Saturday, 3 November 2012

Three types of twilight

Whilst the poles experience great extremes of light and darkness for extended periods of time, those who overwinter there in locations such as the Amundsen-Scott Polar station are probably more aware than most of three different classifications of twilight. For periods before the sun finally rises (which is around the 23rd September at the Amundsen-Scott station) the darkness is lessened by prolonged periods of these twilights. Just before sunrise, the brightest of the three is civil twilight.

Civil Twilight occurs when the sun is between 0 and 6 degrees below the horizon, immediately after the sun has set at dusk, further classified as either civil dawn and civil dusk depending upon whether the sun is setting or rising. It tends to encompass the limits where objects can still be clearly distinguished without extra illumination. The brightest stars are now visible.

One phase darker is Nautical Twilight when the sun is 6-12 degrees below the horizon. Navigation at sea by the brightest of stars and the viewable presence of a horizon is possible during the period of nautical twilight. At it’s end (or beginning in the morning) large objects may be discerned, but without detail.

When the sun’s centre lies 12-18 degrees below the horizon, we are in the period of Astronomical Twilight. It is named thus because, under clear conditions certain sky objects, such as nebulae and galaxies, are still not properly visible. To the casual observer however, astronomical twilight often appears as night proper, and this is obviously more marked in towns and cities where light pollution affects the level of ambient light in the sky where such features may never be visible anyway. Other factors, such as the presence of a full moon, may also make discerning astronomical twilight difficult.
The first stirrings of civil dawn from the summit of Ben Hope, with a bright moon in the South East.
The duration of twilight is affected by our latitude, and at the poles, twilight can last for weeks. It’s no surprise therefore that an awareness of these intermediate points of clarity and obscurity is far greater for the inhabitants of those areas. Of course, the vast majority of us experience twilight as a daily occurrence. It’s a time of day I’ve always liked. I feel fortunate to live in a Northern region where our twilights are prolonged. The twenty-minute change from day to night (or vice versa) at the equator seems to me too abrupt for the sensualities of fading or growing light to be savoured.

The beginnings of civil dawn on the summit of Ben Hope. The moon was obscured by cloud for much of the night, although the skies to the North were clear.
I enjoy in particular the way in which our surroundings, away from the artificial lights of towns and cities, take on a kind of granularity, the way the light seems to hover in front of and on top of things as the light begins to fade at dusk. Greens intensify for a short time, and a certain pleasure can be had from not reverting to other forms of illumination, taking the capabilities of twilight to it’s limit.

2am. Jim escaping from the wind in the summit shelter cairn. He and the rocks are illuminated by the twilight rather than the moonlight.
Civil dawn, 2am, looking North East.The lights in the distance are those of the small village of Tongue.
When Jim and I climbed Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro (mountain over 3000ft) close to the summer solstice a few years ago in the hope of experiencing a Scottish midnight sun by virtue of the combination of latitude and altitude, the sun did in fact dip down below the horizon. Setting off at 12.05am from our tent, just after the sun set, for the couple of hours it took us to climb the hill, we had no need for extra illumination, being fairly sure of my feet and the terrain, as I had climbed it once before in torrential rain and within thick cloud. For the entirety of the walk and for a chilly hour sat at the summit cairn waiting for the sun to raise above the horizon, we passed through elongated phases of what I now know were the periods of civil and nautical twilight. We can’t have entered astronomical twilight as I was always able to discern at least some detail in my surroundings. Jim found a scrap of paper in his pocket, a receipt, which became a marker and measure of his capacity to see in this twilight since he was able, at all times, to read the characters on that tiny slip of paper. In a way, there is a place and time in the UK where nightfall never really comes.  

Looking North.
We waited on the summit for a long while, but with a low band of cloud on the horizon, a visible sunrise seemed never to come. Growing increasingly cold, we decided to head back down the leeward side of the hill (leeward, sun-wise) watching as colour slowly penetrated the ground below. That sense of the granularity that I describe which veils objects infused the surface of the boulder field near the top and in our shelter for the night at the cairn. Once civil dawn was nearing its end, the colour of the short, wind stunted grasses was at it’s most intense and varied. In fact, in the full light of day, a more bland descriptiveness takes over and objects are perhaps too easily seen, and the lyricism of the indistinct is lost.

Note* most of these images were made within a relatively short time of one another at around 2am. I only made photographs during the hour spent on the summit, so the period of nautical twilight was not documented. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

swimming home

David Watson and I are having an ongoing dialogue regarding how walking and journeying affect our individual creative practices in relation to a future project we're working on. Here he is 'swimming home' up the Parramatta River in Sydney, Australia.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

living deep time

I visited the Fossil Grove in Victoria Park in Glasgow today for the first time. This is an amazing gem in Glasgow's museums, and one that is so often overlooked. The Fossil Grove consists of the cast remains of the stumps and roots of a group of fossilized trees which were revealed in 1887 during excavations when the park was being created to mark Queen Victoria's golden jubilee. Quarrying for dolerite, the workers quickly realised the sandstone casts were of great scientific significance, and the city ensured the grove was protected by a custom made building, one of the first to protect a geological site of special interest.

The Fossil grove when it was first excavated in 1887, before it was protected by it's building.

Schoolchildren visiting the grove in the 1948

"There are at least 10 erect trunks and root systems exposed of the clubmoss tree Lepidodendron veltheimianum and Stigmaria ficoides (the latter being the roots of the former).  There are also parts of trunks lying across the floor of the quarry.  The trees were submerged in sand and clay as sea level changed.  Rippled sands, similar to those found on the lower reaches of present-day beaches, provides evidence of water currents moving between the trunks depositing sediment.  The trees grew in an equatorial or tropical mangrove swamp similar to the everglades of Florida. 

After the clubmoss trees had died, their soft interiors quickly rotted to leave them hollow.  Their trunks then filled with sand before the sediment around them enclosed them completely.  The organic remains of the trunk became a thin coal separating the sandy interior from the shales and sands surrounding the trunks.  During an episode of volcanic activity, a thin dolerite sill was intruded about 90cm above the floor of the quarry cutting through the trunks.  Some slight earth movements have caused the sediments (and the trunks) to tilt slightly, sloping gently towards the NE, but the slight distortion of the trunks themselves are likely to be due to palaeocurrents rather than tectonism (Gastaldo 1986)."

We arrived early in the day, the first visitors, and, with no-one other than a very helpful guide present, were surprised by the intense, quiet presence of these old petrified remains. I was relieved to see that the video projector wasn't working, and instead benefitted from a display that held a quiet kind of dignity that museums sometimes don't allow it's artifacts these days, pressured as they are to make all things 'accessible'

These special trees had lain quietly for around 330 million years, and the quiet atmosphere of the fossil grove got me thinking about deep time and how, when looking at rock, one readily accepts, even if one fails to fully comprehend, time beyond human understanding. Faced with recognisable objects that were clearly, at one point, huge living organisms, these 'understandings' of deep time became even less robust - or rather, confused - for me.  How can some things so very, very old, things that have witnessed numerous ice ages, that pre-date the dinosaurs, that existed on equatorial land (these are tropical trees which grew when the land that Glasgow sits on was located at the equator) and have journeyed northwards by continental drift bearing witness to the supercontinent of Pangaea's split; how can things this old look, well, commonplace? They don't match my understanding of the  deep time of geology as regularly encountered in rocky mountainous landscapes. The amorphous shifting, sliding, bulging and intrusion of rock formations that can be so clearly seen in Assynt for instance, Scotland's mecca for students of geology, and where the Moine thrust can be clearly viewed from the roadside, is fantastical and mind boggling. But the simple silence of these trees weathering ages and eras, and remaining relatively intact seems to me to be something quite different altogether.

photo: L Punton

Interestingly, our guide informed us that despite finding such large specimens of trees found preserved in situ, the space around them giving us information as to the density of trees that would ordinarily be found in the full extent of this woodland site, no other living specimens were found. No insects, no other plant life, in land that would have been lush with other life-forms. It's still not really known why this should be the case. The day before, I'd read of the Fortingall Yew, a yew tree in Glen Lyon that is believed to be the oldest living organism in Europe. Yew trees can't really be dated like other trees, since the interior wood naturally rots and decays,  eventually leaving a hollow interior  whilst the exterior lives and grows. The decay of the heartwood has created the illusion of more than one tree, but it's measurement in 1769 put it at around 52ft in breadth, and the Fortingall Yew is believed to be somewhere between 5-10 thousand years old. In human terms, even this is a timescale difficult to truly negotiate and place oneself within. But the yew's resistance to dating because of it's hollow core means it doesn't fully yield to measurement, to being quantified. The Lepidodendron trees of the fossil grove have been preserved precisely because of their similarly hollowed interiors, yet they too resist and retain their quiet mystery precisely because they are old way beyond our ken.

The fossil grove as it is today. Photo: L Punton.
The fossil grove when it had a curved platform running through it's length

two views of the same deer

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

two views of an teallach

GW Lennox Paterson : An Teallach (early 20th Centry)

An Teallach from a similar position seen more recently.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

back to the things themselves, part 2

Installation views of Back to the things themselves, Lesley Punton & Judy Spark, at the Briggait 20 April - 7 May, Glasgow International Festival, 2012

photo credits : L Punton

Saturday, 21 April 2012


"Always even-tempered, he spent most of his time out of doors, going on long expeditions even in the worst of weather, or when it was fine sitting on a camp stool somewhere near the house in his white smock, a straw hat on his head, painting watercolours. When he was thus engaged he generally wore glasses with grey silk tissue instead of lenses in the frames, so that the landscape appeared through a fine veil that muted the colours, and the weight of the world dissolved before your eyes. The faint images that Alphonso transferred on to paper, said Austerlitz, were barely sketches of pictures - here a rocky slope, there a small bosky thicket or a cumulus cloud - fragments, almost without colour, fixed with a tint made of a few drops of water and a grain of malachite or ash blue."
WG Sebald, Austerlitz, p124-126

Saturday, 7 April 2012

back to the things themselves, part 1

Here's the reason this blog has been a bit quiet lately..

from the GI website:

"Lesley Punton and Judy Spark share a concern in their attempts to bridge a certain sort of gap; that of the difference between the physical experience of specific varieties of ‘natural’ phenomena or places, and their articulation in human terms. Both feel the impossibility attached to this problem, but nonetheless remain dedicated to its resolution through the making of art. For these two artists, the making of an artwork is a process of interrogating lived experience and it is the language used to express this search, which is also a quest for other varieties of understanding, alternative ways of knowing the world. The question of whether such alternative interpretations are subjective or in some way universal is inherent to the work.
The processes of Punton and Spark sustain common patterns; periods of concentrated engagement with objects and places of interest, an awareness during such engagement, of duration, of breathing, of scale, and working methods which mirror these physical experiences; an almost meditative approach to drawing for example. The results stand as evidence of the inquiry, the process itself is what is important. The bodily experience of phenomena is reflected in the consideration of how, and for how long, the viewer physically encounters the work, which is ‘quiet’ and aims to draw the viewer into a contemplative ‘space’ in which they might imagine, or consider, their own process of engagement with ‘the things themselves.’ 
Having recognised the similarities between their working practices, the two artists have become begun to pay close attention to their contrasting approaches to the pursuit of an idea; Punton’s is deeply experiential, entirely dependent upon the measured contact of her feet with the ground of the remote environments she craves. Spark however, despite a natural bent towards phenomenological thinking and certain Eastern approaches to the natural world, feels unable to completely suspend her embeddedness within technologically bound western culture, for her a revised understanding of one, can only impact the other.
From the dialogue generated by these commonalities of practice, as well as their disjuncture, the artists intend to probe the gaps between experience, whether natural or technological, and its articulation, with the hope of uncovering the fertile ground of potential new understandings.  The resulting work will take the form of drawings, photography and recorded sound."

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Monday, 30 January 2012

Revisiting An Caisteal part 2.

In November, I climbed An Caisteal, a hill I’ve been up many times, in order to make another summit photograph. Having realised that I’d often inadvertently made the same image upon reaching the cairn, I’ve subsequently decided to consciously record the various conditions of weather and light from this viewpoint whenever I revisited the mountain.

Having a small child, my hill-walking opportunities are fewer than they used to be and I hadn’t climbed a Munro for quite some time. Many of the feelings  I’ve often experienced during such walks consequently came flooding back.  The greatest sense was of freedom, and a relief to be away from cities, noise, distractions, and to be entirely at one with the effort of ascending the boggy, tussocky grass on the lower slopes which admittedly are always a bit of a trudge on this hill. The smell of the damp earth was strangely comforting. Slowly and carefully pacing myself, finding a rhythm in my step, walking becomes effortless. Thoughts hone into the here and now. I enjoy the silence. In fact, I need the silence. Work pressures dissipate. The land opens out to show something more enduring, more stoic.

Familiarity is a fine thing sometimes, for without the hindrance of a map (well, of the need to actually use it anyway), close knowledge of the mountain’s geography enabled me to persevere through the early trudge to reach the wonderful long ridge of Twistin’ Hill, the best part of the mountain. This takes you, eventually, to the rocky boulders and “castle” that gives a little scramble before the final cairn is reached soon after.

As seen in my previous post, I’ve climbed this hill in beautiful winter conditions many times. It’s not a difficult hill and is climbed usually in around 5 hours, up and down. Determined to make the most of a free day and to make a new photograph regardless of the weather, we found ourselves (Jim & me) however, climbing on a day with 80mph gusts of wind and with the summit engulfed in cloud. These were by far the most difficult conditions I’d been up on this hill in. Had I not had the desire to make an image from the top, I’d have been tempted to return once we reached a point where the wind on the narrows of the exposed summit ridge meant I had to crawl on hands and knees to be sure I wasn’t blown off in a sudden and unpredictable gust. Miraculously, the rock of the scrambling portions provided some shelter and allowed the “trickier” moves to be made in relative safety. The summit image was rushed. I was barely able to take my camera out and hold it still for long enough to make a sharp image. Jim attempted to shield me of the worst of the wind so I could steady myself. The damp of the cloud we were surrounded in meant visibility was reduced to only around 10 metres and the vista towards Loch Katrine completely absent. Point click, escape…

Nevertheless, despite the difficult conditions, the pleasure of being out in wide open space, of reaching the top with relative ease despite concerns about how hill-fit I might otherwise be, even of managing despite such difficult, and lets face it, unpleasant conditions, I was still so happy to be out on the hill, to be somewhere that I felt I belonged. It seems a cliché, but I felt that I was home, and that I was doing something so intrinsically core and central to my being that this return to An Caisteal nourished me in ways not many other things are capable of. The photograph is a disappointment, though somehow I don’t really mind.