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  • Writer's pictureSarah McCartney

Post MA: a visit to Bryher and a backlog of stuff that needs doing...

Authorial Illustration MA show August 2022, Falmouth University

Is it OK after an intense time of work and study to be drifting a bit? From the high of finishing my MA, which culminated in the printing of three books and a final show, to being overwhelmed by the climate and ecological emergency and everyday life. When I handed everything in to be assessed I wrote why I did the MA and what I got out of it. I wrote:

"The reason I did this MA was to become a full time artist again, to be myself after many years of compromise and to find out what my art practice was all about. I wanted to be totally absorbed in my practice like I was when I was a student in the 80’s, for it be the first thing I think of when I wake and at the end the day be the last thing I think of. For my art to be important and take over. And that’s how it is now only with the peace of knowing where home is and the good feeling you get with age, of being ‘settled in your skin’.

The energy and belief written there seems distant now. But maybe it will take time to process the story that was my time at Falmouth University.

That was the end of August. Immediately after the show I went out to Bryher for a short break. It wasn't intended as a time of study, just a time to relax and be there.

But inevitably I came across avian flu. As I walked around Bryher I found the bodies of ten gannets scattered over three beaches, Great Porth, Stinking Porth and Stony Porth. There was also a shag on Green Bay and occasionally out kayaking we would see a body floating. So different to the single gannet I found and studied on Popplestones last year that became a large part of my MA work. These birds were part of the catastrophe that has devastated sea bird populations this year. Avia flu, a disease born of intense meat production, now sweeping through wild bird populations. I've never seen a gannet breeding colony except on TV but I know they pack in close. The nearest gannet colony to Scilly is Les Etacs off Alderney, in the Channel Islands. How amazing they fly that distances over to Scilly to feed. Gorgeous gregarious gannets.

Strangely this one upset me the most. Four days in to my 'walking vigil' I thought I'd recorded all the birds on Stinking Porth that day. I saw a pink cuttlebone on a rock and felt a release from the sadness. Finding such a sea treasure to marvel at was a joy. But as I walk towards it something caught the edge of my vision. A glimpse of blue that would have been easy to walk past. A small gap in the dark pile of twisted weed revealing a gannet bill. And I wept for the first time. Was it the smallness, the fact I could so easily have missed it and was probably the only person to witness this individual death, was it knowing a body lay under that weight and mass, was it the light shining out from dense darkness? What ever the reason I felt grief for the loss of this one and the thousands unseen, then the whole story of extinctions, biodiversity depletion and all earths losses rolled out before me in a moment and I sat down and wept.

The birds I found had been reported to Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust but the bodies weren't removed for various reasons. I am now gathering the photos and diaries from this time and researching avian flu in sea birds hoping to create something from it all and make visible the loss.

But it is slow work. Since coming back I've been catching up with my deteriorating home and doing stuff that was put on hold whilst I worked on the MA. Then I was a bit ill. But I look back on previous times I have struggled with 'everything' and see I've been here before. I wrote in a post last year 'Everything is cyclical. Our body rhythm and moods ebb and flow like the tides. I'm learning to accept that there are times when I just tread water and creativity ceases or is channeled into everyday things like gardening.'

Sometimes I can't speak but I am listening, wandering being between stories.

This print, from studies I did last year on Bryher last summer, will be in the Falmouth Art Gallery's 'Imagine Falmouth' exhibition, opening 26th November 2022.

For information on what to do if you find a dead bird go to RSPB or BTO website

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