Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Gormack Burn

Another bank

How do you generate ideas for creative writing? How do you, after deciding upon the theme, develop a story?

My creative spark in Following the River is Neil Gunn’s book Highland River, but the way in which I will respond to it is only emerging to me slowly. What really stands out for me in the novel is the way the main character Kenn explores the landscape of Dunbeath Water, the landscape that frames and framed his childhood experiences. A walk along Dunbeath Water is certainly something I aspire to, but my walk will be very different from that of Kenn’s as I lack the intimate connection with that landscape. My experience of the strath will be that of a stranger.

I thus need another strategy to explore the idea of walking along a river - I need to find a river that I know well. The landscape around my home is infused by rivers. To the south, the river Dee carves its way east towards the North Sea. Contributing to this river are many burns, among which Culter Burn, an important spawning ground for salmon. The papermill that used to dominate life in Culter up to the 1970s has, however, dammed this burn a mile upstream. Last autumn, a fish ladder was installed just behind my house and the first salmon have explored their way up north along Leuchar Burn and their way up west along Gormack Burn. Interestingly, both of these burns find their source on the foothills of Hill of Fare.

To emulate Kenn’s experience of walking to the source of a river with which he is intimately acquainted, I have decided to walk Gormack Burn from its junction with the river Dee to its source on Hill of Fare. Though I have often encountered this burn on my many walks, I have actually never followed its course as such. By taking pictures and making sound recordings, and by writing poems, my experience of following the course of the river is intensified and my awareness of the river is lifted from something I take for granted to something I’m highly aware of.

Earlier this week I did my first walk along Gormack Burn. The poems this walk generated capture observations, atmospheres, thoughts. I expect the walk along the entire course of the burn to take  around six days, and to generate a series of poems. Among these poems I hope to find the spark that will ignite the storyline for my script.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

New arrivals

To get inspiration for Following the River I have been exploring Loch of Skene the last few weeks.

As the autumn evening settles
smoke from scattered chimneys
lies low over fields
cotton warmth
merges with October woods

A walker labours
carved forest paths
to the shores of the loch

The weight of the day’s journey
suppressed by feet
scurrying tired leaves
in storm-strangled groves

Fourteen hours it took geese
to navigate the ocean –
that morning, as they left Icelandic lands
the walker set off
to reach the edge of the water
in time to greet the new arrivals.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

Following the river

A new year, a new beginning.

As the final project for my composition studies with the OCA two years ago, I composed the chamber opera Highland River based on Neil Gunn’s novel of the same name. The idea of journeying – daily journeys, away from one’s childhood landscape, to the source of the river – that is central in this novel  has continued to inspire me. And this was how I started my conversation with Dunbeath Preservation Trust who celebrate the work of Neil Gunn. Two years on this will result in a year-long poetry and composition project around the idea of journeying along a river. Kenn, the main character of Highland River, salmon and geese will be my travel companions. Part of my creative work will take place in Dunbeath, part of in Aberdeenshire river landscapes around my home.

A new beginning. Sparks from previous years have ignited Following the River.

As part of this project I shall be working towards a performance during the annual Light in the North Festival organised by Dunbeath Preservation Trust around the birthday of Neil Gunn in November. In the course of the year, however, I hope to share ideas, compositions and poems in progress as part of performances, readings and walks.

Other blogposts for Following the River:
New Arrivals
Gormack Burn
Poetry as document
Gunn's modern pilgrimage

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst