• Amy Winstanley

A conversation between two painters, Jenny Eden and Amy Winstanley, on Clarice Lispector’s 1973 novel, Aqua Viva (2020-2021)

Published on a-n, The Artists Information Company, website

Jenny: Agua Viva is such an intense read, which is why I like it. I’m gripped by it and I feel the text is gripped by me reading it. It doesn’t want me to sleep – I’m reading before bed. It holds on, punctuating with short paragraphs, long paragraphs, sentences and even single words as paragraphs. It hopes I’ll carry on through the darkness.

I’m halfway through and I’m captivated by the psychological meditations contained in this text. Birth and death are folded together, explored simultaneously by the narrator, a painter. When you consider this was Lispector’s penultimate novel, written in the final years of her life, you become aware of the potential for coexisting narrators – the painter, but also Clarice herself, speaking from her soul.

I’m excited about Agua Viva’s relationship to painting, in its narrative and in the shape of the writing. I’ve noticed lovely examples of shape – shifts, repeats, ins and outs, going round the corner and back again – each reminiscent of my own painting process.

Amy: I am also halfway through the book. I like what you’ve said about the text. It is certainly rich in imagery and themes. The more I read, the more sentences I want to highlight, and the more it chimes with ideas in other pieces of writing I’m reading. On pages 42 and 43, Lispector writes:

“I shiver all over when I come into contact with animals or simply see them. Animals fantasticate me. They are time that does not measure itself. I seem to have a certain horror for the living creature that is not human and that has my own instincts though free and indomitable […] Nothing is more difficult than surrendering to the instant. That difficulty is human pain. It is ours. I surrender in words and surrender when I paint.” (Lispector, 1973, pp42-43)

This passage reminds of The Animal Side by Jean-Christophe Bailly, as follows:

“The infinite surprise that there is a being here and that it has this particular form, so small or so large, this form that is also a tension and a warmth, a rhythm, and a grasping: some life has been caught and condensed, has ended up finding a place in a corner of space-time; the reservoir of existence that connects us to creatures also passes through this universal condition of breathing and fever. What is held out to us, given to us, is a fluttering, something ever so infinitesimal and quick, with the slightest pulsations, and bones like twigs, but from one end of the chain to the other something unanimous and stupefied passes to bind us.” (Bailly, 2007, pp41-42)

..and it reminds me of this:

“In all such acts life is struggling on its own behalf, that life is that struggle above itself and beyond itself: just as every photographic instant has taken place in an eternity from which it must be detached in order to be, very instant of every flight (of every swim, every run) takes place a little farther away in an open that is still opening and that is more than time.” (Bailly, 2007, pp45)

I guess what I’m trying to say is the text makes me think of things I’ve read and I think about when I’m painting, that all stem from the same tree. I’m not sure I’m being super clear – I’m struggling to condense my thoughts about the text clearly. I’m a little overwhelmed at times with it – the text is quite powerful in that way.

The style reminds me of speed writing, a technique used by the poet CAConrad who gave a workshop during my MA. Conrad writes poetry using a myriad rituals to undo their ‘normal’ way of thinking, or a pre-conditioned way of thinking in western capitalist societies, in order to write with more freedom. Speed writing is one such way to ‘unplug’, if you like, and Conrad encouraged us to try it.

You sit at a laptop, not looking at the screen or your keyboard and just write/type for a while, uninterrupted and fast, with no regard for spelling, punctuation or ‘the internal editor’. It’s harder to do than it sounds – there is often a conscious editor who comes in, judging and stopping the flow.

Conrad often uses words or sentences that form and emerge from this technique in their poetry – Lispector’s text reminds me of this way of writing. I did speed writing most days for a couple of years as part of my studio practice, in the morning, before I’d start to paint. Some sentences even ended up in my thesis! What’s interesting in pursuing this style of writing, is that patterns start to emerge, themes reoccur, things zoom in and out of ideas about life and the universe. There are also ridiculous bits in there too – humour, mundane observations, large existential questions, anger, hurt, pain, pleasure, love, loss etc., all rolled into an (almost) nonsense piece of writing that clutches at making some sort of sense. I get this vibe from reading Agua Viva. There are lucid moments, serious questions and then it goes blurry, into a frenzy of words again, but they all seem to hang well together in the same basket, woven into the same fabric.

Jenny: I’m interested in you mentioning speed in relation to the way the text is constructed. The text moves through ideas quickly, shifting attention from one subject to the next, with links and without, undoing and repairing. Some of the links are tenuous, and at the start of the text one might mistake the natural chronology of ‘paragraph after paragraph’, ‘page after page’, for the continuity of a ‘story’.

I was at a mid-point when I gave up on Agua Viva’s ‘story’, as such; I realised this wasn’t happening and a story wasn’t the intention. In the introduction, written by biographer and long-time fan of Lispector, Benjamin Moser, the fact the book has “no backbone […] story [or] plot” was apparently troubling for Clarice. I read Moser’s introduction first, so I knew not to expect a story really, but something inside me ached for one in the first half. As the text progressed I became embroiled in Lispector’s persuasion, which hoped for a story like I did, and knew it was never coming.

If, for argument’s sake, we say painting isn’t a story (as such), does a painting manage ‘no story’ better than a book? Or, to put it like this, can we deal with ‘no story’ better in a painting than we can in a book?

I say this because I often think my paintings don’t have backbones. This doesn’t trouble me though. I think I’m aiming for as little backbone as I can get away with, and more ambiguity. I try to undo any kind of story that arises.

The fact that ‘a lack of story’ troubled Lispector makes me think of ‘the work being ahead of the maker’. I often find a painting is ahead of me, ahead of my understanding of it. For Lispector, the text’s various edits – it existed as two complete and different texts before this one – imply something trying to eek itself out, a new language trying to form. Sure, Lispector was the primary facilitator, but the writing itself has so much ‘psychological weight’ I’m inclined to think of ‘it’ as an equal driving force. I relate this to a painting being an equal force in the process of making.

Amy: Weirdly, I found myself getting quite frustrated towards the end of the text. I was annoyed at Lispector’s contradictory desire to ‘categorise’ and ‘compartmentalise’, in juxtaposition to the text’s fluid, free flowing, ambiguous writing and ‘subject matter’. For example, when she wrote about different flowers and what they mean/represent, I didn’t like the way she claimed a gender to each one, labelling things into boxes. It just seemed so different to talking about, and trying to capture, something very intangible as the ‘it’ and ‘now’. Perhaps contradiction and frustration were intentional for her, to keep the reader rocking, unsteady, and away from potential predictability.

I wasn’t expecting a story and enjoyed that there wasn’t one. In this way it did feel ‘closer’ to painting, or closer to a mode of thinking that comes with painting, where things come into focus and make sense but are simultaneously expanding into even bigger, or smaller, thoughts that trail off to something else before a mundanity pulls you back to where you are, and you head off into a sea of thoughts again. I like the way this text reflects a demand the writer places on herself to articulate the ‘it’, the ‘now’ – a slippery concept perhaps better articulated in painting. Maybe this failing is its success – it is an intentional failing – which leads me to your question:

“If, for argument’s sake, we say that painting isn’t a story, as such, does a painting manage ‘no story’ better than a book? Or, to put it like this; can we deal with ‘no story’ better in a painting than we can in a book?”

As painters, I wonder if we deal with ‘no story’ better than when it comes to writing, because ‘no story’ seems more akin to the painting process and perhaps jars with the writing process? ‘No story’ is not easy, as this text proves, but there is something in the immediacy of paint that allows for no story to exist; allows for fluidity of thought as well as the medium. It is expansive. Perhaps this offers an opportunity for the ‘work to go ahead of its maker’, as you put it. This chimes with me too – it can happen when, as some artists put it, the ‘painting paints itself’. I think Agua Viva does this too, and successfully – and it is not ashamed of it. The text seems to roll on ahead of the writer, because what is written is bounding along, pausing, leaping ahead, turning around, going backwards, inwards, outwards before anchoring itself down again for short moments.

When you say painting can be ‘an equal force in the process of making’ it makes me think of the short interview with Charlene Von Heyl during her solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2012. I love how she talks about painting – there’s a ‘no faff’, genuine quality to how she articulates her process:

“I do see the paintings as designed but there’s this one moment of the unknown where it slips through my design possibilities and there’s where it kind of makes itself….A lot of painting comes from frustration. Building it up and building it down, destroying. The next move is going to be counterintuitive and there will be a juxtaposition that I don’t even understand myself. Out of that friction comes charge. Building it up and down again until I have it at a point where I look at it and think, how the fuck did I do that?!” (Tate, 2012)

I love what she says because it makes a lot of sense to me as a painter. Our processes may be very different but I love the words she uses, like ‘charged’, ‘friction’, ‘frustration’. Painting is imbued with the artist’s hand – there is a vitality in it that comes from the very motions and mark-making that go into making a painting. Von Heyl says “what I want to do with the painting is establish this relationship with now”. I think this is the key to what links painting and Agua Viva, and whether Lispector’s text succeeds at that or not is almost irrelevant. I think I might have contradicted what I said earlier, but there we go again, I’m sparked into a kind of confusion by thinking about this text in relation to painting (and about painting itself). I like that confusion. There, perhaps, is evidence of Von Heyl’s ‘charge’.

Jenny: What you’ve said is really great, and reflects some of my recent thinking in relation to painting’s ‘aliveness’. In ‘The Love of Painting’ (2018), Isabelle Graw examines some of the things you mentioned – vitality, the artist’s hand, a painting making itself (or rather, she quotes Bacon and Von Heyl on this). It’s striking that Lispector opens the text with the very same rumination. Here’s a section from the first paragraph of the book:

“I am a little scared: scared of surrendering completely because the next instant is the unknown. The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself? We make it together with our breath. And with the flair of the bullfighter in the ring.” (Lispector, 1973, pp3)

I am close to Lispector here, or to the ‘painter-narrator’. Are you? I find painting terrifying some of the time. Things are so uncertain and by surrendering, which is what I know I have to do, following a potentially confrontational and performative interaction, I am stepping into a frightful unknown. Yet I need to be in that place.

In terms of painting having lively qualities, contained in the paint matter and in the thing unfolding on the surface, I have the distinct feeling, much of the time, that the painting knows something I don’t. Or that the painting is finding out as much as I am during the process.

Lispector goes on to ask if she makes ‘it’ or if ‘it’ makes itself. It’s when I forget I’m ‘doing painting’ and approach the surface ‘a priori’ that things start to take shape. Experience and knowledge sit inside the activity in a felt capacity and I’m in the timeless, silent space of painting, where I make it and it makes itself (and me).

Like Charlene Von Heyl (and I love that clip), the liveliness is transferred from my hand to the painting, and ideas are projected, as Graw suggests. Unlike Graw, however, I cannot agree to this being a one-way transaction, where the paint and the painting are materially ‘dead’ to begin with. I say this because Graw claims paint is dead matter, and through projection we enable the material to convey vitalistic fantasies. First of all I believe painting is an exchange, a psychological relationship. Secondly, in acknowledging paint matter, the depicted thing and even the stretcher frame itself (the body) as ‘alive’, any notion of lifelessness in the process of painting is ruled out and even absurd.

In a panpsychist view, a philosophical perspective I’m intrigued with at the moment, paint matter would be considered alive too. The panpsychist believes all matter has a ‘mind-like’ consciousness, which fades as complexity of experience reduces from human consciousness through organic matter to inorganic matter (Goff, 2017). In this way, matter could never be referred to as painting’s dead constituent, but as a lively conduit, conscious and connected to other ‘minds’ in a continuum.

Lispector goes on to say “We make it together with our breath. And with the flair of the bullfighter in the ring”.The act of painting is a relationship. The work is made together with another vibrant being, or so I see it.

Lately I can’t stop thinking about a scenario that happens again and again in my process. It highlights a push and pull aspect of my painter-painting relationship, exhausting and yet essential in some paintings:

“The painting and me, we get along. We walk along hand in hand, in parallel, in tandem. But it’s too easy… So, I do something to annoy it. I cause a problem, take a detour, and I watch what the painting does.”

This relates to what you said about painting’s potential for being ‘charged’ – its friction and frustration. I get to the point where I need to ‘act up’, like a child, or like a bullfighter in the ring.

Amy: Yes, I have read Graw’s ‘The Love of Painting’ and I am in agreement with you in being opposed to how she describes paint as ‘dead matter’. I am thinking of two different reasons. One, because my feelings tally with Jane Bennett’s new materialist philosophy on the vibrancy of things, where enmeshment and interconnectivity allow for an opening of ideas of the aliveness in all things (Bennett, 2010).

My other reason is based on a text I have recently finished reading called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Have you read it? I have been interested in indigenous ways of relating to ‘nature’ and the world for many years (initially for a number of quite esoteric and personal reasons but also in relation to painting). Kimmerer’s text beautifully describes this idea of reciprocity between humans and nature and the benefits a two-way relationship can bring about. This is prevalent in all aspects of living but in terms of painting I believe it to make sense with what you were describing about having a relationship with painting that is perhaps in line with a panpsychist view.

I love how you describe this in your wee ‘conversation’ with a painting. I guess using paint is a way to enter into a relationship with a fluid material and one’s own inner dialogue simultaneously, where a visual outcome happens but is not always ‘seen’ by the viewer in the end. There is a reciprocal relationship at work for sure, and that is something that as a painter I totally understand, but weirdly I also don’t necessarily feel the need to question. What I mean is, the two-way relationship between the human hand and the material is innate – or the want to reciprocate with the world through material/matter, in this case paint, is inherent in us. Perhaps Lispector’s declaration “We make it together with our breath” is a way of saying this – ‘it just is’, could be what Lispector is trying to say. But intellect likes to get in the way, (and/or) it helps shape the outcome.

I read Agua Viva with a three-fold set of contradictory and exciting ideas going on at the same time, and I ‘read’ this as what occurs during painting. There is an intuition, an intellect and a relationship with the material of paint, all confabulating together in a noisy mess that is addictive, persuasive and frustrating. I can’t think of another activity I do that embroils, and at the same time marries, all I am interested in. I feel this flurry of confusion, frustration and clarity in Lispector’s painter-narrator.

This pushes me on as a painter. I am never bored by it! I get genuinely excited by blank canvases – by the potentialities they present and the endless possibilities to explore the world within myself through a process and interaction with the material of paint on to the surface.

I don’t like to call my paintings finished, but instead ‘resting’. I wonder if you feel the same? ‘Resting’ allows for an openness for things to change, as everything does, enfolding in on everything else. The one constant is change, and both the act of painting and the material itself reflect this. Agua Viva embodies this constancy too.

List of References

Bailly, J. C. (2007) The Animal Side. New York: Fordham University Press

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Goff, P. (2017) The Case for Panpsychism. Philosophy Now, Issue 121. Retrieved from

Graw, I. (2018) The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium. Berlin: Sternberg Press

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Lispector, C. (1973) Agua Viva. London: Penguin Classics.

Tate (2012) Charline von Heyl at Tate Liverpool. Retrieved from


Amy Winstanley is an artist based in Glasgow. She graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam (2017-2019). Born in 1983, Scotland, Amy studied a BA (Hons) in Sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art from 2001-2005. Amy has lived in Scotland and The Netherlands exhibiting in a number of group and solo shows throughout the UK and Amsterdam.

Amy’s practice is about a direct involvement with paint by using the immediacy of paint, the action of painting itself, as a process to take a hold of one’s own perceptions of the world, be it at a conscious and/or subconscious level. Amy is interested in the continual flux of everything, the potentiality of everything to be something else entirely, that is reflected within painting itself.

She researches different ways of interpreting this world through ideas of ecological, post-human and feminist thinking and through experiences of love and loss whilst looking at these existential and spiritual questions in tandem with the mundane, light-heartedness and a degree of humour. @amywinstanley

Jenny is a painter, writer and lecturer based in Salford. Her paintings are driven by an engagement with process and the painting’s emerging characteristics, perceived through the complex exchange between painter and painting and in response to the painting’s communicable potential.

Jenny is currently studying a By Practice PhD in Painting at Manchester School of Art, following an MFA in Fine Art also from Manchester (2017). Jenny has exhibited her work across the UK and in Berlin, and she was part of the Contemporary British Painting Prize in 2018. She also co-runs a contemporary painting gallery in Salford called Oceans Apart, which seeks to champion diversity and discourse within the medium today.

  • Amy Winstanley

Published in "What ties ties, ties" - by Print Art Research Centre Seoul, South Korea. A book of texts by artists Amy Winstanley, Younwon Sohn, Mariah Blue, Lana Murdochy and Kathrin Graf.

Available at:


She put down her book, and took up her pen. Then, she wrote;

There is a theory that the expanding universe at some point will contract, and if this is the case, can expand and contract any infinite number of times, thereby quashing the big-bang theory of one instantaneous ejaculation of life that came out of nowhere – a mighty phallogocentric idea if ever there was one – to seem rather rigid.

She paused and smiled. Then, she continued;

So, the idea of a flowing, pulsating universe that could be one of many, aligns more to the cyclical nature of life itself, adding also to the mysterious, the unknowable and somewhat spiritual notions of existence. From this, questions arise like, what were they like before? How many have gone before? Could there have been ones very much like this one? Almost, or not quite? Which can spark the imagination no end, and does make for a wonderful tale in itself.

She put down her pen and took up her book.

Reality is every possibility

‘Shall we start then?’ she asked, using her straightened posture as a mark of authority, her deep voice strained in the higher octave that was necessary for oratory augmentation. ‘Shall we start?’ she repeated, as the chairs scuffed the floor and the rest of them trailed their sentences off in quick succession to turn their attention to the speaker. ‘Yes? Okay.’

The others nodded their heads in affirmation and settled their legs underneath their chairs or crossed them over their knees, placing their glasses of water on coasters that sat on the low round glass table that was in the centre of the circle of chairs, some taking another sip before doing so.

‘Good. Thanks for coming,’ Strenvich said in an octave more comfortable for her. ‘This week I think it’s Warna, Sumi and Traelise’s turn to share.’ Some throats were cleared, Sumi nodded. ‘Who would like to begin?’ In the corner of her eye Strenvich caught this nod and so swung herself round to face Sumi, placing her palm out towards her she asked, ‘Sumi, would you like to start?’

Sumi smoothed a crease in her trousers noticing a couple of crumbs from the biscuits consumed earlier, brushing them off lightly, looking around the group, she said,

‘Yes. Hi everyone. I’d like to tell you about the cabin I stayed in last month. Well I’m not really telling you about the cabin, but about what happened in the cabin.’ Strenvich coughed, remembering what happened in another cabin she stayed in once, but knew it couldn’t be the same one.

Sumi continued, ‘I went to stay in a cabin about an hour from where I live. It was nestled in a copse of pine trees at the bottom of the hosts large garden. I found it advertised as peaceful, off the beaten track, close to good walks and a short drive from local amenities, which suited me well given how I was feeling,’ she paused as a small lump formed in her throat, ‘I needed to have some time to myself, somewhere not at home – everything reminded me of her.’

Sumi’s voice trailed off for a second, the group made a small murmuring sound of sympathy before she continued. ‘When I got to the cabin it was getting dark, I made myself a small meal of fish and vegetables, found where the heating was and got the place warm as soon as I could and decided on an early night.’ She fiddled with another crease in her trousers, looking down at it like a landscape from a great height. ‘In the night I dreamt that someone was standing by the bed, a dark figure in the dark room, tall and broad, I didn’t know who it was as I couldn’t see a face. As soon as I noticed the figure an arm came down and pressed its hand on the left side of my abdomen, softly at first but then harder, until it was really painful. I felt confused – why was this person here, why were they pressing on my stomach so hard?’ Strenvich’s eyes were fixed on Sumi’s fingers fiddling with her trousers, she could sense this was a scary memory, fear laced her words.

‘Go on Sumi,’ Strenvich encouraged.

Sumi continued, ‘At that moment I woke up with a start, but there was no relief in waking. The darkness in the dream was exactly how it was in the bedroom, the bedroom too – exactly as in the dream,’ Sumi was emphasising her words, looking intently from one person to the next, ‘I was lying on my back in exactly the same position, I could feel my stomach hurt from a pressure of a hand that wasn’t there, a figure that wasn’t there, but was there a second ago.’ That I could not see with waking eyes, she thought but didn’t say aloud.

‘That you could not see with your waking eyes?’ Warna asked as though she heard Sumi’s very words which caused Sumi to twist round on her seat and look straight at Warna,

‘Yes,’ Sumi said almost with a sharp inbreath, ‘I thought of her, was it her trying to tell me something? If it wasn’t her, was the figure sinister or friendly? I couldn’t tell – but I was scared. And it took me ages to get back to sleep.’ The group gave out sympathetic hmm’s and ahh’s.

‘Thanks Sumi,’ Strenvich said with a smile and small manner of impatience, sensing a need to get the next story started. ‘Warna, you seemed to know what Sumi was thinking there. How about you next?’

Warna shuffled in her seat, coughed, put her hand through her hair – changing the parting from left to right – put her elbow on the back of the chair and started with confidence,

‘So, I was in a taxi going to the pub with my pal, it was pissing it down outside, not a long ride but we couldn’t be arsed to walk in the rain.’ Strenvich slightly winced at Warna’s choice of words, Traelise sniggered. ‘The taxi woman had a really weird accent, could tell she wasn’t from here, started talking to us about the weather, really boring chat like. My pal rolled her eyes, I thought about interrupting her with the story about how our other pal used to deal green behind the taxi depot place – just to knock her off her boring perch like – when the taxi woman suddenly slammed on the breaks, obviously ignoring the red signal that was ahead until it was almost too late – fucking nearly hit a cyclist, I kid you not.’ Strenvich’s teeth ground slightly at Warna’s crass vocabulary, ‘Anyway, the taxi lurched us forward and the moment my back hit the seat again I was suddenly aware that I was in another taxi, in like the fifties or something. No joke – I was suddenly aware that I didn’t like the pearls I was wearing – I frickin wasn’t wearing any pearls! Or so I thought.’

Traelise interjected, ‘Was it like you just knew you had lived that before?’ with excitement in her eyes.

‘Not even,’ Warna replied, ‘I hadn’t lived it before.’ Traelise, slightly disappointed, dropped her shoulders a little, ‘I just knew that those pearls were not what I wanted to wear, the event I was going to was not something I was looking forward to and my friend in the taxi was actually my sister!’

Fraiden’s eyes narrowed a little, like a faint bell had been rung in the distance and if only she could discern it better, she’d understand what it meant.

‘I just knew this was someone else’s memory that I now knew. Fucking weird eh?’ Strenvich closed her eyes for a moment, trying to block out the swear word, ‘Kinda awesome though too eh?’ Warna batted Traelise’s arm with the back of her free hand. Traelise jumped a little and then let out a small laugh to cover her reaction. Warna looked pleased with herself. Strenvich smiled – pleased Warna’s turn was over – and faced Traelise.

‘Trae, please, start your story dear.’ Strenvich nodded to Traelise and smiled a smile with a distinct glint in her eyes, Warna thought.

‘Thanks Stren,’ Traelise said, warmly back, holding her gaze with Strenvich a little longer than necessary, Warna thought.

‘Oh aye’, Warna said with a smirk, batting her finger back and forth from Strenvich to Traelise, ‘I see. You two like…’ and gave a small wink to both. Strenvich flushed, straightened her back once again and said in a lower tone, looking down at her notes,

‘If you could start, Traelise.’ Traelise shifted in her seat, looked down at the floor and began.

After Traelise had finished her story – which consisted of Traelise hearing the sound of a steam train coming along railway tracks that had been abandoned sixty years previously, which made her run in the opposite direction until she realised no train could actually pass (to which Warna exclaimed, ‘Ghost train?!’ and Traelise had nodded with slight annoyance that her experience was being branded by such words) – the group were uncrossing their legs, getting up out of their seats, finishing their glasses of water and making to leave when Fraiden, who was still seated, all of a sudden started up in a loud voice,

‘I want to share with you a story about an old woman who lived high in the mountains, above the tree line and where no one thought it possible to build a hut, let alone live in one.’

They were all caught mid action, they didn’t know what to make of this, the designated three who were to share their stories already had, they were finished for the day weren’t they? Strenvich seemed to corroborate their confusion by the frown on her face and asked,

‘Erm, Fraiden, your turn is next week…’ but before she finished the sentence Fraiden piped up even louder.

‘There wasn’t even a stove in the hut, only a dark square slab of black stone attached to the south facing wall that absorbed the winter sunlight and exuded the warmth back into the hut, hopefully for the rest of the day. The woman acclimatised herself to get used to living with an average of 11 degrees inside.’

The others were beginning to be interested and so started to sit back down. All these weeks Sumi didn’t really give Fraiden a second glance until now – how big her brow is, how lovely the curve of her eyebrows that seem to frame her pale blue eyes like the dark treeline of an alpine lake. The noise of their chairs moving to accommodate their bodies once again slowly ceased as Fraiden continued,

‘This woman was a solitary woman, easy and content with her own company, with her collection of small rocks and with her books that were arranged into little towers around the arm chair and sides of the hut like they were forever waiting to go horizontal on a shelf.’

Traelise looked at Strenvich and back at Fraiden – how similar their hair is, Traelise thought, not noticing till now the seemingly exact copy of copper brown, like the fresh conker nuts she used to forage for as a child underneath the autumnal sycamore tree. ‘She was interested in almost everything. Her books spanned subjects like botany, geology, etymology, psychology, biology, stone circles, crop circles, mechanics of bikes, swimming anthologies, music almanacs, and, of all things, the entire collection of Enid Blyton’s “The Infamous Five”.’

Warna let out a snigger, Strenvich, for once, did the same.

‘Go on,’ Strenvich said, in apology. Fraiden didn’t seemed fazed,

‘On most days the woman liked to walk among the rocks outside the hut, collecting samples of lichen and mosses that seemed to grow in abundance there. One day she was looking at a sample under her microscope, which she often did in her make-shift science lab which consisted of her microscope, her telescope, a note book, two petri dishes, an assortment of dried chemicals in test tubes that she managed to barter from a professor of science in the university down in the nearest city approximately 100 miles away, a pair of tweezers and a paperweight that had a snowy scene of Perris that when you shook it the fake snow would swirl up in a frenzy and lie hectically around the plastic Trifel Tower.’

This time is was Sumi who sniggered, and immediately regretted it by going to a poker face and looking down at her creased trousers once again.

‘Wait,’ Strenvich said, putting her forefinger up to her mouth, ‘I think I’ve heard this story before, is it the story of an old woman called Ness who finds the –’

But Fraiden interrupted her with, ‘The old woman is looking into her petri dish with moss and chemicals swimming in it when she sees a tick crawl into the dish. She has no idea where the tick came from, she’s thinking, there’s no deer up here.’ Fraiden stopped for a second and looked down at the floor as a new thought interjected it’s way in, ‘Sorry, her dog, it’s her dog. She has a dog. The tick comes from the dog.’

Warna started to roll her eyes, the others shifted uncomfortably in their seats, Strenvich sensed cracks in the story but then felt a sudden sympathy for Fraiden – what powers of holding people’s attention she had with her certainty of the story was now waning and Fraiden seemed a little distressed by this. Then Strenvich remembered that Fraiden had a problem with memory – that was written in the notes she had scribbled the first time Fraiden joined the group.

‘Go on Fraiden,’ Strenvich helped, ‘she’s looking in her microscope and the tick, from the dog, has crawled into the chemicals in the dish.’

‘Yes’ Fraiden said loudly, and with enthusiasm, ‘Yes, the dog was apt to getting ticks in the summer and hosting them till late autumn. It was late autumn when the old woman was doing this experiment. Anyway,’ Fraiden made a movement with her hand as if to wave away a side-thought. ‘As much as she hated ticks, she could see the struggle of this unfortunate one as it writhed about in the soup of chemicals, its limbs contorting into unnatural positions, slowly drowning to death.’

Was Fraiden enjoying telling the details of this description a little too much? Warna thought, vividly imagining the tick squirming away.

‘The old woman had a profound sense of the ticks suffering, almost hearing it scream and feeling its pain.’ Fraiden went on, ‘In her notebook she wrote, once the tick was deceased, that she understood her, the human being, to have an intense empathy for the tick, the non-human being, and for this to mean she could identifying her ‘self’ in the tick, and for this idea of the self to be evident in the empathetic behaviour of one being to another and that there must be identification to have compassion.’

Fraiden stopped, feeling pleased for parting this information, looked round the group and smiled. The others felt a distinct note of anti-climax. Strenvich breathed a sigh.

‘Okay, Fraiden, erm, thanks for that.’ The others started to stand up once again, all feeling a little weary and sore, and a want for some fresh air.

‘I know another one!’ Fraiden asserted herself once more, there were audible groans, Strenvich tried to pacify with,

‘Okay, okay, thanks every one for telling their stories, I will see you all next week.’

Fraiden didn’t seem discouraged and started with, ‘I found this book in the library, in the miscellaneous section, a big book that looked battered and worn-’

‘Like our patience’ Warna said under her breath to Traelise who was in earshot, laughing silently.

‘It had embossed in capital letters down it’s spine,’ Fraiden continued, ‘with the word, DOUBT.’

At this everyone stopped in their tracks, half putting on coats, half zipping up jackets, half turning devices back on again. All of them looked down at Fraiden who was still seated, with faces of shock and disbelief. Mouths went dry, colour drained from faces, jaws dropped open. Strenvich looked at Fraiden who seemed confused that her words were having this effect, and asked slowly,

‘What did you say the book was called? And please tell me this is definitely what you saw.’

Fraiden moved a little in her seat, suddenly unsure of her memory, was it DOUBT or ABOUT or DO OUT? But I was sure it was DOUBT, hundred percent – she answered herself in her head – one hundred and ten percent. Sweat started to form on her brow, which she always thought of as too big for her head. Her anxiety grew and suddenly she was aware of her big eyebrows and her silly auburn brown hair she managed to dye the exact colour of Strenvich’s, maybe they shopped in the same chemist, maybe they bought the same brand, what was the brand? I can’t remember-

‘Fraiden!’ Strenvich said loudly, impatience boiling up and over the surface now, ‘What was the book called?!’ A pause. Fraiden looked shocked at Strenvich’s outburst.

‘Doubt’ Fraiden said in a mousy voice, almost too low to hear, which she sensed was not good enough and so said louder, ‘Doubt.’

There were small gasps from the group, some sat back down so as to not faint, Sumi being one of them. Warna feeling hot around the neck and prickly sensations in her hands asked,

‘What were the first lines in the book Fraiden, please, please, remember, what were they, what did they say, tell us, what were the words?’ Realising too many questions didn’t help Fraiden, and said again slowly, ‘What did it say?’ Fraiden paused but then felt a flood of memory burst forth.

‘I remember!’ she said excitedly, ‘This I do remember, so well, clearly, I can see the pages now!’ She marvelled at her brain to go from one dried up memory bank to a river of images and words, completely intact, to a desert of thought once again. When the memories came thick and fast, she delighted in what she could remember; whole passages to books, songs of great length, maps in minute detail–

‘Fraiden!’ Strenvich shouted again in impatience, bringing Fraiden back to the room again.

‘Yes, yes,’ she said, almost on the edge of her seat, everyone with fixed eyes on her, holding their breath, ‘I remember, I remember, it read…….’

Possible realities

Aite chose to sit in a different chair this time, the one that was closest to the window but faced away from it and into the room. Aite wasn’t sure why but went with it as Neaf was making tea in the next room and would be a few more minutes more affording Aite with time to change minds, or change chairs in this case. Neaf came through with two cups of tea, acknowledging Aites change of position with a faint “ah” and small smile. Aite took the warm cup from Neaf, thanking Neaf and taking a small sip before placing it on the coaster, carefully, on the table next to the chair. There were three chairs in the room, all with a small table next to them that had a coaster, a box of tissues and a time-clicker with large numbers quietly flashing the time, all facing towards Neafs chair. When it was Aites first ever visit here the option of chairs slightly flummoxed Aite, causing Aite to hesitate and ask Neaf where Aite should sit, to which Neaf replied, Anywhere you like with a small, warm smile that Aite would come to appreciate as Neafs inherent calm inquisitiveness and wish to create an atmosphere of absolute respect and non-judgement. A smile Aite liked.

Neaf sat opposite Aite, with Neafs usual look of inviting Aite to start without actually saying so.

Aite cleared Aites throat a little, so as to begin. I thought I would start with Eejupt. Neaf nodded once. We were in Eejupt for a half-moon cycle doing some work on weselves, a group of we’s that were helped along to gain further in-sight into weselves by a very experienced guide. We did things like float down the river Nill at dawn, chant on the roof tops at night directing we voices to the stars, and whilst we were there we decided to go on a tour of the pyramids. When in Romm and all that, or in this case Eejupt. Neaf smiled and gave a little exhale laugh through Neafs nose. Neaf liked Aites light-heartedness and how Aite peppered Aites words with slight comedic references. Aite continued. So, we got up early to make the first tour and found we were the only we’s there. The tour guide was quite surprised by this too as it was normally busier than that. Anyway – Aite took a sip of tea – we were led down into the pyramid, down a small staircase of stone with a rope for railings that seemed to go on for ever. The stairs occasionally took sharp turns back on itself so the whole stair case was a zigzag down into the heart of the pyramid, the burial chamber itself. Once we were all inside, we stopped to gather weselves, rubbing we sore knees, looking at the walls and discerning the size of the place. It was not much bigger than this room – Aite gestured to the room with Aites hand – I suppose the dead don’t ask for much. It’s the living that build pyramids for them, I’m sure the dead can suffice with less. Neaf exhaled another small laugh. Anyway, there in the middle of it was an empty sarcophagus. We knew it would be empty, grave robbers got there first years ago of course. Neaf nodded, half closing Neafs eyes in agreement. Once we had all had a look inside the sarcophagus – strangely rounded edges it had, like lots of hands over moon-millennia had smoothed its edges – the guides speak-phone made a crumpling noise of distorted voices. The guide looked concerned and so asked if we could leave we there whilst we went up higher to get a better signal-shot. We all nodded, feeling perfectly happy to be left there without the guide. Neafs eyes widened slightly to indicate a recognition of the significance of this. Aite continued after taking another sip of tea. Once we heard the guides steps fade to nothing, we all nodded to each other somehow knowing what to do and so we turned we head torches off so we were enveloped in the darkness. Aite paused looking distant for a moment, Neaf thought. One of we moved towards the empty sarcophagus and groped for its edges in the dark, and slowly climbed in, lying down feet and legs first then lowering weself gently, like getting into a bath, till we head touched the cold stone and we folded we arms over we chest with we eyes closed. We must have been about five turnings-of-timer each, laying there in the utter darkness, in the sarcophagus. Each of we took turns to do so, waiting without a word spoken between we, understanding instinctively when we were finished so the next we could grope in the dark and find the smooth sarcophagus edges to lower weself into it and lay still in its confines once again. Neaf took this moment to ask softly, How did if feel? Aite looked up directly at Neafs calm, pale and watery blue eyes, melting for a moment into a state of peaceful contentment, feeling the third eye energy-gate in the middle of Aites forehead buzz with a warm glow. It felt like we were melting between thousands of moon-cycles ago into thousands of moon-cycles ahead all at once, we felt like we were expanding and contracting at the same time, we felt minute and colossal – all of this collapsing into the very present so we felt very much there, in the now. It was incredible, but also felt so normal. Neaf nodded, I know, was all Neaf said. Aite paused in memory. Then took another sip of tea.

Today Aite felt like sitting in the chair that faced the window and the little trinkets that adorned Neafs window sill. Aite liked to look at some of the trinkets whilst Aite talked. It soothed Aite to look at the oval shaped ceramic that sat on a flat stone that had a streak of ochre red running around its curvature. Aite was always curious about the small brass cylindrical object, no bigger than a coin, that stood on ten triangular legs supporting a dome at the top with ornate carvings on it, and the azure blue vase that was shaped to a thin brim so only one pollinator-stem could be placed in it. Neaf handed Aite a cup of tea. Neaf sat down gently, placed Neafs tea on the coaster on the table and put Neafs arms on the chairs soft armrests and, as always Neaf was apt to do, let Neafs body relax into Neafs natural sitting position which meant Neafs legs were slightly apart, not suggestively Aite thought, but openly, like Neaf was a part of the chair and the chair a part of Neaf, solid, true and very much weighted to the ground. Aite began. We woke up one morning knowing a memory that we knew wasn’t we’s. Aite thought this statement might arouse a disbelieve in Neaf but then remembered this was probably utterly normal for Neaf to hear. Aite continued in a renewed confidence. Just bolt upright on we bed one morning when we were younger, with this memory. We knew, like we had lived it weselves, although we know this was not we memory but some-we elses. We knew that we had been in a taxee-cart from a long time before, going somewhere but the details of that didn’t seem to matter in this memory. But we were going somewhere in a taxee-cart with a friend and we remembered it must’ve been a party or something because we were wearing a string of pearls and this necklace was special, like we got it from someone special as a gift and so would only wear it on special occasions. Aite paused to take in the satisfying spherical shape of the brass ornament, thinking of the spherical pearls and how smooth their surface was. Aite thought about the pearls like Aite owned them, knew them to exacting details, whilst simultaneously knowing Aite never owned a necklace of pearls, let along any necklace for that matter. Aite preferred adornments that sat on window sills, not around necks. Aite never really knew why. Neaf could sense a slight derailing in Aites thought process and so coughed slightly which Aite heard as “go on”. And so went on, There was something unexpected up ahead, on the trail. The taxee-cart operator had to suddenly break causing we to lurch forward. As soon as we had any moment to realise what was happening another cart came slamming into the side of the taxee-cart. The moment is blurry but we know it was a bad accident, one we was in health-hospital for weeks, one that changed things for we, forever. Neaf could see the frown on Aites brow, the disturbance of the memory folding itself in to Aites skin, the tea undrunk, and so took this moment to pour a beam of calm into the room through the energy-gate on Neafs forehead. Aite eyes had been fixed on the brass object, then sensing something shifting in the room, like a dog changing position and letting out a sigh in enjoyment of the new found comfort, moved Aites eye to the smooth contours of the ceramic. Aite remembered Aites tea and took a long sip. Neaf smiled. Those pearls were embedded into we skin, we were later told. The surgeons had to prize them out with tweezers. Aite seemed to find this mildly funny, let out a small laugh and said, We’ve always hated wearing necklaces. Neaf let the pause of recognition hang in the air a little. And then asked, Is it important to keep this memory? Aite took another long sip of tea, enjoying the warmth wind its way down to Aites stomach, imagining, for a moment, the liquid was a ball of light radiating outwards to every part of Aites body, to all the extremities and back again. Aite felt a profound sense of relaxation, like every muscle was in agreement with each other, no aches or strange joint pains, just sweet release. Aite was in awe of the feeling, at the same time feeling right, like it was right to feel this way. Like that was the natural feeling of a body, not tired and crumpled, a little nauseated at times. Aite marvelled and let out a small No. And louder, No, this time looking directly at Neaf, it’s not important to keep the memory. Neaf nodded with a twinkle in Neafs eyes and a grin that seemed to embody sincerity. Aite placed Aites hand on Aites neck, feeling it to be smooth and free of any ornaments.

This day it was Neaf who walked first into the room and set Neaf down on the chair closest to the door, which struck Aite as slightly strange, it meant Aite had the choice of sitting in Neafs chair or not. With this choice Aite was hot under the collar with confusion and worry. Neaf could sense this and so indicated for Aite to sit in Neafs chair anyway, which Aite did carefully and noticed a cup of tea ready and waiting for Aite on the table next to the chair. Aite wasn’t even sure if it was polite to take a sip, it looked like Neafs usual cup. Aite looked from the cup to Neaf and could see the serenity had faded from Neafs face to one of strain, weariness and almost fear? Aite pondered. Just as Aite was about to start Aites story, even though it didn’t quite seem like the right time to bring this one up, (Aite had rehearsed the beginning on the way there as Aite wanted to remember the string of events in the right order) Neaf held Neafs hand up to indicate silence. This shocked Aite. Weren’t we here for Neaf to hear we’s stories and not the other way around? Aite thought. Neaf began to say, eyes pinned to Aites, It is time Aite told Neaf about the Book of Doubt. All the breath seemed to be knocked out of Aite, this was not something Aite ever thought Neaf would say, as Aite was forbidden to talk about it, plus how did Neaf know? It was drummed into Aite from a very early age, the pages in that book must never be said aloud, learned by heart, but never spoken by tongue – Aite heard Aites guardian say, remembering how Aites guardian would wish Aite goodnight by placing a kiss on Aite’s forehead but never before saying those words first. Neaf knew this too, surely knew the Book of Doubt was never to be divulged by mere we’s voices alone. Neaf looked at Aite again, this time leaning forward, You don’t have to tell me with your voice. But you have to tell me all the same, so you must picture the pages of that book, every single one, and put that in your mind so I can see it. Leaning in a little further, I have to know what’s in the Book of Doubt. Aite could see this now, clearly, her guardian said those words could never be spoken by tongue but by mind-sight, yes, of course, and of course it would be Neaf as the we who would ask! This was all falling into place in Aites mind, all the memories, all the stories, all this time it was Neaf who is the next carrier of the words of Doubt. Neaf! Ha! Aite felt a huge sense of relief flooding through every sinew of Aite, every pore seemed to radiate with a sense of joyful liberation, the Book of Doubt could be passed on and Aite could recline back in to a feeling of contentment with no guilt or shame anymore. What a magnificent feeling! Aite, smiling, nodded to Neaf, took a sip of tea and began.

All possibilities is reality

In this universe – which one, the inhabitants of the universe will never know – there is a woman who sits alone in a room. It is a room made of stone. The room is round, with white washed walls and a round rug with an intricate pattern of geometric and organic shapes woven into its thick texture that sits exactly in the middle of the room. There is a narrow window set back into the wall that faces south. On the window ledge, which is as thick as the thick stone walls, sits a wide candle whose flame burns a pale yellow in the south facing day light. In the middle of the woven rug, on a large un-patterned cushion, sits the woman with her legs folded under herself, in what she remembers someone calling, ‘the lotus position’, although she has never seen a lotus in her life to see if it resembles such a thing.

Next to her, on a coaster, on the rug, is a glass of water. The woman is quite tired, the broken sleep with a strange dream about a taxi crash and the sound of pearls hitting the taxi floor, filled her mind all morning. However, she now feels comfortable, but if she was asked – which she doubts she will be – a little cold. It is November after all, and there isn’t any means of heating in the room (which was a slight disappointment to her, if she has to be honest – which she doubts she will be – when she was first shown the room). Even though she remembered to bring her woollen socks and in-door jacket, as was specified in the what-to-bring list – which she now doubts she read properly – she didn’t feel they were making much of a difference as she has been sat still for most of the day. Nevertheless, she thinks I am here now, brushing these slight inconveniences aside. She takes a sip of water.

As she was instructed some days before, she closes her eyes. She starts to feel calm and lets the mantra come into her mind naturally and effortlessly.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over……..

…..there it is – the faint breath of the universe, breathing in and out, slowly, in and out. There is the slight warm glow on the front of my forehead that pulsates to the back of my head and back round to my throat. There is the uncanny feeling of time slowing down, or is it speeding up? There is the feeling that my consciousness is slipping further down into my body, but is also extending upwards, far beyond the limits of my body. There is the feeling of restful alertness, I’m not fully awake but, I am not asleep either. My mind is freely doing its thing; drifting between thinking and a kind of numbing of thinking? There is the feeling of spreading outwards and collapsing inwards simultaneously, of being at all scales. I’m neither mighty nor tiny. There is the feeling of tapping into something benevolent, enmeshed, abundant. There is the feeling of being hitched to everything else, simultaneously. It’s kind of lovely. I like it. Connecting to this strange, dark universe as it moves around, with and through me, if I can call me, me, envelopes me with a certain doubt for what I know to be me. But I think, now that I am residing in this space, now I am in the now, I am a little more contented with the unknowable, with this mystery, with this doubt, with….

……over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

There is a little ping of a small bell coming from below, reverberating up the spiral staircase that attaches the room to the eating hall downstairs.

Ah lunch, she thinks, great. I am a little hungry.

She lets her eyes adjust to the contours of the room, to the contours of this reality. Unfolding her legs, she feels their mass again, the circulation of blood, the contact of her feet on the floor. She gets up and stretches her arms above her head looking out of the window – the landscape runs into a distant grey hue, merging with the grey low slung sky – and lets her arms swing back to her side, breathing out a long sigh that causes the candle flame to go horizontal, fizzle to a tiny remnant and almost extinguish, before it springs back up again.

  • Amy Winstanley

Edited version of my Master of Fine Arts Thesis, 2019

Water (flowing - shivering - singing)

There was something gestural about the way the water fell in to the pool, the white froth dancing hectically around where it went in. I could see fine bubbles being pushed in to the dark water and then alighting again on the surface in a mess of white and brown. For such a torrent of activity, it is always surprising how calm the water is mere yards away. This was peaty water, dense with silted earth and minerals that it felt almost soft to touch. It was brown as strong tea when I cupped it in my hands, black as Guinness when I looked at it from above. This made it somewhat scary to enter, my eyes had to adjust to see the rocks that sat beneath the surface of the shore. My feet slid a little on the silted stones disturbing the fine brown dust, ruffling it up into small clouds before settling back on to my feet.

It was hot, a hot day for Scotland, a day of jubilant sun and fluffed clouds that sat high, seemingly not wanting to move. Birch trees, oak, rowan and ash clung to rocks above, reaching over the waterfall and pool in an attempt to meet the branches on the other side. The sun placed shapes upon the water’s surface of the gaps between the leaves which penetrated a little in to the darkness of the water at diagonal shafts, making the impression of thin moving stalactites just under the surface. This place had activity, but also peace. Despite the serenity, I hesitated. I had swam these dark Galloway waters all of my life, but now the indeterminate bottom of the river bed seemed to rise up to approach me, lodging a ball of fear in my throat. All manner of ridiculous notions swam through my mind, “What if there was something that sucked me under? Nobody would know I was here.” My bike was hidden in the small strip of woodland half a mile away and I hadn’t told anyone where I was. I felt as naked as my body to the exhilarating fear of the idea. “All that would be left of me would be my meagre pile of clothes underneath that tree.” But as fast as these thoughts came they left as the repetitive clash of the waterfall seemed to shout in urgency. I plunged in.

Galloway is abundant with water: there are rivers and streams, waterfalls and pools, bogs and lochs, estuaries, battered shorelines and beaches, reservoirs and of course, lots of rain. In the 1930’s the Galloway Hydro Scheme was introduced and the rivers of Loch Doon, Water of Deugh, River Ken, Carsfad, Earlstoun, Clatteringshaws and later Tongland were dammed to create Britain’s first large scale hydro-electric complex. Every few years they have to carry out maintenance work on the dams and in order to do so drain the water from the lochs to inspect the side of the dam that normally sits beneath the water. When this happens I am giddy with excitement to walk down to where the original river flows. I am transfixed by the apocalyptic scene, all brown and grey with mud and sludge covering the old fields, the rocks surrounding the original river and the river itself, winding through the horror of the scene with complete indifference. I can see the stumps of trees that were felled before the water arrived, petrified in time, and the stone dykes where the fields would have continued down; even the seeds of grass from the old fields spurt forth a new attempt at life now there is oxygen and light. Geese wade out into the mud, my boots are caked and I stand where millions of tons of water would normally be. It was less than a hundred years ago that this river was submerged, will the dam still be in use in another hundred? Would it be dismantled and the original valley claimed back? Would there be some new technology in place of it, continuing the assertion of humanity’s power over this part of the world? What about in a thousand years? Ten thousand? The valley that is imprinted on my mind as surely as my name, would be something I know not were my spirit to pass through it in an age away.

I remember hearing about an elderly woman in the village who could recall what the valley was like before the river was dammed. She said it was called the “Fairy Glen” on an account of the beauty of the place holding a mystical, somewhat awesome quality. Perhaps this ‘beauty’ the woman held in such esteem, was something felt that could not be explained, and the word ‘fairy’ had to suffice within place of something enigmatic. It makes me think about what we perceive as ‘beautiful’ and therefore should be saved. The ‘beauty experience’ being something that happens almost involuntarily. Maybe the beauty experience is like a little death warning light that goes off in my experiential space. Maybe beauty is death, in a way. It’s a reminder that things are fragile, because when one thing envelops another thing, that other thing might be overwhelmed or destroyed. So when I experience beauty, I am coexisting with at least one thing that isn’t me, and doesn’t have to be conscious or alive, in a non-coercive way, in which the possibility of death is vivid yet diluted and suspended.[i] I like this idea as I stand on the mud of the “Fairy Glen” suspended between three times; the present view of the original ‘beautiful’ glen sullied by humanity’s intervention and made ‘ugly’, enfolded on to a past of the very glen I see but don’t see, and the future of the glen how I normally see it, as I know it will be in a few weeks’ time when the water rises to cover it up once again.

It was always by water where we would play, somehow drawn to the edge where woodland met the river, where sea met sand or stone, where river met the sea, where the loch met the field. Our friendship was forged by the water’s edge. In the hours spent by a woodland burn that ran dipping and twisting through the trees to the rest of the world. Where rotting sticks, branches, moss and leaves, the flesh of the woods, were our toys. Here was our world condensed to waterside and earth, but this only opened up our world to a tangled mesh of interconnectivity. Our compass started from there and spread out with the movements of the weather. It was by water we excavated the riches of our imaginations. We created islands and continents, sought shelters and made homes, mapped our lives and lost our bearings until hunger and cold made us find our way back to the village.

It was by water, twenty two years later, I took you to camp with me by the softly winding river those two April days. It was by water I found solace in the world I knew there, the comfortable familiarity, the woods that seemed to remember my name, at a time when I was utterly lost.

[i]“Maybe the beauty experience ……vivid yet diluted and suspended” Being Ecological, Timothy Morton, p130-131

Weather (changing - listening - tangling)

When I walk in the wind, along these cliffs, I am reaching for a bounty of sensation. I want to stand and listen to this part of the world, how it sounds; the sea, the wind. How the colours match and mingle, the patterns in the rocks, the ripple of stratum, scars of millennial activity, giant fissures. I want to hear the song of the landscape. Is this nontheistic spirituality? An alternative to a religion? Am I ‘romantising’ nature in the sense that I am wanting it to be something overtly powerful, sublime and therefore separate from me? Am I even doing that? I just want to remember what feels true and real. Although that should be something I question too, why is this ‘wild nature’ more real to me than cycling to college? Than sitting here typing this at my laptop?

On these cliffs I am poised on an edge of death that only makes me feel more alive; one slip, one stumble, one step too late and my body would be a mere bag of crushed flesh and bones strewn on the rocks below. In Bjork’s song of such things, every morning she would throw cutlery and car parts over the cliff and imagine what her body would sound like as it smashed against the rocks, a sensation to feel happier that she is safe and in the world before her lover wakes up.[i] The wind and cliffs brews these thoughts, because I am so, so small against natures might and there is something wonderfully comforting in that. To be at the mercy of something so unpredictable, to be next to a precarious line of safety and a freefall to death is to put literally yourself in to perspective; in to a scale that defiles our sentimentality, our preposterous routines and consummation with our beliefs, our perpetual struggles and light ecstasies.

We walked down to the beach to spread some of my mums ashes and the clouds had been tumultuous all morning, grey and rolling rain around so wet it covered every angle of tree and grass. We couldn’t make much conversation and reading felt like a distraction. Our minds stood on the edge of something unsteadying as the wind. Our indecisiveness as to when to go out seemed to gather a storm. The clouds concealed most of the island of Rhum’s mountains so its low body appeared to sit patiently on the seas surface till it could get up and move again. “Maybe we should just go, now, and if it’s raining when we get there we will just have to do it anyway,” it was suggested. The dice were cast, a decision made. Now or never.

When we were walking along the beach to where the river splayed itself on the sand and spread about the pebbles and rocks ever thinner until it met the sea, I felt that all the thirty two years of playing, swimming, sitting and walking on this beach seemed bound up in to this one moment. I could feel all the memory imbued in the landscape, in the landscape that held a whole childhood of memories, in a landscape that shaped an adulthood; the landscape was the memory. The two went hand in hand, woven in to a tiny piece of the colossal web. And now my mum’s ashes would mix and mingle with the sand. “How similar the two seem,” I reflected, “her ashes look just like Laig bay.” And with that, as the flicker of the thought illuminated my cognition, rays of the sun pierced through the grey of the clouds and we said our partings, each scattering a part of her ashes to the river and the sea in a glory of fleeting light. A bird, a common plover, watched us the whole time and only flew off out over the sea towards Rhum once all the ashes where cast.

Maybe we do personalise the elements, maybe we want to see a connection to the people we loose and the ‘nature’ we revere. Maybe my mum’s spirit parted the clouds that day and she was in the bird listening to us which then flew away. All I know is that when I enter in to a deep relationship with a place, to Laig Bay, to the Isle of Eigg, to the Hebridean landscape, over many years and with many friends, family and lovers, I can’t help but feel a part of my spirit lives there just as much as a part of my mum’s spirit does, and if this is not comforting I don’t know what is. This is perhaps close to indigenous ‘Place-Thought,’ which is the non-distinctive space where place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated. Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts. [ii] It is a sacred connection between place, non-human and human that is passed down from generation and affirmed through experience, ritual and story. This agency affects me, affects my loved ones and provides a place for our profound emotions to reside. We go back to it as matter and sweep out over it as spirit.

The clouds where high, the sun strong, the wind was fierce but reliant. The breakers on the waves dazzled a brilliant white, potent with energy. Shadows moved with stealth as they curled and slid over the neighboring island and the sea between. The sound of the waves were prominent once again, not insipid like the day before. Nor mighty like an incessant roar but rolling, consistent, hopeful, assertive. There is a security in the plain language of the sea, a kind of mad consistency. There, true. I can read it with ease. It doesn’t interfere or intrude. But the opposite. It provides an opening, a sort of introduction to thought. I stood on the solidified flow of lava, now shaped to a satisfying oval where the sea combed the seaweed that clung to the volcanic rock, washing it through, smoothing its texture so it danced to its tune; the consorting seaweed and the sea, the serenity of the movement, their compatibility flowing like no end will come. I looked out over the water, the never ending undulations of the surface of the sea and all those colours it seems to magically hold: all those blues, purples, silvers, whites and greys, greens. I had an urge to hover above and place a palm on the rippling surface, to feel the hello of the water as gravity pulled it up and down, up and down. I shut my eyes and tuned my ear to the water’s pliancy. I could hear my mum singing.

A breeze caught my hair loosening a strand which flew away to add to the sand. “I am here,” I thought, “I am in the world, with the lid off. There is a universe in my pupil. My skin can flake off to the ground where I stand and it doesn’t need swept up, it nourishes the grass. It helps create the next blade. This air is so refreshing here, like taking a long sip. It is everywhere, this air. It is not stifled by four walls. I am standing in no room, or the biggest room, that has no end or beginning. My skin feels alive, my bones feel part of the rocks.”

[i]From the song Hyperballad by Bjork, released by One Little Indian records in 1996

[ii]“the non-distinctive space…..extensions of these thoughts” Indigenous Place-Thought and agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!), Vanessa Watts, 2013

Rock (staying - speaking - imagining)

You show me continents

I see the islands

You count in centuries

I blink my eyes[i]

The Lewisian gneiss is some of the oldest rock in the world, formed in the pre-Cambrian era which makes up almost 90% of the geological history of the Earth.[ii] I mulled this word over in my head, “pre-Cambrian,” repeating its satisfying roll as I walked down to the rocky shoreline. I stood on the gneiss, with the waves forcing themselves upon the unforgiving rock, the meeting of sea and land so brutal, so repetitive, so meditative. The low winter sun had almost no heat in it. But it shined off the surface of the rock and sea for a silver effect that kind of burned my eyes. It felt like I might actually be looking at a pre-Cambrian sea, a time of almost no life forms, no sounds of birds, no grasses or mammals, just sea and rock, sun, weather. Alien, but familiar. Rock that is older than thought.[iii]

I picked small rocks from the pebbly beach round the corner from this house, from the side of the gorge by that waterfall in Canada, from the bottom of that clear blue pool I swam in Corsica, from the side of the road where we stopped for lunch that time. They collect dust on my shelves or soil in my plant pots. Some are small enough to be kept in the pockets of my jackets so I can caress them at will whilst no one notices. I have an oval rock that sits on my bedside table. I don’t remember where I picked it up from but it is the size of my palm, flattened to about half a centimeter and so luxuriously smooth I like to flip it over in my hand as if to remind myself with each turn how curved the edges really are. This is the stone I place on my floor to alert myself in the morning of the important thought I had in the night. I don’t poses these rocks, I am only borrowing them until I fade away from memory and they be placed somewhere else to eventually dissolve to sand.

I am remembering, when I was fourteen, the pebbles I carefully selected to paint a set of Runes on to. I convinced myself each one had significance and therefore should be handled with reverence. I remember when I was eleven, the rocks my dad placed carefully over the tiny grave of my cat to mark where she lay at the bottom of the garden. And the small granite rocks that are placed on the graves of many in Bragar on Lewis that bear no stone masons mark to say who lies beneath. This is only known through word of mouth. I fancied they looked like the stumps of granite teeth not yet pulled out in amongst the grave stones of later bodies.

Today I crouched under a large boulder of granite that sat proudly on top of a small cliff. Not really to get shelter from the rain but just to look at the sea and landscape from its point of view. It was a shelter for sheep, I could tell by the way the grass was worn about the base. The angle of the rock meant it looked like it would only take a breath as easily as blowing out birthday candles to wake it from its ancient slumber and start rolling over the cliff. With me right under it. Shuddering at the violent thought I got up and moved on.

Rock that is older than thought. Rock that is a heavy mass of history yet vulnerable to the attritions of time.[iv] Rock that is a magnificent instrument of story.[v] Rock that leaps to eons and flattens our present. Rocks speak to me, I am drawn in to their orbit, they are vital players in the world[vi] as things, non-humans and humans overlap in the tangled mesh of everything. They are not inert matter but lively forces, communicating with us across deep time[vii] with the visible strata of the different ages of the world. Rocks hold dizzying geological time frames that the human mind can’t fully comprehend. Geologist have to tune themselves to the concept of deep time. They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on the earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky. They see the thin band in which are the all but indiscernible stratifications of Cro-Magnon, Moses, Leonardo, and now. Seeing a race unaware of its own instantaneousness in time, they can reel off all the species that have come and gone, with emphasis on those that have specialised themselves to death. Tuning your mind to a time scale that is the planets times scale is a kind of companionship with the earth.[viii]

Rocks play with my sense of self, pulling my consciousness to a level where I am a water molecule floating past their birth in a volcanic spill; a fire, a water. I am ice pushing a boulder out over tundra to an outpost of nowhere. I am grit in the teeth of a mountain, scree that cascades down to a river bed where algae will take hold upon my surface. I am a seabed of crushed crustaceans smoothed and polished now I am a column of a building. The streets of Glasgow have plenty of Permian and pre-Cambrian rocks propping up banks and museums, institutions and consumerist heavens. People busying themselves past monstrously huge time gaps between them and the environment they confide their reality in. After all, the human-chimp boundary occurred as recently as six million years ago, which is last week from Earth’s point of view.[ix]

Companionship with the earth; does this require donning geological lenses to oscillate between millions or billions of years and the beating of my own heart? Imagining it anyway, without proper geological knowledge, is that not a way to travel in time? Is this a worthwhile companionship? I’ll place my oval rock by the bed to remember this in the morning.

[i]From the song Ocenaniaby Bjork, released by One Little Indian records in 2004


[iii]“Rock that is older than thought”, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shephard, Charlotte Peacock quoting Nan Shephard, p224

[iv]“vulnerable to the attritions of time.” Mountains of the Mind, Robert MacFarlane, p43

[v]“a magnificent instrument of story”, Islands of Decolonial Love, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, p132

[vi]“vital players in the world”,Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett, p4

[vii]“They are not inert…..with us across deep time”,Speaking Substances: Rocks, Dana Luciano, p2

[viii]“They see the unbelievable swiftness.…is a kind of companionship with the earth” Basin and Range, John McPhee, p134-135

[ix]“After all, the human-chimp…..from Earth’s point of view” The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton, p89

Darkness (looking - adjusting - connecting)

When I stepped out of the small bothy I left behind the heat and light, comfort and human, graspable proportions of furniture and floor, books and rugs. The dark outside was thick, it almost felt like a being in itself, something I could never fully understand or get to know. But after a few minutes I could begin to discern the outline of the cliffs above, and I recalled in the book I had just put down that no matter how dark it is outside, even with the absence of a moon, the sky is never as dark as the landscape. It was a comforting thought. I can always look up and see a sky meeting an earth. I began to walk. All my attention was in my feet. I had to let them read the ground for it was uneven and it felt like I was walking on a surface I had never stood on before. In the dark the edges of the trees, the volume of the bushes, the mounds of tussocks, the ripple of the burn, all take on a life. I feel their presence like something is looking back at me, keeping an eye on where I go, maybe changing form when I have moved on. After thousands of years, we’re still strangers to darkness, fearful aliens in an enemy camp with our arms crossed over our chests[i]. In the darkness I am burrowing through the very bones of existence. Something primal is awake in the landscape and in me. My senses are in a different gear; grounding my stake in to the very earth I sleep on, I am as present as the child learning to stand, the darkness waking me from my heavy slumber of usual routine and I have to enter in to a new relationship with the world. Like the child I have to learn to balance, to navigate, to see a recognisable world that is all but unrecognisable. We push at the darkness with our blazing light, with our laughter, but it is undeniable as death. When I look back up at the bothy I see how the dark sees me and I realise, in those small four walls I am surrounded by light surrounded by darkness.

We had been in the caravan for most of the day, deciding not to decide on what to do or when, enjoying the company of each other’s silence. The evening stretched its limbs and settled in to night. We stood outside, the cool air rasped our slumbered eyes. Though summer, the night there reminded us autumn is but a day dream away. He lit a cigarette and the smoke made its journey up over our heads. I looked skyward, over the dark landscape to the outline of the cliffs and further up at the stars. The moon rested on the top of the horizon like it had found where it would sleep for the night. The stars were few but more would come, and more did when my eyes adjusted to the deep hues of the night sky. “From this view,” I thought, “I could be looking at any age within the history of humans as agricultural beings, for that is not long enough to shake the heavens from their seats. Only about 12,500 years,”[ii] I thought. The Sgurr, a jutting lump of rock making up the backbone of the island, protruding out of the land like a defiant fist, is actually an inverted valley. When the volcanoes that make up Rhum spurted out their fury, the volcanic lava and ash flowed and landed in between basaltic cliffs that had been carved by a river. The pitchstone lava cooled and over millennia the softer basalt stone on either side eroded away to leave the mass seen today.[iii] With that thought I put my hand on his shoulder, as though to steady myself from the very notion. It takes just one tiny second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.[iv]

The two of us arrived at the Callanish stone circle late that short January day, when twilight was stroking its velvet hand over the landscape, rendering all things darker, strange; as though walking into a dream anointed with slight fear, slight amazement at the familiar slipping into the unknown. We walked slowly weaving our paths in and around the stones. The seeming permanence of them, each one a distinct character, each one with a trillion stories. To touch them with our boney fingers was to feel time fold in on itself – our hands were touching ancient hands that hewn the stones from the ancient earth. Our bodies felt like mere vessels embroiled in a dance of intimacy with this ancestry. Our new feelings of love; a quivering thing that is wild and burning, unsteadying, stretching out beyond the horizon, slipped and slid in and out of the gaps between. The ancient next to the fleeting. All those rituals performed here, all the meaning given to the stones and the land, all the strength and might of muscle used to shape a minute part of the vast Earth. All accentuated our want for each other forcing us to kiss like hungry wolves, to create a prelude to later tenderness.

When we returned to the cottage, now enveloped in darkness, the door creaked open and we saw loves wide eyes staring back.

I dreamt I saw my mum walking past a window. I was in some place that was familiar but not mine. It was dark outside, perhaps an afternoon winter darkness, where it is not yet night. I could see her coming up the path by the house, I knew she was not alive and that it must be her spirit, I knew I was dreaming yet I knew it was her, fully her with all her subtle mannerisms and nuances, her clothes and how she walked. I felt a wonder and excitement that it was her coming to visit me, even if it was just in my dream. I couldn’t take my eyes from her, I wanted to drink in every second. She gave me a small wave as she passed the window, acknowledging me but moving on, like she was aware she needed to come in and say hello, but she was just off to do something else first. I woke up. A couple of days later I relayed the dream to my auntie on the phone, “Some say this is the illusion and the other stuff is real” she said.

That night in the cottage I awoke in the dark as sleep slipped away like a snake making its way out of frame. The irresistible tide of love swelled within me. Maybe the cold outside would steady me. Leaving him sleeping, I put on my robe and stood outside in the quiet still air. Now we had met, I thought, there was no going back. This love, if it lasted forever, or just a day, would define how I saw the world for the rest of my life.

[i]“After thousands of years….crossed over our chests” The Abundance, Annie Dillard, p160

[ii]12,500 years is about the time humans have been agricultural from the Neolithic era till now. Sourced fromBeing Ecological, Timothy Morton, p72


[iv]“It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.” The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald, p31

Light (being - living - believing)

The interdependence between animated and in-animated matter was so deeply understood by the Blackfoot people that life was felt in everything and death regarded as merely a descriptive name for another way of life.[i]

The day my mum died there was the most beautiful sunset. Strong, bright, burning light of a clear March air. The heather covered granite mounds of the hills silhouetted, sitting as though at the bottom of a sea, met the yellow tone of sky that melted into the watery depths of space. The pink bruised clouds swimming above the line of hills changed like chameleons to the speed of the suns decent, curiously slow, curiously fast. “Mums spirit is leaving her broken body” I thought. The sunset greeted us as we neared home, just over the lip of the hill where the landscape flowed out before us as a familiar face lights up upon meeting friendly eyes; “it is as though mum’s spirit is waiting for us there” I thought. Where land and sky, still loch water fed from running streams, naked birches and their fallen leaves feeding the ground they suckle from, cool evening dew dots on the tips of birch branches, moss covered oak limbs twisting for sunlight, stone dykes built with cold hands slipping over the brows of fields, the house tucked neatly into the angle of the hill, the birds that peck around the pots of dormant flowers my mum planted, the silent piano, the earmarked books, the stuff she put away days before, the dust. All were waiting for us. There but with a deep absence I couldn’t yet fathom.

Perhaps death is a movement from one state into another, and in a sense death is a term for when a thing actually and wholly becomes its surroundings.[ii] Where body moves to matter and consciousness moves to spirit. Where our parts become the whole, where one door closes and another door opens.

The light right now is a melting of baby pink, mauve, peach, blue with a hint of green, this all in the sky, all in the water. The sea has slipped in to the cove almost before I could notice. We were picking cockles from the sand to eat; the infinite surprise that there is a being here and that it has this particular form, so small or so large, this form that is also a tension and a warmth, a rhythm and a grasping: some life has been caught and condensed, has ended up finding a place in a corner of space-time; the reservoir of existence that connects us to creatures also passes through this universal condition of breathing and fever.[iii]

The light right now is a diffused grey, a sweep of silver, the clouds are rushing to get past, the delicate yellow clouds behind promise flighty winter light if given a chance.

The light right now is a shaft of soft coral peach red that extends its beam on to the flat looking purple mountain, a search light over familiar terrain, accentuating a crevice line here, a shoulder of rock there, till you see everything anew.

The light right now is something serious, it breathes its own life over the battered grasses. It is deepening with every second to an angry blue.

The light right now is a space between the storm, a milky hue, a hug of calm.

The light here seizes your attention, grasps moments and steals you away from sleepy eyes to say “here, you can remember how to live!”

Look over your left shoulder to see the sunset and breathe over your cup of tea to see the sun rise. These are blessings, these should be normal, maybe that is too assuming, maybe not.

The light here is a tension chiseling detail into memory.[iv] I only want to look and look and look. Each new wave of light, shadow, beat of wing, glisten of stone unfurls a small wonder.

And when we walk on the heather, when we strike the insects away, when we cook for each other we love and kill instantaneously. We live this life teeming and abundant with different temporal beings all wrapped and wriggling within its frame. When we deeply acknowledge this there’s no going back.[v] We take the lid off our world and open up to an even bigger one. Our minds swarm with doing. But really we are being. We are transient and overlapping. We are zoomed in to our infinitesimal place in some sort of time. We swell, move, circle, slow and vanish.[vi]

The light is so fleeting in winter on the island, I feel privileged to see it strike at the earth at such low angles, elongating shadows that stretch to fine filaments.

During the writing of this my grandmother died peacefully in her sleep. She was 93. Born in 1925 she witnessed the Second World War, the invention of plastic, mobile phones and the internet. From the roaring twenties to social media, she outlived her husband by 23 years and her eldest daughter, my mum, by nearly 3. She lived a long life.

This is the first day of a new life, another spoke of the rising wheel. But my body passes vagrant as a bird’s shadow. I should be transient as the shadow on the meadow, soon fading, soon darkening and dying there where it meets the wood, were it not that I coerce my brain to form in my forehead: I force myself to state, if only in one line of unwritten poetry, this moment; to mark this inch in the long, long history….[vii]

[i] “The interdependence between….descriptive name for another way of life”, Those Who Know, Dianne Meili, p137

[ii]Taken from “In every single-celled organism there is a chemical representation, more or less accurate, of the realm in which it is floating. A perfect match – exactly the same chemicals – would equal death, which in a sense is a term for when a thing actually and wholly becomes its surroundings” Being Ecological, Timothy Morton, p143

[iii]“the infinite surprise that….condition of breathing and fever” The Animal Side, Jean-Christophe Bailly, p42

[iv]“tension chiseling detail into memory.” Whereas, Layli Long Soldier, p69

[v] Taken from “Realising that there are lots of different temporality formats is basically what ecological awareness is. It’s equivalent to acknowledging in a deep way the existence of beings that aren’t you, with whom you coexist. Once you’ve done that you can’t un-acknowledge it. There’s no going back” Being Ecological, Timothy Morton, p127/8

[vi] Taken from “it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, p145

[vii] “This is the first day of a new life….to mark this inch in the long, long history”, The Waves, Virginia Wolf, p42



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· Bennett, Jane,Vibrant Matter, chapter 1The Force of Things (London: Duke University Press, 2010)

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· David Peat, F,Blackfoot Physics, A Journey into the Native American Universe (London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1996)

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· Dillard,Annie, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974; New York, HarperPerennial, 1998)

· Dillard,Annie, The Abundance (New York: HarperCollins, 2016)

· Dressler, Camille, Eigg The Story of an Island, chapter 1 Origins (1998; Edinburgh, Polygon: 2016)

· Hawkes, Jaquetta,A Land (1951; London: Collins Nature Library, 2012)

· Long Soldier, Layli, Whereas (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2017)

· Macfarlane,Robert,Mountains of the Mind (2003; London, Granta Publications, 2008)

· McIntosh,Alistair, Soil and Soul, People versus CorporatePower (2001; London: Aurum Press Ltd, 2002)

· McPhee,John, Basin and Range (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981)

· Meili, Dianne,Those Who Know, Profiles of Alberta’s Aboriginal Elders (1991; Alberta: NeWest Press, 2012)

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· Morton,Timothy, The Ecological Thought (USA: Harvard University Press, 2012)

· Peacock, Charlotte, Into the Mountain:A Life of Nan Shephard (Cambridge: Galileo Publishers, 2017)

· Sallins,Marshal,Stone Age Economics, chapter 1 The Original Affluent Society (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, Routledge, 1974)

· Sebald,W.G, The Rings of Saturn (1995; London: Vintage, 2002)

· Sennett,Richard, Flesh and Stone, The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 1994)

· Shepard, Nan,The Living Mountain (1977; Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011)

· Wall Kimmerer, Robin,Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,chapter 1 Skywoman Falling (Canada: Milkweed Editions, 2013)

· Wolf,Virginia, The Waves (1931; London: Vintage, 2004)


· Horn, Roni, Among Essential Furnishings, from Interiorsed by Johanna Burton, Lynne Cooke, and Josiah McElheny, Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Sternberg Press 2012

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