As our run of annual Shadows and Reflections draws to a close, Christina Riley looks back over 2021.
My year began on a pebble beach, beneath icy pink skies and a crescent moon delicately hung above Arran. Everything glittered: curling edges of frozen seaweed, the moon dripping into the water. The pebbles on the beach froze together, no longer sinking and shifting beneath my weight they made me feel like a ghost. More like a ghost. The month felt fragmented, but mushily so…like a film of milk over stale coffee, barely there and slowly splitting. After matching stone to sky in November and December, posting the photographs daily online, I decided to begin afresh in the new year. Using my “real” camera as opposed to my phone. Photographing the pebbles “properly”. Taking more care, paying more attention.
Except I didn’t. Instead, I stopped altogether.
Despite the light lifting, winter’s weight pressed and on January 24th I picked up my phone to resume what I never should have stopped. The dark pebbles on the beach poked out from beneath a dusting of snow. Above, pink clouds were pulled like cotton candy across a cold blue sky. Below, a granite pebble, flecked black and not-quite-white and softly rounded by the sea. Minute by minute, the sun held out a little longer each day. Ochre suns and distant sheets of rain. Quartz. Sandstone. Conglomerate. It all began fitting together again. By the end of the month I held on as Holm Sound carried me to the open shores of Orkney, and the light returned.
The low sun of February diffused through thick grey clouds onto velvety teal seas. On February 6th a local man told me that he, seeing me alone on the beach so often, thought I might be recently bereaved. I laughed, warmed by his curious concern. Why do we associate the sea with melancholy? February 16th, green crests lit up like blown glass. February 21st, the sun rose strong and hot and for a few fleeting seconds it felt like being on holiday, and that was enough. It began setting behind Arran again.
March 3rd, a 0.05m tide let me in on its secrets. I tiptoed over slippery rocks with a quiet air of frenzy, as if caught in the waking moments of a lucid dream. A shocking pink starfish. Purple glazes of coralline algae. Corkscrew furbellows. The middle days of March battered out the last dregs of winter like it was sweating out a fever. Then, finally, the flickering of an approaching spring. A faint heat. March 17th, I got in the water. March 18th, I got in again. And again, and again. I stomped home from the beach with a jumper and baggy jeans over my still wet swimsuit. Feet numb, legs tingling. March 27th, eider ducks. March 28th, gannet.
In April the gorse was aflame. Working away from home for the first time since before the pandemic stirred a physical and mental exhilaration I had missed; we worked all day and in the evening bathed outdoors, watching the sun set behind the Cairngorms with a fire lit beneath us. April 7th, rays of spring sunlight slipped between Arran and Holy Isle. April 9th, air 7 degrees, water 7 degrees. April 16th, the return of sit and stare weather.
By May my search for a home by the sea intensified and, like many people, my priorities had shifted in the past year. No longer did I uncompromisingly seek the farthest edges of the west coast, leaving the company of my friends and family by choice. My hands held crumpled lists of pros and cons and, on May 15th, a midnight blue lobster shell. On May 16th we swam alongside eider ducklings. I held books and dried flowers, installing The Nature Library in Edinburgh for the first time since November 2020. I cradled an empire biscuit over a glassy sea at sunset, listening to what sounded like dolphins.
In June I did find myself back at Scotland’s western edges for two weeks at Knockvologan Studies. Six baby starlings nestled in the shed, breaths and feathers fluttering. Pink granite encrusted with yellow barnacles. Pink limpets. Pink periwinkles. Pink skies. We slipped off the shores of Erraid into kelp and seagrass, and buried a great tit fledgling, too fast and free too soon. June 13th, everything turquoise speckled with coral orange.
July kicked off with a cacophony of swifts, pigeons, herring gulls and blackbirds. Washed up, the moon jellies slumped and slipped between the stones; underwater they bobbed like glass teacakes. I learned that jellyfish are 550 million years old while we are only 200 thousand. Trash left by summer beachgoers regenerated each night and filled the mornings with a sticky scent of blackcurrant. July 22nd, I spread my hands out wide, saltwater rippling between my fingers, and swam towards the horizon. Sounds of laughter and loudspeakers faded into the warm air with each stroke. I paused with my back to the land, eyes level with the surface of the ocean, staring at nothing and everything.
In August I officially said goodbye to Glasgow after accidentally spending my final year there not there at all, making for a cheap farewell as if we broke up and forgot to tell each other. The west coast welcomed me with blooms of meadowsweet exploding in the verges. We swam under hazy skies in the morning, dried off and swam again at sunset. On days I had to work I could now look out my window at fluorescent friends bobbing in the distance. The Beach Today — the result of my first beach obsession — was released by Guillemot Press and I thanked the beach, with ice cream in hand and a friend by my side, for everything it gave me these past two years. August 11th, one of those crescent moons that would snap between your fingers if only you could reach it. August 27th, a pebble gifted by a friend, carried from the Jurassic Coast to find its other half under a hot Ayrshire sky.
By September the sun was setting in the blink of an eye. September 4th, tender conversations between teenage boys overheard on the shore. September 6th, the sea is blue, the crabs are blue, the seaweed is purple. The sea churned up white, blazing with tangled weed. A passerby asked if I was looking for treasure as if I wasn’t already standing on it. As if I wasn’t scooping up butterflies from the sea. This butterfly, oh! I carried it home on the back of one hand, shielding it from the wind with the other. Its wings, closed shut and glittering with saltwater, popped open as they dried and spilled orange into the whole room. With a broken wing it crawling up my arm and nestled in my hair. Its sticky feet impossibly strong. Its entire self impossibly strong. Did you know that there’s a species of butterfly that drinks the tears of a crocodile?
October 3rd, downpours and reflections of a sunset happening elsewhere. October 5th, a sea spider scooped into a limpet shell. October 6th, sunrises getting me out of bed in the morning. October 10th, blue rayed limpets, little luminescent things, somehow sticking their tiny selves onto slippery kelp. On a break from the beach, I stood among the books of The Nature Library and begged those who represent us to read Rachel Carson.
Forgetting the clocks had changed, November began with a sprint to the sea. The skies were pink, purple, blue, orange and grey, unable to figure out the season. November 3rd, air 4 degrees, water 12 degrees. The Nature Library said goodbye to Stills after a year held within its walls, emptying its shelves in the company of Rebecca Tamás, Cynthia Millar and Sekai Machache. The leaders of the world chose not to reduce emissions within the crucial limit of 1.5 degrees by 2100. We continued to swim. November 17th, deeply saturated blue skies and spheres of sea glass. November 19th, the last one, one year since the first.
In December I arrived in my homeland for the first time in two and a half years, reunited with family without screens or time differences. I held my nephew’s hand for the first time. On Cape Cod I held a whale barnacle for the first time. On Martha’s Vineyard I tiptoed the Eastern edges the Atlantic and carefully turned the pages of an unnamed, undated album of seaweed. Over coffee I listened to stories of women who knelt on these shorelines. On Lambert’s Cove, the setting sun matched a fragment of granite in the sand; greyish blue, pinkish orange.
Right now, back home, high winds force the water into deep green waves, curling up beneath my window. Starlings swirl, gulls hover, oystercatchers waddle. The sky is filled with thick grey cloud but for one piercing window of blue. “Sky blue”, as if the sky is always the same colour. I am simply so glad that it never is.