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.