Artist Nuria Rovira and I have an on-going ‘Writing Exchange’ that started when we were running the artist collective The GAP Studio. We take it in turn to write an essay to each other, in an on-going conversation on place-based making. This essay is my most recent response. Readers don’t need to have read the previous essay for this writing to make sense, but you can find that essay here.
The text of Nuria’s to which I am responding began as a voice, carried across the windy mudflats of Crosby Beach, and captured in a handheld mic. The recording was transcribed and edited to become text on our screens. The resulting text has a fluidity, a breathiness to it. It seems to flow and undulate like the rolling waves and swirling wind of the beach.
The recorded walk was a way to explore how making can be shaped by a place-bound event. Nuria’s essay proposes that her body and the beach were in conversation as she walked: “there is an oral quality to walking the mudflats. You negotiate the direction of your steps with the landscape, just like you negotiate topics of conversation with an interlocutor.” By intentionally choosing where she makes, Nuria’s environment is invited into her work. Place-based making shows that “there is a constant participation of place affecting the direction of our thoughts and actions.”
She points out that this is where our art practices connect – we both see our bodies as reflections of our environments, and are excited about the potential of an intimate and reciprocal relationship with our surroundings. I liked the intentionality behind Nuria’s essay. Knowing that place impacts her work, she decides to visit somewhere unusual, and invites this place into her creative process.
I want to push Nuria’s exploration a step further by asking a few questions: What other kinds of ways can we be shaped by our environment? Are there bigger, more intentional decisions that I could make in my life, that would lead to a deeper relationship between place and my artwork? If we reflect our environments, if we are of our environments, shouldn’t I take quite a bit of care in choosing where and how I live? (Casey, 1996) Furthermore, how does my urban lifestyle limit the ways in which place shapes the artwork I make?
Previous essays in this writing exchange have centred around trips, temporary visits, to places like a remote island, a city centre or windy mudflats. In this essay I will be exploring themes of domesticity and staying put, writing about a trip to a farm, an 18th century painting, and a poem.
Farming in Devon
In Spring last year I spent my weekends driving to a rural farm in South Devon. The only way to get to the farm was to weave through narrow lush lanes and inch past tractors, to be tucked and folded into a quiet valley. I stayed in a caravan looking out onto a pocket of green. Hills bobbed south to soft beaches and north to rugged Dartmoor. I spent my weekend with my boyfriend, roaming these new places and falling in love. When Monday reared its head the tractors would be revved up and the muddy jackets thrown on, and I would hop in my car and roll back to traffic jams, packaged food and gloriously wide roads.
There was one week in May when I stayed for longer than usual. I helped out a little on the farm, but spent most of my days whilst everyone was outside working inside on my laptop, doing emails, working on a project and finalising the contract on my new rental flat. At 5pm on the weekday, everyone would pad into the living area where I was working, looking tired and muddy. They had just spent the day outside, tilling fields, birthing lambs, nurturing a garden, and I had hardly moved. Instead flitting my fingers across the clicky squares of a glowing rectangle for hours on end. I felt very inadequate.
This feeling didn’t go away but mounted slowly as the days went on. The farm was showing me a new way of living and working. One that was sinking in through a multiplicity of bodily and largely non-verbal sources: the taste of slow roasted lamb and vegetables grown in the field next door; walking through a field of ruffled soil that stuck to my boots, after learning why a field is tilled at all; the gentle and patient attitude of the farm owners as they explained types of clover for improving soil health, how best to move lambs between fields, hearing stories of months of toil to rework a patch of land that ended unsuccessfully. It was in these small, unromantic, domestic, daily, actions that I could see the farm owners were involved with the land they lived on in a way I had never seen before. Their actions and words expressed a meaningful conversation with the land they lived and worked on.
At times this conversation seemed gritty, difficult, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and at other times caring, sensitive, joyous and calm. Nuria in her essay wrote “So much ecological action is driven by this simple story, where there’s a clear treasure to love and save and a clear villain to hate and defy. But it seems to me that everything is more muddled, entangled, strange… Everything is harder to love than Nature.” It seems the farm owners felt the presence of land as an animate being. They weren’t caught up in a simple idea of loving it, but were actively participating in this animate environment, in a way that felt so much more alive and meaningful than the passive interaction with land that I live.
On my visits to the farm, and as I write these words now, I feel I am standing behind a yellow safety tape, glimpsing and imagining what a deep relationship to place would be like. Equipped with my words and my paint, but never doing more than thinking about it. Whilst others, such as the owners of this farm, were jumped up and tangled in living green furls of their environment, moving, shaking and wrestling.
My outsider’s perspective on this farm should be approached with caution. I grew up in the suburbs and have never really felt I am from one place, nor have I ever eaten food from anywhere but the supermarket. My perception of this farm likely romanticises a difficult and complicated lifestyle. My perception is more a reflection of what I lack than what this farm has, and there is certainly now an un-ignorable, whispering lack in my own life.
Visiting the farm taught me there is potential to be moved by place in a way that walks along the beach or a few months on an island cannot offer. Perhaps it is not in the remoteness or beauty of a place that provides deep meaning, but the way we work in/ on/ with a patch of land that rich experience grows. Embracing not only the good parts of a place – the sun, aesthetic beauty, fresh air, but the challenging parts too – the wet days, failed plans, mud slides, fallen trees – provides a far more varied and meaningful conversation with one’s environment than anything I had witnessed before.
Defining Interactions with Place
In an attempt to define the boundaries of my interaction with place, I have categorised my interactions. They are as follows: (1) Excursions into ‘the wild’: hiking trips a drive or train ride away; (2) local recreation: going outside after work or at the weekend for a quick trip to an urban green space e.g. a canal path or park, to walk or run; (3) ownership: I rent a flat and my family owns a house with a garden. These spaces are private seclusions from the outside world, places to make one’s own, to decorate and look after; (4) travel: rushing past places on bike, train, coach, plane or car to get from A to B. Occasionally stopping in identity-less motorway services and train stations.
What unifies these four interactions is a sense of permanently being a visitor. None of these interactions contribute to a long term relationship with one place. The one exception being my family home, except that too feels valuable because of the people inside the house, rather than the building or garden itself. None of the categories are attached to a specific location – none require particular weather, soil or plants other than for aesthetic reasons. These four interactions are also unified in that I never acknowledge the land as a living entity. I go about my life as if the land were dead beneath my feet, floating above in a realm of recreational pleasure and ownership. Michael Serres in The Natural Contract writes “We busy ourselves only with our own networks… the essentials [of our lives] take place indoors and in words, never again outdoors with things.” Going outside is optional, it makes me feel good, but as soon as my mood is improved I go back inside to carry on with the important stuff.
A Garden in Shrewsbury
A few months ago I saw a painting in Shrewsbury Museum which caught my attention. ‘A Formal Garden in Dogpole, Shrewsbury, Shropshire’ was painted in 1773 by John Bowen and at first appears quite simple. (Bowen, 1773) The painting depicts a town viewed from a raised vantage point. A walled garden fills the centre of the painting, containing neatly trimmed Arborvitae which line symmetrical patches of lawn, around which couples parade, dressed in white wigs, dainty shoes and plush gowns. Beyond the garden, three storey houses are neatly laid out below a calm blue sky, and a church spire that pokes up above the rooves. The scene is calm, orderly and neat.
The painting shows two types of interaction with land. The first is ownership. In the eighteenth century a garden was seen to ‘reflect the beauties of nature… [and] be a collection of fine scenery such as might charm the painter’s eye.’ To fashion one’s garden or house in the ‘Paladian manner’ was considered the ultimate show of taste in eighteenth century England. The symmetrical patches of lawn and neatly trimmed hedges in this painted garden align with the order and grandeur of this Italian inspired trend. (Gombricht, 2006) The painted scene becomes an object to boast of the owner’s good taste.
The second use of land in the painting is recreation. To visit a green space and appreciate it was a fashionable activity taken up by society at the time. (Rosenthal, 1982). The tiny figures are not dressed to get their hands muddy, but to enjoy the garden design, the company of their companion, and the good weather. The garden is not for growing food or rearing animals but for enjoyment. Any work involved is for the maintenance of aesthetics, such as the figure in the bottom right of the garden who seems to be maintaining the gravel pathway.
This painting was completed over 250 years ago, and yet my interactions with land are surprisingly similar. If the image of an expensive and tasteful house and garden were photographed and posted on Instagram, rather than painted in oils and hung on a wall, this photo would be familiar. Furthermore, if the Italian style garden were replaced with a council owned park, and the couple’s fine wear replaced with jeans, jumpers and trainers, the scene would look like the one in my local park. Although tastes and image capturing technologies have changed, one kind of interaction with place has prevailed. Admittedly this painting portrays a very rich minority, who could afford to roam pretty gardens whilst the majority could not. However, 250 years later, some of these same ideals prevail.
The ideals of land interaction in eighteenth century Shrewsbury dictate the kind of landscape painting that was made. Returning to Nuria’s essay she poses that place is “the co-creator” of an artwork. I want to add that our perceptions of place define the terms of this co-creation.
The only kind of place-based artwork I can make will be confined to the four categories in which I interact with it – wilderness recreation, local recreation, ownership, and travel. Furthermore, because my land interactions are similar to that of a certain class in eighteenth century Shrewsbury, then the paintings I make are going to be similar. Even if my composition, colour palette and handling of paint differ, an aesthetic, recreational, notion of place in my painting prevails.
Changing the way I interact with land will therefore, surely, broaden the depth and breadth of my place-based paintings.
The Living Ground Beneath Our Feet
We arrive at the poetry of Wendell Berry. An American writer, poet, environmental activist, and farmer. Berry was born in 1934 and has lived and farmed on the same plot of land for over 40 years, in Kentucky near his birthplace. His poems are reflections of his life on the farm, and offer much to learn about connection to place, belonging, love and the pastoral. What I have shown so far in this essay is that my interaction with land is neat, aesthetic, comfortable and recreational. Berry’s poetry offer in contrast a darkness, muddledness, strangeness, and depth that I am searching for. His poem ‘The Broken Ground’ is a wonderful example: (Berry, 2018)
The opening out and out,
body yielding body:
through which the new
above its shadow
on the piling up
darkened broken old
husks of itself:
bud opening to flower
opening to fruit opening
to the sweet marrow
of the seed –
from what was, from
what could have been.
what is left
is what is.
I take this poem to be about the growing of a seed, and he reveals that growth that must also involve death. The line ‘body yielding body’ presents a horrifying image of piles of dead bodies, sacfrificed to make new life. Berry chooses active, not passive verbs to describe this event: “yielding”, “breaking”, “opening”. As I read each line I feel a lifting and opening of my chest, I know the pain of something breaking and I bear the weight of a heavy load on my back. Berry uses language the human body knows so well, which makes the land described in the poem feel painfully familiar. The land is portrayed as living and animate, like a human body.
In contrast, the painting ‘A Formal Garden in Dogpole, Shrewsbury, Shropshire’ portrays land as an inanimate and blank slate, there might as well be grid lines covering the ground like in ‘Tron’, the 1982 film. (Bowen, 1773) Perfectly featureless and lifeless, the land is owned and shaped for human desire, dead and still. No weed or stray clump of dirt can be seen, no sign of a living earth apart from human design. Every speck of green is cut to be contained within aesthetics, with no scope for the unexpectedness of life. The painting sees only beauty, pleasure and health above the ground. It is not balanced with the death, grief and darkness of the underground world. As Carl Jung writes: ‘no tree can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell.’ The painting is blind to the living body of the earth, far from the tangling of messy feelings and uncontrollable processes. The landscape is kept in a safe state of pleasure and beauty, behind the yellow safety line. Just like my paintings.
I do not grow things, which means I have not witnessed the process that Berry describes. I do not see the seasons of life and death that yield a new fruit, nor do I take what I eat from the earth. I ignore the death and darkness, the what has been in what is. I see the world as it is in this painting of Shrewsbury. Land as inanimate and customizable, a silent stage for my life to play out. This is not a conscious choice, rather I am a product of a culture – a force beyond my control. Wendell Berry knows what I do not. Similar to the farm owners I visited in Devon, Berry knows that a balance of care, love and life come with pain, struggle and decay in relationship to place. These are the complicated and sticky emotions that foster a meaningful love.
Where to Go From Here?
So, where do I go from here? Writing this seems to point to me towards packing up and moving to the sticks, to get muddy and stay still. Of course I can’t afford a plot of land, nor do I currently want to commit to staying on one. So I finish this essay with another question: How can I deepen my relationship to land, by altering my land interactions, whilst renting, and whilst currently in an city? Is this even possible?
The eco-philosopher Timothy Morton suggests the answer may be in intimacy, perhaps spiritual, and he makes this conclusion after 15+ years of meditation practice (Wolfe, 2021). He writes of a “warmth and tenderness; hospitality, wonder and love; vulnerability and responsibility.” that ecological action has. (Morton, 2012) I saw these traits in the farm on Devon, and in Wendell Berry’s poetry, and perhaps cultivating this in my own life is where I must start.
Berry, W. 2018. The Peace of Wild Things. London: Penguin.
Bowen, J. 1773. A Formal Garden in Dogpole, Shrewsbury, Shropshire. [Online]. [Accessed 12 September 2022]. Available from: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-formal-garden-in-dogpole-shrewsbury-shropshire-53117
Casey, E. 1996. “Sense of Place”. In: Feld, S. and Basso, K. eds. How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: Phenomenological progomena. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, pp. 13 – 52.
Gombricht, E.H. (2006). The Story of Art. London: Phaidon.
Morton, T. 2012. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rosenthal, M. 1982. British landscape painting, Oxford: Phaidon.
Wolfe, B. 2021. Orange Juice for the Ears with Beatie Wolfe. July 2021.
Yung, C. and Stein, M. (1999). Jung on Christianity. Princetown, NJ: Princeton University Press.