrs. Christmas – twice!

Creel fishing - and trying lobster for the first time

Creel fishing – and trying lobster for the first time

Sleeping under the stars in all kinds of locations

Sleeping under the stars in all kinds of locations

Making charcoal in the snow

Making charcoal in the snow

Building a dry stane dyke

Building a dry stane dyke

Learning to strim

Learning to strim

But best of all have been the new friendships made – and the countless walks I've taken and cups of tea I’ve drunk whilst chatting to folk!

But best of all have been the new friendships made – and the countless walks I’ve taken and cups of tea I’ve drunk whilst chatting to folk!

The intricacies of life lived in the 21st century mean that my work will never offer more than a window onto that complexity. I could never hope to get to grips with all the subtle nuances and peculiarities of a region as large and diverse as Caithness, but I do hope that what information I have gathered, courtesy of the many wonderful and interesting people I have been privileged to meet over the past year or so, will provide some insights into a world in transition…Watch this space over the coming year as I post excerpts from my thoughts and writings as they begin to take shape.

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Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | October 8, 2013

The Afterlife of Heritage

Despite my ‘blog silence’, these past few months have been busy. In particular, following participation in a series of ‘Afterlife of Heritage’ workshops at the beginning of the year which encouraged me to focus on the public impact of my PhD, I was lucky enough to win a small pot of funding that has allowed me to work collaboratively with Dunnet Forestry Trust to share some of the outcomes of my research with the local community.

Together, we chose to focus on circulating the stories of human life in the forest that have been told to me during the course of my research. If you were at this year’s Marymas Fair in Dunnet, or have visited the log cabin in the forest recently, you will have seen one of our ‘Hidden Forest’ pamphlets. Here’s a partial preview for those of you that have yet to get your hands on one:Hidden ForestOver the coming months, we hope that more people will come forward with their own ‘Dunnet Forest Story’ which can be added to the project blog, along with a more detailed social history of the forest.

The process of collaborative working has been a maze of pitfalls and triumphs and, along with other students across the UK, I have been blogging on the ‘Afterlife of Heritage’ website about my experiences. I have been invited back to Manchester at the end of October to present and discuss the various challenges and successes that taking part in the project has entailed.

Continuing with the theme of joint working, I’ve also been occupied developing and administering a forest user survey on behalf of Dunnet Forestry Trust. Questionnaires are available in Dunnet Forest’s visitor’s car park and the log cabin, or you can complete the questionnaire online. Get your responses in by 31st October 2013 so that they can be included in our analysis. We’ve had a great response so far – make sure you get your voice heard too!

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | July 24, 2013

Thinking Like an Otter

To read this post, you will have to travel a little further…to the RSPB Forsinard blog. I’ve been helping out a lot on the reserve over the past several months as a way of beginning to understand some of the debates that occur regarding the Flow Country, both presently and historically. This post describes one of my favourite volunteer days. Click here to read it.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | June 30, 2013

An Industry Perspective

May and June have been busy months for me as I’ve been heavily involved in the ‘Beatrice Works’ education project, coordinated by Christine Gunn, Caithness Horizons’ education officer.

Coinciding with professional artist Sue Jane Taylor’s exhibition of the same name at Caithness Horizons, which illustrates in striking detail the fabrication and installation of the off-shore wind turbine demonstrators at the Beatrice oilfield, located off the east Caithness coast, the education project has been a succession of intense three-day workshops with students from schools across the county. As well as a classroom-based exercise delivered by STEM ambassador (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Pat Kieran, where students were asked to put themselves in the place of marine renewable developers and carry out a feasibility study on a particular device and location, each group was taken on a site visit to a local organisation involved in the energy industry. Here they were able to ask questions, take notes, and, most essentially, make sketches with the support and guidance of a professional artist. A final day was spent working these rough sketches up into a series of beautiful prints to be displayed alongside Sue Jane’s own work in the gallery and museum at Caithness Horizons.

As well as giving the students an experience that closely mirrors Sue Jane’s own method of working, the process provided a fascinating insight into the intricate relationships between art, industry, technology and engineering. Importantly, by engaging with a variety of local industries, the project allowed students to explore possibilities for their own future. Dounreay nuclear power plant, one of Caithness’s larger employers, is currently undergoing decommissioning with a resultant loss of jobs, and employment opportunities in the oil and gas industry are likely to become scarcer as these children step into the world of work, so emerging renewable technologies may offer one source of potential work in the region to offset these losses – estimates suggest that there are currently 11,000 people employed in the renewable energy sector in Scotland and this is set to grow significantly.

One thing became increasingly evident throughout our site visits: the passion, creativity and energy with which this array of local businessmen and women approached both their work and their interactions with these young people was incredibly inspiring, and many of the students returned to school with a new and optimistic understanding of what their future may hold for them. Whilst not everyone views the imposition of renewable technologies upon this region with the same positive outlook, it seems that within these businesses are a disparate group of people who are relying on and utilising the opportunities that renewables generate to provide a secure future for the county’s young people, as well as for themselves.

Being here in Caithness at this critical time is, for me, as for many others, greatly exciting. It is a time of transformation, of new opportunities and possibilities. For others, what this transition may bring about is more threatening, creating a moment of vulnerability and uncertainty that can be unfairly exploited. How people, both individually and as a community or industry, respond to and adapt to these unprecedented changes is of significant interest to me. How Caithness reacts to this tidal wave of change (excuse the pun) will shape the future for all of us.

The pictures below provide the briefest of insights into the ‘Beatrice Works’ education project and into how the local businesses that we visited are adapting and preparing for change. For a deeper insight into the education project, I highly recommend that you visit Caithness Horizons during July 2013, where both Sue Jane’s work and the students work will be on display.

STEM Workshop: Pat Kieran explains the theory and technology behind marine renewables.

STEM Workshop: Pat Kieran explains the theory and technology behind marine renewables.

Wick Harbour: Out with the old and in with the new! This ice house is surplus to current requirements at Wick Harbour and was entirely demolished the day after our visit to make way for new developments directed at making the harbour an attractive option for the renewable energy sector.

Wick Harbour: Out with the old and in with the new! This ice house is surplus to current requirements at Wick Harbour and was entirely demolished the day after our visit to make way for new developments directed at making the harbour an attractive option for the renewable energy sector.

RNLI: Karl McFarquhar, a crew member of Wick RNLI, poses for the students to sketch him. The RNLI provide an essential emergency service for all sea-going vessels, whatever their business.

RNLI: Karl McFarquhar, a crew member of Wick RNLI, poses for the students to sketch him. The RNLI provide an essential emergency service for all sea-going vessels, whatever their business.

Simpsons Contractors: This crane, one of many owned and operated by the local business, and which requires the skills of a specialist operator, can extend to 59 metres and has been used in the transportation and construction of wind turbines.

Simpsons Contractors: This crane, one of many owned and operated by the local business, and which requires the skills of a specialist operator, can extend to 59 metres and has been used in the transportation and construction of wind turbines.

MUT: Hugh Mackay of Mackays Underwater Technology demonstrated a range of submersible ROVs, as seen here, and other diving equipment used in their work, which includes underwater repair work, pipeline and cable inspection for the energy industry, underwater mapping and dive training.

MUT: Hugh Mackay of Mackays Underwater Technology demonstrated a range of submersible ROVs, as seen here, and other diving equipment used in their work, which includes underwater repair work, pipeline and cable inspection for the energy industry, underwater mapping and dive training.

Trainee Welders at ETEC: The Engineering, Technology and Energy Centre, based at the North Highland College UHI in Thurso, offers an array of practical courses, qualifications and training to ensure people have the skills and abilities necessary to meet the needs of local industry, particularly the energy industry.

Trainee Welders at ETEC: The Engineering, Technology and Energy Centre, based at the North Highland College UHI in Thurso, offers an array of practical courses, qualifications and training to ensure people have the skills and abilities necessary to meet the needs of local industry, particularly the energy industry.

JGC: Established in 1972 to meet the needs of the nuclear industry, this family-owned fabrication company employs over 130 staff and takes on a cohort of young apprentices every year. As Dounreay decommissions, they are actively seeking alternative contracts with the oil, gas and, more recently, the renewables industry to ensure the business can maintain itself.

JGC: Established in 1972 to meet the needs of the nuclear industry, this family-owned fabrication company employs over 130 staff and takes on a cohort of young apprentices every year. As Dounreay decommissions, they are actively seeking alternative contracts with the oil, gas and, more recently, the renewables industry to ensure the business can maintain itself.

Orelia: Whilst sketching at Scrabster Harbour, we were lucky enough to be invited aboard the Orelia, a diving support vessel en route to the Claymore Platform. Divers with specialist skills work in deep water to service the paraphernalia of the oil and gas industry.

Orelia: Whilst sketching at Scrabster Harbour, we were lucky enough to be invited aboard the Orelia, a diving support vessel en route to the Claymore Platform. Divers with specialist skills work in deep water to service the paraphernalia of the oil and gas industry.

Onboard the Orelia: Crew members explain to us how divers live in a pressurised environment for up to 28 days whilst they undertake a tour of duty. This type of work will not be necessary with marine renewables, which are anticipated to be located closer to the surface.

Onboard the Orelia: Crew members explain to us how divers live in a pressurised environment for up to 28 days whilst they undertake a tour of duty. This type of work will not be necessary with marine renewables, which are anticipated to be located closer to the surface.

Subsea7: These pipeline bundles incorporate all the structures, valves, pipes, cables and controls necessary to ship oil and gas across the seafloor. Bundles are fabricated here, stretching over 6km through the interior of the county, and, once complete, are transported offshore using a unique tow method, making them the largest manmade object to be transported in the world.

Subsea7: These pipeline bundles incorporate all the structures, valves, pipes, cables and controls necessary to ship oil and gas across the seafloor. Bundles are fabricated here, stretching over 6km through the interior of the county, and, once complete, are transported offshore using a unique tow method, making them the largest manmade object to be transported in the world.

Inside the Bundle:  Caithness locals and recent visitors will no doubt have seen the bright yellow pipework stretching from the coast at Wester, just north of Wick, inland to Hastigrow. The current pipeline will be launched early in July - watch out for the tugs in Sinclairs Bay who will arrive to tow the shipment away.

Inside the Bundle: Caithness locals and recent visitors will no doubt have seen the bright yellow pipework stretching from the coast at Wester, just north of Wick, inland to Hastigrow. The current pipeline will be launched early in July – watch out for the tugs in Sinclairs Bay who will arrive to tow the shipment away.

 

Scrabster Harbour: Junior harbourmaster, Jason Hamilton, explains to us how ongoing developments at the harbour will ensure that the port remains vital as new business opportunities brought about by the burgeoning renewables industry emerge.

Scrabster Harbour: Junior harbourmaster, Jason Hamilton, explains to us how ongoing developments at the harbour will ensure that the port remains vital as new business opportunities brought about by the burgeoning renewables industry emerge.

Sketching at Baillie Wind Farm: The students’ attention is drawn to the story of local history illustrated in the landscape. From their perch, they can see the Neolithic Cnoc Freiceadain burial cairns; the white dome of the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear reactor; fields ploughed according to modern farming techniques; and the newly constructed and not yet operational turbines.

Sketching at Baillie Wind Farm: The students’ attention is drawn to the story of local history illustrated in the landscape. From their perch, they can see the Neolithic Cnoc Freiceadain burial cairns; the white dome of the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear reactor; fields ploughed according to modern farming techniques; and the newly constructed and not yet operational turbines.

Print of a Baillie Wind Turbine: Around 20 local businesses have been instrumental in the construction of Baillie Wind Farm. Most people in Caithness will know someone who is employed by a firm connected to this venture.

Print of a Baillie Wind Turbine: Around 20 local businesses have been instrumental in the construction of Baillie Wind Farm. Most people in Caithness will know someone who is employed by a firm connected to this venture.

Working up a sketch of Baillie Wind Farm: Believe it or not, the original idea to site a wind farm at this location, which has average wind speeds of 9.5 metres per second – almost offshore conditions! – was conceived in 1993.

Working up a sketch of Baillie Wind Farm: Believe it or not, the original idea to site a wind farm at this location, which has average wind speeds of 9.5 metres per second – almost offshore conditions! – was conceived in 1993.

Gows:  Established in 1987, this is a family-run fabrication company, currently employing 22 staff. Business continues to flow from the nuclear industry, but as this inevitably declines, the firm is in a strong position to tender for contracts within the developing renewables sector due to its proven track record in supplying and servicing the nuclear sector.

Gows: Established in 1987, this is a family-run fabrication company, currently employing 22 staff. Business continues to flow from the nuclear industry, but as this inevitably declines, the firm is in a strong position to tender for contracts within the developing renewables sector due to its proven track record in supplying and servicing the nuclear sector.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | May 9, 2013

Dunnet Forest Stories

The landscape of Caithness seems to be full of stories. Wherever I walk with someone, our conversation is frequently interrupted as they direct my attention towards a feature that I might otherwise never have noticed and then proceed to tell me a story about it.

Dunnet Forest is no exception to this phenomenon. I’ve started to collect these forest stories, and together with Dunnet Forestry Trust, we hope to create an entire forest blog which will showcase all the accounts, anecdotes, narratives and legends that relate to the history of this little patch of land. Dunnet Forest holds a multitude of memories for folk from both near and far, so we’re hoping that as many people as possible will contribute to our ‘Dunnet Forest Stories’ project.

Please help us make this project a success by sharing your own forest tales, whatever they may be. All contributions will be added to the forest blog (once it’s created, that is!) and our favourite stories will be included on a trail leaflet that will be available to all in the visitors’ car park over the summer months.

You can send your stories to dunnetforeststories@outlook.com or use the contact page on this blog.

In the meantime, here’s a sneaky peek at some of my favourite tales so far – but you’ll have to wait a while longer before the full stories are published!

The Night of the Feathered Ranger

It’s a dark and rainy night in the forest, but something unusual is stirring…it seems human, but it’s covered in goose feathers!

The Stump that Started a Protest

An inexplicable sawn-off tree stump at the crossroads on the Fairy Highway initiates a snowball of events… the ire of a few incensed runners transforms into a programme of community action that continues to this day.

The Stump that Started a Protest

The Mound

A small, green hillock surrounded by trees conceals Bronze Age secrets, gently reminding us of peoples and times long past.

Hut Circle

Over the years, Dunnet Forest has received many thousands of visitors and has employed hundreds of volunteers and workers, as well as creating links with organisations far and wide. If you’re one of these many people that have a link with our forest, however long ago or tenuous, please don’t forget to send us your story: dunnetforeststories@outlook.com

We look forward to receiving them! We also welcome any accompanying photographs that you are happy for us to publish.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | April 6, 2013

Seeing Trees

As an anthropologist, I love hearing the diverse perspectives that people have about aspects of our world. How we learn to understand and interpret our environment is very much dependant on our interaction with it and the most commonplace things can be experienced in very different ways by different people.

Take trees, for example. During my time in Caithness, I’ve worked alongside foresters who approach trees with a chainsaw and a critical eye, looking out for the risks inherent in felling windblown conifers; I’ve talked with the owner of a woodland who manages his trees to promote biodiversity; I’ve volunteered with a forest ranger who uses the trees as a tool to promote learning, health and social skills in young people; I’ve spent time in the Flow Country where trees are seen by many people as ‘out of place’; and, most recently, I’ve been learning about the very intimate relationship between a traditional woodsman and his trees.

As part of an initiative developed by the Community Woodland Association to reconnect people with Scotland’s native woodlands, Mike Ellis of Helmsdale Charcoal and Coppice has been delivering a series of five day, OCN- accredited courses covering the foundations of coppice management, charcoaling, and green woodworking. Mike believes that an innate connection has existed between people and woodlands for thousands of years and that our woods continue to have a beneficial effect on the human psyche, as is evidenced by the large numbers of people who regularly visit and take comfort from them. He is concerned that the decline in traditional woodsmanship has led to an accumulation of neglected and dying woodlands throughout Britain. He says, “It is essential that we care for the health of our woodlands as they play an important role in human wellbeing. I feel strongly about the value of these courses as there are so few people able to manage a woodland, so it is crucial that we increase those numbers before the craft of the traditional woodsman is lost altogether”.

One of Mike's more ambitious greenwood projects.

One of Mike’s more ambitious greenwood projects.

In February, I was lucky enough to take part in one of the CWA funded courses. We began by developing a more detailed understanding of coppicing, the ancient craft of cutting back trees on a cyclical basis to promote additional regrowth, thus producing a sustainable source of timber product. We made our way to the Marel, a stretch of nearby woodland that Mike and his team of regular local volunteers have been given permission to restore to working coppice after many years of neglect by landowners. Here, in the midst of the trees, Mike talked us through the history and decline of coppicing and appropriate coppice management and restoration techniques.

Teamwork

Splitting wood

Whilst at the Marel, we used traditional tools to harvest and dress several trees, whose wood we would use to make charcoal. Over the next few days, we experienced the magic and anticipation of charcoal: we learnt how to load and fire a charcoal kiln, and how to judge the smoke using a mixture of visual and tactile clues in order to control the burn. The weather had conspired against us, blowing up a blizzard on the day we lit the charge, so our sense of excitement when we finally opened the kiln twenty four hours later to find that we had created the lustrous black charcoal was immense. Never mind the OCN qualification: sitting down to sizzling sausages cooked on the brazier over our very own homemade charcoal was reward in itself!

Kiln

Homemade charcoal

We made charcoal!

Sizzling Sausages

The third area of learning focused on green woodworking skills. From the properties of different tree species and their suitability for green woodworking techniques, to specialised tools and their maintenance, to undertaking a project from planning and design to final product, we were kept busy applying our new skills. I managed (with a lot of help!) to create a beautiful little three-legged stool. The legs of the stool are cut from a length of Western Hemlock, from which I stripped the bark, smoothed the timber and whittled the tips using a shave horse and coopers drawknife. The seat of the stool is a large ring of Sitka – a species not readily used in green woodworking. I used an axe, a chisel and a drawknife to remove the bark and rot and to round off the edges. I still need to dry, sand and oil the stool, but here’s what it looks like so far:

SAM_6823

As a result of Mike’s tuition, I will never be able to look at a tree or timber product in the same way again. I will always be alert to the qualities or affordances of the wood, and to the extensive labour involved in realising a product. On this occasion I set out with the explicit intention of exploring a novel way of relating to my environment, but these transformative experiences can be part of everyday existence.

Do you have examples of how you have come to understand your environment in a particular way? Perhaps you have a hobby or an occupation that leads you to a unique perspective about some aspect of the environment? Or perhaps you share your understanding with family, friends or teachers? Please feel free to add your comment below.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | February 10, 2013

The Winds that Blow

I’ve been living here since September 2012 and finally, last Monday, we had a windy day. I knew it was going to be windy because all through the night the wind had whipped around my little house, blowing in through all the nooks and crannies. I heard it whistling through the keyholes, screaming through my ventilation shafts, moaning outside my window, banging on the doors and rattling the letterbox. I could feel it moving inside the walls and under the floor, and I could see it fidgeting with the curtains and rippling the water in the toilet bowl. I was looking forward to experiencing the effects of the wind outside in the daytime, but, as it happened, the wind had managed to disconnect my power supply and I spent the day shivering indoors awaiting an engineer, looking through the window at the sheep across the road as they attempted to find shelter from the weather in their exposed field.

Sheep seeking shelter

I was disappointed not to be out of doors because I’m fascinated by the influence that wind has upon ways of life. It’s such an everyday experience that we often disregard it in its ordinariness, and yet the wind is an integral part of life on earth, and its effects are legion. From the breath in our lungs to the physical form of the land, from the settlements we live in to the transport systems we design, from the practical to the frivolous, the wind unavoidably informs the shape of our lives.

The wind and the world mutually influence each other’s development, caught up in a relationship which facilitates a continual dialogue of power and resistance, adaptation and compromise. In an article entitled ‘Earth, sky, wind and weather’ (2007), Tim Ingold depicts this idea of wind and world developing together beautifully in this simple sentence:

“Every tree, in the arc of its trunk and the twisting of its branches, bears testimony to the currents of wind in which it grew.”

Wind-grown tree above Thurso

We see in our sensitivity to the shifting wind, and our ability to respond to the constant changes it wroughts in our environment, as indicated in subtle adaptations such as the loudness of our voice, our altered gait, or the side of the street we decide to walk upon, that this common experience of power and resistance is one that is familiar to us all.

And yet I know I’m missing so much: the wind must affect agriculture and building, sports and hobbies…even housework: my windows are filthy after all that wind! I’d love to know how the wind affects your life or livelihood…do you have particular techniques to mitigate the impact of the wind? Or perhaps you harness the wind for your own advantage? Please contact me, either using the comments section below, or privately, using the contact form, to tell me your stories of the wind.

Washing blowing in the wind

I suppose that, over time, people become accustomed with the nuances and rhythms of a familiar place, learning to orient themselves and their activities in relation to it. This, of course, includes the winds that blow there. Having spoken with a few Caithness old-timers about this meteorological familiarity with place, there seems to be a general consensus that Caithness is less windy than it used to be. The past decade in particular, I have been told, has been especially lacking in wind. Prior to this, gale force winds were a more common occurrence during the long winter. Nowadays, gales are remarkable: they stand out in people’s memories. For example, everyone I’ve asked about it since I arrived here seems to remember the winds of December 2010 – what are your memories of it? Have you noticed the dwindling of the Caithness winds? Where do you think the winds have gone?

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | January 13, 2013

Body of Knowledge

I have already written briefly on the extent of the impacts of human activity on the landscape (Human-nature), but what about the ways in which our relationship with our environment shapes our own human development?

The following are excerpts from my field notes. All are dated early October 2012, just after I had begun regularly volunteering in Dunnet Forest:

“Taking a hot shower after a day of work in the forest, I count 37 bruises and 5 scratches on my legs, the skin on the ends of my toes is white and peeling and every part of me aches. I’ve been experiencing cramps in my calves; my toes hurt; and my wrist and the left side of my left hand are extremely painful.”

“In the evening, I sit on the sofa and my body throbs. My back, in between the shoulder blades, is painful, a sharp, continuous pain. My lower back gently aches; my hands and fingertips, and even my fingernails, feel sore and tight. My wrists are sore; my neck doesn’t want to hold my head up; a blister on my left heel where my boot rubs me is screaming; every movement that I make reminds me of another ache and my body is tense all over.”

“As I lay in bed at night, my body feels as heavy as stone and my arms are stiff and achy, and I wake repeatedly in the night, laying them on a cool part of the covers in an attempt to gain some relief from the soreness.”

At the time, I felt dreadful, but three months further on, now accustomed to the rigours of my tasks in the woodland, I can reflect back and recognise that these discomforts are a central part of learning to become a forester. The knowledge that these physical aches and pains attest to is now embodied within my very being and has been developed through direct interaction with the world around me: when I use my handsaw to cut down small trees, I learn about the force I need to apply to make the cut, and how the growth of the tree and the cut that I have made will direct its fall. When I stack my brash, I learn how the size and shape of the branch determines how I can best manoeuvre it. When planting trees, I learn to assess the density of the ground and how to exert the right amount of pressure on my spade to make the shape and size of hole I require. The scent of the trees as a chainsaw rips through them, and their weight as I carry the resulting rings of wood to the woodpile, alerts me to the health of the tree. All of this knowledge has a sensorial quality that is difficult to articulate in words, but which is beginning to structure the fibres of my being. The shape of my body, the size and tone of my muscles and my capacity to undertake different kinds of tasks are all gradually changing as the work that I carry out in the forest influences my development.

Forest WorkWorking on the Shave HorsePlanting Trees

Tim Ingold, in his book The Perception of the Environment (2000), suggests that:

“The human body is not ready-made for anything, but undergoes continuous change throughout the life-cycle as it is pressed into the performance of diverse tasks. Indeed the recurrent stresses and strains of everyday life do not just affect the development of different muscles; they also leave their mark on the skeleton itself…Once we introduce the environmental context of development into our specification of what an organism is, it must follow that a human-being-in-environment-A cannot be the same kind of organism as a human-being-in-environment-B.”

In other words, whilst ever I move through the world, leaving my trace upon it, so I am shaped by the world I encounter. Furthermore, we are so accustomed to thinking of knowledge as something that resides only in our mind, yet the skills and understanding that we develop through ways of life lived in particular environments are often ‘known’ with our entire body and range of senses. I believe, as Tim Ingold does, that we can best be understood as ‘organisms-in-an-environment’, rather than individuals with separate minds and bodies facing a world out there.

A local person has spoken to me on several occasions, half-jokingly, half seriously, about what he calls ‘the Highlander gait’: an unusual way of walking developed over years of navigating across the boggy moorland and heather covered hills of the local terrain, and which involves raising the feet slightly higher than normal and taking larger strides. I’m sure there must be many more examples of how the local landscape has shaped local people and local ways of life…do you have one you can share? If so, leave your comment or story below, or use the contact form to send a private message to me.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | December 2, 2012

Changing Skyscapes

In my last post, I wrote about the unique relationship with the sky that many people in Caithness seem to experience, ending with a query about the place of wind turbines in these extraordinary skyscapes. Several people have since pointed out to me some of the other manmade changes that the Caithness skyline has undergone over the decades, in particular, the erection of electricity pylons, power cables and telegraph poles – changes which they suggest closely parallel the current concerns over wind farms.

In ancient Greek, the term 'pylon' referred to a celestial gateway and was often associated with rebirth.

In ancient Greek, the term ‘pylon’ referred to a celestial gateway and was often associated with rebirth.

Whilst I am unfamiliar with the reactions of Caithness folk to the advent of electricity (and which, incidentally, I think may tell a different story to the spread of the pylons further South – if you can remember the arrival of electricity in Caithness, I’d love to hear about it), it’s easy to see on a broader scale the correlations between the march of the wind turbines and the progress of the National Grid. Certainly in other parts of rural Britain, such as the Lake District, the New Forest and the South Downs, there arose vociferous anti-pylon campaigns in opposition to what was seen by some as the draconian state impositions of the Central Electricity Board in the 1920’s. The CEB was tasked with establishing a national infrastructure for the supply of electricity, an undertaking which employed around 100,000 men, and included 4,000 miles of transmission lines running through the estates of over 22,000 landowners, and was viewed by many at the time as the greatest manmade addition to the British landscape. The tranquillity and cleanliness of the ‘Electrical Revolution’ was contrasted favourably with the dirt, smog and noise of the Industrial Revolution. Yet this excerpt from a letter to the editor of The Times, entitled “Pylons in Somerset”, and featured on the BBC4 documentary, Wiring the Nation: The Secret History of the National Grid’, demonstrates the concerns and anxieties that people had in response to these developments:

“It has been suggested to me that the next generation will not regret that the Quantocks, still one of the unspoilt areas of England, have been ruined in this way. If this be true, well may we echo Wordsworth’s lines written close to where a pylon will stand on its 8ft square concrete base:-

                                “Have I not reason to lament

                                “What man has made of man?”

I am far too young to remember the installation of the original National Grid, so, like many others of my generation, I have grown up surrounded by pylons and cables. Whilst unlikely to extol their virtues or praise their beauty (although have a look at this if you are a pylon fanatic!), I largely remained indifferent to the structures, often rarely noticing them. Or, at least, I didn’t until last year when a friend from America said to me something along the lines of ‘I can’t understand why you Brits get so upset about wind farms when the country’s scarred with monstrous pylons…I came here expecting a landscape of beauty and heritage, but all I see are these great hulking piles of metal desecrating the countryside’. After that, I began seeing and hearing them everywhere I went.

I was initially incredibly disappointed to note the pole transformers delivering their electrical cargo and trailing cables across the fields to the front and back of the house I rent here in Caithness. I found them intrusive and hostile, blocking my view from every window. Three months later and my opinion couldn’t be more different: I’ve spent many hours gazing out of the windows and becoming accustomed to my surroundings, and gradually, imperceptibly, the once ugly structures have become an important part of where I call home: I hear them softly buzzing in the darkness of night; they add an extra dimension to my hundreds of photos of the sky; they attract countless birds to rest for a moment from their flight path; and they act as a constant reminder of the infinite ways in which I am connected to the world around me.

Sunset at ForssSunrise at ForssSunrise at ForssA Murder of CrowsSunset at Forss

Returning to the march of the wind turbines, a significant number of the local people that I have spoken with take a fairly neutral, or even disinterested, stance on their appearance in the region.  One person suggested that I focus my research elsewhere, decrying the current furore over wind farms as ‘a storm in a teacup, soon to blow over’. Perhaps they are right: perhaps, just like the buzzing electricity pylons and power cables criss-crossing the countryside, we will all soon become so accustomed to the sight and sound of turbines across the land that we barely notice them, subtly absorbing them into our awareness of the environment.

But, from my conversations with people who are concerned with the spread of turbines across the land, I think that something other than a simple dislike of the appearance of the turbines is causing their apprehension.  Will Self, arguing that in a largely manmade countryside, wind turbines can be seen as the latest, and very fitting, chapter in a long British tradition of landscape management, states that “no-one could reasonably claim they [wind turbines] are objectively ugly”. In many ways, I agree, but I would argue that the visual appearance of a turbine isn’t necessarily the issue here. Rather, the story of turbines in Caithness is linked with issues of power and control, with understandings of what it means to be a community, with current employment opportunities and future tourism potential, and with the heritage of land ownership.

Forss Wind Farm

What do you think? Are the debates about wind farms a storm in a teacup or an environmental controversy with long-term consequences?

And don’t forget, if you have memories of the introduction of electricity into Caithness, post them below or contact me privately with your stories.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | November 25, 2012

Under Northern Skies

I was recently invited along to a focus group entitled ‘Above Me The Wide Blue Sky’, where creative arts organisation, Fevered Sleep, were collecting stories about people’s relationships with the environment. They asked us:

If who we are and what we call home is inextricably linked with nature, what happens when everything starts to change?”

The discussions around the table ranged far and wide, as you would imagine in a roomful of people that included, amongst others, Highland Rangers, foresters, lighthouse keepers, farmers and nuclear development workers, each with a whole lifetime of experiences to share. Nevertheless, the skies above Caithness were returned to time and again as one of the elements that makes Caithness unique.

The relatively flat, low-lying and treeless terrain of the county, coupled with a sparse and widely dispersed population, and therefore very few built-up areas, create an environment that incorporates vast acres of sky into almost every vista. These seemingly endless skies have been the inspiration for many artists, poets and storytellers; the lack of light pollution makes them the ideal place for astronomers to gaze upon the stars – Castletown Heritage Centre was awarded official ‘Dark Sky Discovery Site’ status in October – or to enjoy the spectacle of aurora borealis dancing through the night skies; and tourists are drawn to the region to indulge in these panoramic skyscapes and the sense of space and freedom that they imply.

One participant at the focus group observed that, in Caithness, a cloudless blue sky is deemed dull and boring due to the monotonous enormity of it. The beauty of the skies emerge through the changes in light and cloud cover that take place in them. Author, James Hunter, would agree. In his book, On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands (1995, Edinburgh), he calls to mind:

“[these] huge Atlantic skies on which there is continually played out the meteorological drama that results from weather front after weather front advancing from the ocean”, attributing the origin of such phenomena to “the extraordinary translucence of an atmosphere which, especially when the wind blows from the west or the north, is almost wholly free of smoke, dust, fumes and other debris of that kind.”

Growing up in one of the biggest towns in Britain, my experience of the sky was limited by the buildings surrounding me, and thoughts of the sky were rarely – if ever – at the forefront of my mind. Here, in this wide open land, I am becoming aware of my ignorance of the skies above me. I am slowly learning to understand how cloud patterns can help me to anticipate the day’s weather, and I am getting better at predicting how long it will take before an approaching rain shower will drench me. Working alongside the foresters in the depths of Dunnet Forest, where the trees shield us from the blowing of the wind, most of the sky is obscured from our view so that changes in the weather take us by surprise. It is only at lunchtime, as we head down the main track towards Dunnet Bay, that we can see what the skies are telling us.

Whilst I arrived in Caithness looking for stories about life in the wind, I have come to appreciate these skies as being inextricably linked to experiences of the windy Caithness environment. Air, sea and sky are as much a part of this land as rocks, soil and people.

This precious relationship with the Caithness skies is a theme that has recurred in numerous conversations that I have had with people during the course of my fieldwork, and when I listen to people here talk about wind farms, the intrusion that the turbines make on the skyline is often one of their concerns. Of course, the visual impact of wind farms is regularly high on the list of objections in any part of the UK, but in a region where uninterrupted skies are such a distinguishing characteristic of life, I wonder whether the changes that the turbines bring about will ever come to be widely accepted. It is unfortunate that the very environmental conditions which make for these exceptional skies are the same factors which make for an optimal wind farm location. As the structures are erected, the material reality of the environment and, seemingly, people’s relationships with it are altered. To paraphrase Fevered Sleep’s question for us during the focus group:

How – if at all – do the changes in the landscape wrought by the development of wind farms change your relationship with the Caithness environment?

What other changes have you seen in the Caithness landscape over the years? And how have they changed your perception of the local area and your place within it?

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | October 17, 2012

Wind Turbine Stories

The Baillie Wind Farm begins to be erected.

Wind turbines seem to be inescapable up here in windblown Caithness. I see them everywhere: in cross-country views from atop the hills; in the pages of the local newspapers; travelling slowly along the narrow roads on the back of mammoth lorries with their police escorts; and I hear about them often in the conversations I have with people.

For me, this is part of the reason I am here. The wind farms offer me an entry point for my research into how people value the Caithness environment. I want to hear the stories that people tell about the turbines and I want to know how they come to those conclusions. I am intrigued by the messiness of the debates surrounding wind farms in Caithness. The stories I have heard so far encompass so many diverse perspectives that I shall not even attempt to turn them into a coherent narrative here. Rather, I shall embrace the confusion, and then, after reading, perhaps you will contribute your own story to my ever-expanding collection…

One of the turbines at Forss overlooking St. Mary’s Chapel, Crosskirk

I have heard stories about the beautiful alien flowers which appear in the landscape offering the possibility of renewable energy and stories about the sick feeling in a stomach that a wind turbine prompts. I’ve heard stories of fear about the immediacy of change imposed by wind farms and stories about the difficulty, or indeed impossibility in a small community, of objecting to a friend or relative’s desire to install a turbine on their land. I’ve heard how Neil Gunn, a novelist and sometimes philosopher from Caithness, would have objected to the wind farms had he been alive still. People related to me how a person might learn to adapt to the change in environment that a wind farm creates and how to determine where is ‘the right place’ for a wind farm. I’ve heard stories about how who owns the land makes a difference to the perception of a wind farm and about contributions to the community and bribes to landowners offered by energy giants. I’ve heard stories about emotion and about reason, the wild and the industrial. I have listened to fears that the energy produced by wind farms will all be sent to London and tales of a long history of exploitation and extraction from Highland people by powerful southerners. I have heard how the lack of clear policy guidance about wind farms is allowing uncontrolled development similar to the uncontrolled planting of trees on the Flow Country in the 1980’s and that before anyone realises there is a problem, the Highlands will be an industrial wasteland. And I have heard how this is all a storm in a teacup and that I should concentrate on stories about really important things like forestry or crofting.

I’d love to know your point of view about existing and potential wind farms in Caithness, and, more than that, I’d love to know why you think as you do. What is your opinion based on? How did you come to your conclusions? Who shares your point of view and who disagrees with you?

You can leave your comments below or you can contact me privately using the contact form. I am also looking for people to interview on this subject, so if you’re willing and interested, live in Caithness and have an hour or so to spare over the next six months, please get in touch and we can arrange a suitable time and place. Interviews will be tape recorded and anonymised, unless you request otherwise.

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | October 13, 2012

Riding the Wild North Waves

Wow! I’m curled on the sofa wrapped up in blankets and drinking marshmallowy hot chocolate to thaw me out after an extraordinary morning at the Wild North Festival learning to surf with Andy Bain of Thurso Surf School.

The heavy rain clouds swallowing up the sun as I set off this morning did not seem like an auspicious start!

When I set out from home this cold, grey and drizzly morning, I’ll admit I was feeling a little half-hearted about my pending adventure. I’ve sat on these northern shores with my warmest coat and a flask of tea many times watching the little black specks of surfers in the sea as they bob in the ocean, and then suddenly fly towards me on the crest of a wave. I’ve admired their bravery, but from my cosy viewpoint in the dunes, I couldn’t think of a single reason that would entice me into the cold sea.But today was different: my inner anthropologist had convinced me that learning to surf was all part of the Caithness experience after several people have described the excellent surfing conditions as the reason they live here and their most important connection with the local environment, so mixed in with my trepidation was a buzz of adrenalin that I was actually going to do this.

My first surprise was how quickly we got into the water. I’d anticipated loads of talking and health and safety information, but the best way to learn to surf, Andy told us, was by surfing – a teaching style I like! So, after succinctly telling us what we needed to know, Andy marched us down the beach, where we were buffeted sideward by the wind catching our boards, towards the oncoming waves and into the sea…oooooh, and this is where the fun began!

Preparing for the cold waters of Dunnet Bay

Enveloped by cold water up to my waist, I walked onwards, guiding the surfboard over incoming waves, which lifted me gently off the sandy floor before placing me down again. Salty sea sprayed across my face and the wind whipped my hair out of its ponytail and into my eyes. At the nod from Andy, I clambered onto my board and held on tight as he pushed me into the path of a wave. From the corner of my eye I could see the white head of the wave chasing me onwards towards the shore and my mind went blank as I braced myself for the bit I was dreading: over I went, submerged in the salty water, bubbles in my eyes, legs in the air. I felt the soft sand connect with my backside and I popped back up to the surface, coughing up the sea and streaming water from my nose. And, most importantly, laughing. I couldn’t wait to get back out into the sea to have another go and try to remember to attempt to stand up this time.I fell off a lot more times over the next hour and managed some spectacular bellyflops, but on a couple of occasions, I actually got to my feet and rode a wave in to the shore! The kids in the group were far better at mastering this technique than me, but I didn’t mind, and as I paddled in the shallows, with the rise and fall of the sea rocking me, I noticed something else entirely…

Dots of maroon seaweed were suspended in the pale turquoise sea all around me. Ahead, I could see the great, grassy sand dunes of Dunnet Bay, and to my side towered the celebrated cliffs of Dunnet Head. Far out across the steely blue water a ship made its gradual progress along the horizon, and above me the vast skies were heavy and grey and ominous, and occasionally showered me with soft rain. Cormorants dived into the depths at my eye level searching for their lunch, gulls drifted above and the wind whistled in my ears and through my hair and over my wet skin. And here I floated, immersed in the midst of all this relentless activity.

From this perspective, everything changed. Those people I could see hunched up on the shore in their winter coats and woollens, huddled together to protect against the wind, stamping their feet and blowing into their hands to warm up, seemed like the ones missing out. Experiencing the world from within the water lent it an unfamiliar cadence. I probably took more pleasure from experiencing the world from this new and unexpected angle than I did from my achievements on the surf board. I’m not sure I can describe this very well, but that’s not really my point. My point is that I never could have realised that surfing is about so much more than catching the perfect wave without trying it.

Now I’m wondering what other undiscovered experiences await me. I’d love to hear about how you choose to connect with and enjoy the stunning Caithness environment and what that special thing is that you get out of it. And if you’re a surfer, what’s your take on experiencing the world from the water?

Massive credit is due to Andy, our teacher, who was faced with a really mixed group of ages and experience levels, and still managed to keep us all happy and safe and entertained. I think every person that entered the water with him today had a wonderful time and will definitely be back for more. Thanks Andy!

Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | October 8, 2012

Human-nature

I’ve always loved time spent in forests. There’s something about the stillness afforded by the protection of the trees, the spongy ground underfoot, the dappled light, the silence broken only by birds or the blowing wind and the sense of being alone, yet surrounded, which refreshes and calms me.

My idea of the forest as a place of escape and quiet tranquillity has been challenged these past few weeks as the staff and volunteers at Dunnet Forest have introduced me to the forest as a place of continuous hard work, subject to the same kind of politics as any other workplace.

As an example, I have been joining in with volunteers at the Thursday morning ‘Green Gym’ session run by Kirsty Rosie, the Dunnet Forest Ranger. The first task I got involved in was raking up grass that had been mown by volunteers earlier in the month throughout the glades along the forest front. The entire forest falls within a wider area, including the vast beach at Dunnet Bay and extending 3km inland, which has been designated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its nationally important sand dunes and associated links grassland. This area provides a habitat for rare species such as the Scottish primrose (primula scotica) and the great yellow bumble bee (bombus distinguendus – what a fantastic name!), so the management plan for the site stipulates that areas of grassland are appropriately maintained to preserve and promote wildflower diversity. Hence all the mowing and raking over the past month.

At a conservative estimate, I’d guess that the raking has taken up over 30 man hours already and there is still a good patch of land left to do.  Add to this the Forest Trust directors time in understanding and interpreting the SNH management plan and communicating it to staff and volunteers, not to mention the length of time SNH staff must have spent in assessing the area and determining its future. This all seems like a lot of human effort to make sure primula scotica continues to brighten our path as we wander through the forest glades. And that’s just one tiny aspect of the complex processes that go into sustaining this diverse environment.

The stark realisation that the peaceful forest ambience that I so cherish is largely the result of human labour is more than a little thought-provoking. We often consider places of natural beauty as being somehow ‘untouched’ by humans and this perception colours our view of what that environment symbolises and what it should or should not be used for. But there are few – if any – such pristine environments left in the 21st century.  I wonder whether, due to the legacy of the Clearances here in the Highlands of Scotland, people are more inclined to acknowledge the impact of human life on the environment, and vice versa. James Hunter, in his book On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands (1995, Edinburgh), says that:

“the unpopulated character of these landscapes…are every bit as symbolic of the eradication of human communities as they are suggestive of wild nature.”

How has ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ history entwined to shape your favourite landscape – for better or worse? Is it possible to conceive of a landscape here in northern Scotland that is not somehow bound up in human activities? Do you find it useful to distinguish between the human and the natural world or do you consider both to be part of the same process?

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