Monday, 17 March 2014

For the University of St Andrew's 'Loch Computer' project, I was asked to write a short text about my 'sense of the balance in (my) existence between remoteness and connectedness'

Remote is a function of our brains, not a geographical fact. Perhaps we are longing for times when the world was flat and infinite and remote is always just out of sight. It's only recently that 'how can a plane disappear?' seems like a reasonable question. Living in Shetland I constantly meet the kind of folk who yearn for the edge, yearn for 'remote', so much that they invent it where it doesn't exist. Please take care. We're in trouble when we let 'remote' mean something like forgettable (out of sight, out of mind) – especially if it's defined as such by people with the power to exploit such a place.

I've tried to identify some of the things I think I need to be happy where I live. Company of compassionate, informed, egalitarian and mindful folk. Company of makers and musicians and scientists and explorers. Company of wild creatures doing their own thing despite us. Sometimes to give up and go to the pictures. Good wireless speeds; mangos; an alternative place to work than home, interrupted by people I do and don't yet know. Places you can walk out of the view of houses. The ability to get to my family if I need to. The possibility of elsewhere from time to time. People ever coming and going, by cruise, research vessel, helicopter, pelagic ships and whitefish boats, yacht, ferry, plane. And the world's junk washing up on our beaches. With most of these needs satisfied enough of the time, where I live is not remote. Places change and people's needs change, and so 'remote' is not an absolute – but what 'remote' is also not is a fixed geographical location.

Foula, from the Westside

'A row of cottages called New Zealand – because they were so far from anywhere – was built' (Tim Dee, Four Fields) I was there, recently, as far from home as it's possible to be. And found myself weirdly at home in a place somewhat like Shetland.

I stayed overnight on Kapiti Island with the poet Glenn Colquhoun. Glenn can see Kapiti most days from the coast near his house, though it disappears in fog, as Foula does, from my back yard. Jetlagged, I tried to sleep on the warm deck of our cabin, but the ponderous footfall of a kleptomaniac weka startled me awake. It dipped its beak into my mug of lukewarm tea. The beach was covered in blazing oval mirrors – upturned iridescent paua shells. In ten minutes at ten in the morning, my white Northern nape began to burn. I had sort of forgotten about the hole in the ozone layer until I burnt underneath it. We ate tough, gamey chunks of paua, fried in a bit of flour; a large kaka lurked in the trees, ready to raid the cheese and biscuit platter. We worked our way along a cliffside track through flax, bending back the stiff blades for each other, and eventually reached – in older-growth bush, the ruinous whaling station. Kakariki, powdery greenstone, that were prising seeds from flax pods, shattered from the sharp leaves. And we saw kiwi and spoonbills; massive blue takahe on the brink of extinction. 

Gratuitous picture of a Takahe, by the lovely folk at Kapiti Island Nature Tours

The whole world grew out of here; the heart of the whorl, though the globe has infinite such crowns. But as we packed the trunk of Glenn's car again, back on the mainland, it was immediately as if we'd never been there. Kapiti vibrated and fizzed, the same fictional blue as Foula. The wind had picked up, and we'd narrowly missed an indefinite stay on the island, or an expensive helicopter trip. It takes less than half an hour to get to Kapiti but it's impossible to reach by boat when the wind gets up. The island hovered slightly above the shattering sea, ready to plane off, like Laputa.

Leaving Kapiti

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