The start of Spring this year in the North was strange; "unprecedented" to use a much-overused word.
I came down to London in March, anticipating a stay of a few weeks or a couple of months. Five months later, I am still down in the capital, working on my Masters thesis and looking for ways to keep GlobalYell running. One way in which I have kept busy has been by writing, and out of this process has come a new project. Here is a short personal essay of where the project is now, as promised in last week's blog. All the names have been anonymised.
A trail of migration
M works with me in my weave studio in Yell, as a weaver-in-training and, now, as caretaker of the building and its contents. One day, after leaving the studio where M had cycled to pack cushions to send away during the pandemic, a curlew flew overhead, calling, and M saw a “piece of tweed in the air”, the colours of the bird with the distinctive bill.
When we spoke on the ‘phone, it was with a growing sense of excitement. The idea of creating cloth using birds as the inspiration offered a real sense of purpose and identity to my company, now closed by the virus. It also offered a sense of purpose to me. I felt my own identity had been changed, fading away in the move down to London to be with my husband. After almost twenty years of life in Shetland I was now down in a locked-down capital with no idea when or if I could ever return north. I had no way to open my company, and no way to sell my cloth – those came in summer with the arrival of visitors to the isles… and there were no visitors. Life had been abruptly about-turned.
One particularly bad day when I was struggling, missing my family in Africa, and my home and friends in the North, I wrote a poem. It was short, about a hoopoe, a bird which migrates into the UK sometimes - I had seen pictures of one in Shetland - and which I knew passing well from Southern Africa. The hoopoe is a favourite bird. Its orange/ pink colour with black banding, and its crest, are distinctive, as is the call that gives the bird its name. The poem made me tearful. Although it was full of longing it was also hopeful, and it helped me to come to terms with what I was going through.
When the hoopoe calls didn’t leave. Over the next few days I worked on the poem. It was a catalyst. I would write a performance piece which I could perform after lockdown in the isles. Using a combination of poems and stories, paintings and sketches and animation, I was going to create something that would explore the ways we feel when we ARE uprooted and sent elsewhere.
My partner and I had spoken about the project early on. He had come up with an idea; to weave for a coat inspired by the colours of the birds and their sounds. It was a lovely idea and one that could bring others into the project. Children could contribute their drawings and music. We could work with agencies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds… From these connections designs for cloths could come, and these may help my company to survive. We could weave tweeds which would appeal to many people and find ways to make those fabrics accessible to people. Making a performance coat, a representation of hope, became one of the aims of the project.
The second piece of writing The Dove – guardian of memory came in dribs and drabs. A wood pigeon stopped outside our window, on the tree in the story, and the sight, along with the sound of a nearby dove, triggered a memory. It was hard to write this, and it took time. Yet, again, the story ended in hope and, at the end of the writing, during a personal conversation stirred up by the intensity of this experience, a dove punctuated our long silences. It seemed fitting.
A few months ago, while walking in a nearby park, I picked up a feather. Grey and edged with white along its tilted edges, I flew the feather in my fingers. Suddenly an Idea: flying from all over the globe, one by one, feathers collecting into a cloak, each contributing colours and patterns to the whole. Many more ideas have since followed and are now captured in a sketchbook.
For some reason the flight of birds has captured my thoughts and feelings. Perhaps it was because my younger days were spent avidly bird watching and it was the first time I felt I belonged. Perhaps it is the transcience that echoes my own restlessness. M's idea has become a story of migration and identity, losing and finding. One day it will be complete.