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Shaped by Nature

Words and Photograph by Meg Rodger

“Environments… we shape them as they shape us…” - Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment.

As I trudge across the bogs of Langass Moor in North Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, on route to visit a Neolithic chambered cairn, these words are poignant and clear. Ingold is referring to what he terms as “dwelling perspective” - where by our individual environments are the world as it exists, that takes on meaning in relation to us, developing with us and around us.

For Ingold, we perceive by continually sourcing information, through all our senses, as we move through the world - rather than through the conscious mind alone. In his view, the mind and body (culture and nature) are not separate, but one. Meanings are not attached by the mind to objects in the world, but rather meaning is immanent in the relational contexts of people’s practical engagement with their lived-in environment. Dwelling perspective is where, rather than entering a world (culture or society) to which form and meaning have already been attached, the world comes into being around the inhabitant as they engage and go about their lives. What we refer to as mind, in Ingold’s words is the “cutting edge of the life process itself” resulting in creativity and culture, unique to but intrinsically entwined with our environment.

It is when I am alone on moorland, with the prevailing southwesterly wind, the smell of damp peat and the piercing call of buzzards in the skies above, that I have a closer understanding of the writer Nan Shepherd and her relationship with the Cairngorm mountains. Shepherd’s text The Living Mountain provides a beautiful pathway into Ingold’s theories. Shepherd perceived the mountain with her whole body: sight, sound, touch and smell. She would walk endlessly to the point where the motion of this rhythm resulted in a state of quiescence, where mind and body were one: “It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. ... I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.” In this way, Shepherd’s text twines beautifully with Ingold’s ‘dwelling perspective’ and theories of perception.

My life on a small Hebridean island, as artist and shepherd, is very much defined by this environment - harsh, beautiful - dictated by the cycles of seasons as the earth perpetually turns. For several years, I have had a fascination with the Neolithic chambered cairns within Langass moor. Four thousand years ago, the people that populated this land, came together to build these vast structures to celebrate the cycle of life in tune with the rhythms of sun, moon and stars. Sitting alone in the moor, having walked for several hours to reach these sites, walking away from the preoccupations of daily life, they allow me to pause and be in my environment.

I work creatively with natural phenomena, in particular wind and light, taking my inspiration from the complexity, strength and beauty of my surrounding Hebridean environment. Appreciating the knowledge, skills and culture of the people who dwell - or dwelt - in these places is part of this process. However, my work is from the perspective that humans are not central but merely part of these naturally occurring systems and cycles that are complex, vast and perpetual. Nature here is dictator, rhythm setter and provider despite our technological advancements, it has the upper hand and shapes me accordingly.

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