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A Text From The Wilderness

Posted on 1st September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Non-fiction Book of the Month for September is Amy Liptrot's searing, candid, Wainright Prize-winning debut The Outrun. Here, she further explores one of the elements touched on in the book: the idea that technology can in fact bring us closer to nature even in a place as remote as Papay, Orkney

Photo: Amy Liptroy (c) Swarna Khanna

On Papay, the small Orkney island where I lived when I wrote my first book The Outrun, there’s a spot, on the road between the shop and the Old Pier, where an old threshing machine lies rusting in a field. This place has magical properties: it seems to be the only place on the island where I can get mobile internet coverage. I was often found lingering here, uploading photographs to instagram and sending messages. Its mystic strength seemed to change with the weather and sometimes I felt like I was waiting for the next gale to bring in my texts.

It’s easy when writing about digital technology to fall into the trope of blaming it for problems in society: to write about how the internet is making us lonely, distracted and lazy. Although these things can be true, I was keen when writing The Outrun to show honestly the positive applications of being online and how, as well as being outside and in the sea and with the birds, the internet was intertwined in my life - as it is for most people. As much as  the sound of the wind and the taste of sea salt, the book is infused with the glow of my laptop.

Photo: South Wick (c) Amy Liptrot

I wanted to show how, sometimes counter-intuitively, the internet can actually bring us closer to the natural world, or, as Germaine Greer calls it, ‘the natural universe’. I described my use of astronomy apps to identify and understand the stars and planets. I wrote about how, in Orkney, when a rare bird is spotted or a pod of orca, people post messages on social media so that others can go out and try to find them. I wrote about how the Marine Tracking and Flight Data apps allowed me, when I saw a vessel passing at sea or aircraft overhead, to find out what they were and where they were going.

I would not have gone and lived alone in a cottage on Papay if I had not had broadband. The internet allowed me to carry out research and maintain a social life with friends ‘south’. Digital technology also makes island life more viable for people who can come to live there while still working for remote employers: a lifeline when many islands have marginal populations and are facing depopulation.

However, my book is about recovery from alcoholism and I also write about - and was aware of - ‘cross addiction’. This is the idea that, in the absence of their primary substance (for me, alcohol), addicts will transfer their obsession onto something else. For many, it’s things like shopping and gambling, for me, internet use is something I continue to have to watch.

Photo: Rose Cottage (c) Amy Liptrot

While I was writing the book on Papay, social media, and in particular twitter, allowed me to meet and communicate with other writers who offered support and encouragement, and with readers who’d be there when the book was finally published. The online community around the wonderful Caught by the River website, a focal point for nature writing in the UK, was particularly important. The Outrun partly began life as a column for Caught by the River - I wrote about drystone walling, sea swimming and lambing time on the farm, as well as some first terrifying small mentions of my time in rehab and recovery. Through this network, I began to see a space where writing like mine, exploring inner and outer landscapes, could flourish.

Mostly, I just wanted to show my wonder at both nature and the international communication networks, and often in how they interact. Here’s a bit from the book: “I take a photograph of the sun setting over Westray and upload it to Facebook. My sky is converted into zeroes and ones, my personal data beamed to satellites, bounced through fiberoptic cables under the sea, through microwaves and copper wire, over islands, to you.” 

Photo: Papay (c) Amy Liptrot

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