Perception’s gaze- Dr David Borthwick

I know Dave Borthwick almost entirely in a professional capacity. I have never shared a meal with him or even a coffee, other than in a meeting of some kind. Most of our conversations, warm and mutually respectful in character, have been rather brief, scattered among the ‘quotidian duties’ of the workplace.

We first met in the autumn of 2009, when I moved from Lancaster to the University of Glasgow, Dumfries Campus. Over the intervening years, albeit in episodic fragments, I have learned a great deal from him about the field in which he specialises: the intersections of literary writing, landscape, observations of nature, and connections to place.

Quite early I saw Dave hosting an ‘in conversation’ event with a local poet. I was astonished at the polished performative approach he conjured up, which not only allowed his guest to shine in front of the audience, but also seemed worthy of any serious late-night arts magazine presenter. No wonder he has become a regular favourite at the Wigtown Book Festival and its various spin-offs.

As time went on I saw him focus his specialist teaching into a range of authors involved in the ‘new’ nature writing and the area I came to know from him as ‘eco-criticism’. We had occasional chats about walking narratives, and the feminist critique thereof. I became increasingly drawn to Dave’s chosen metier, and did what I could to encourage him in it. He taught courses with titles like ‘reading the environment’ and ‘writing the environment’. I envied the students who signed up for them.

Dave is a good citizen, committed to place and people. He can be seen in the roughest of weather on the Solway shore, watching his beloved Barnacle geese, newly arrived from the far North. He can be found with small groups of enthusiasts in the depths of the Galloway Forest, among the darkest of dark skies. He has led open air discussions around campfires in the Lowther Hills and initiated walking seminars for colleagues on campus. He is the inspiration to countless students, whom he has gently guided to varied paths of their own.

I realise that my learning from Dave has taken place mainly in tiny morsels. That seems consistent with a man who seeks no aggrandisement for his achievements. It also reflects his remarkable ability to communicate within constrained parameters. The most obvious of these are his tweets, which is why in the interview that follows, I concentrate my questions on his use of Twitter, his goals and motivations.

I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the quotidian world of someone in possession of a gaze that is not only deeply perceptive, but also wonderfully generous.

1. You are well known on Twitter for your daily postings, often about the immediate and natural world around you. How did the idea of this first begin?

In 2013 a friend told me to get a Twitter account as a way of keeping up with what writers were thinking and doing and because, they said, it was a fun piece of social media.  At first I was a consumer of others’ content as I wasn’t quite sure how I would use it myself (and who the heck would be interested anyway?).  I had just moved home, though, and didn’t know quite where I was.  I fell into familiarising myself with a new place, its nooks, crannies and quirks, by trying to make a kind of almanac that structured a calendar year.  I forgot to stop.

2. Do you have a particular purpose in posting the tweets and has this changed over time?

My tweets have several purposes for me personally.  The first is that they are stimulated most often as part of a daily practice: to tune into something very specific in the environment and to record it – to be wholly present, if even just for a moment, to what is going on exactly now and which often goes towards acknowledging concerns wider than human ones.  This is also a practice for maintaining good mental health

3. Each tweet is in effect a short poem, can you describe how these are formed, your use/non-use of capitalisation, and the frequent ampersand beginning?

Every tweet is a short beginning.  They are public field notes, I suppose, in a digital almanac.  They are all in one way or another specific to place.  The writer Amy Liptrot describes her location in her twitter bio as ‘Orkney / West Yorkshire / the internet’.  The last of those labels is true of us all now, I think. We are here, but also partly a denizen of a digital place: between the ground and the cloud.

Some tweets are stubs of poems, it is true, and grow a little later.  Other tweets become pieces of prose which I’m starting to publish and which are, broadly speaking, pieces of nature writing.

I was contacted at the beginning of lockdown in March of 2020 by my friend Mike Collier at the University of Sunderland.  He is co-editor of an anthology entitled Songs of Time and Place.  It contains poems, essays, artworks and acoustic recordings all of which will reflect – and even contain – elements of the dawn chorus.  Mike asked me to produce a sequence of 10 poems relating to dimensions of the dawn chorus where I live in Annandale.  These poems (each no longer than six or seven lines) appear at various junctures in the book.  Each began life as a tweet between March and June 2020.  I either went out very early (pre-sunrise) or camped out in a tent in the garden to be woken by the birds (who came really very close as the tent was, in effect, a hide).  Despite the constant low-level anxiety – even grief for a way of life – that I shared with many, it was also something of a stolen season: out at dawn every day, the whole avian lifeworld at noisy, beautiful work before any other human stirred.

I begin many tweets with an ampersand, it is true.  This is a reminder to myself that documenting place cannot really be done.  A day or even a moment cannot really be held in text or image (or even the two combined).  Lyric poems and photographs have in common that they try to evade time by stopping it.  This is impossible, of course, as something else occurred just before or just after the partially-captured moment.  There is always something else – an &, whether you see it or feel it or not.  Too often we value landscapes as static places we want to hold apart from the world.  They do not work like that, however: they are all process and movement – the next movement is always coming, another just gone.

4. What is the relationship between words and images in the tweets?

Each reflects differently on the other and enlarges it (or I hope that they do).  Twitter is a good way of combining fieldnotes as recorded image and text together.  An SD card and a scribbled note are separated.  The form twitter allows permits both to appear together.

5. How does the approach you use in the tweets relate to your academic teaching and scholarship?

The poet and academic Robert Crawford once described his poems as ‘sniffer dogs’ for ideas he then used in his research.  I think this is true of me too.  I am an ecocritic, which means that I study how the environment is depicted in literary texts.  As a shorthand, I study and teach the culture of nature.  Studying seasonal plants and animals does help me to think through some of the topics I cover in class – from the way in which certain animals or plants are depicted, to the way in which human and nonhuman activities interact or conflict.  At a time of environmental crisis, too, writing about contemporary nature is never less than an applied act.  An almanac of the seasons is something different now than it might have been in the past, from shifting baseline syndrome to erratic weather event.

6. Has the experience of producing the tweets caused you to think in new ways, more generally, about the ‘quotidian world’?

Generally speaking, the local and the everyday is often given to mean the parochial, the settled, the routine or the humdrum.  I do not subscribe to any of those descriptions.  The critic Timothy Morton has said: ‘The essence of the local isn’t familiarity but the uncanny, the strangely familiar or familiarly strange. The experience of the local is the profound experience of strangeness.’  If something is strange it also arouses curiosity.  The more I find out about the plants and animals that are my neighbours, the stranger (and more wonderful) they get.

7. Finally, could you share three Tweets and their images, that are particularly special to you?

More about Dave …
Dave Borthwick teaches environmental literature at the University of Glasgow, School of Interdisciplinary Studies in Dumfries.  As time allows he is a tramper of fields and stander in the rain.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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