In the past two years, I’ve sailed a surveying ship to Brazil, explored the rainforest and discovered new animals and plants. I’ve climbed previously unconquered peaks and I’ve spent a summer living and working in a lighthouse. I’ve descended the ocean deep in search of evidence for sea-floor spreading and I’ve uncovered a conspiracy.
I’ve lived in post-revolutionary Paris, surrounded by poets, philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, and I’ve raced through anthrax-infested Russia to study contrasting ecosystems either side of a river.
I’ve ridden horseback across the Mexican border to try my hand at being a rancher and I’ve slain a dragon. I’ve ascended a space elevator and encountered a seemingly derelict spacecraft as it drifted past Earth.
I’ve done all of these things, and all without having to leave my seat. Books have been my medium for embarking on all these adventures. They take you on journeys to encounter people and places you’d never believe. The best of people and the worst of people. The tallest mountains and the darkest caves are accessible through writing.
Books spark ideas in the mind, forming and re-forming connections between the neurons in our brain, enhancing and supplementing our appreciation of the world around us, sometimes confirming our beliefs and knowledge, and at other times challenging them.
Amy Liptrot enters the world of Moby-Dick in her book The Outrun, which is shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize, when she spends a summer searching for corncrakes in Orkney. She’s a 21st century Captain Ahab, obsessively searching and questing for this elusive bird, its summer calls teasing and teasing, until one day, she sees one and says: “Usually dawn comes slowly but tonight I drive out of a cloud and suddenly it’s a new day.”
This small bird which is more often heard than seen is on the decline due to changes in farming methods in Scotland and hunters in North Africa. Only 30% of adult birds make it back from their wintering grounds in the Democratic Republic of Congo to their breeding sites in Orkney and the Western Isles.
This bird is the sound of Liptrot’s summer. And like many birders, there are birds that represent summer to me – the scream of a scything swift or the rich melody of a blackbird perched atop a TV aerial lulling warm summer evenings to a close. I always feel a tinge of sadness when the swifts depart and the skies fall silent; their absence for me signifies the end of summer.
Amy Liptrot is from Orkney. It’s certainly where she’s from, and it was only after she spent a tumultuous time away that she realised it was where she belonged.
Growing up on a croft, her father experiencing the highs and lows of bipolar disorder and her mother deeply religious, she sought release from Orkney as soon as she was old enough. She abandoned the islands for a hedonistic life in London, her visceral descriptions of parties and picnics in London Fields capturing the excitement and danger of her new life there. She traded the open cool spaces of the north for the enclosed skyline of towers and noise and sultry heat of the south, craving human contact and experiences on the edge.
However, her lifestyle began to catch up with her. She became to depend on alcohol as a relationship-forming lubricant, reducing her inhibitions and freeing her to become openly expressive. Her taste for alcohol became destructive for her and for her friends. She’d abandon the friends she was with in pubs to go “home to drink faster alone at a faster pace than the drinks were coming there.”
She was losing control, losing friends, lost her boyfriend. She became vulnerable and was attacked by a stranger. Her friends found her hard to deal with, unsure of what she’d do next, fed up picking her up from the floor when she’d had yet again too many drinks. Life stopped being fun.
She moved from flat to flat, finding herself in a tiny bedsit alongside people who avoided contact with each other. People in a transient state like herself – she had left a sparsely populated archipelago and found herself more alone than ever with no sense of belonging or control over what her future held.
She found it hard to hold onto jobs or friends, until eventually she became self-aware of her addiction and sought help, signing onto a strict day programme that guided her away from alcohol.
With nothing much holding her to London, she returned home to Orkney where she helped her father on his croft. He was living alone in a caravan on his land after having split from his wife. Liptrot began to help with odd jobs like fixing a drystone dyke or helping with lambing, keeping her mind and body occupied so that she would never relapse.
The crofting lifestyle she describes reminds me of when I visited Stornoway to set-up an art exhibition in a local school. Arriving on the Sunday afternoon to find the school closed, concerned phone calls were made and before long the janitor came rushing to the door with his keys in hand, out of breath, saying he had been helping with a difficult lamb birth, his eyes betraying the deep concern he was still feeling for the lamb. This was the first time I truly felt some insight into rural life and I came to appreciate the lives that people on small islands often live, where postmen may also be fishermen or shopkeepers are also farmers.
She describes the perpetual breeze on Orkney, something I experienced myself on a trip to Shetland. On the first night, I was driven to a small berthing spot and waited with a group of Italian tourists in the freezing wind with my teeth chattering and my jacket zipped right up over my chin, for a boat to take us over to Mousa. Once on the water, I began to warm up and arrived on Mousa an hour before midnight. Slowly making my way round the shore towards the broch, an impressive fortified Iron Age tower. I climbed up through the dark internal staircase to the roof from where, under a barely dark midnight sky with the Moon hiding shyly behind light wispy clouds, shone two lighthouses, one far to the south and one to the east on the islet Perie Bard, both now remotely operated, but still performing their life-saving roles.
Mousa is famous for the storm petrels that come in at night to avoid the predatory birds. These seabirds the size of sparrows make constant chirring calls, and in the simmer dim a couple of weeks before the summer solstice they appeared like bats as they flew to and fro the broch and the drystone walls that stretched from the shore to the top of the island. There was a gentle hush among the people there, everyone savouring this rare and special event, the vigilant lighthouses shining silent spotlights on the broch. My video below barely captures the intensity of the experience.
I visited just about every compass point of Shetland during my week there, from crouching on hands and knees looking for endemic flowers on a hillside to searching for long-tailed skuas in a small glen, and walking the volcanic landscapes of Eshaness admiring the red-throated divers to gasping in awe at the scale of the seabird cliffs of Hermaness with their huge gannet colonies and the UK’s most northerly lighthouse just offshore showing the way to the Arctic. The wind was ever present.
Not drinking was a constant challenge for Liptrot; the cravings where there all the time, but her rehabilitation programme had equipped her with the skills to deal with these, to let the cravings pass. She vowed never to let her young nephew see her drunk, saying “I feel powerful”, a perfect encapsulation of how her life had turned around.
Orkney was part of her healing process. Exploring the island of Papa Westray, she was wowed by the natural world around her – the seabirds, seals and storms. The people were also a healing factor; she encountered gentle kindnesses and felt safe, and while drinking is always a temptation, the islands provided alternative stimuli and she remained strong within herself to maintain her resistance.
The land and sea dominates everything on Orkney, and people have been living there for thousands of years, cultivating and forming the histories of the islands. Like Shetland, it can feel like the edge of the world, with wide and wild seas shaping the landscape.
Nature has the power to relax, but also to enthral and excite. Most of my own encounters with nature are solitary, feeling like an escape from the pressures of city life with its noise and pollution. Yet I’ve been known to get impatient or even annoyed when out in wild places, when something is pressing on my mind, although more often this happens when my contemplation is disturbed by another person or coming across litter or some other sign of people far from towns and cities.
There are times when I love to share my experiences with others – pointing excitedly at a breaching minke whale beside the ferry while crossing between islands in Shetland, or watching along with dozens of others, including a guy who came all the way from France, the lost sperm whale off Oban. Thankfully it eventually found its way out into the open sea.
For Liptrot nature was an escape mechanism from her troubles, the world offering much more than what she experienced in London. She sought human contact in London, and yet, despite the often solitary activities she undertook in Orkney, human contact is just what she found there too.
Most of us can live life within safe limits. However, when things get out of control then we can become dangerously addicted to substances or activities. Addiction can take many forms. Liptrot talks about other activities that took over her life while in Orkney, her thoughts constantly reminding her of her recent past. She would be online often checking social media, hoping for retweets or updates about her friends. Many people share this and for some really does become an addiction. It often becomes a substitute for real life interaction. Some activities may not be harmful to health, but could become financially difficult to manage, leading to debt and then to other problems. Ultimately it is self-control that is lost, the inability to shape our own lives.
Liptrot joined a wild swimming club and she recounts the many reasons given why people were members, including one woman who said she “enjoys that other people think she’s mad”. The initial cold shock upon entering the water leads to a surge of euphoria – much like people may get with some drugs. We live for sensory and perceptual stimuli; while reading books helps with the attainment of knowledge, experiencing the real world is much more interesting and exciting.
I enjoy craft beers; I enjoy trying new flavours and new varieties, and comparing my opinions of them with others. And while I only generally drink one or two beers at the weekend, I have a constant nagging feeling in the back of my mind saying be careful with what I’m doing. Having seen the effects of alcohol abuse in relatives, I’m very careful to limit my own alcohol intake. It seems all too easy to tip over the edge, and I don’t want to push myself along this edge.
Most people in Scotland don’t think getting drunk is an acceptable thing to do at the weekend. Attitudes seem to be changing for the better, and while the numbers of alcohol related illnesses and deaths are still high and our health services and friends and families have to deal with the fallout, they do seem to be in decline. People are more aware of the dangers of drinking too much, and it’s not as socially acceptable to get yourself in such a poor state on a night out that you’re unable to get yourself home.
For Liptrot, her awakening to her problems began four to five years before she sought help as she had begun to look online for information about alcohol. When the dancing was no longer merry, she was looking for a passing breeze to set her on a new course to recovery and she found this in the wild places and the people of Orkney and within herself.