Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Rob St John

Rob St. John | 26th December 2020

It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of  Rob St John.

A quick felltop stop, feet slowly sinking into the peat, and then off again, half-falling through the heather towards the valley bottom. Like a muddy fledgling chick, arms out, attempting to steady a descent picked out in endless slips and trips. Studs barely gripping the hillside, you give over to gravity: flying, stumbling, sledging, sploshing into thick, dark water. Smiling. 

I’ve been fell running a lot recently. It’s been a weird year for us all, and it’s followed a personal succession of them. The pull of caring responsibilities across generational poles, the latent weight of unexpected illnesses, the wash-up of wandering eyes, the body as a tide ebbing with grief. There’s an attractive simplicity to fell running: you just start, really, barely any gear needed. Return home later, knees bruised, clothing ripped, ankles clogged with the remnants of the bog, shards of peat-stained quartz in your shoe. It’s not really about time or pace; more the stud-marked sounding of a place. I’ve been chasing a still state in amongst loping steps over claggy fells. A calm clarity for miles. It’s here that the steady turn of the season seeps through, too: the gusting of migratory birds and their calls; the bloom and bust of vegetation; the weathering surfaces of paths alternatively picked out in dust and ice. The slow slopes, ankles tugged by the understory: it’s horrendous, then it’s not.

Like a lot of other people I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass this year. I’ve been making slow progress, chapters read in low-light with a sleeping child on my chest; their insights rippling out over the months. I’ve been drawn to her ethic of attentiveness to the small, the particular, and the modest in orientating yourself in the world. Planting vegetable seeds with my little girl in the spring I thought about her idea of tending a garden as an act of faith in the future, as a sense of reciprocal and ongoing exchange with the more-than-human worlds. She writes, ‘This is really why I made my daughters learn to garden—so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.’ The record I’ve listened to most this year is Microphones in 2020. Phil Elverum’s themes of making sense of years of creative process whilst coping with loss and change have resonated. He sings, ‘I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace, buried underneath distorted bass, fog imbued with light and emptiness.’

Over the fell from my house is the highest point in Bowland. On the approach to Ward’s Stone trig point there’s a lone spruce tree, somehow flourishing on the soggy fell plateau. Ornaments left by other runners and walkers appear on its branches each December, a faintly ridiculous glimmering thing lit by the low winter sun. I’m off to try and fit a bauble into my running shorts: it’s all daft, really, and it’ll all be ok.


Rob St John is an artist and writer based in Bowland, Lancashire. In 2020, his band Modern Studies released ‘The Weight of the Sun’ LP and ‘Life Flows in Endless Song’ EP. He made a pair of films for The Lark Ascending concert at the Barbican in the spring, and another for Aerial Festival in the autumn. His collaborative ‘Sing the Gloaming’ LP and artist book was released in the summer.