Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Sophie McKeand

Sophie McKeand | 17th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Sophie McKeand:

This past year has been a most beautiful, challenging, mercurial animal of fur, fin and feathers; of land and air, of crow and watersong that called me on a merry dance slow – slow – quick quick – slow across continents. Before traversing what felt like insurmountable landscapes, both internal and external, I sold or gifted all but a very few possessions and moved into van with my partner and our two rescue hounds. Nomadic and free, I swam as a seal off the northernmost tip of Scotland; taking the form of a magpie, I horded sound after sound that shimmered pretty across the waters of these isles; I have met with mountain gods in Ireland and India; hiked a 250km pilgrimage to the Eucalyptus and Pine trees across northern Spain; spent days in my home country of Cymru digging our van out of snow so deep in our home-on-wheels-without-a-heater I questioned if I’d ever feel warm again; felt the November Kolkata heat so fierce I wondered if I’d ever cool again; met with the Himalayan Lepcha people and saw how deep their worship of nature is woven throughout their lives; met forest people campaigning for their spirit not to be extinguished. I worked with plant spirit dreamers, a Bengali songstress who archives the voices of the land, and heretic mythologisers. I beachcombed for sounds on the holy isle of Ynys Môn; time-travelled ten-thousand-years from the prehistoric five-thousand-year-old Bryn Celli Ddu (whose stones align with the sun at summer solstice), to a future proposed by nuclear power station Wylfa B whose toxic waste is the legacy we’ll leave to our grandchildren’s grandchildren five thousand or more years in the future. I question what we are that we would construct such nightmares.

The crøwoman poked holes in dreams until I made manifest her prophecies out loud to an audience at Hatch, Manchester. I wore feathers and black and cawed and crowed. The water cycle became me and I her: political entities that conflux, borderless. I visited and recorded dams in Cymru, Switzerland and India – marvelled at our ingenuity; wept at our hubris clogging the lifeblood of the land.

At night, in the van, I cast the net wide and devour words by Robin Hobb, Gabriel Tallent, Bruce Chatwin, Ursula le Guin, Sharon Blackie, Saadat Hasan Manto, Fatimah Asghar, Tishani Doshi, Yuval Noah Harai, Arundhati Roy, Han Kang, Peter Wohlleben, Clarissa Pinkola Estés; all interwoven with Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of the Seven Rivers – a brief history of India’s Geography, as I breathed life into my Creative Wales Award. By day I foraged dreams from water, land and trees.

The art of Italy inspired with anarchic exhibitions in Parma (Tony Futura & friends) and a stunning retrospective of Marina Abromaviç in Florence, where I was reminded what it is to be completely and uncompromisingly dedicated to your art.

Immersed in the currents of Venice we walked for ten hours straight with no traffic or bikes – slow travel made absolute. I wandered out of myself and returned into myself so many times I can no longer see where I end and the land begins. Perhaps this is more of the madness, yet these days are anxiety-free. Outside Rome our van was broken into and the few valuable possessions we’d kept were stolen, including our prize mountainbikes. The generosity and support of friends and family made tears flow freely – a reminder that although we aren’t in Cymru, we don’t exist in a vacuum. Our lives are still deeply interwoven with the people from home as well as those met on our travels.

This has been a year of weavings and unravellings, of building a day from nothing; of inviting change into our lives, both good and bad and embracing the consequences; of responding to the moment: quick responses in slow time; of slow travel and slow living; of learning to nourish a community aside from narrow geographical confines.

I have called myself a Welsh nationalist even as I question how I can love one mountain more than another; as I travel fluid across borders how can I champion a political stance that draws lines and divides people? I read Jiddu Krishnamurti:

When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.

But Cymru was the first colony. She deserves better than Westminster’s indifference. She deserves to be free, and Liberalism is a failed experiment that allows meaningless crap to flow freely around the world, while people are stacked at borders like unwanted refuse. Does celebrating our differences allow us to build a future together free from hatred? If our differences spring from attachment to a certain piece of land perhaps it is the very act of land ownership that sets people against each other. Perhaps this is what needs addressing. All ownership is theft. We can own the land no more than we can command the sun to stop shining; we are of water, made to flow, to tumble, to experience, to shapeshift, to transcend borders and boundaries, to conflux and learn to share before branching off again in myriad directions. We are magic, if only we could remember that. In the words of PB Shelley: the mists of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. 

Where now are my roots? I was recalled to Ae forest in Scotland where the trees hold deep anger at our lack of imagination. In this place of great spirit in the face of desecration I was shown how to dream my roots back into being. The trees tell me I am rooted in the moment; my roots are now made of fin and feather. All of the world belongs to me, and I to her, there is no place that is not part of me; there is no atom of me that does not belong to the land and in return she asks this: that I celebrate her with my life. My life is my art, this much I must give. And as we migrate slowly through Slovenia and Croatia before venturing down to Greece, I will cocoon away for a winter of writing and dream-watching; weaving and unravelling, I will continue to skim the surface like a dragonfly, devouring words and art like a goat.


You can visit Sophie’s website here, and follow her travels here.