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What I Know, and Don't

Amanda Thomson

August, Scotland: N 57.407, W  -4.451







song thrush



It starts with an arrival, a settling down and a view out of a window across a scrubby hinterland of broom, juniper and gorse that’s sprinkled with thistles and edged with grasses that tangle with vetches, birds-foot trefoil and ladies mantle, and I’ll come to find forget-me-nots hidden away within. These are the constants, though some flowers, in the short time I’ve been here, have already faded and others, knapweed for example, have bloomed to stay for a while at least. Incidentals come and go and help accumulate impressions of a place that might become more solid and understood, though any place has the propensity to surprise.


great tit


blue tit

house martin

red kite

meadow pipit

small white

meadow vetchling



I’m thinking about time and its passing. My friend Chika wrote a wonderful poem about passing places, these bulges spread at intervals on Scotland’s single-track roads which allow cars to pass, and what he has learned from them. I drive a single-track road with passing places every time I leave my home, but his words have made me realise how I sometimes take them for granted and reminded me how they make us pay attention, slow down, watch out for other people and notice things we’d otherwise miss. I’ve stopped in a passing place overlooking a lochan and as I’ve waited, seen a black-throated diver. At a particular place near my home, the light sometimes filters through the Scots pines to strike a solitary birch in all its autumn golds. I value the tradition where each driver waves to the other in acknowledgement or thanks, and the small moments of breath that each stop allows.


common footman

tufted vetch

antler moth

yellow rattle

reed bunting

speckled wood



My website is called, and the name came partly because of the homesickness for Scotland I felt while living in Chicago; partly because of an almost constant, elemental urge to rest, even momentarily, and how passing places allow me to listen to that urge even as the world stops me from taking it. A song from the Scottish band Idlewild I was listening to at that time, In Remote Part, has the line, We stop at every passing place to watch the world move faster than we do. Fifteen years on from when I made the website I still wonder what would happen if I could stop, reset and start again. What if the world was given the chance to reset too?





yellow vetch




Later, in October, in Ghana, I’ll think of the word passing itself, how to pass isn’t just to move physically past; how it can sometimes mean to pass as white, to pass as straight. Which can mean, to get a free pass. I realise I don’t quite pass in Scotland or in Ghana.


red clover

white clover



creeping buttercup




Edwin Morgan reads a poem at the end of the Idlewild song, his softly spoken voice measured and steady over jangly guitars and thumping bass. He speaks his last line, Scottish Friction, Scottish Fiction, and I think about the frictions and fictions that accumulate over time, how the fictions we tell ourselves and those which are sometimes told to us create frictions that we can’t turn away from. I wonder what the fictions of our lives and others’ are, small and large, that accumulate over time, that we carry and come to believe.



willow warbler


song thrush



flock of twenty goldfinches and linnets



At Moniack Mhor I go to a particular spot, sometimes, to write. Two seats and a table between them, all joined together, rickety and weather-worn, the wood is softened by rain and brittled by the sun. A strange bust sits between them that looks like it’s made of concrete, and painted or rendered in a creamy paint that’s stained with dust and dirt and crustose lichens, and the crown is flecked with foliose lichens and tufts of moss. It’s such a peculiar thing. His head is slightly bigger than head size, and just the height that, when I sit there, I could use it as a foot-rest, but his face looks African, and I can’t quite bring myself to do so.

pied wagtail

speckled wood

ladies mantle


spotted flycatcher


devil’s bit scabious

st john’s wort




NOTE: how the clouds scud westwards; how the dips and folds of the hills shape-shift their shadows; how distant wind turbines catch and toss the sun at certain times of day;  how the rain sometimes softens the hills to the west, sometimes hiding whole mountains, even the valley itself, before arriving to rattle at the window a full twenty minutes later; how an early morning inversion will rise from the low ground below to cover us before joining the sky. 



goldcrests (heard)

dark green fritillary

small white


meadow browns



There’s a name now for what many of us are feeling, solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change, or, climate-anxiety. I’m cradling doubt though. After all, to name is not to know, or know how to act. I’m wondering: how do we become alive to the possibilities of what the smallest things, what is only fleetingly noticed, what the slightest of gestures may hold? How can we be both inside and outside nature at the same time? Be in such a small, specific place and still be a part of the world, hold all the hours and weight of the world we need?  The full moon tonight is a supermoon, and it’s somewhere behind thick roils of grey blue cumulus, and it’s the first of two full moons in the month that I won’t see, will never now see.  

There is never any going back                                  though, if we’re lucky, we might return.

common blue damselfly




bog asphodel

golden ringed dragonfly


grasshoppers (heard?)

house martins

Yorkshire fog

ribwort plantain



A red kite drifts high above on an unseen thermal and as it flies across the sun its wings seem almost transparent in parts, and in June 2023 the oldest known red kite in the UK died age 29, and we know this because he was ringed[i]. These kites, once so common in Scotland, were hunted to extinction here by the 1870s. The red kites we see today are the descendants of the Swedish birds re-introduced in the Black Isle in the late 1980s.



ling heather

hooded crow

common blue

mouse ear

Scots Pine






The swallows are beginning to swirl above us now with intent. They’ll soar up then dip low across the grass and skim the walls up and over roundhouse and slanted roofs, sweeping the air for insects, gathering the body fat they need for the journeys south to what we’d call their wintering ground. The warblers are preparing too. The cuckoos and the swifts have already left.  I’ll follow them south soon and return here before their arrival back.


October, Ghana: N 5.723,  W -0.151



We’ve travelled 52 degrees south, to a place not defined by four seasons but by two, dry, and rainy, and I see now that what we call the wintering grounds of these swallows, swifts and warblers is anything but winter. Thirty degrees Celsius during the day, and 25 at night. A sunrise and sunset always within 20 or so minutes of 6am and 6pm no matter what time of year and solstices and equinoxes described in months not seasons. At Moniack Mhor, the summer solstice sunrise is at 4.17am, its sunset 10.19pm, and even at midnight, there’s a glimmer of light in the sky. In Scotland we expect low sun and long, long winter nights, with daylight hours between 9am and 3.30pm, if that. No wonder birds fly south in search of food and the light necessary to find it. It’s easy only to see the world from the perspective of where we are and what we’re used to – including how we name the seasonal, cyclical habits of the earth, birds and other species.



Here, I wake up each day to a different dawn chorus, an Accran one: roosters crowing, goats bleating. Dogs. Crickets. Unfamiliar birds that sound similar to but different from what I know. A bird with a falling cadence that reminds me of a tree pipit, another a little like a greenfinch, some that chirrup like house sparrows, but not quite the same; another rapid-fire clucks like the end-notes of a blackbird alarm call. One bird starts its day before daybreak, its call is two notes then another two notes, and it’s as if it’s asking itself a question then answering itself, admonishing itself for asking it in the first place, then asking itself again. Another quietly squabbles with itself a little further away. I don’t mind the not-knowing, and revel in seeing what are probably the most everyday of birds.

?  kestrel-like hawk

? dove

? warbler

? sparrow-like bird?

? hawk-like hawk

? flycatcher-type bird

? cuckoo-type bird



My bedroom overlooks a patch of ground that’s a green that feels even more succulent and verdant after the Scottish autumn I’ve left. Delicate orange butterflies — a little like small coppers — flit in and out of the darkness under the small canopy of leaves that spread like splayed hands. Larger white and orange ones flicker around too, and others are the colour of primroses. Out of the corner of my eye, a brown one with a flash of white is so big I first took it to be a warbler of some kind.


It’s often noisy with bright yellow birds, some whose heads are a beautiful green yellow with a startling red eye, others have chocolate brown napes, black heads. Their wings are yellow and black and they remind me of siskins but these birds are bigger, more greenfinch-like in size. They’re village weavers and I can’t see any of their nests, though on the way to the coast I’ll pass a colony of their intricate basket-like constructions, oval/round, beautifully, impossibly woven with grasses, and later I’ll find a diagram of their internal structure, and marvel even more at their engineering skills:





Seth, our host at LOATAD, introduces me to the family that farms this plot, and I learn that what I am looking down on are cassava plants, and that it also holds maize and cayenne peppers. Trees with huge, blade-like leaves hold bunches of plantains, and there are yams and cocoyams too. Up close, I see the intricate patterns of the butterflies that I watch, but I still don’t know what they are.



One Saturday we ventured out of Accra and headed to the Cape Coast, passing Fort Amsterdam, before going to Cape Coast Castle and Elmina, so-called ‘slave forts’. Sometimes Scotland carries its links to these kinds of pasts subtly, in street names and statues of obscure men who are so much part of a city’s architecture that we don’t pay them attention or ask who these people might be. It’s there in the companies and banks whose foundations have been obscured or whitewashed over time. These histories/legacies lie often unnoticed in plain sight. 

At Elmina I couldn’t  help but watch the swifts slice the skies above, though some look smaller, paler than those I know at home. There were swallows too, and I wondered whether any had just arrived, having left Europe at the end of (our) summer.  I know, though arduous and dangerous, their lives always hold the possibility of returning to each of their homes, north and south. It’s hard to comprehend how in these places thousands upon thousands of enslaved peoples’ last memories of their homes were in the most inhumane, almost unfathomable of circumstances. I don’t think I can quite put into words what it was to see and stand in the inhumanity of the architecture itself: the dungeons where hundreds were packed at a time; the wooden steps to a trapdoor from the courtyard outside the women’s slave dungeon to the governor’s quarters and how his balcony looked upon that courtyard and to the cannonball where any woman resisting rape would be chained without food or water;  the cells for the condemned; a door of no return narrowed to better count those enslaved as they were loaded onto the smaller boats that would take them to the ships that would sail across the middle passage. I can’t quite yet articulate how my own world listed and rolled. How even if you know, you can’t quite know.



A black and red bird sits momentarily on the electricity wires that run outside my window, above the cassavas, and it’s a few days before I see another one. When I do, I see that it is finch-like, more red/orange than red with a black breast and belly. It has a black head and bill, and a red throat and neck. Its nape is also red and somewhat puffed up, and I wonder if it’s displaying. I read ‘The northern red bishop was first described by Paul Erdmann Isert in 1789 in Accra, Ghana’, and I’m sure that that’s not the first time the bird was described. I question the power he’d had to name it, and wonder what it might be called or how it might be described in the languages of Ghana, in Twi or Ga for example. I’m suspicious of why Paul Erdmann Isert was in Accra, and what else he and the other Europeans here at that time were doing. And though now, when I see this bird I can name it as Isert has, I don’t and can’t know it at all, and won’t in the short time that I am here.



NOTE: The feeling of heat on the body, the prickling of my brow, the river of my face; the tickles of sweat running down my back. The rhythmic shush of the ceiling fan. Each day first seen though the crisscross gauze of a mosquito screen and the hot breeze intermingling with the smell of smoke from the next compound but one. The distorted vibrato of someone shouting into a loudspeaker and I don’t know if they’re selling, preaching, canvassing or rebuking. The bar at the top of the hill, just before its brow, that flashes a thin line of lights, red, green, blue, from dusk each evening; chickens running across a red dirt road that’s potholed and crevassed in the places where the rivulets of water find their way down during the rainy season. How an agama lizard, its red head the colour of road, runs along the top of the wall, stop, does a series of push ups, moves on. (How when I wrote of Scotland I failed to mention the summer greenness of it all.) How fruit bats the size of collared doves skim silently around the house in the evening dark and land to hang upside down on the pawpaw tree.

village weaver

pied crow

blue headed coucal

grey headed sparrow

cattle egret


We wind our way up out of the city to the Aburi Botanical Gardens that sit high above Accra in the Akwapim Mountain range which stretches all the way to Togo. It’s a quiet respite from the heat and intensity of the city itself. Green. A line of Royal Palms from Cuba line the main drag into the gardens, almost to a plaque that lists the heads of the gardens, and they hold names like Crowther, Wiley, Brown, Evans, Anderson, and Patterson until the 1950s, until near independence. Established as a garden and horticultural research centre in the 19th century by the British, colonial-era built buildings sit in various states of decay. Our guide shows us a shea nut tree from Guinea Savannah, nutmeg trees from Ceylon, bright pink-red pops of Euphorbia, originally from Madagascar, agave plants from Mexico. These gardens, like so many others, show the breadth of the former reach of the British, and how, no matter where they went, it was okay to take, to uproot and place elsewhere, irrespective of whether what was taken wanted to be removed, or was able or allowed to re-root in its new home or not.  A strangler ficus (fig) tree grows around a cedar tree slowly strangling it, and its bark is smooth, feeling its way, spreading slowly around it, taking the cedar’s nutrients and using them for its own growth.  The fig will kill this cedar incrementally over 15-20 years. We pass bamboo; birds of paradise flowers and other plants from South East Asia, the Philippines and elsewhere in Africa. A cedar tree from Lebanon, planted in 1895, has devil’s ivy from the Solomon Islands winding tightly around it. Swifts cut the air and black kites trail the skies above us and smaller birds rustle from within the thick undergrowth and trees still laden with leaves. Large white butterflies with black tips flit around hibiscus flowers, the smaller orange butterflies are so restless they’re impossible to see properly, and once a large black one with blue-green markings skirted along a flower bed, and I think it might have been a turquoise-spotted swallowtail but I can’t be sure. Here, as everywhere, nothing, no plant, no animal, no bird, no person, is neutral, and each thing must try and live in concert with what is and where we are now and some things will learn to live in harmony and for mutual benefit, and some things will exploit.


Later we get to another strangler fig. I read, ‘This famous parasite was first discovered in the fork of the tree Afzelia Africana in 1906. It kept on developing gradually and in 1936 it successfully strangled its host and has now taken its place. The hollow inside the ficus shows the true size of the host here.’ I step inside a woody shell and I’m standing in the trees’ ghost, its negative space, and it’s almost like a Rachel Whiteread piece. I peer upwards through space, to light filtering in through the small spaces where the ficus hasn’t quite met itself, all the way to the hole at the top of where the canopy of the original tree – the African mahogany – should have been.  I look up and out into sky.



On the Cape Coast, a black kite drifted up from the sea’s edge and around the battlements of Elmina Castle, and was joined by another, then another. Sometimes they tussled and jousted, but mostly they seemed content to drift over on invisible thermals. Their wing beats were powerful, able to compete with the sharp blasts and gusts created as sea meets land and hard, whitewashed walls. These hawks are scavengers more than hunters, and the word scavenger, historically, has had a number of meanings, including, ‘A child employed in a spinning-mill to collect loose cotton lying about the floor or machinery’, and, it was also some kind of job title in the East India Company. I think, even in these two definitions, how closely related the word is to the tools and products of colonialization. Of course it’s the more familiar definition that relates to these birds: ‘One who or something which removes dirt or putrid matter. Applied to various animals that feed on decaying matter’[iii]. And I don’t think it’s fanciful, though fanciful feels like a wrong word, to wonder what, and perhaps who, these birds might have scavenged on when these places were active slave forts. I think of the long legacies of natural and unnatural migrations, forced or chosen, sitting side by side now in the most complex of ways, and contemplate how we know, when we decide, and who or what decides for us whether we stay or whether we go.



Swifts are incredibly mobile and in constant motion and, once fledged, spend all their time in the air, sleeping, mating on the wing, returning to the solidity of the ground only to nest (and even then, preferably in holes in trees or boxes five metres high or more). It’s in Scotland and Europe that many will return to breed.  Their lives are dependent on the air, weather conditions and food supplies, and at this time of year they’ll not settle, instead they will scythe across air without borders, in search of insects. Above us here, they come and go, though I’ve not heard their familiar screech, perhaps because they’re usually so high, completely untethered from the land. I know them as the swift, and they’re fast birds indeed, able to fly at speeds of up to almost 70 miles per hour.  I discover Akan people know the African Palm Swift as the Ankadaade, which means, never lands[iv].

[ii] Collias, N.E. & E.C, An experimental study of the mechanisms of nest building in a weaverbird, The Auk

Vol. 79, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp. 568-595

[iii] Oxford English Dictionary

[iv] Justus P Deikumah, Vida Asieduwaa Konadu and Richard Kwafo, Bird naming systems by Akan People in Ghana follow scientific nomenclature with potentials for conservation monitoring, Journal of Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine 11, Article number: 75 (2015)



Amanda Thomson is a writer and visual artist who lives and works in Strathspey and Glasgow and lectures at the Glasgow School of Art. She’s written for BBC Radio 3 and 4 and her essays are in several anthologies including Antlers of Water, writing on the nature and environment of Scotland and Gifts of Gravity and Light, A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century. She has published three books: A Scots Dictionary of Nature (Saraband Books); microbursts, a collaboration with Elizabeth Reeder (Prototype); and most recently, Belonging, Natural Histories of Place, Identity and Home (Canongate). She’s a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper’s Country Diary. She was a commissioned artist for the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2022 and Boundary Layers, a dual-screen filmwork and spoken-word essay about nature’s reclamation of the former steelworks at Ravenscraig, Motherwell, is part of A Fragile Correspondence, Scotland’s collateral exhibition for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023.


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