“Thought-provoking” – Belonging by Amanda Thomson

IMG_2022-7-25-193128Belonging is part memoir, part exposition on place, identity and the Self. A mixed-race female, Amanda Thomson identifies as Scottish, grew up in Scotland and still lives there. Of Nigerian heritage from three generations back, her mother, grandparents and great grandparents, too, spent all their lives in Scotland. Her parents met just after WWII, when her father worked as a gardener and her mother as a maid at the same ‘big house’. Her mother still lives in the same house she grew up in and in which Thomson herself was also raised. Of the town, half-way between Glasgow and Stirling, where she grew up, the author writes:

“Kilsyth was a solidly working-class town that in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century was known for weaving and mining. Across from the old Victorian primary school, which my cousins and I remember for its bicycle sheds and the rats that scuthered under floorboards, was Shuttle Street, and I can vaguely remember the line of white weavers’ cottages found there, though they were demolished when I was still at primary school.”

Unsurprisingly, Thomson’s backstory is a major preoccupation, because her appearance and dreadlocks inevitably raise questions wherever she goes. She says she has experienced mild racism and homophobia but has enjoyed a largely happy life in which her skin tone has not presented her with serious biases or barriers. It is important to get these things out of the way since it puts Thomson’s position into context yet allows the reader to move on quickly to the crux of her narrative, which is not only about identity and the belonging of the title, but about nature and art which have made the author who she is.

Early on in the book Thomson explains what shapes her as a creative:

“My interests in place and nature have always motivated my work as an artist and writer and, more recently, they have become entangled with questions of family, belonging, landscape and home. The process of making art and writing are fascinating and mysterious to me. What grabs and holds you? What sits with you and becomes a story or an essay, or an etching? How do we make sense of the seemingly disparate parts of life, connecting past to present, or one year to the next?”

The author describes several of the nature-related volunteer positions she has taken on over the years. Counting the number of Scots pines in the Abernethy forest, in Strathspey, in the Scottish Highlands, where she has lived most of her adult life and takes daily walks. Tracking and tagging billed crows and other birds on the brink of extinction in the area is important work in an age when climate change is endangering the region’s already fragile biodiversity. Situated within the Cairngorms National Park, the forest is a rich source of wildlife and many, from bodies like the Highland Council and research institutions to professional rangers and amateur naturalists, understand the landscape’s precarity and the need to protect it. Thomson writes:

“Crows have always spoken to, and had a close relationship with, us humans. They speak to our humanity and our connections to nature.  When I look at them I see their intelligence, their co-operation and their power. How they control the air and wind currents above a stand of trees. But I’m also aware of their association with domains more disquieting and unnerving. It is after all, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows.”

Of the habitat itself, Thomson opines:

“In a forest, if you’re paying attention and standing still, you can sometimes hear a breeze approach before it encircles and passes through and over you. In the same way, looking out over the Atlantic from a cliff top, say in Mingulay or off Stoer Point in Sutherland, you can see squalls form at sea and watch as they come in and soak you or reach landfall a little ways to the south or to the north.”

As a thread, running through Belonging, Thomson includes lists of terms previously used in her book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature (2018). If one has not read it, then these Scottish terms may be of interest, but to anyone who is already familiar with the Dictionary it might feel a little ‘lazy’ to increase the page count of the present book in this way. Here are just two examples:

“lamp:  the ground is said to be lamp when covered with the cobwebs which appear after dew or a slight frost.”

“to nirl:  to pinch with cold.”

At some point we find Thomson philosophising about the title she gives her book:

“Often I find myself thinking about what it is to care about land and about people – what is here, what has been, what we’re moving towards. And this is really what belonging is about. It’s about noticing and caring and taking stock. It’s also about home and what makes us feel at home, and the different things that home can be. Toni Morrison asks, ‘How do we decide where we belong? What convinces us that we do?’ She provides no definitive answers.”

Later on she writes:

“Identity is invisible as well as visible, and it can be what you hold in your heart. Notions of it are slippery and relational, as are notions of home, and in this complicated web we find out who and what we are, and who and what make us who we are.”

The last part of the book relates Thomson’s trip to Cape Town working on a project hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) to collect seeds from rare plants with the ultimate purpose of cataloguing and storing them in the archives at Kew Gardens, near London, to preserve knowledge of them and, hopefully, prevent species from dying out.

Close to the end, Thomson reflects:

“It’s a strange thing to have to think about our own responsibilities within a continuing timespan of earth that’s hitherto been rooted in the slow formation of rocks and changes in climate that have had nothing to do with humanity. We’re adding plastic and carbon and radioactive isotopes to layers of time that have been seen and shown in rock strata. Now there are interconnections to rock and minerals and how we’ve used this earth and they’re present in history and projections of future times.”

Reading Belonging I got the uncanny sense of it being a paler version of Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful prose and the succinct way she expresses herself in her essays. Then, reaching the Acknowledgements section at the back of the book, I found Thomson thanking Jamie for her encouragement and advice and it all became clear. I also remembered that she was one of the contributors to Antlers on Water, the volume of nature writing, edited by Jamie which I reviewed on this site, back in 2020.

Any Cop?: Lightweight, yet entertaining for any lover of Scottish flora and fauna. Also anyone concerned or intrigued by what the notions of identity and Self mean for someone of mixed-race heritage in the age of racial justice and opportunities, intersectionality and feminism. The book has some thought-provoking ideas about who we are and our place in nature.

Carola Huttmann

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