The Guillemot and the Broken Frame

by Dr Pippa Marland

One Tuesday in April I found myself in the unusual position of listening to the early morning shipping forecast, as issued by the Met Office at 05:20 hours. Unlike the other rare occasions I’d caught this broadcast, when I’d simply relished its musical cadences and meditative repetitions, this time I tried to follow its actual content, tracing the sea areas and coastal stations around a map in my mind and listening out for those on the east coast of Scotland. I was due to visit the Isle of May that afternoon, joining colleagues from the ‘Land Lines’ research team, all of us hoping to see the island’s famous puffin colony. Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, east 5 to 7, decreasing 4 at times, rain or showers, fog patches at first, moderate or good, occasionally very poor at first… Leuchars, north east by east 4, one thousand and nine rising slowly.

To my uneducated ear it sounded like grounds for cautious optimism, but I knew that the ferry from Anstruther had been cancelled the previous day, and I had already been warned that it was looking doubtful for that Tuesday too. Recent reports from the island described the effects of adverse weather in the preceding weeks, and while the worst of the storms had abated, heavy seas and strong winds were still hampering travel. The successive ‘beasts from the east’ had taken their toll on the birds too. The puffins had arrived in late March but then headed back out to sea as a second wave of high winds swept in from Siberia, not returning to the island till the 8th of April. David Steel’s Isle of May blog[i] reported some deaths among the seabird populations, mostly young and older birds, and a delayed start to the breeding season, not only for the puffins but also for the shags, razorbills and guillemots.

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Walking along the coast from Kingsbarns to St Andrews

Around 10am, on my way northwards, I heard that the ferry would not be running. We had a back-up plan for our afternoon, though, and the boat trip was replaced by a walk along the coast path from Kingsbarns to St Andrews. It was a testing experience in the wind and driving rain, redeemed by many moments of stern, arresting beauty. But in the final few miles we began to come across the bodies of dead birds: guillemots – first one and then another, and another, and another. It was a sight that filled us all with a deep sadness, all the more distressing because we didn’t know how to interpret these fatalities. Personally, I felt an inability to gauge how great a component of my grief was a sense of guilt – a guilt that was itself hard to pin down. It was personal and collective, immediate and dispersed. Of course, extreme weather events have always happened, and under harsh conditions weaker birds perish and the stronger ones go on to breed. But in the blurred distinctions and tangled agencies of the Anthropocene, doubts linger. Were these naturalcultural rather than natural deaths, a result of anthropogenically-induced climate change rather than the workings of natural selection? And were they harbingers of worse to come, in the context of already catastrophic species loss? The words of Kent and Edgar, as they watch King Lear howling over Cordelia’s lifeless body, came into my head. Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?

The next day I was present at a series of workshops for pupils from schools around Fife, hosted by ‘Land Lines’ and the ‘First Chances’ project. One of the themes of the day, introduced by Christina Alt from the ‘Land Lines’ team, was an exercise on framing nature. Taking her inspiration from Yorkshire artist Ashley Jackson’s ‘Framing the Landscape’ project, Christina asked the students to go out and take photos, experimenting with paper frames, asking themselves why they chose certain subjects and angles, and looking for unusual perspectives. Lastly, she asked them to find ways of ‘destroying the frame’ altogether. The results were astonishing. We saw photo after photo which achieved a novel framing of natural and naturalcultural objects: a rusted pipe set back in an alcove between buildings, growing green from the ground upwards with climbing weeds; a shuttered window escaping its own limits, bleeding rust and paint down a pebble-dashed wall; a flight of crumbling steps, each one a mini-forest of lichens and mosses.

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A selection of the photos taken by students at the workshop

But there was one photo that stopped me in my tracks. A group of the students had taken a paper frame and laid it over the body of a dead guillemot they had found on the West beach. ‘Like a shroud’, one of my colleagues said. Whether it was a shroud or a frame, it was wholly inadequate. The white belly of the bird protruded through the central gap, its head was obscured, and its feet poked rigidly below the base. The students who had taken the photo were concerned that it might be upsetting to some people, might seem disrespectful to the dead guillemot. Upsetting – yes; disrespectful – no; thought-provoking – absolutely.

It was an image that perfectly captured the difficulty of trying to put a frame on nature. And in this it seemed also to encapsulate with brilliant simplicity the problem of the Anthropocene itself, a subject that similarly exceeds the limits of framing. Environmental thinkers such as Timothy Clark have suggested that the conceptual challenges of the Anthropocene move us beyond the reach of the human imagination. At the same time he argues that ‘the breakdowns of inherited demarcations of thought can still become a means of disclosure and revision’.[ii]  As I looked at the guillemot and the ‘broken’ frame and remembered the grief, guilt and doubt I’d experienced the previous day, I began to feel that a degree of uncertainty might actually be a blessing: that being unable contain the natural world within a frame, being unable to quantify culpability, or draw solid conclusions as to cause and effect might undermine some of the anthropocentric hubris implied by the very term ‘Anthropocene’, keeping us on the moral hook but also clearing a tiny space for hope as we reach for greater understanding.

One of the most striking of the students’ photos: a dead guillemot

The nature writer Tim Dee says in his introduction to Ground Work[iii] that ‘a kind of singing in the dark times has begun’, that we are moving towards a position in which, as well as mourning our ecological losses, we also pay reinvigorated attention ‘to what remains and what it means to us’. I’m hopeful that he’s right. For my own part I’ve found myself noting each marker of the Spring this year with a new fervour. Hearing and seeing skylarks in the fields next to Leuchars railway station caused a lurch of emotion akin to that of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner blessing the sea snakes. I’m also increasingly aware of my own implication in the causes of these dark times. To reach the starting point of my Scottish walk, I had travelled through the day by a combination of car, plane, tram, train, and bus, every step I finally took on the coast path leaving a carbon footprint of one kind or another. But while the decisions involved in planning my journey to Scotland were individual (mea culpa), the choices available to me had their roots in political policy. A train ticket for the whole journey would have cost three times more than the flight. So, in the broader scheme of things, I also know that the song is more than personal: it involves living with renewed political commitment and joining with collective environmental endeavour where we find it. And inhabiting uncertainty – accepting that we lack the means to frame our experience – might ultimately be more of a help than a hindrance, as we begin our song of grief, guilt and renewed ardour.


[ii] Timothy Clark. (2015). Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept. London: Bloomsbury, p.xi.

[iii] Tim Dee. (2018). Ground Work: Writings on Places and People. London: Jonathan Cape.

by Dr Pippa Marland

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