Pulse of the Wetland: Part two of a conversation with Kim V. Goldsmith

In this second part of a conversation with my artist collaborator Kim V. Goldsmith, we look ahead at some of the outcomes from our project and themes to explore…

As you said in the earlier part of our conversation, there are all kinds of political, socio-historical issues associated with these wetland sites which inform the work, and so rather than address these directly, it could be an interesting approach to make a response that reflects the longer history of the landscape, focusing on aesthetic/sonic quality.  Might the research documentation then play a key role in provoking debate about the art works, and how could this be presented?

That’s always the dilemma, isn’t it? Research underpins every project I undertake and it’s sometimes hard to know where to go with the more contemporary issues – it can be a slippery slope. I like to maintain neutrality where I can, as I believe that the power of these creative projects is to highlight the things we have in common – the deep emotional attachment we have to the landscape, these ancient landforms with flora and fauna that has evolved with them, and sustained human life for centuries. The more important questions to address are what sort of value we put on them now for the sake of future generations and how much have we yet to learn about them?

Working with sound and video with an abstract aesthetic provides an opportunity to present the wetland in a way that even those most familiar with them won’t have experienced. I hope that provokes curiosity, a desire to understand more about these wetlands and the ecological role they play – including their aesthetic/sonic qualities. The research still sits behind this, and it’s there for people to dive into if they want to.

Gas bubble release from roots of reeds, Macquairie Marshes, June 2020

How will the project stimulate discussion about the future of wetlands and the interdependence of human and more-than-human in those landscapes?

In the age of the Anthropocene, it’s hard to imagine a landscape without the hand of humans on it. Humans have been part of the ecology of these landscapes in Australia for at least 60,000 years and in the region around the Macquarie Marshes, that existence dates back 30-36,000 years. While the wetlands are a complex and dynamic system, expanding and contracting, shifting shape and area over centuries, post-colonisation sped up the process in Australia under the influence of European farming practices.

A decade after settlement in the Marshes had already begun, introducing large numbers of hard-hooved sheep and cattle to the Marshes and floodplains, explorer and surveyor, Thomas Mitchell wrote in his journal while traveling through the Marshes (19 Feb): We cannot occupy the land without producing a change, fully as great to the aborigines, as that which took place on man’s fall and expulsion from Eden.

Strong words, yet 174 years later and we’re still grappling with the issues knowing we can’t turn back the clock. I’m hoping the works produced from our time in the wetlands will offer new perspectives and perhaps an understanding that even though there are now more stakeholders than ever, that we all essentially want the same thing.

Goanna claw markings in a River Red Gum tree, Macquaire Marshes, July 2020

It could be argued that creating nature reserves and limiting public access or simply raising these areas up as separate and worthy of conservation affects public perception of “nature”, so that we see humans as apart from it, rather than a part of it.  And this in turn, could cause people to be blind to, or more neglectful of, the more-than-human elements of everyday landscapes we live in, because these could be perceived to be tainted by human contact, not protected and therefore open to be exploited or degraded.  Is this a fair reflection?  In drawing attention to wetland landscapes, how can art strike a balance between raising these sites up as unique and critically important, whilst also encouraging people to find value and see human interconnectedness in all forms of more-than-human in the landscapes around us?  

I completely agree – how can you value something you’ve never seen or have little understanding of? There seems to be two schools of thought amongst public land managers and scientists around this – one is that the conservation value is so great that it’s too big a risk to allow the public access, and the other is that supervised access should be allowed to create that connection and understanding. I think there’s a middle ground.

Art can most definitely play a part in striking that balance, by bringing the landscape to the public in new and interesting ways – things like showing what happens under the surface of the water, what’s happening at night in the wetland or hearing the ‘pulse’ inside a tree on the floodplain. If you can trigger curiosity at this level, you would hope it might encourage people to seek out those environments for themselves or demand more access to real-time experiences.

A wet area of the Macquairie Marshes at night, September 2020

Ninety percent of the recognised Macquarie Marshes is privately owned, so there’s a lot of pressure on the remaining 10 percent of publicly managed wetland to be publicly accessible – that’s largely the Ramsar-listed area. The infrastructure work that’s being done on the trust-owned property I’ve been working on is going to provide some of the access the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service aren’t currently offering.

Water and fire are two themes which connect the UK and Australian wetlands.  How do you see these influencing your work?

These are both central to humanity – two of the fundamental elements we require to survive. But you can have too much of a good thing. In simple terms, my brief on Pulse of the Wetland was to document the recovery of the Macquarie Marshes from prolonged drought and fire (a lightning strike in late October 2019). Drought is just the absence of water over a long period, which threatens survival, even in an ephemeral wetland where the dry cycle is as important as the wet.

Fire is essential to the Australian landscape; it’s a way of resetting things. Some Australian plants only germinate after fire, just as in the wetland, some birds only breed on a big flood event. Like us, they rely on fire and water to survive and regenerate.

With the impact of climate change being a very real presence in our lives here now, water, or the lack of it, and fire have taken on greater significance than ever — in a much more sinister, life-threatening way. Either way, I’m not sure I could create a work that wasn’t influenced by water or fire in some way.

Reed regrowth after fire in the Macquairie Marshes, February 2020

There are some interesting differences and similarities between the sites.  For example, no water flows into the Mosses other than rainfall, and historically the site has been drained to various watercourses, which caused the bog to collapse.  The BogLIFE project is now to block the drains and regenerate the sphagnum moss.  Whereas the Macquarie Marshes are fed by a major river and upper system tributaries – but then how does water extraction affect the amounting of water flowing out?  The Marshes are affected hugely by seasonal changes, whereas the Mosses remain relatively unchanged.

The geomorphological, hydrological and geographical differences are quite obvious, but at the end of the day, the Mosses and Marshes are eco-systems that have evolved over centuries with humans in the mix. We have emotional attachments to them, evident in the stories we’ve been collecting, there’s quite obviously an inherent appreciation of their aesthetic value that’s often not recognised or dismissed. We’ve valued them in the past for their ability to be productive, be it as cattle country or for peat production. We’re now starting to value them for their biodiversity conservation importance. But we’re still a very long way from a position of deep ecological value — of giving worth to these landscapes regardless of what they offer to us.

Maybe that’s an ambitious objective, but there’s no reason why we can’t have the conversation if it offers up new perspectives that might preserve these environments for our kids.

If you have enjoyed reading about our project and would like to support the artists with the costs of preparing work for exhibition in the communities where the work is made, and in turn help support other artists and organisations that are involved then please make a donation by visiting the Mosses and Marshes crowdfunder campaign.

Pulse of the Wetland: A conversation with Kim V. Goldsmith

Kim V. Goldsmith is an established digital media and installation artist, based near Dubbo in Central New South Wales, Australia. Raised on a large mixed farm in the region and going on to work as a rural journalist, farmer, and a marketing communications specialist in the rural, regional and natural resources sectors over the past 30 years, Kim uses her knowledge, experience and networks in her art practice to explore new perspectives on rural and remote landscapes, the issues impacting them, and the stories at their heart.

Kim has been working collaboratively with me on our Mosses and Marshes project, with her component of the project called Pulse of the Wetland, documented over the past year through her website, ecoPULSE. Pulse of the Wetland is centred on the iconic Australian wetland, the Macquarie Marshes, where Kim has spent the past year using cameras and sound recorders to document the recovery of the wetland from prolonged drought and fire. She explains more about what’s she’s been doing.

What drew you to the idea of working collaboratively on the issues faced by Mosses and Marshes?

I’ve been working in the field of environmental, issues-based art making for over a decade now, largely because it made more sense to bring something to the table as an artist rather than just documenting what was happening around me, as I had for several years before that. Having been part of Arts Territory Exchange for the past three years, I knew collaborating with someone with a different practice and perspective on things is an extremely powerful way of working, extending one’s thinking and ultimately the actions resulting from those investigations. It makes you think harder about what you do and why.

The issues we’re dealing with in Mosses and Marshes isn’t limited to the politics or existential questions of what the future holds for these fragile wetland ecosystems, it’s about the need for new perspectives that may expose our shared hopes for the future and provide insights into what the collective effort to get there might look like. The way Andrew and I work means we become part of the conversation, and our work can potentially create a platform that invites others to be part of it too. Conversations lead to connections. From there, you start to see we all share more in common than we first thought.

Nature reserve in late afternoon, May 2020

You’re working in the Macquarie Marshes in the northern part of Central NSW. What sort of environment is it?

The Macquarie Marshes are a bit of a mythical place as 90 percent of the 200,000 hectares considered ‘Marsh country’ is privately owned. Those land managers often run cattle in the wetter areas, as they’re the last places to have water and feed when things get dry, with sheep mostly grazing the dryer surrounding floodplain areas.

By British standards, it’s a very harsh environment. The Marshes are one of the largest remaining inland semi-permanent wetlands in south-eastern Australia, with extensive areas of phragmites reeds, water couch (coo-ch) grassland, River Red Gum woodlands and floodplains supporting an incredible amount of life. The Marshes are particularly noted as one of the most important nesting sites for waterbirds in Australia – with 77 water-loving species recorded in the area, including the beautiful brolga, iconic magpie goose, elusive booming Australasian bittern, and painted snipe. It’s also home to 156 species of woodland birds, fish, turtles, frogs, snakes and mammals, including kangaroos, emus and plenty of feral pigs.

Kangaroos at Burrima, Feb 2020

The private property I’ve had the most access to throughout the year sits right on the boundary of the 10,000 hectare, Ramsar-listed Northern Marsh, and covers three of the main vegetation zones (all except for water couch grasslands), giving me a rare opportunity to sample the drought recovery of the Marshes within a contained area of 260 hectares. It hasn’t run livestock since it was purchased in the early 2000s. I’ve gathered content from a few other areas around the area, including Gibson’s Way that sits between the Northern and Southern Marsh, where you can see birds such as pelicans and black swans alongside grazing cattle from the road, as well as at a couple of locations at the top and bottom of the Marsh area. I’ve been working mostly at dusk, through the night and at dawn, which makes access to other less suited areas a bit of an issue.

Sunset at Burrima, Feb 2020

The real connection with the landscape for me on Pulse of the Wetland has happened from repeat visits to the one site over time – experiencing the deafening night silence during the heat of summer when little black flies choke the hot day-time air, to the calls of lapwings piercing bone-numbing cold autumn nights after the water has returned to slowly soak into the dry cracked soils, slowly filling channels and stimulating new growth in the reed beds. My impending spring visit will be the next milestone in that experience. I’m expecting to see the reeds standing over my head — they were close last time I was there, and the woodland birdsong should be at full chorus. And fingers crossed, there’ll be more waterbirds on some of the lagoons as well.

Phragmites

What are the issues there?

Water sharing is the big issue – it’s a limited resource and there are many stakeholders. The Marshes sits at the end of a regulated river system, and apart from natural rain events, it’s dependent on environmental water allocations from Burrendong Dam, several hundred kilometres to the south on the Macquarie River system. The management of water and how its allocated has been a long-running issue, with the recent drought bringing the entire Murray Darling Basin of eastern Australia into sharp focus as dams across the Basin were reduced to unprecedented lows, including Burrendong. It put river-reliant communities on severe, prolonged water restrictions that created a great deal of debate at a grassroots level. There’s a school of thought amongst environmental activists that the river shouldn’t be regulated and that irrigated agriculture is misplaced in such an arid country and should therefore not receive a water allocation.

It’s the 23,000 hectare Ramsar-listed areas, managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, that are often the focus of the environmental water allocations – both the quantity and frequency of allocations. However, there’s a long-standing Marsh grazier saying that hints it’s not just conservation values that are being threatened. Fat ducks mean fat cattle. Given 90 percent of the area is privately owned, it’s really a tussle between upper and lower river system water users that’s made the Marshes a political water sharing football.

Burrendong Dam sits at the top of the regulated part of the Macquarie River and it’s one of the largest inland dams in NSW with a capacity three times Sydney Harbour (1,678,000 megalitres) that includes water storage and air space for flood mitigation. Completed in 1967, it took 21 years to build, and today it supplies towns downstream with water, environmental water (the bulk of the allocations), industry and domestic requirements, irrigated agriculture, as well as playing a flood mitigation and recreation role. There’s a 19-megawatt hydroelectric power station which generates energy using summer irrigation and flood mitigation flows.

How do you bring all the threads you’re investigating through these projects together into a body of work?  What media are you playing with?

To be honest, it can seem overwhelming at times. I’ve received criticism of my project for not working across a broad enough area of the Marshes – for limiting my observations and documentation to just one part of 200,000 hectares that is perhaps considered an anomaly in the Marshes because it doesn’t run sheep or cattle. It’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole and doubt the scope of the project.

While I am documenting stages of recovery in the landscape, using local stories, scientific sounding boards and research to inform what I’m hearing and seeing, the underlying brief is to show the Marshes in a way that even those familiar with it may not have experienced it. I’m using contact mics and hydrophones to single out sounds, some of them silent to the human ear, and visually focusing on line, patterns, rhythms, and some of the more unseen elements of the landscape, all layered and abstracted in their final, digital format — a reflection of the processes that have shaped this landscape over millennia and our more recent post-colonial history. The politics, histories, stories, emotions and opinion are a swirling undercurrent acknowledged in documenting my process, but I’m hesitant to make them a focus of the works themselves. I’d like to see the aesthetic and sonic values of the hidden Marsh take centre stage.

Timelapse over Northern Marsh, Feb 2020

I’m using a collection of microphones, sound recorders and cameras to record with, including a drone, underwater camera, and time lapse cameras. To capture the ‘hidden’ sounds within the landscape I’m using contact mics and hydrophones, with atmospheric recordings using acoustic sound recorders and 360 sound that form the base of multi-track compositions.

When will you be presenting the outcomes of your project?

I’ve got a couple more field trips between now and November to get recordings and collect audio stories, then it’s into the studio for a few months of post-production over our Aussie summer. As well as our individual works, we’re also planning to collaborate and contribute something to each other’s output. I’m looking forward to that and possibly revealing a teaser of what’s to come by World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2021.

We’re obviously trying to organise exhibitions before we have the works finished, which is always tricky, but Covid-permitting, we’ll soon start locking in some local and international presentation opportunities from mid-2021 into 2022.

In the second part of the conversation, we will be talking further in a little more depth about how our work will be presented and some of the themes to be explored.

Ibis on a lagoon, June 2020

Creating pathways

In my artist practice, walking plays a central and integral role in a cyclic process of walking > informing making > informing walking and so on. In this post, I look back over some of the artist responses I have made so far based on my wanderings across the Mosses and identifying some trajectories or pathways towards more substantive work.

Most of my walks to date, have resulted in some work back in my studio in Shrewsbury. The work is based on observations and materials that I gather on site. These include photographs, drawings, tracings, rubbings of surfaces, sound and video recordings, and physical materials such as found objects and plant materials. Maps and the lines, boundaries and shapes found within the landscape also feature in my work.

Sometimes, the walk is the event in itself, so much like Richard Long might make interventions or simply record the route, then I may not retain any tangible material that “represents” the walk other than some form of map or notation to record where I walked. Even here though, my experience of the walk is influenced by prior research and studies of work made in the studio. Sensory observations can be prompted by an awareness of what it is that I might find or indeed specifically what I am seeking. Sharing of this form of art walk is not possible except in a mediated, indirect way through further work made later. But it is important to keep a space for these solitary walks and to try and make a deeper engagement with the landscape.

Some of my earliest work in 2017, started as sketchbook studies and took shape as an artist book documenting a walk from Whixall to Bettisfield, which you can read about here.

Whilst I am interested in the wildlife on the Mosses, my aim is not particularly to rely on photographs or recordings of what I see. The fabulous work of Stephen Barlow does this far more beautifully than I could ever achieve. My main interest is in drawing attention to the multitude of entanglements between the human and more-than-human, animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic.

The array of objects I found at the car breakers yard, my “Shropshire hoard”, have inspired several works in painting and printmaking.

“Whixall Forms” oil on canvas, 61cm x 61cm

Using materials taken directly from the landscape is a line of enquiry I am exploring. So far this has involved making marks using materials gathered on site, and more recently creating dyes and pigments.

I have also made paper with reeds and bog cotton:

These diverse works are pathways to further works exploring the theme of human and more-than-human entanglement in the landscape. They are starting points in the collaborative project with Kim V. Goldsmith.

Kim is an artist working in digital media and immersive sensory installations. To complement the above works in traditional 2D media, I have made a number of sound and video recordings during my walks on the Mosses. These may link more readily with Kim’s work.

I will write more about the collaborative process in future posts. Ordinarily, I would commence work with another artist by walking with them, since walking creates a space for dialogue and sharing thoughts whilst moving through a stream of chance encounters and stimuli.  The particular rhythm of walking means this cannot be easily recreated in any other way. The nature of the remote encounters set up across the world by Arts Territory Exchange, is such that the development of ideas must progress in more isolated and discrete steps, interspersed with periods of reflection, research and experimentation.

Kim and I recognised quite early on in discussions that water was going to be a prominent theme in the work. A regular feature in our respective practices, water is a core issue for both the Mosses and Macquarie Marshes. With that in mind, I have been given access to groundwater monitoring data by Natural England, and I have begun investigating a number of ideas using visuals from the data and converting data into sounds. I am hopeful that this work can cast new light on the importance of scientific monitoring of sensitive environments.

Sights and Sounds

I‘ve walked around and across and between the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses over the last four years or so, building up a sense of the life within the landscape, changing seasons and human narratives. Some earlier walks were documented on my No Time Like The Present blog:

June 2017 – Whixall to Bettisfield Walk with a group of artists from Participate Contemporary Artspace CIC.

March 2018 – Whixall Moss walk with Mike Crawshaw of Natural England and a group of artists/poets: Ted Eames, Ursula Troche, Ruth Gibson and Adele Mills

I’ve also walked with poet Jean Atkin and partner Paul, and several other friends and family. The conversation when walking is directed by chance encounters to spark new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Solitary walking in the vast open space of the Mosses is a wholly different, almost transcendental experience, where distance is hard to measure due to the lack of obvious landmarks and progress can feel almost static.

Some of the more recent visits over the past 12 months have involved making field recordings of sights and sounds. Last Summer, I was allowed permission by the reserve manager for Natural England to visit the NNR on my own at dusk, overnight and pre-dawn with certain safeguards.

I captured some stunning views of the sun rising as the dawn chorus reached its crescendo. Curlews flew overhead with their unmistakable cry.

Then on the warm night of the Summer Solstice in June 2019, I recorded the sun setting and while darkness fell I headed out to the northern edge of Fenn’s Moss. As I approached the heathland where birch trees had been felled, I heard the unearthly churring of nightjars. Even though I had heard recordings of them, it was difficult to convince myself that it was a bird that was making the strange electro-mechanical-like sound. In fact, I could hear at least three nesting sites which seemed to be about 50-100m apart. At one point, I was standing on the path some 2 metres or so from where I thought the sound was coming from … but of course, it was too dark to see anything and certainly not a bird as well camouflaged as the nightjar.

My last visits before the Covid 19 lockdown were in December 2019 to see the amazing murmurations of starlings that became a daily phenomenon above the fields adjacent to the road approaching Morris Bridge. This had not been reported at Whixall Moss before on such a scale, as huge swirling clouds of up to an estimated 60,000 birds gathered at dusk. Each night was a different breathtaking performance, and gradually more and more people heard about it and came to watch in amazement.

The birds arrived from all directions and the pulsating murmurations split off into two or more groups either side of the road until the whole sky seemed to be filled with movement. We heard the rush of wings as the mass of birds swooped past.

At a moment that every starling seemed to recognise instantaneously, they dived downwards into the trees where they could be heard noisily settling down to roost… catching up on their day’s events perhaps, or passing on good tips for feeding locations.

A week or so after my last visit, it was reported that the starlings had stopped returning. It was thought that someone had disturbed their roosting. So we must wonder whether this incredible spectacle will reappear again next Winter.

Late Spring on Whixall Moss

The first post on this new blog describes my visit to Whixall Moss at the beginning of June 2020. It was not my first visit to the Mosses as I’ve been walking there, talking to people and making artworks for a few years now. It was, though, my first visit for several months, and the first since the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown were eased.

In other posts I will review some of the work I have done already in response to walks and other research at the Mosses and what future arts activities I am planning both here, and in collaboration with artist, Kim V. Goldsmith and her work at the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, Australia.

I will be talking to different people, walking the landscape, studying data and research, and I will continue to make responses through a series of my own artworks and by involving other artists. Over time, I will be exploring what environmental issues these sites are facing, what the human impacts and interactions with the landscape are, and how the relationship between humans and non-humans might evolve in future. I hope that by sharing this, it will raise awareness and start a wider engagement and discussion of these issues.

Rain gauge at weather station on Whixall Moss, part of an international network monitoring climate change

But first, I am going to provide an up to date snapshot of my research on the site visit.

The weather throughout most of April and May had been near perfect dry sunshine. However, during my visit in early June, there were a few passing light rain showers and the wind became quite strong. Many birds, butterflies and flying insects were keeping a low profile, so it was a slightly disappointing visit from a wildlife observation point of view, but there was more than enough interest to keep me busy over what turned out to be about 5 hours on site.

I have a few different areas of interest and research themes

  • History of human impacts, primarily at the Furber’s scrapyard and past peat extraction activities
  • Role of the raised peat bog in mitigating climate change
  • Engaging with people and gathering responses to the Mosses
  • Water management
  • Birds and other wildlife

My main objectives for my visit were:

  • Monitor restoration works at the Furber’s Scrapyard
  • Visit the Starfish WW2 site
  • Collect some materials for making dyes and paper
  • Record some sound and video, and take photographs – I always take loads!

Even before I began thinking about any art projects I was fascinated by the car breakers yard at Whixall Moss – it stood out like a sore thumb against the starkly beautiful landscape. I later began documenting restoration work by its new owners, Shropshire Wildlife Trust from around 2017 onwards. See posts on my No Time Like the Present blog here and here.

On this visit, I noted that most of the piles of silver birch trees had been removed. These have been cut down all around the Mosses as part of Natural England’s BogLIFE project because birches and other pioneer species are very effective at drawing water from the ground which prevents conditions developing for the reestablishment of sphagnum moss. I gathered birch bark in order to make a dye for painting canvases and for making paper.

Work on covering the area adjacent to the concrete hardstanding with soil had to be halted earlier in the year because of wet conditions and then, I guess the lockdown prevented further progress. But I could see that some areas had been covered. Meanwhile, willows, birches, reeds, bog cotton and other plants were getting well established on the concrete already.

On one of my earlier visits, I had seen a bitumen tanker left suspended amongst the trees adjacent to the scrap yard.

Tanker in the trees, 2018

The remains of the tanker have been left on the concrete slab, and it was hoped to incorporate it into a sculpture but the corroded metal has become unstable and unable to contain the bitumen which softens and flows in the warm sun. It will be covered over as part of the restoration works. For the time being, it is still a fascinating installation – an ironic reminder that this icon of oil exploitation will be returning to its origins in a peat bog.

On returning to Morris Bridge, I had a long discussion with John Roberts. He was in the garden of the bungalow he built when he moved here in 1958. He had lived in the area all his life, his son worked at Furber’s Yard for over 30 years and his family had worked in peat extraction for many years. More on our conversation in other posts, but it was very interesting to hear another perspective on the value of the Mosses in supporting livelihoods for generations.

On my various walks around the Mosses, I had passed along paths forming part of the History Trail, but I haven’t yet followed the whole route. There wasn’t time in the end to do all of it this time either, but I did walk the western portion mainly to see the Strategic Starfish site. This array of portable fire baskets was constructed in 1940 as a decoy against German Luftwaffe bombers heading for Manchester, Crewe and Merseyside. The sculptural installation of wire baskets is hauntingly beautiful on this windswept peatland, now acting as perches for stonechats and other birds.

The most striking feature of my visit was the abundance of haretail cotton sedge or bog cotton. There were swathes of it around pools, energised by the strong winds.