Caught by the River

The Illusion of Motion

12th March 2021

Kirsteen Bell takes in the turning of the seasons.

We should be doing schoolwork. Instead, my kids are alternating between arguing and staring at their tablets, and I am staring out of the windows. 

Our bird feeder is a couple of metres away, drawing wild birds into our circle. Slung around the metal hanging post is a roll of fencing; it serves as a useful perch from which the birds can jink and peck.

Inside, we are sliding into a hollow of inactivity; its sides gripped, barely, with my guilt at too much screen time. Hauling myself up, I open the brown A4 envelope that arrived yesterday, labelled ‘Make your own zoetrope’. 

The boys run to my calls in the kitchen, causing a gathering of long-tailed tits to burst away from the fatballs outside. Only the chaffinches stay, ignoring our shadowy shapes inside the windows. A flock of 20 males has been brought together by the cold, collectively guarding the piles of seeds and nuts from blue tits, great tits, and coal tits, who perch tentatively on the fence. Even hardy robins are given short shrift. But mostly the chaffinches fight each other, each pair rising in a close crescendo of feathers, creating a twisting whirl of flashing dark and light that curves around a rusted heart.

On the kitchen table are the makings of a toy, once a Victorian marvel, now a curiosity that I can loosely call a science experiment. Fixed images inside a spinning cylinder are viewed through slits in its sides, creating the illusion of motion. Invented in 1865, the device was called a ‘zoetrope’ from the Greek, zoe tropos: life turning. 

Long and thin, our windows look out into a world fading under a loose cloud of snow. The light shifts and some sensed fear scatters the finches and tits – a buzzard on the nearby hydro-pole. As long as the predator is there, the smaller birds will seek refuge in an old oak that sits to the north. Beyond it, past a scrub of birch and alder, the loch is grey. Its surface is smoothed and smirred by the white noise of falling snow, flecked by the bright reflections of drifting gulls. When the sky clears, they twist and turn above the water on helixes of air I cannot see.

We glue a strip of birds and cats, all frozen in various stages of motion, onto black card, then carefully cut along marked lines to make a series of narrow vertical openings around circular walls. A thick black base is pushed into the middle, and wooden cogs are fastened onto its centre. Through this we slide a thin wooden stick, around which the creatures will rotate.

Snow thickens the world, making it wide and blank. Movement is no longer sheltered in shadows; every gesture is visible against the flickering black and white of bare trees. A jay shoots from north to east, into a line of younger oaks that screen the Ben. Branches bob under its weight, sending swirling avalanches downwards. It noses through oak lichen, breast the colour of dried beech leaves, face crusted with snowflakes. These oaks are too young yet to have produced acorns in the Autumn, so this jay must have brought in a stash. Silent now, wary, it drops to the ground behind a moss-covered trunk, out of sight.

Both children and I are enthralled by our creation. We are so taken with the wonder of it working at all, that it is some time before we notice I am whirling it the wrong way: the cat is leaping backwards. I have been watching the bird, whose wings beat on, regardless of its direction. 

Pale sunlight appears slowly over the hill behind us. It stays low through winter’s depths, but now it pierces the rowan and birch that gird our southern skyline. A pair of ravens sit close to each other, oversized songbirds, silhouetted on the outstretched arms of a larger tree. 

One theory as to the way it works is ‘persistence of vision’: the light that forms each image lingers in our eyes for a fraction of a second, allowing fragmented images to blend in our minds. 

The ravens have come closer this year, gliding along our eyeline. One swoops across the top of our half-melted snowman, feathers spread airily. They lift and roll in whichever direction they please.

Long after the kids lose interest, I continue to spin. The bird tilts outwards; it flies and flies and flies in its endless circle. I speed it up, so its wings flap frantically, and the illusion shifts – no, something in me shifts. I am reminded suddenly of a hunting practice I read of somewhere, where live birds become bait: once caught, fine string is threaded through the small bird’s nasal cavities; on release, it flies against the restraint, held kite-like in the air.

The snow does help to entice the boys out. I stand under another oak growing out of the east boundary wall. Ostensibly, I am there to head off any sledges that slide too quickly towards the stone – in reality, I am gazing through the tracery of branches above my head. My lack of diligence is rewarded by my first glimpse of a treecreeper. Quick and methodical, a gravity-defying mouse working upside down along the underside of the branches. It is a miracle I see it at all; its white belly and leaf-mottled back are perfectly camouflaged against the snow-lined bark.

Briefly, the bird was lifted out of its background by the sideways slide of winter sun. Light glances over us, catches the tops of the trees, and then carries on, settling on the clear slopes on the far side of the loch. Above those hills, there is a ghost of a moon, risen early in a still-blue sky. In this faded form I can see right through her, but as the sky darkens, she will gather the light to herself, becoming whole. 


Kirsteen Bell is a writer, poet, and copywriter who lives and works on a croft in the Scottish Highlands. Visit Kirsteen’s blog here, or follow her on Twitter here.