Recent heavy rain meant water levels were high, showing how marshes hold water upstream. So we walked along the woodland edge of the marshes, which was full of mosses which are fruiting at this time of year.
The path above the marshes lets you see land use history laid out on the opposite side of the valley. My companions, both naturalists, remembered how forty years ago, the Border hills were almost all covered with heather. Intensive sheep farming has diminished heather, unless it is cultivated for grouse. On the hills, you still can see darker brown heather patches between the bracken and winter-yellow grass.
The line of spruce on the skyline now typifies new Borders landscapes as Conifer forestry is being incentivised by grants using public money.
We looked at three or four lines down the bracken slopes in the sunny side of the valley. Perhaps these are gullies following the path of older ‘mole drains’, an erosive feature. Understanding drainage is vital if you want to interpret Borders landscapes!
Wetlands are now valued as an important part of the landscape because they hold carbon in the ground and provide space for wildlife. The plants you can see in this section of the Ettrick floodplain are much more varied than is typical elsewhere in the valley, say on the hillsides or monoculture forestry.
Plants create this wetland landscape, and it was really exciting to get a sense of a landscape in formation. Both reeds and bog mosses are vital in this process. Sarah Eno, a botanist, explained how important hummocks are. Shrubs like bilberry manage to grow on wet ground and grasses like molinia form mounds. Mosses use these raised areas as a kind of scaffolding on which to grow. In combination, the plants become living spaces for themselves and other creatures.
The mosses you can see here include Common Hair Moss. From Sarah, I learnt the Latin name for Common Hair Moss is Polytrichum commune and that under the microscope, you would see that even the spore caps have hairs.
This Common Hair Moss clump had taken advantage of a stump of sitka spruce. These trees had been felled to remedy the mistake of planting conifers in the floodplain. They had not grown well and were destroying the marsh habitat.
We also saw reeds that had been washed in and hung from the low branches of a small silver birch. At some point recently the marshes must have contained much more water.
It is surprisingly rare to see native woodland edge to the marshes. This kind of transition zone between two more distinct kinds of habitat is termed an ecotone. Mostly, human land management delineates zones with a fence or wall, with different planting on either side. A ‘semi-natural’ transition between hill and wetland is precious.
The marshy ecotone gave many things to wonder about. For a botanist, the frosted tapestry was understood as communities of plants.
Further up the slopes, we saw how the branches of each deciduous tree had a distinctive silhouette, and a distinctive texture and colour. A woodpecker had shaped the dead wood of an old pine.
A ‘witches broom’ is the name for a tangle of branches you sometimes see in trees. In silver birches it is usually caused by a fungus which influences the tree cells to grow differently.
I was totally surprised to learn that an alga (like seaweed family) can grow on a stump! It is the brown ridged patch beneath the mossy topping in the photo below.
This opened up a question. What is this alga called? Sarah responded:
Actually I don’t think there is an ID book for terrestrial algae! Maybe this is because although they are very widespread and mainly appearing in very damp conditions, their field characters are so amorphous that naming may only be possible by microscope and/or DNA! There some whose colours can help – like the orange algae on trees….. And I suspect many are also symbionts with fungi, and bacteria. At that level everything mixes where there is advantage! So what this amounts to is that I can’t begin to name that one!
Sarah Eno, correspondence
The winter conditions highlighted the communities of plants (including algae as well as mosses, grasses, reeds and native trees) that create wetland landscape. The Ettrick Marshes give a special chance to see how native woodland can frame a floodplain wetland. For me, this walk generated wonder about the plants that have underlain and supported millennia of human life in the Ettrick Valley.
With thanks to Sarah Eno, Andy Swales and the rangers at Ettrick Marshes who enabled this New Year walk.
This summer I took an opportunity to focus on how important Peat-Free compost is. Our Living Soil events in Amsterdam and Glasgow let me work with RE-PEAT and Turf Vrij, bringing new perspectives to this vital topic.
Our Living Soil was an art-science programme complementing the Glasgow World Soil Science Congress, summer 2022. At Zone2Source’s exhibition in Amsterdam, it took the form of “expeditions, talks and performances by artists who, in different ways, are concerned with soil and land.”
I showed a series of drawings, Packaged Peat, in this exhibition. These drawings reflect on how much peat has disappeared from Dutch raised bogs and how it continues to reappear as an imported horticultural product.
Future Gardening with Peat Free Soil was a workshop co-hosted with the youth-led collective RE-PEAT in Amstelpark in July. We explored how potting soil relates to peatlands. We asked: how can we start to tell this through (better) stories?
Peat soils forms very slowly but it is still exploited for the horticultural industry faster than it can possibly grow. Changing gardening practices has been one of RE-PEAT’s foci in their work pushing for a peatland paradigm shift.
A Dialogue Event on Human-Soil Transformations at CCA in Glasgow asked: Can we Compost That? Zone2Source artistic director, Alice Smits, gave an overview of the exhibition. My presentation was a reflection on how beign able to make and use potting soil at home (without using peat) means you need to be settled in a place. For me, composting is a yearning which makes ‘home’. Perhaps art and composting are both opportunistic and improvised collective activities of transformation?
Soil Talks hosted by Zone2Source Amstelpark in September included lectures, conversations and interventions about soil.
Click HERE to see a Flipbook (title page below) documenting a co-presentation with Philipp Gramlich fromTurf Vrij (Peat Free). I used my artwork to show why I think this is such an important topic. Philipp introduced the campaign.
Philipp Gramlich made a clear case for Turf Vrij / Peat Free and showed how citizens can engage successfully engage in the political process. See also the video on the Turf Vrij website for a succinct overview.
Stop-press! Wondering about the arguments in UK about peat-free compost? Here is a video (Well, well! What is all this about?) by RE-PEAT’s Belgian member Gijs Lochten.
This summer, my World Soil Museum residency project continues through Our Living Soil, a complementary art-science programme to the upcoming World Soil Congress in Glasgow in August. In Amsterdam Our Living Soil is part of The Shadow Floriade in Amstelpark (a park was created fifty years ago for the first Floriade, a Dutch horticultural expo). “From 10 July to 18 September, Our Living Soil at Zone2Source will take the form of an exhibition of expeditions, talks and performances by artists who, in different ways, are concerned with soil and land.” Details here of Zone2Source’s programme in Amstelpark.
Why focus on peat?
Peat (in Dutch, veen) is a strange saturated soil created by bog mosses. Peatlands are ecologically vital but have for long been treated as wastelands. Peatlands are increasingly in the news because they store carbon but this is released into the atmosphere when they drained. This soil is particularly common in both Scotland and The Netherlands but like many other people, I had not really thought about peatlands. In 2016, when I heard about their climate significance I began a project Peat Cultures to connect to these landscapes and to work with people committed to restoring them.
Collaborative art-science report from the World Soil Congress
At the World Soil Congress, I will join socioecological artist Kerry Morrison and soil scientist Anna Basley. Kerry and Anna work to restore peatlands and peatland connections at the Crichton Carbon Centre in Galloway, Scotland.
We will reflect on the scientific themes that we encounter and start to tell others about what we learn to widen the conversations. We will document Congress proceedings using sketchbooks, conversation, diagrams. You’ll be able to see a reiteration of the congress on this website. After this I will develop these themes in the World Soil Museum collections.
The context is complex: relationships to living peatlands need to be re-imagined, but disciplinary specialisation can work instead to disintegrate the body of a peat bog into different kinds of expertise. How might an artist help widen the range of connections and elements considered? How can artwork respond to the urgency of the nature crisis we are within?
As an environmental artist, for me ‘the context is half the work’. Working in varied settings, I improvise from found materials, to make lo-fi portable work. A sketchbook records my impressions and feeds into conversation.
At the beginning of my residency, Peatland Exchanges brought together interdisciplinary researchers from Wageningen University in the World Soil Museum. Research talks at four online sessions brought art and science together and prompted new Peatland Figures.
The World Soil Museum is a wondrous enterprise with its commitment to science in support of conservation. A tremendous place for an artist to work! My residency is about valuing wetlands and their soils. This has begun with Peatland Exchanges, a novel series of four online talks by Wageningen University researchers.
Peatlands are increasingly in the news these days. There are very significant climate reasons to re-wet reclaimed peatland areas and to restore degraded peatbogs, as well as other benefits.
Each Peatland Exchange session takes a different angle on Dutch peatlands and brings new interdisciplinary research to a wider public. This series gives insight into the interplay of cultural and natural influences on peatlands.
Peatland Exchanges has created an online resource where you can catch up and register for the remaining sessions.
How have people interacted with Dutch peat landscapes over time? How can we learn about peatlands and better appreciate their value? All are welcome to explore these questions through a series of four interdisciplinary webinars by researchers from the Home Turf and Wetfutures projects. These online talks are being hosted by the World Soil Museum and will give a variety of perspectives. Each webinar presents new research work on a particular theme with a response by myself, Kate Foster, an environmental artist. Peatland Exchanges is a collaborative initiative at the outset of my artist’s residency in the extraordinary collections of the World Soil Museum. Information, registration and catch-up here
First, I will introduce the World Museum. Then I will describe my project studio there. I am showing a work in progress and introducing different kinds of inspiration.
The context of the World Soil Museum
Do look at the website to learn about this collection!
Not only is this museum a valuable as a scientific resource, it appeals to the imagination. I was drawn like a magnet to it, on my first visit to Wageningen University. I saw the display of ‘monoliths’, soil specimens. With the help of the Home Turf team, I found the peat samples. An Erasmus+ scholarship in 2020 helped learn about ongoing research. I found ways to relate remotely to wetlands during covid lockdowns.
At the beginning of each Peatland Exchange, museum director Stephan Mantel introduces different peat specimens from the collection.
OPEN: Wednesdays 13.30h until 17.00h Groups and guided tours (maximum of 10 people): by appointment, on working days (between 9.00-17.00h) COVID-19 visit rules apply (including wearing a face mask and social distancing). Location:Wageningen campus(Gaia, Building 101), The Netherlands
The World Soil Museum is an inspiring place to settle into – to think quietly about the cultural meanings and values that these monoliths can also yield.
I am giving a talk at each Peatland Exchange session giving a response to four successive themes. Full information is on the project link.
For me as an environmental artist, context is ‘half the work’. It’s important to take time to think about this form different angles. My artwork might eventually become something that stands alone, maybe as an artist’s book or collaborative film. But it emerges as something entwined within a specific setting.
You can see this process in my earlier collaborative work in museums, with a series called Biogeographies. For the first work, Disposition, I went on a journey with a zoological specimen to the moorlands (peatlands) where it had been killed in the 1920s. I then re-situated this bird of prey within the museum, and the installation teased out aspects of its unique cultural history.
A Project Studio in the World Soil Museum
For Peatland Exchanges, I am in the museum on Wednesday afternoons when it is open. I can work in a part of the museum, thanks to the museum staff and volunteers. This spot is next to the sign ‘RECENT ACQUISITIONS‘. I bring my sketchbook, an important working tool. It is the place where my ideas develop. These include: How are people remembering peatlands’ history? What kind of restoration work can I help with? What new associations and ideas can I contribute?
A studio is a place where you can think anything you like. You follow your curiosity and experiment with creative ideas. Things come alive with conversations, dialogue – then the work unfolds. It should be a welcoming place.
In one half of this project space, I am showing a growing series of Figures. These draw out more-than human ‘characters‘. All of these relate somehow to peatlands. I think of them as non-human peatland Stakeholders. Many ideas come from diagrams (‘Figures’) in scientific textbooks.
A solar powered waka waka torch brings these shadows to life, but a mobile phone also works. This is a maquette for a portable theatre.
For each Peatland Exchange session, two more puppets appear.
In the Project Studio, I am showing drawings I have done on Compost Bags. These contained peat that was used in Dutch gardens. Peat itself isn’t extracted any more in The Netherlands, but Dutch horticulturalists and gardeners are significant users of imported peat. This is very problematic and I explore this through drawing.
Peatland destruction is responsible for 5 percent of the global emissions of greenhouse gases. That´s more than all aviation combined. If we stop using peat for gardening and other purposes, we can make a huge contribution to combating the climate crisis. We dare to say that this is probably the lowest hanging fruit to really make a difference.
This work in progress – new Figures and the Altered Compost Bags – are dedicated to individual research talks. This is as a kind of exchange for the research and museum exhibition that the university puts out in the public domain. I am grateful, and use these resources a lot as an independent researcher.
Inspirations and provocations
Where do I get new ideas from? There is a growing selection on the left hand side of my project studio. I am showing work by other artists, as well as found and donated objects. As Peatland Exchanges progress, people give fascinating leads to follow. The objects and ideas here inspire, provoke, and stimulate.
As in every studio, this is a developing and changing place; somewhere to share ideas.
A cabinet display in the far left of this bay in the museum includes reminders of work of various artists who have engaged with aspects of the museum’s collections. This includes Herman de Vries and the recent installation of The Museum of Edible Earth in the museum by Masha Ru.
This is the perfect place to study how other artists have worked on earthy matters, and to scrutinise how I might work with different objects.
No better place to start than with the book on the table! It’s by Alexandra Toland:Field to Palette – Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene (2018).
But while I read, I am tempted to activate the fabulous hand-animated wire sculpture, Annoying Insects, lent by Bert Hoekstra. These three wayward creatures are reminders that in the right season, all kinds of life thrives in peatlands.
A lentse potgrond compost bag is pinned to the board. This was found buried underground during recent landscape gardening work. This bag dates from the earlier era of peat extraction within The Netherlands. Peat is now all imported.
To my eye, this is a sad find. I try to understand that it takes a generation to realise that plastic does not decompose, and that using peat-based compost is very environmentally damaging.
I set this compost bag alongside a poem by David Borthwick, university teacher and environmental scholar.
There are two intriguing new Archaeological Reconstructions pinned on the noticeboard dividing the two sides of the studio space. In Peatland Exchanges #2, Roy van Beek described the new evidence-based meticulous work by Ulco Glimmerveen with the Home Turf research team. These depict firstly the Fochterloerveen peatland in the Mesolithic era, when there was extensive tree cover. The second one gives an impression of the area in Roman times, when the climate was wetter.
A further display has now lodged in the museum. Three Turfstekers, or peat-digging implements, hang on the wall. They are redundant reminders of The Netherlands peat-digging era.
Peatland Exchanges has meant I have been given leads to explore work by Dutch artists work, including films by Wim van Egmond, and Jaqueline Heerema’s work Breath of Soil .
As the residency progresses, my understanding of the collections and insight into the contribution of other artists will increase. I hope for full sketchbooks. It is an opportunity to plan more projects valuing wetlands and their soils, and creating dialogue about this. I hope this might become a literal route, between Wageningen and peatlands in restoration in Southern Scotland, via Amsterdam and Glasgow, as part of Our Living Soils.
My acknowledgements to all mentioned in this article. Any unintentional errors are entirely my own.
Peatland Exchanges are a series of four online talks asking how people have interacted with Dutch peatlands over time, and how can we better appreciate peatlands and their value?
This is a collaborative initiative at the outset of my (Kate Foster’s) residency in the World Soil Museum which has the theme of valuing wetlands and their soils. This series of talks are jointly organised by the Home Turf Project, Wetfutures, the Drents Museum, and the World Soil Museum, and are taking place in February and March 2022.
Stephan Mantel, Director of the World Soil Museum, opened the Peatland Exchanges series and profiled the significance of peat with an example of soil profile (‘monolith’) that shows the close relations between peat soils and people in Dutch history. The monolith came from a dike that breached at Willis in 2003. Roy van Beek, Principle Investigator of the Home Turf Project and Wetfutures in Wageningen University, introduced the series as a whole, with reflections on how peat and peat-working has been placed in Dutch art history.
The first session of Peatland Exchanges looked back in time to the formation of peat in fluid Dutch landscapes. We learnt about the meticulous science needed to understand how successive layers of plant matter created Dutch raised bogs, and new methods to date peatland remnants. We heard how, from early times, humans made use of bog iron ores deposited along streams, but how did they form within raised bogs? Can the seepage, the former hydrology under the surface of peat that has now disappeared, be modelled to understand peatland geochemistry better?
My blogpost below is a documentation of my own presentation, Sensing Peatbogs in Time. This was a direct response to two research talks about the past environment of peatlands by Cindy Quik and Aukjen Nauta. They are PhD candidates based in the Soil Geography and Landscape Group at Wageningen University.
Sensing a peat bog in time
I am an environmental artist who has focused on peat since 2016. I worked in Scotland on a project Peat Culturesand then in the Netherlands as Veencultuur, alongside the Home Turf and Wetfutures researchers. Peatland Exchanges is a fabulous way to start a residency in the World Soil Museum! The theme of the residency is Valuing Wetlands and their Soils.
I am going to talk about some of the ways that I have worked as an artist to help create a sense of place and connection to peatlands. I will begin with a kind of exchange – responding with drawings dedicated to Cindy, Aukjen and the World Soil Museum. I’ll say how I got curious about peatbogs and had to learn to see them in the Scottish landscape. Spending time with peatland restoration teams meant getting a sense of their scale. I also spent time drawing close-up – developing what I could see for myself. In collaboration with peatland scientists at art-environment workshops, I learnt peat cores can really give a sense of time. But how could I work with the extracted peat core ?
This is an introduction to my project and how I work. I’ll also point to other work that inspires me.
With peatlands, it is as though time is expressed as depth. But time seems short because so many peatlands are degraded.
Exchanges: An Hourglass, A Raised Bog, and Spectral Landscape.
An Hourglass (zandloper)
Why is it important to date peat from the depths of raised bogs, many of which have now been dug away? Here is Cindy’s abstract.
Cindy Quik. Travelling through time: the peat archives (Abstract) Peatlands are unique ecosystems that contain detailed records of the past in their organic deposits. These peat layers offer snapshots back in time, providing information on previous water levels, ecology, carbon sequestration, and human interactions. Peat growth can start through multiple processes and reflects a large landscape change, shifting from unsaturated to waterlogged conditions and from mineral substrate to emerging organic deposits. Through the peat archives, we can travel back to the period of these environmental changes and derive the timing of peat initiation. Dating the first peat deposits is a crucial step to increase understanding of peat formation, steering processes, and resulting spatial patterns of peat growth, which in turn can be linked to research on climate, carbon and archaeological heritage. Peatland initiation of the former extensive peat landscapes of the Northwest European Plain has so far received limited attention, probably as a result of their large scale disappearance during the past centuries. In this talk we will share insights on peat initiation in the northern Netherlands based on an inventory of over 300 radiocarbon dates that accumulated during the past 60 years, and present new data on peat initiation of one of the largest bog remnants of Northwestern Europe: the Fochteloërveen.
As my first Exchange, I respond to Cindy’s research themes. Ideas began brewing back in March 2020 when the Home Turf and Wet Futures teams offered images as a way to get to know each other’s work. Cindy’s photo of a peat core was striking. I also heard she had enjoyed visiting a collection of prehistoric pots, and that archaeologists can locate these in time and culture. Peatland scientists use radiocarbon but also use testate amoebae as environmental indicators. To me, these shelled amoebae have a similar shape to urns.
So I created an Hourglass as a combined form of testate amoebae and prehistoric pot and this is dedicated to Cindy and her research topic. An Hourglass is a familiar motif, carried through the ages by Father Time. It implies finite time, and the sand flowing is literally a rather linear view of things. But you can turn the Glass and start afresh.
A Raised Bog (Hoogveen)
Aukjen Nauta asks if science can help reconstruct how water flowed and where bog iron ores developed? Her abstract is set out below.
Aukjen Nauta: In search of historic bog iron ore deposits (Abstract) Bog iron ores are lumps or lenses of Fe-minerals found close to the surface along streams, but also in raised bogs. Their deposition is determined by groundwater seepage, as that is the source of iron. Much is known about bog iron ores along natural streams: their physical and chemical characteristics, but also their use as a source of iron by past societies. In raised bogs, however, they have received little attention. This presentation will focus on bog iron ores in the Bourtangermoor, a former raised bog in the north of the Netherlands. As nearly all bog has disappeared due to extensive peat digging, we used historic literature and maps, and compared these to present-day seepage data to reconstruct possible sites of historic bog iron ores. Knowing where and at what depths bog iron ores could be found in raised bogs, can provide information for archaeologists regarding the way past societies perceived and used the landscape around them. Apart from archaeology, more knowledge on bog iron ores in raised bogs could help to create nutrient-poor conditions in wetland rejuvenation projects, as bog iron ores can capture phosphate by forming the mineral vivianite (Fe-phosphate).
Aukjen’s initial image (see below) was a photo of a ‘typical’ Dutch peat colonial landscape. Aukjen also showed me pictures of peat-cutters at work. I find it hard to take in the amount of hand labour involved and the scale of transformation.
Aukjen conceptualises the hydrology and geochemistry of Raised Bogs which no longer exist. This a determined act of interdisciplinary imagination! My ideas of all this come mainly from diagrams, like this one below in an authoritative text book.
So for Aukjen I constructed a Raised Bog with swirls of acidic and sweet water. As she notes, these are exaggerated. Maybe I had a sponge in mind making this pattern. Perhaps a deep dark brown would have been a more obvious colour. This Bog could definitely be more nuanced in terms of texture and vegetation.
So I offer this as a prompt: what is your own idea of a peatland?
These Figures will become shadow puppets, a series I am making to play out the relation between people and peatlands. I thought of Scotland and The Netherlands and also South East Asia. These are not human Figures, or characters, but are a way of scoping out other living and material beings. Maybe new narratives can develop collaboratively.
My third Figure is in honour of the World Soil’s Museum commitment to soil conservation. It is a Spectral Landscape and comes from a diagram of the extent of peatlands in perhaps 250 BCE, in what is now the Netherlands. The drawing is on a peat-based compost bag. I have a collection of these from my neighbourhood, kindly donated by people who became concerned by the need to replace these with peat-free compost.
Peat has a particular quality as a Spectral Landscape, as the quote in the image below suggests.
Starting to see peatlands differently
I will talk about learning to see peatlands in the landscape. I first realised peat’s importance when I learnt that restoring peatlands is part of Scottish Climate Action. This drawing below comes from a 2015 project, In Flow In Flux. I wanted to learn to see carbon as an element of life that flows between air, water and earth when a river flows through the land. This was a collaboration with an environmental scholar and biogeochemist. As David Borthwick wrote: “Carbon moves at a variable rate of exchange, it is stock and commodity, it is hard asset and liquid currency”.
A map of peat in Scotland shows that Galloway in the South West is a wet place, rich in rain-fed lowland peat bogs. Most are degraded. When I moved to Scotland aged 18, I thought of bogs just as bleak squidgy areas between the romantic rocky hilltops. I expect I used dismissive words about ‘bogs’ (another name for the WC).
I wanted to start with this image below of Silver Flowe, an internationally recognised Ramsar site described as ‘one of the least-disturbed and most varied in a system of patterned blanket mires in Southern Scotland’ (link).
It is a hard place to get to, but a 2018 workshop enabled a group to understand the area from different perspectives.
People need to be part of the peatlands picture – and field workshops can facilitate this.
Probing what is underfoot
Here is a birds eye view of me trying to imagine what is underneath me on a raised bog. I heard it might be 8 metres of peat. Your previous experiences have a lot to do with how comfortable you feel in such a place. You might feel vulnerable, especially as a woman. Experience and knowledge influences what you see and draw, and yet it takes conscious work to place yourself in the landscape and forge new kinds of relationship. This theme was developed through a conversation with artists Pantea and Alix Villanueva, documented here.
This drawing (also shown above) is about a human scale, and the willpower needed to restore a degraded peatland. It was inspired by a fieldworker, she spent a hot dry summer of 2018 probing the depth of Crunklie Moss in the Scottish Southern Uplands. These drawings developed as a booklet and short collaborative film with pantea.
I made prints: at first I saw them the other way up, like the degraded peat hags I used to think were normal. But I learned to turn them the right way up – helping imagine both the past and future of a degraded peatland. To become a carbon store and habitat, these need a green living layer of bog mosses and a raised water table.
This 2017 photo is before a ‘forest to bog’ restoration project started – downstream from Silver Flowe. In many places bogs have been planted with conifers. This is now recognised as a mistake and in some places it is being repaired. Here Emily Taylor, manager of Crichton Carbon Centre was guiding Kerry Morrison (Peatland Connections Project Officer) to Beggers Moss, a site which is now changing fast. Emily offers an inspiring vision of combining community, ecology and art.
It was astonishing to discover how easily the probe could be pressed into the peat bog. This is the point you realise that they are 90% water. This fluidity gives a weird feeling.
Extracting and Returning an Art Peat Core
A peat corer is not just a tool for peatland scientists, it is an asset for art-science and community field workshops. The depth of the peat bog is a physical way to reach distant time.
At a 2016 workshop where a peat core was extracted at another raised bog, Kirkconnell Flow, people exclaimed that we were ‘getting down to the ice age‘ when we collectively witnessed boulder clay being brought to the surface. It had been deposited an estimated 12 000 years ago, then it was covered as 6 metres of peat grew
To quote Sarah Eno: “I’ve got goosebumps thinking how the ice sheets ground stone into flour as they went over the landscape. And that what we are now looking at is what the ice sheets deposited when temperatures fluctuated and they melted.”
How could I make artistic, symbolic, use of this peat core?
I showed it in the arts-centre, The Stove, in Dumfries, which hosted the workshop. People said it was a powerful experience to see this depth of peat which came from a nearby place they knew of. Some wanted to know ‘which way time went’ and how old it was. So the peat core engaged people’s attention.
For three years, the ‘art-core’ lived in our home freezer with just occasional outings. I had to think what to do with it.
What is the best way to use it to convey time? When I made a series of prints from the peat core, it helped me understand peat as a material that disappears quickly. It very easily dries and blows away. Or else it readily washes away in water – releasing carbon as it goes.
I wanted to mediate how people related to it. This following quote helped this
Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s essay is essential reading on my theme, Sensing a Peatbog in Time! Her academic botanical knowledge combines with a passion for plants and a recovery of indigenous language. She can look at the living peat surface and imagine the processes underneath.
I was still uneasy about the prints. I did not want to think of the peat as a commodity that could be extracted and used as an art material. I decided the way I work should demonstrate that peat needs to be left in the ground.
So, as a symbolic act of reparation, I returned the peat core to where it had been extracted. I put the lengths of peat in a small pool on the surface (with the permission of the site managers). My hope was that returning it to a pool would reduce the oxidation that occurs when peat is exposed to air. But I admit I kept the boulder clay section, which became part of a kind of personal Farewell to the Holocene. You can read more about my symbolic return of the peat core here.
Welcome to a project studio!
Below you see a sketch of my self-set mission. What do I want to do? I want to work with communities and peatland restoration and help widen engagement with research and museum collections.
There is much to learn. There are politics around peat, and different ways communities can relate to the heritage and future of local peatlands: collaboration and partnership is the best route. I am proud of working with the project Peatland Connections and the youth-led group RE-PEAT.
Below, you glimpse a sketch I made to set up an installation with a studio-feel in the World Soil Museum (which is now again open on Wednesday afternoons). I started by setting up some shadow puppets.
There is also space for work by other people, and objects inspiring different kinds of peatland connection. Time only allows me to describe one of many inspirations.
The Keeper of the Soils is a Scottish project. Last November for the Climate Change Talks, COP26, Natalie Taylor and others walked to Glasgow from Dunbar on the east coast and collected soil samples which were placed in the pockets of a cape. This helped reconnect to the land under their feet.
Natalie wrote: “I saw a way of creating points of contact with different soils through fashioning a ceremonial cape, created by many hands and with the intention of gathering samples to create a lay-person’s soil collection.”
Below you see the last stop in making this soil collection, at Possil Marsh, a peaty pocket of Glasgow.
The weather wasn’t always this wet, this is a better view of the Keeper’s Cape in Glasgow.
Here’s the project map of the 100 mile route, showing how people took part over ten days. I think this pilgrimage, by the Keeper of the Soils, complements the work of the World Soil Museum.
The Peatland Pavilion at COP26 was a response to strengthening media and political attention to the importance of peatlands.
But also, quieter creative practices around how we keep soils can tease out important meanings and give space to reflect.
Slow work seems a luxury when it comes to restoring peatlands (like all ecological action). But Cindy and Aukjen’s work underlines what achieving a precise understanding offers. I think their research opens up many associations and creative possibilities. I’m sure we’ll find this too with the research work highlighted in the next three Peatland Exchanges.
How to sum up? where can I go with these ideas?
I think that sensing the time of a peat bog is an elusive process. It is a sensation that occurs unexpectedly. A feeling of wonder, or goosebumps.
Perceiving peat’s depth and flow of peat is helped by sharing knowledge – acquired through all the different sensory experiences. I think exchanging ideas across disciplines can help re-imagine ways of relating to the urgency within peatlands. Peatlands are places which can disappear much faster than they can grow.
Working as an artist in this context needs to be a considered process.
A discussion theme for this series of talks might be: what is the role of arts within contexts of environmental science? As a starting point, I offer this summary from Valuing Arts and Arts Research .
My thanks and acknowledgements to all who made this series possible, as mentioned in this post. I welcome reflections and suggestions, and corrections if I have misunderstood something.
Kate Foster: artist’s biography
Kate Foster is an environmental artist based in the Netherlands and Scotland. Her education at Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, (2001) enabled flexible responses to different contexts and the capacity to work in diverse public settings. Her commitment to ecological concerns led to collaborative art-science projects and involvement with grassroots restoration projects and advocacy. Kate’s research training (PhD in Social Sciences) deepens her creative practice. Since 2016, she has focussed on wetlands complemented by a part-time MSc by Research in Interdisciplinary Creative Practice (2019) from University of Edinburgh Scotland. This developed her knowledge of the practice of contemporary art, cultural landscapes and environment. An Erasmus+ scholarship in Wageningen University (2020) enabled a residency with the research programme of the Home Turf Project and also the development of creative links between Scotland and the Netherlands. In 2022 her creative practice will continue to explore the heritage and future of wetlands through the World Soil Museum museum collections. She aims to create engagement and dialogue around wetland soils. Plans include making Scottish connections with the anticipated Our Living Soil project.
How have people interacted with Dutch peat landscapes over time?
How can we learn about peatlands and better appreciate their value?
All are welcome to explore these questions through a series of four interdisciplinary webinars by researchers from the Home Turf and Wetfutures projects. These online talks are being hosted by the World Soil Museum and will give a variety of perspectives. Each webinar presents new research work on a particular theme with a response by myself, Kate Foster, an environmental artist.
Peatland Exchanges is a collaborative initiative at the outset of my artist’s residency in the extraordinary collections of the World Soil Museum.
The webinars will be on alternate Thursdays:
10 February, 24 February, 10 March, 24 March / 14.00 to 16.00 CET
Marks and Traces was an online workshop exploring archaeology through poetry and illustration, led by two archaeologists whose creative work takes the form of poetry and illustration.
“Led by Mel Giles and Rose Ferraby, you will explore how to get under the surface of landscape; how we might extend our imaginations into the unseen. Moving between words and images, the workshop is about experimenting with creative form as a process of connecting with the past and thinking through archaeological material.” Extract from Worskhop description.
I was drawn to the workshop theme through a shared preoccupation with representing soil, geology, and archaeology under our feet. How can we imagine these things, without digging it up? Kate Flood and colleagues invite us to think about a process of Remembering, Reimagining, and Restoring.
With this workshop, we conceputalised “fragments and layers through which we can imagine past lives, and weave new stories. I was happy to go through the exercises with the insights and readings offered by Rose and Mel, working first in text and then collage. This post shows two of my responses, connecting these to a process of re-imagining set out in the RE-PEAT manifesto.
In this exciting session, we were asked for story of place and people that came to mind. Last winter, friends encouraged me to look carefully at how a particular Bog Body’s hair had been coiled.
Taking a moment on an isolated lockdown day to pick up on a Whatsapp thread. I have unruly long thick straight hair, and this invited a playful friend to invite a Swabian Knot experiment. “Here’s how” she said “just follow this link”. Some minutes later, I had a pile of irritated hairs tilting my head to one side (so as to not let it flop). This, I think, was not Osterby Man’s look. But anyway, I decided, fresh-washed hair was not ideal. Best if it was well-oiled. I wondered who taught him to knot his hair thus? How much easier it would be to have someone show me the pattern for real, not just a youtube video. Here, was his hair, still – and mine, still alive, flopping. Brown, grey, and not dyed orange by the bog. But maybe, when I finally get my post-lockdown haircut, maybe then I throw my plait into a bog.
Reading this, my husband became sure that the coil had been a love knot, tied by someone dear to the warrior.
As a second quick exercise, we were asked to reflect on what things do we find important to put with people who have died? Imagine a funerary urn, or think of a landscape from memory, and what we keep in our pockets.
This image arose from pockets of my mind, and a heap of printed paper saved for collage. The brown base is a made in Southern Scotland, when I was reflecting on the degraded blanket peatbogs that sadly are still a typical landscape. Revisiting this image made me yearn to walk over summer moorland, with fleeting glimpses of dragonflies. So then a sail appeared above the horizon, the iron-oxide brown traditional pattern of fishing boats in Essex where I lived as a child. The drift of sails above the horizon was a movement I had learned to look for as I walked in a landscape bounded by sea walls. A sea wall, or dike, appeared on the bottom right of my image. And for the bottom left, I tore out an urn-shape from a map of how a climate-wise Netherlands might look in 2120, envisaged by Wageningen University scientists. I am staying in this country now, and learning how it was washed over by shifting glacial sediments and then shaped as a cultural landscape over millennia by human labour. With this thought, images of turfstekers (peat-digging tools) appeared as a decoration on the rim of the urn.
As the workshop progresssed, drawing, writing and archaeology came together in many different ways – and a reference to architecture also.
I had got to a point of remembering, within a process of imagining past lives. Here is a place for new landscapes to evolve, with the inspiration of the youth-led peatland advocacy collective, Re-Peat:
“We believe in a process of re-imagining, / Concocting a new peatland paradigm / Where both the inner and outer landscapes can evolve. / In the moment of suspending belief, In believing. / In the possibility of power melting underfoot.” Extract fromRE-PEAT manifesto
What happens if you use peat, that damp and dark material from the morass, as a way of getting to know Dutch landscapes?
In 2020, I came from Scotland to the Netherlands to pursue my environmental arts project and learn from wetlands researchers at Wageningen University. Covid lockdown made it hard to visit peatland themselves. Instead, I focussed on traces of peatlands around me – like a pot plant on my desk, neighbouring gardens, online museum images, and place-names on maps.
And how will my Veencultuur project interact with the Grote Kerk? What can this building and its history of faith prompt with my growing collection of altered compost bags and drawings? My project is about connections between people and peat over time, and what new peaty landscapes could be like.
Wageningen, a university ‘city of Life Sciences’ in the eastern Netherlands, is putting up a Culture Summer. Each week there will be a new exhibition in De Grote Kerk (Great Church) in the pedestrianised centre, amidst the weekly markets.
Next week, I’ll be taking along my collection of altered compost bags and Veencultuur related drawings. I’m proud to be showing work alongside Kitty Doomernik, Bert Hoekstra, and Laurens van der Zee – and am enjoying all the different ways of working.
How can you see peat cultures in Dutch landscapes?
Using peat as a viewing-frame, I have been learning to look afresh at these reclaimed landscapes. This is becoming a long-term project, and learning language is helping me gradually understand more about what I see.
Drained peatlands are evident in The Netherlands in different ways. I started to map them onto compost-bags. Shadow puppets can be a playful way to think about human relationships to peatbogs and to connect different times and places.
Here is a slideshow, a signpost to forthcoming work.
Alternatively, in Dutch (all mistakes mine alone).