It’s interesting what connects people…I met architect Rikke Jorgenson through a friend in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and we talked about my fieldwork in Rwanda and got to talking about lines and space and light. Tim Ingold’s idea about “a world in which everyone and everything consists of interwoven or interconnected lines and lays the foundations for a completely new discipline: the anthropological archaeology of the line.”
I was standing in the doorway of my great-grandmother’s croft home, three summers ago. It was my first trip to Shetland-after flying to Edinburgh from New York on one day, and the next, taking a train to Aberdeen, then a 12-hour, overnight ferry to Lerwick Port, and a car ride up to North Roe. Just a day into that first trip, I was introduced to Bertha and Douglas Murray and from their croft home, was shown Peat Haa off in the distance, my great-grandmother’s birth home. Within minutes, I was standing in the threshold of the ruin-about 150 years after Jane Stove would have been living there.
Douglas drove me over in his pick-up and let me out to walk up the hill to Peat Haa. An 8 or 9-year old boy, stood in his rubber boots and slicker, looking out to me from behind binoculars. He started talking before I reached him, about the retired, French airplane that is parked in his drive, in front of his contemporary, cedar shake home built just above the ruin. I half listened, peering into the ruin through the doorway-four supporting, hand-build stone walls were intact and two built-in hearths remained at either end. The upper floor and thatched roof were missing-the open space filled with fallen wood beams and slats. The staircase was detached and askew, open to the sky. Continue reading →
In July at North Roe in the Shetland Islands, I rented a one-bedroom chalet from crofters Iwona and Neil Charleson. The Charlesons raise sheep, cows, and chickens on their farm, Toam; heat their croft home with peat; and rig rows of garlic, broccoli, and potatoes-their garden willow-lined to break the wind. On the first night’s stay, the Charleson’s make dinner, a roast leg of their lamb and home-brewed beer. During dinner, Iwona points out the window to a side yard, and says how in the spring she heard a sheep wailing outside, just under the sill. She ran out that day, saw the ewe presenting breech, and stood fixed. But she then quickly slipped her hand into the birth canal, pushed her arm and hand up further to grab the lamb and turned it. No training for the moment. And now in July they anticipated a calving crisis.
Beth the Cow, sent out to visit a neighboring bull during the seasonal meet-up, did not come home pregnant. She was later artificially inseminated and was now pregnant long into the summer, grazing on too rich grass cover. The calf could grow far too big to birth, Iwona said, but added, in a crisis she could call on neighbor Douglas Murray.
Enter Douglas and Bertha Murray’s stone home, Isbister, and you have to double-over just to get in the door. Unfold on the inside and you’re in the ben, the sitting space, and don’t know where to focus first. There’s a wall of red and blue and green prize ribbons-first, second, third prizes in sheep competitions. On a far wall, several pairs of jeans hang over the oil-burning Rayburn stove, drying. Look up-a rifle is propped across a timber-for firing at rabbits gnawing the cabbage.
I flew late in the evening this past July from Edinburgh airport onto the sandy south end of the Shetland Islands. It was a clear night but the pilot warned of wind. Upon our approach, the 35-passenger turboprop bounced and shimmied.
It’s my third visit to Shetland. Each time the Simmer Dim falls slowly, making for short twilight nights. If the skies are clear, the soft light blends land with sea with sky. Few shadows are cast to make distinctions in the landscape.
The light I see upon arrival is yellow-white, bathing the brown-green hills. But after the first dim, I wake to thick and layered cloud cover. For the next two weeks, the clouds pile up, tumble, and rain. The wind is dogged. I scramble in gloves and wool beret, about the hills above my great-grandmother’s croft ruin. The legs of the tripod sink into the wet peat; I step on a boulder and it wobbles. Nothing in this landscape seems firm.