top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah McCartney

Ten days illness and isolation and taking time to reconnect with my MA research...

Today I went down to the sea and I swam. The first time for ten days. The sea, the sea. I did miss the sea.

But the illness was a strangely creative time because (once I'd got past the sleeping) I decided to use the time I had been given to transfer all my MA research (November 2019 after the Presentation onward) from paper to digital format. This was partly because I need to start thinking about my extended essay, but also because the university set up now requires my journal to be handed in digitally. I thought this was going to be really difficult and was dreading gathering all the bits and pieces that I'd left lying around, written in my journal, cluttered with practice thoughts, diary and despairing ramblings, in scrawl that occasionally even I couldn't decipher, on my computer and in the cloud. But I methodically gathered together all the research, following up links, re-reading articles, listening to podcasts, trawling through beloved books and finally built a new journal/blog with it all.

I enjoyed getting back into the thoughts I'd forgotten I had! It seems I have strayed over the last 2 years from reading and thinking about death and eco grief to meanderings around how artists respond to extinction, and human relationships, past and present, to the non human world, particularly plants. I've read a lot about trees, mosses and fungi lately. Fascinating stuff.

So now that's all tidy and neat I am ready to carry on. Very satisfying to be putting things away in boxes and trays.... a sort of mind filing.

But I'm taking a break from research now so I can go back to the Bryher sketchbooks. I feel that if I gather everything together here, all will become clear and maybe I can figure out what I have to do with all the noticing. Maybe.

Bryher September 2021, diary and notes from sketchbooks

The Gannet. Popplestones

I return every morning to draw until I have to leave. There was a moment after I’d been with her for many hours when I cried.

Pristine feathers now broken and stained. Bloody and ragged becoming sand and rock. I sit with her. Flies in her eyes. Socket. Colour fading. What remains. Shadow of a being. Examine her battered body. Broken. Decaying. Stone. Beak. Spear. Blood. Feather.

She lived at sea. Gliding effortless over waves. Falling from the sky. A spear thrust. White bird

Wrapped in a shroud of seaweed. Wrapped in wracks. Thong weed, serrated wrack, knotted wrack, bladder wrack. White feathers. Ochre, gold and black wrack. Sand and pebbles. Together becoming sea.

Cold wind I keep vigil. When a man comes over to look I flinch as he touches her. I feel protective. Just a bird. Just a dead bird but I am watching. A connection forms between us, of time and presence. Between flies, air, sea, breathe, bacteria, bones, feather, flesh, mind, eye.

Just a dead bird but I am watching.

The tide takes her higher up the shore each day as the moon waxes. This morning she is half buried, her massive blue beak nuzzling sand. Held between rocks, cradled and wrapped, two crows are strutting about her. They fly off as I get closer. They will be back later.

Life and death. Light and dark.

On the page

ink and no ink.

Wondering why this bird died. There is no fishing line or sign of violence apart from the battering of tide and crows since death. I read that thousands of seabirds are dying on the east coast. Seabirds are in trouble. Guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes. Dead birds. They say it is ‘unprecedented’ They say the birds are starving. They say it's because of climate change. They say we must save ‘our wildlife’. Is it really ‘ours’ to save?

Dressed in golden wracks. Threads woven around her body. Adorned with weed and crystal. Beak buried in sand.

Tomorrow I go home and my vigil will end.

Drawn to the wracks. I want to sit with them. Soak in the early morning colours. Everything is golden, gilded saffron and stained glass. But I have to draw the gannet. Body aching from bending down over pens, my eyes itch. Time to move on. The light has changed. Washed out afternoon.

The tide is out so I wander as far as I can. The mouth of Popplestones is exposed revealing the oar weeds and boulders I swam through earlier this morning. Kelps stick up their hands. Drowning souls. A heron standing where there were seals. Colours are dark and silky wet. Thong weed, knotted wrack and finally kelps. I stay all afternoon exploring pools full of fish, painting the tide coming in. Too many colours and changes. The light and reflections hypnotic. My painting is bad but I stay and am present. Back to the beach for an end of day swim. I have watched a full tide cycle.

Swimsuit silhouetted against a harvest moon. Drinking hot chocolate.

Last morning. Sitting beside the gannet. A heron glides across the pool. Cry echo off rocks. Tide falling revealing thong weed in dramatic sweeping clumps. The draped hair of a drowned giantess. The pool is a mirror with gentle ripples arching in to shore. Swallows low over the surface. Glide wings up. Skimming for insects. No wave breaks the edge. Horizon merges sea and sky. Waiting. Silently waiting. Sad to leave. Knowing I wont come back.

Discovered this word occulting today.

Occulting. The nautical term for a light that flashes on and off and in which the periods of illumination are longer than the periods of darkness.

Occulting Landscape. How land holds grief and memory of past violence

at the same time as being beautifully present. Experiencing closeness and connection through drawing. Also remembering and experiencing past pain.

Home to Cornwall

Taken away from the gannet. Is she still there? Unpacking the memories within the objects I brought home. Looking for threads. Mourning losses.

Drawing the oystercatcher skull.

It is dark. Words echo.

We are all leaving.

Cry when the sea touches.

Cry hearing the wild geese.

See them flying down from the north.

Cry and remember.

The rivers run and the rivers flow.

The rain will always fall.


In a last ditch attempt to stop crying I went out to my studio and I drew. I drew the things I brought back from Bryher.

Stone, shell, bone, urchin teeth, bird skull, shark egg, crab claw, feather. As lines wander, tangle, separate and rejoin I think of mycelium beneath my feet. Taking time to look, to look, to look, to be with, be closer.

I listened to the scratch of the pen on paper. Touched, dry scratched, white. Let liquid black flow across sheets of white, dribbling into pools, fanning out, smudging line on line pool into pool. Liquid blackness.

Dip a pen in ink then scratch ink onto paper and there is no going back.

There is no delete or return.

As lines wander, tangle, separate and rejoin I think of the mycelium and the rich tangle of life beneath my feet. Drawing the oystercatcher skull is a way in. Connecting me to the web of being for a moment.

I read Robert Macfarlanes 'Underland' recently and there was one sentence that jumped out at me and made me wonder 'Is this what I am trying to do as an artist?'

'It is perhaps better imagined as an epoch of loss - of species, places and people - for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope'

Looking for a language of grief in a time that is full of loss?

Maybe drawing is the way to take the time that needs to be taken.


bottom of page