Sian Creature

I haven’t washed for days. Today was the first time I spoke to anyone since arriving. I was buying a postcard in the Aviemore gift shop: on the front of the card, a herd of sheep crossing a country lane, with the caption Rush hour in the highlands. I go over to the counter and the man laughs nervously while ringing up the till. At first I think he’s laughing at the joke, but then, without prompting, he clarifies, ‘I couldn’t tell if you were a laddie or a lassie with your hood up like that.’

‘I’m neither,’ I say smiling, then leaning into a whisper, ‘I’m a creature.’

The word ‘clean’ has come unstuck from its usual meaning. Sometimes I smell something of myself, but it doesn’t smell bad, just the smell of a living thing. The idea of putting on smart clothes or brushing my hair seems absurd; these clothes have been softened by sleep and my hair, I have no idea, I just know it feels good around my ears and neck. I’m all sensation, seeped into myself like a hot water bottle. Arriving was a massive relief; thank you for the quietness, for the logs, for being left alone.

Aloneness, or solitude, is one of my pleasures. I often say, ‘I like to be alone’, ‘I like living alone’, ‘I enjoy going places by myself.’ Each time I tell these stories I’m aware I’m building an identity. Sometimes I’m letting people know that there will be occasions when I’ll go away and not be accessible. Other times it’s a reminder to myself that I need this quietness, which I often only remember when I find myself emotionally worn out. There’s also a sense of advocacy, spreading awareness that solitude is an okay thing to want. It doesn’t mean people are ill, faulty or need help.

Before arriving I messaged the owner of the estate to say I wouldn’t be needing the offered lift up to the cabin. I’ve been before, I know the way. I carry all of my bags in one trip and stumble the final ascent.

Part of me wants to describe what I’ve been doing here, another part wants to keep it for myself.

I’ve been reading Sex at Dawn, a book about the history of sexuality, which picks apart the assumption that human nature is inherently territorial. Before agriculture, when we were nomadic foragers, the authors suggest that we didn’t have much to fight over. We lived in small groups, there was an abundance of food because there were so few of us spread over the land and we were always on the move. They talk about the egalitarian nature of these groups (sharing relationships and resources) not as noble but as practical. The book proposes that private property, and as part of that, monogamy, arose with agriculture. With agriculture the population grew, storing food came into practice, defending the means of production and keeping a woman as property became the norm.

I do not want to share this bothy. I want it for myself, just for one week, let it be mine.

Alongside reading, a lot of my time is spent untangling the knots accumulated by social interactions. I find myself following the lines of past conversations, teasing out their meanings, listening for emotions that hadn’t previously had the space to come to fruition. I can do it slowly here, in my own time; invoking relationships one-by-one, turning them over, feeling forwards into where they might go next.

Those that live inside me are many.

Recently I started a new relationship with a cat. I brought her into my flat and said, ‘This is your home now.’ It’s difficult to say how she feels about that, not yet having learnt her language. Having her around has made me realise how permeable I am; she’s inside the flat and she’s inside me. People say that cats are solitary animals and I thought I knew what that meant, but now I’m not so sure. She’s there when I come home, she’s next to me when I’m on the toilet, she’s waiting for me to open my eyes in the morning, looking, pawing, vibrating.

When she’s there first thing (inside the flat, and inside me), the joy of putting my face in her fur is coupled with a resentment of her wanting something from me, a resentment that restricts my inner world with a kind of crowding. If she wasn’t here I wouldn’t be occupied with her—so my thinking goes—and I would have more space for myself. Space for myself? I am myself! Am I a volume? A psychological mass, being squeezed in by the presence of others? It’s a dead-end thought, because she’ll be inside me forever now. She’s here with me in the bothy; memories of her body warm my skin. I can’t banish a relationship once it’s begun. It’s cultivating care that’s the real act of space making.

When I’m alone I’m all in my body. It’s when I want touch the most, when there is no-one else around.

The irony is that when I’m alone my body comes into focus. There’s a longing that spreads through my limbs, over my skin, in my tongue, ‘touch hunger’ they call it. But then with the arrival of another who could satisfy the longing, I’m quick back into my thoughts and my body is once again inaccessible to me. Though that’s just sometimes.

Other times it’s conversation that makes me ache for physical contact, often when emotions are running high. The ineffective work of the jaw producing dull, imprecise sounds in its desperate attempt at connection. When I can’t meet people in language, I want to meet them with touch, though so often this feels impossibly inappropriate. We’ve learned to keep our distance.

As ancestors we are equidistant to bonobos and chimps. Bonobos are non-aggressive animals who have a matriarchal social structure that is centred around copulation. They have sex all the time. They do it to build social relations, to dissipate power struggles, to maintain community and to relax. Their stress levels are rock bottom. Bonobos were discovered much later than chimps, and by then the frame of reference for human nature had been set. ‘I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!’ [1]

What kind of creature am I?

While walking in the forest, I’m thinking about Cat and whether she would like to live somewhere else. She’s middle-aged and has been an indoor creature all her life. Kept indoors by humans. It sounds unnatural. Do domestic cats have a natural habitat? The flat feels very small to be a whole world, though saying that, I spend most days in the same building. There’s a confusion as to whether my concern for her happiness is just a projection of my desire to again live alone.

As I start to climb a tree it occurs to me that I miss her. I miss her face and her strange sounds. Placing my hands on the curve of a thick low branch, I have just enough grip to pull myself up. I’ve climbed rocks in the past and have a sense of how to navigate their structures, but with trees I’m a novice. I trust my feet less on the flakey bark than on the certainty of stone. I think of Cat’s agility and how she would find this an easy leap. The image of her here in the woods surprises me.

When I’m halfway up, a van marked with the Forestry Commission logo drives by and I freeze. I don’t know what the rules are around here. For squirrels, climbing trees must be allowed, but for me? Who could I have asked? If they stop and ask me what I’m doing, I’ll just look at them as if they’re crazy. A you do know we evolved from monkeys? kind of look. I stay very still, hoping not to attract attention in my pink puffer jacket smeared with moss stains. They drive away into the forest.

As I sit straddling a large branch, I think of the activity going on under the earthen floor. This tree’s roots adjoin its neighbours. They pass nutrients back and forth, hidden from sight. I have an urge to speak of the forest as a supportive ecosystem, describing the canopy as a negotiation for light, rather than a fight, stating that each tree has more chance of survival when close to others. These are all metaphors for human life of course, and suddenly I feel excluded by my thoughts. I don’t know how to marry my need for solitude with this discourse of community, a discourse that shapes much of my thinking about social life. I look again at the forest, asking for signs of solitude, but it’s indifferent to my gaze. The forest doesn’t care which words I choose. My language means nothing to it.

Later, I find guidance from Alix Kates Schulman’s book, Drinking the Rain. At fifty, after a life of busy cities surrounded by family, she moves to a remote beach house on an island off the coast of Maine. Living alone for the first time, a new side of herself emerges. She writes, ‘Why I wonder, must my former selves—the committed political activist, the loyal feminist, the passionate mother, the engaged writer—compete with the quiet person I’m becoming here. […]Isn’t it as futile to ask oneself to choose among impulses that live inside one as to ask the shore to justify its constantly changing appearance?’. [2]

Aloneness and togetherness are my low and high tides, one depending on the other.

My relationships are evolving things that make me who I am. I tend to each one with creativity and care which requires energy—this means taking breaks. My aloneness makes possible time spent with others; it makes me possible.

How practised I am at being human.

On my last morning I’m anticipating the city. In the car park I see the well-worn grooves of my mind when on smelling a sweet, synthetic fragrance, I catch myself instinctively look around for a glamorous woman, but see only men dressed in hiking gear. I think of a friend who wears women’s perfume to have femininity surround him, collapsing the difference between the desire to have and desire to be. I message him saying that I’ve been in the Cairngorms for a week on my own. He replies, ‘I’m glad for you. It wouldn’t be for me.’ And I realise that for some people being alone is where the effort lies. Their relief doesn’t come on arrival, but on departure. I think to myself, I cant imagine that, but what I really mean is, that’s not a story I tell about myself.

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Siân Robinson Davies is a writer and performer living in Edinburgh.

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Thanks to Peter Amoore, Timothea Armour, Eleanor Marshall and Lily, Bothy Project and the Hope Scott Trust for supporting my residency at Inshriach.

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[1] Frans De Waal quoted in Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, 2010, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. New York, Harper Collins, p.75.

[2] Aliz Kates Schulman, 1995, Drinking the Rain. New York, North Point Press, p.61.

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