Today Luci and I ran a workshop for art.earth’s liquidscapes conference at Dartington. A number of participants asked us to make the text we stared with available, so here it is.
The artist Joyce Lyon suggests that thinking about place is a way to explore many kinds of knowing: one’s own direct experience and its limitations, what can be intuited, what is possible to learn at a distance and what can’t, finally, be understood.Rivers and streams, of course, are particular kinds of place.
Herman Hesse writes in Siddharthathat: “the river taught him how to listen – how to listen with a quiet heart and a waiting soul …”. He’s right, listening to flowing water can remind us to listen to the world. Listen, perhaps, to a poet, a political geographer and a Greek philosopher – who tell us that: “where we live in the world is never one place. …”, that “… space” is “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”, and that “everything changes and nothing stands still”. What these three say can be unsettling, of course. It’s easier to lose oneself in the hypnotic flow, the running, restless energy of water that chimes with our assumptions about needing to ‘keep busy’, ‘move on’, ‘go somewhere’, all the assumptions that drive our increasingly frantic lives.
I feel ‘at home’ in upland landscapes with their young, energetic rivers, their fast-flowing streams, burns, and tarns. At home in that typeof landscape rather than a particular region like Dartmoor, central west Wales, Cumbria, or the Scottish Highlands. Why I feel ‘at home’ there, despite living in Bristol for most of the year, may have to do with that type of landscape being an important part of my childhood. Like playing in streams. There’s something special about playing in flowing water, something that perhaps relates to Herman Hesse’s sense that:
“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea …”
But over time I’ve learned that these landscapes are also home to another kind of liquid-scape. Uplands are full of bogs, mires or mosses. I spend time each year in County Durham and the bogs, mires and mosses closest to my heart are on the English / Scottish Borders. A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Council– tells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region, but such neat definitions trouble me. Firstly, because one of the most important qualities of wetlands is their ‘wildness’ in the poet Don McKay’s sense. That is, their ability: “to elude the mind’s appropriations”; to subvert our neat categories and definitions. Secondly, in practice it’s often the ambiguities of human activity in the landscape that makes a nonsense of our own neat categories.
Anyway, as I’ve got older, streams have become less important to me, bogs and mires more so. I can come up with all sorts of reasons for this. My children are grown up so I’m less inclined to play in streams. I’m more aware of environmental reasons for valuing mosses and bogs – their role in water retention, flood control, carbon capture and maintaining biodiversity. They are home to rare plants – Bearberry, Dwarf birch, Bilberry and Cowberry, Sundews and Sphagnum mosses – and, on the borders, support rare local invertebrates – the large heath butterfly, the bog bush cricket, and the mire pill beetle, not to mention a whole host of more common insects. Unlike streams, mires and mosses don’t chatter and sparkle, they tend to be quiet, even near-silent, out-of-the-way places. The older I get, the more I feel at home in such places. Recently I’ve been trying to work out why.
I think it’s connected to their being sedentary places, to the specific reveries they encourage. Reveries fed by quiet, slow, downward-oriented processes that, in blanket bog, result in the patient accumulation of layer upon layer of peat that’s central to carbon capture. This slow layering is a flow of a kind, but one that takes place in slow motion, gradually preserving a unique and irreplaceable archive of plant and animal remains. It archives time as a deposit, allowing us to trace the changing historical patterns of vegetation, climate, and land use. Walking in bogs, mires and mosses also invites patient attention to small-scale, undramatic, shifts of scale and emphasis, prompts us to notice what might otherwise be overlooked. For the most part these are worlds of small, gradual, unspectacular happenings and low-key changes that echo the regular, often overlooked, sedimentations of our daily life; the mundane, taken-for-granted silt in which more dramatic events are embedded like bog oak in peat.
This sedimentation process prompts me to take a different view of my own aging process. It encourages me to think about the slow, imperceptible processes by which we do or don’t participate in how social memory and values are laid down and compressed to become cultural norms. Processes which, in turn, invite me to consider my attitudes to death and dissolution, to preservation and metamorphosis. Pondering the slow worlds of bogs, mires and mosses might also help us question some of the presuppositions and preoccupations that underpin our increasing toxic culture of possessive individualism.
The almost invisible downward flow of water sinking into bogscan offer us an equivalent, in experiential, environmental terms, to what in Medieval Christian culture called the Art of Dying, one example of the socially-sanctioned contemplation of death that occurs in most traditional cultures. There’s nothing morbid about this. We live in a culture that projects the inevitability of change out onto technology. This distracts us from the need to face our own bodily changes, our physical death, dissolution and eventual metamorphosis back into the fundamental elements of air, earth, and water. Mosses and mires seem to me ideal places to contemplate these things as part of the slow and necessary continuum of life.
There’s even something oddly reassuring about these places of continual and necessary vegetative death and decay. A process that captures and holds toxins, that helps ensure that there is adequate clean air and water for the continuance of life, human and otherwise. They are suggestive in terms of human social ecologies, evoking our involvement in the slow, often messy, processes of day-to-day social sedimentation and metamorphosis. Processes that involve our bodily being and our shared ideas, memories, and feelings and, in time, lay down their own rich equivalent of peat. That is, lay down the psychic resources, the social sediment, that provides intellectual fuel, psychic warmth through narrative continuity, and emotional nourishment for other possible futures.
I think we need to review the value we give to the slow downward flow that characterises the marginal, watery, ‘betwixt and between-ness’ of bogs, mires and mosses. Traditionally these places carried negative social associations, like John Bunyon’s Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress. The central character in the old Borders ballad Long Lankin“lives in the moss” – that is, he’s a social outsider, living in awet, dirty, unstable, messy, overlooked, and marginal place. But what if we see Long Lankin’s moss as everything overlooked by a book like Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind– with its emphasis on mountains as: ‘a world entirely apart, an upper realm’. Attending to the slow and inexorable downward flow of water at the heart of bogs, mosses and mires, invites a sense of coming-together, confluence, down-to-earth connectedness. This is the counterweight to MacFarlane’s exalted notion of the climber as special, apart, as ascending to a higher realm. Mires and mosses speak to inclusivityrather than exclusivity. They ground us in an acceptance of common mutability, metamorphosis, flowing together; resist the desire to ascend the mountain as an act of transcendent separateness. They take us to the ancient Taoist realm of the Po-soul, the soul that, at death, takes its energy back down into the earth.
In her book Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination, Barbara Hurd writes:
“To love a swamp … is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, that shoulders its way out of the mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight …”
These muted margins are not places outside the flow of human history. In The Bogs of Ireland: an introduction to the natural, cultural and industrial heritage of Irish peatlands, John Feehan and Grace O’Donovan write:
“The bogs are never still. They evolve and change, and their development has always been intimately influenced by human action. Bogs are a stage in the development of landscape, a response to topography, changing climate and other natural influences. The human community is also art of the bog, and the direction it has taken at different periods of history and prehistory has been to a considerable extent determined by cultural influences.”
Maybe we need bogs and swamps not just because of the vital role they play in terms of the cycles of water retention, purification, carbon capture and biodiversity on which the well-being of all living beings ultimately depends, but also for psychic well-being. As a significant counter to our mind’s tendency to locate itself heroically in a pure ‘elsewhere’, in ‘a world entirely apart, an upper realm’. Whether that’s up a mountain or in the elevated realm of religious dogma or academic High Theory. A tendency that, in turn, can all-too-easily feed the fundamentalisms and the other exclusive tendencies that so plague our times.
I’m suggesting that bogs, mires and mosses are a physical palimpsest of slow change, with each layer both grounded on and modified by the one beneath it. If we could map the way that these places change over time we’d have to start with a geological map that represented them at the end of the last ice age. Then, using tracing paper, we’d have to draw over that to represent what had changed over, say, each thousand-year period. By the time we’d drawn twelve overlays, the original map might be virtually invisible but, like the genetic make-up we inherit from our parents, it would still to some extend determine aspects of our last overlay.
In this workshop, our focus will be on the ‘muted and marginal’ within ourselves.We will begin by drawing a map on which we will locate significant places from our own childhoods. Our maps will value what is subtle and slight, because the experiences we have are often not stories as such, but more like little floating particles, memory fragments of people, events and places, lodged in our memories like photographic slides. We will pay particular attention to our relationship with water in these landscapes, be they streams, ponds, bogs, oceans or puddles, and we will use water imagery to focus on the ‘slow flow’ of sedimentationin our lives, and how and what ‘deposits’ we have laid down over time.
We will add layers to our maps to represent what we see as particularly significant moments for us. As we work, early layers may start to be obscured by subsequent ones – sink to the bottom of our memory pool if you like – and we focus on willexploring what needs to be brought forward and what can be allowed to recede. Using sheets of tracing paper, we will draw, write, erase, rewrite, cut holes, tear and add images, making adjustments to create a cartographic account of the flow that we are in relation to place.
We will consider our personal experiences of place, how we have written our individual landscapes and how they have written us. We will seek to deepen our understanding who we were in those places, how we have named both them and ourselves within them. We will take time to share these thoughts with one another to see where we diverge and overlap, and to prompt deeper reflections about how our identity has been formed in the land and liquidscapes we dwell in.