Dear Agricultural Policy Maker

I can imagine you have a lot of technical reports on Peatlands to read, plus you’ve got to work out policy options for the climate crisis. And then there’s RE-PEAT’s fantastic Global Peat Fest to catch up on too!

I thought I would offer some images to help keep peatland points in mind.

I’m an artist who started a project to support people who are working to restore peatlands in Scotland. The banner at the top was part of a peatbog workshop where families joined in with peatland restoration. The idea that ‘Something as small as a wish can take root and breathe the peatbog alive’ comes from the poet, Jos Smith.

Here is a photo of one the best preserved peatbogs in South West Scotland, Silver Flowe in Galloway. Have you been on healthy ‘squelchy’ wet peatlands? They rock when you jump.

Please put peatlands in the picture!

Here’s an impression of different Bog Mosses under a microscope. Sphagnum mosses absorb rain and can be more than 90% water.

Bog mosses absorb rainwater and create peat over millennia.

I’m doing a project in The Netherlands and am learning how this country has been claimed from peatlands over the centuries. An unimaginable amount of peat has disappeared into the atmosphere and water ways.

When I started in January, there was a small Cactus on my desk.

An image of a cactus in a jar with some earth, maybe peat, and gravel.
A Cactus trying to grow on peat moss.

Sadly, it hasn’t really thrived. I think it would be better off in a desert. The brown earth under the white pebbles looks like peat, typical of wetlands.

As I read about cultural history of peatlands, an uncomfortable question surfaced. Where did the cactus’ peat come from?

During Covid lockdown, people turned to gardening. A pile of peat-based compost bags arrived next door.

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Peat in garden compost causes damage to wetlands.

Almost all brands of compost contain peat. I began to collect the bags from my neighbours. They too wanted to know where the peat comes from. Nobody likes the idea that their own gardening might damage other places. That’s why there is growing support for the Peat-ition. It has to be wrong that peat is extracted from other countries where large peatbogs still exist, to be used for horticulture in other places. When peatlands are demolished, histories and sustainable futures dissappear.

So I drew a Cactus to symbolise growing the wrong plants on peat.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Cacti – but they don’t need peatbogs.

A Cactus really shouldn’t be grown in peat.

The next drawing is a Water Table. The legs are different lengths because people don’t agree about the ideal height.

Right now, things seem to keep slipping off the Water Table. It’s urgent, for the climate and other reasons, to stop peatlands drying out. Wetland species are finding it hard to hang on.

A Water Table. We need to level up.

Please get round the table at the Common Agricultural Policy talks!

Please stop wetland drainage altogether.

Please support new methods of nurturing peatlands.

Thank you.

PS. Excuse me writing in English. I wonder what is a ‘Water Table’ in other languages? I know in Dutch it is Waterpeil or Waterspiegel (a level or a mirror).

Veencultuur contexts (studio reading)

This summer, I have studio space to puzzle out ways to think about the Dutch idea of ‘Veencultuur’. This word is a literal translation of Peat Cultures, but in Dutch it connects specifically to ways of cultivating ground that was formerly a peatbog. In the Netherlands peatlands have been imbricated into culture over the millennia, making a unique case study of the many ways people relate to and exploit peatlands.

This post is a log of ideas feeding into my practice-based work.  I’ll document diverse links that I follow up, from scribbled notes in my sketchbook.

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Preserving peatlands for our past heritage and today’s environment, Benjamin Gearey. This article is highlighted in Nature Volve 6 (pp16-20), available here, and showcases photographs by Tina Claffey.  Peatlands are an archive of both the archaeological record and also past cultural and social significance: according to Gearey this needs to be understood better, alongside their ecological significance. As a member of the WetFutures project, Gearey describes how  ‘The Bog’ in Ireland is a contested territory and needs an interdisciplinary approach – to find out what different people think and how they might be involved.

Experimental archaeology is one way to generate knowledge exchange and engage people from different communities of interest. ‘Learning by doing’ lets people handle prehistoric artefacts that usually can only be seen in a museum or book. Getting out onto peatlands is also important, as a sensory experience.

WetFutures is about exploring the ‘how, why  and what’ about public opinion on heritage and its complex relationship with other social and cultural questions and issues.  Benjamin Gearey 2020

 

A footprint in clay: Looking for history in the landscape. A trip round the former island of Schokland. This booklet is no 22 in the series Archaeoloigcal Trips in the Netherlands, published in 1999

I read this in preparation for a long-anticipated field trip to Schokland, a World Heritage site on the reclaimed Noordoostpolder. Schokland seems to epitomise a Dutch struggle to live between land and water. It is of special interest to archaeologists.

A title on page 6 struck me: The Invasion of the Killer Plants.  Recently, I have learnt to think of Sphagnum Moss as a plant hero (to be celebrated with the picturesque Sundew). I read that Sphagnum Moss growth had started ‘in a modest fashion around 2500 BC. But 800 years later, hardly any room is left for man.’   People returned to the area in the early Middle Ages with the physical and social organisation to drain the moss, creating arable land and taking illegal advantage of a market for peat fuel during the Dutch Golden Age.  Drainage caused the former peatlands to subside; by 1600 inhabitants had to defend themselves against encroaching seawater. In the 1930s the new Afsluitdijk created the Ijsselmeer from what had been the tidal Zuider Zee. I understand the land continues to subside. I am very curious to see a mooring post that now stands in the fields, marking former water levels.

Atlas of the Holocene, Netherlands. Landscape and Habitation since the Last Ice Age. Edited by P Vos, M van der Meulen, H Weerts, J Bazelmans. First English Edition 2020. Amsterdam University Press.

I finally have an English version! Without need of a dictionary, I can puzzle over how Dutch sedimentary landscapes have formed and been re-shaped by people since the glaciers melted. Chapter 3 describes rising sea levels, and a diagram of how only 10 000 years ago, the Thames and Rhine both flowed into what has become the English Channel (p14).   The lowlands rapidly (relatively, in geologic time) filled with meltwaters as polar ice caps melted. For a while after that, roughly the same amount of ice was formed each year as melted. This beautifully clear introduction makes me feel unsteady because of the massive forces at work on a landscpae which remains in flux. I learn how for some thousands of years, sediment from the rivers and peat formation kept pace with subsidence, whose different geologic and human causes included soil compaction from peatland removal. I begin to have a sinking feeling as I apprehend that humans now are the main agents of subsidence,  and swim amongst descriptions that reconstruct sealevel fluctuations in specific places.

An Archive of Gestures, a long term project by dance artist Farah Saleh

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Farah Saleh succeeds in working fluidly with different contexts, and articulating the processes visually and in words. She is well-used to overcoming obstacles and found a method of working online after her colleagues were refused Visas to join her on a dance residency in Edinburgh. One theme of her project is ‘the presence of absence’ (a phrase coined by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish). Farah introduces the methods she devised to overcoming distance and transmit bodily gestures to an audience, possibly transforming this gesture into our own bodies. For a moment, a micro-community may be created where people might realise differently the experience of vulnerability and interdependency.

Farah says she is often asked: How can gestures become an archive? Of course live performance is ephemeral. It is not a physical archive, but a process of transmitting gestures in a way that moves what is personal into the collective.

Such powerful, considered work, with the lightest of touch!

I looked at this video to think differently about my own atempts to create a repetoire of more-than-human Figures. How might the gestures of a human body relate to these? Of course, science has been criticised for its neglect of the human participant / observer. At the same time, in contentious environmental settings, perhaps it help to avoid ad hominem comments, but rather focus on making dialogue and new connections. Benjamin Gearey suggests experimental archaeology is a route to relate to archaeological presence. Perhaps we can think more about how gestures that the past contexts created?  How must an Ard must be pushed through the soil?  How does a Turfsteker (peat digging tool) make a human body move? How can we relate to spectral peatbogs?

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RE-ENCOUNTERING at RE-PEAT festival

As artists we  were proud to present together at Peat Fest. This was an informative, energetic, and diverse 24-hour global online event organised by RE-PEATKate Foster and Pantea Shabahang.

RE-ENCOUNTERING: the presentation as a video

Discussion

The discussion revolved around how connections to peatlands can be social and cultural, as well as scientific.

• One talking point was a peat core that had been extracted at a workshop in Kirkconnell Flow in SW Scotland (2016). During the workshop, people experienced the softness of a peatbog.  Direct experience and sensing the landscape in different ways can develop emotional connections, and allow different kinds of learning and imagination.

• Exhibiting the peat core elsewhere gave people the sense that the compressed time of a peatbog became tangible, as texture and depth.

• The experience of going to a peatbog can include discomfort, and possibly apprehension, as well as excitement. Close acquaintance of peatlands can make them move between being mysterious and mundane, otherworldly and ordinary. But close-looking, perhaps finding small hidden plants, suggests intriguing ways to relate to peatland lives.

• Archaeological and historical study of how people interact with peatlands indicates connections were both ritual and functional; they did not necessarily play a negative role in people’s imagination – although this is how they have often latterly been perceived.

• We cannot leave our 21st century preconceptions behind, but archaeoloigcal reconstruction is also a way to imagine things differently.

• How might current human impacts be read in the peat, in thousands of years? This is the heart of our concerns.

In these thick peat deposits, paleoecologists can read the history of the land. They slide a long shining cylinder into the bog, cutting through layers of undecomposed plants, and extract a core of peat. By the plants that are present, the pollen grains trapped there, and the chemistry of the organic matter they can discern the changes in the lands. Changes in vegetation, changes in the climate, stretching thousands of years before , are all recorded there. What will they read in the layer that represents our time, our evanescent moment at the surface? We are responsible for that.

Quote: Robin Wall Kimmerer (2003:118) Gathering Moss: a natural and cultural history of mosses. Oregon State Univerity Press: Corvallis

• How does individual and socially engaged practice combine, say in the Peat Cultures project? It is Work + NetWork! Kate commented that the personal artwork she makes feeds into developing social practice, and vice versa since people’s responses feed into her individual work.

The scope of the Ramsar Culture Network:

The Ramsar Convention in 1971 was forward looking because the brief included cultural aspects of ecosystem management. Tradtional and indigenous mangement offer models of sustainabilty. The Ramsar cultural specialist sub-group includes an arts thematic group, in recognition that artists can expand the repetoire of ways that wetlands function in landscape and human society.

Link here for  www.ramsar.org  and here for Ramsar Culture Network

 

RE_ENCOUNTERING with discussion can be seen in full here.

If you can, take time to visit the RE-PEAT festival sessions.

 

Notes about the artists

Pantea Shabahang is an Iranian artist working with experimental documentary, analogue photography and field recording to explore new ways of telling stories. She studies themes of the environment, immigration and wetlands. Pantea’s work on Sundew has been recently published as creative nonfiction in Plumwood magazine. Her recent release everydaymeal is available in different formats.

Twitter @pantearm
Instagram @aetnapantea

Additional links:

• Sound walk at Red Moss of Balerno, Edinburgh

• Excerpt of Wetland Sketches installation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_wTFHAWb7A&t=4s

• The photo of Siberian crane is taken by Javad Khaleghzadeh, check out his photos of northern wetlands of Iran: https://www.instagram.com/iliteacher/

Kate Foster is an environmental artist who initiated a project, Peat Cultures, to support peatland restoration in Southern Scotland. She is now learning about Dutch wetland cultures as artist in residence to the Home Turf Project in Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Further information here.

 

 

Un-finishing Stories: creating remote connections to wetlands

This was written by myself (Kate Foster) with Pantea Shabhahang, an Iranian artist. I am artist in residence with the Home Turf and Wetfutures project in Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and Pantea is concerned with environment, immigration and wetlands. We both recently completed graduate studies at Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland, collaborating on diverse #wetlandsketches. The topic of making connections remotely develops from an earlier three-way discussion with artist Alix Villanueva about actually visiting a peatbog and looking closely at its surface.

Introduction

Being an artist and being in quarantine, she did what artists have always done — make wonder out of limitation, privation, and boredom; illuminate the universal through the tiny aperture of the deeply personal.

Maria Popova, April 2020, reviewing work by Sophie Blackall.

Maria Popova poses a challenge for artists working within Corona restrictions. I had to find different ways to develop my initial response to the Home Turf and Wetfutures projects during my residency in Wageningen University.  I compared notes with an Iranian artist friend, Pantea Shabahang. This post is about beginning to work creatively with the fragments of wetland lives and cultures that we are uncovering, suggesting this is a process of ‘un-finishing’ stories.

As lockdown life began for me, Pantea was already an expert at combining digital work and social life in her small Tehran apartment.  Last year we explored Scottish peatlands together and now we are both linking into cultural projects about wetlands – but in two very different countries.  This post draws out themes from conversations in which we wove between different places and times, near and remote. We have been busy finding links between the dry urban setting of Tehran and Persian wetland cultures, as well as comparing this with some remnants of Dutch peat cultures that I have encountered. We also have memories of both joyful and awkward days on Scottish moorlands.

Maria Popova emphasised that artists in Corona times may succeed in creating wonder and I find tenderness is also important for me, now that precarity is so evident. The English word ‘tenderness’ allows both a realisation of vulnerability as well as compassion and care. This state of mind could extend to an understanding of how other species are also vulnerable, as Robin Wall Kimmerer recently suggested.

Backstory of connecting remotely to peatlands

Previously, in Scotland, I initiated a project (Peat Cultures reported here) in support of a forthcoming peatland restoration programme (Peatland Connections) which is a regional partnership project aiming to engage people to value peatlands – as heritage, for climate action, and wildlife protection. This project helped pilot different ways in which field workshops could interest people in peatbogs, which are typically remote rural places. I asked how socially engaged art can create different perspectives on peatlands, in my practice-based Masters by Research.  An aim was to help shift traditional viewpoints away from seeing peatbogs as expendable wastes of land and instead re-present wetlands as intriguing places in their own right, and point to new ecological insights.

Corona restrictions make field workshops impossible, but the hiatus let me pick up digital conversations with Pantea Shabhahang. Her recent project was about how the Sundew, an elusive plant typical of Northern peatlands, is represented.  When she had only recently arrived in Scotland and first encountered wetlands, she heard about this carnivorous plant – but it took a long time to actually see it. Images of Sundews are often used to illustrate the beauty and value of peatlands, but they exist underground as a hibernaculum in the winter months. Their absence fed Pantea’s imagination. Her approach became “looking for the sundew” as if she were an adventurer. This took her on a different path than if she were a research scientist. For example, she looked for sundews in her first excursion to a peatbog but mistook a lizard for this plant. So this happenstance became part of her project; she connected with diverse representations of sundews, such as texts, illustrations and photographs, in different times and places. Pantea’s creative approach and energy has been an encouragement during the Corona emergency.

Structuring time

A recent seminar at ArtEZ (an art school in the Netherlands) proposed that Time Matters. Monique Peperkamp and others expanded on ways that artists might generate different encounters with ecological time, giving this introduction:

Now – at a time when ecological catastrophes become ever more manifest and the term Anthropocene connects the symptoms of this crisis – it has become clear that modern culture has only ostensibly been cut off from the multifarious web of intimate relations we call nature. Perception is changed by knowledge and art, shifting what and how things touch and move us. Art makes sensible that the way we treat nature is also the way we treat each other, and subversively practices and presents different perspectives and relations, by interrupting conventionalized routines and tempos in order to attune to other lifeforms. Likewise, art relates to knowledge to evoke actions, alternatives and care.

Monique Peperkamp. Introduction to the Seminar Ecological Time: natures that matter in activism and art, ArtEZ, Arnhem, March 12, 2020

After going to this seminar, my attention was drawn sharply to the present. With lockdown, I found myself working on a dining table in rented rooms and had to create a new timetable for work. I had an impulse to create pattern and looked out my window at a flooded meadow. Water that was diverted from the Nederrijn created a temporary wetland, used by a pair of swans.  I was intrigued by their fluidity of movement, daily foraging pattern and free flight.

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Kate Foster. Swan Patterns, drawing, 2020.

Via wifi, other seasonal signs appeared. Aukjen Nauta, graduate student with the Home Turf project, sent a cheery image of daffodils in the western Netherlands.

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Around the Persian New Year (23 March), as Pantea and I began to meet online regularly to swap ideas and images, she showed me a plate of wheat sprouts growing for Persian New Year. I asked what they meant, and heard about the different calendars Iranians work with.

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New Year wheat shoots on a windowsill.

 

Pantea Shabhahang:  The origin of the Persian calendar goes back to 4000 years ago, and it is called the Persian Solar Hijri Calendar. Each month represented a ritual or celebration performed by farmers and shepherds and is linked to Zoroastrian traditions and beliefs. We also refer to other calendars, we call the Arabic one the Moon Calender, and the Western calendar is called the Birth Calendar as it refers to birth of Christ.  Farvardin is the first month of Persian Solar calendar, beginning in mid March and represents a celebration for New Year Day. People used to have big fires and celebrate the new year, new plants and new cycle of life. The celebration respects the dead as passed beings and encourages mending relationships.

Corona restrictions gave the sense of time apart, but was also grounded by arrival of spring.  As the concept of balkonsolidariteit (Balcony Solidarity) appeared in Dutch,  improvised banners appeared on Iranian balconies as people found new ways to send traditional New Year poetic greetings about spring, flowers and love.

Transformations of nature and the eternal circle of life and death are pivotal concepts in Persian poetry. In a Nowruz [New Year] such as this one, with the shadow of death looming large over everything, people searched for the meaning of spring in poems.

Extract from Quarantine Poetry in Iran by Ahmadali Khadivar

The images described in Quarantine Poetry in Iran are shown below with permission of Golrokh Nafisi.

Staff in Wageningen University shared information, including Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic which is a compendium of social researchers’ remote methods. This included the idea of Story Completion (see here). This provoked questions about how artists can work and reach different audiences. Some people might be drawn to the idea of completing a story – and others might question the starting point. Perhaps the Corona virus has created a limbo period for humans, and the words before and after are acquiring new multiple meanings. Pantea spoke of how wetlands are also in-between places.

Pantea Shabahang: Wetlands have a half-way quality which gives them distinct attributes. From science, we learn that they own characteristics of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Perhaps wetlands are the type of ‘nature’ humans find challenging to physically comprehend as they bring about a lot of uncertainty from the moment you put your foot on the ground to when you attempt to line up a management plan. Interestingly this resonates with my state of being, oscillating between two continents. Not only is this about a state of geographical immigration but also a constant translation of culture, language and meaning of home and identity into different time-scales.

Sharing this process of ‘constant translation’ to be energising. Snatches of stories began to emerge.

Stories in the making
: Working from photographs 


Corona times are offering unexpected encounters with the ‘more than human’. While I was absorbed with the fleeting movement of swans, Pantea was excited to see clear and blue skies emerge in Tehran and to hear birdsong in streets that are usually full of noise and heavily polluted. I was surprised, having assumed that blue skies were commonplace in Iran.

blueskytehran

Hearing about a project to revitalise wetlands cultures in Rasht, a city in the north of Iran, I looked at google images to understand how Eynak Lagoon is severely compromised by human activities. Aerial photographs of roads around urban lakes made me feel as though the wetlands had nooses around their necks. A recurring theme in conversation with Pantea was how people can become interested in wetland conservation, when for many these issues might seem too distant. (This reaction would also have applied to our previous selves.) Being unable to travel to Gilan because of the lockdown, Pantea found photos from previous visits:

I kept looking out of my window and back inside again, as we told each other fragments of stories and found patterns to link to. Becoming aware that she was surrounded by domestic objects crafted out of wetland materials, Pantea recalled a previous visit to Rasht where she had bought a typical basket. She had other cheap woven items from Rasht in her apartment, seen in the photos below.

Some houses near Wageningen have thatched roofs, as I noticed while getting my daily fresh air.  These would have been ‘poor man’s roofs in the past, replaced with tiles when a family came into money.  Pantea was surprised to see these villas, and to learn that in the Netherlands artisanal roofs are prestigious.


In Gilan, a northern wetland region around Rasht, traditional houses are less valued; older wood or thatched features are often replaced by iron or concrete.

Typical Gilan houses have a traditional style of balconies right around the upper floor. This gives space to women to weave rugs and talk to with passers-by, as Pantea’s drawings of Saravan village and tâlâb (wetland) show.

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I was bothered to learn that occasionally in Gilan, disused but highly decorated and carved wooden doors might be taken from old houses to function as a workaday bridge in the wetlands.

Bridges and trackways over uncertain ground

In a seminal article on prehistoric trackways in the Netherlands, W.A.Casparie (1987) observed “These trackways and paths were seldom part of a traffic system.” Home Turf researchers confirmed that some of the older peatland trackways in northern Europe seemed to have had a ritual purpose, rather than functional. This fed into my sketchbook reflections:

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Perhaps this search for pattern was about looking for bearings. It might also be a response to the possibilities of circular time. Robin Wall Kimmerer (see above) suggested circular time can be conceived as events that co-exist to be repeated. For me, drawing is a route to discern new patterns.

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To return to the prehistoric trackways, it appears it is not fully understood why all of these had been built nor what they led to.

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Wooden trackway with steam engine and people: Groninger Instituut voor Archeologie

Aukjen Nauta’s PhD studies include consideration of the reliability of data and how to engage the public with this. In a recent presentation, she used a story of excavations at Bourtangermoor to exemplify why interpretations must be made cautiously.

The story is that a well known professor in archaeology could have given a piece of a wooden trackway (found during peat digging), with a note describing the find, to a local reverend in 1936. This piece of wood reappeared in literature 70 years later as a possibility to date the wooden trackway. However its provenance was uncertain. A plank (possibly ‘the plank’) was found in the depot of the Drents museum. The note was found in another collection and has a different year on it (1937 and not 1936). The reverend and his housekeeper could not be interviewed: they both had died. However a friend of the housekeeper clearly remembered (60 odd years later) that her friend had talked about the plank from the wooden trackway and the note. This is not hard evidence.

Aukjen Nauta, personal communication

Aukjen Nauta’s advice, ‘embrace historic data, but beware’, has scientific research in mind.  As an artist, I may use freedom to imagine how doors, bridges, and trackways can help negotiate uncertain ground.

I imagine … just possibly … just an idea..
a prehistoric trackway being laid down amongst Dutch fields
and leading into a doorway from Rasht, laid on the ground
which opens
possibly a glimmering of Gilan wetlands
evaporating away visually
[story to be continued by viewer]
Kate Foster

Engaging other senses: listening as well as imaging

Corona restrictions have meant more time on screen, confining us to what can be represented in image, sound or text.  Other bodily senses can only be conveyed indirectly. But the combination of sensory encounters when visiting wetlands is unpredictable; looking close-up on a peat bog makes me look beyond myself and think about how other creatures are using the space.

Creative practice does not just stem from visual stimuli. Already working with sound, Pantea ventured into field recording in Scottish wetlands. Her specific prompt was the watery sound and feel of her footstep on a Hebridean peatbog. These slight sensations implied a presence of a body of water under the living surface. You can think of this surface as a skin, like the top of a water-fllled drum. Pantea’s influences include auralization as advocated by Pauline Oliveros; her recent soundwork everydaymeal combines the sounds of waders, moorland birds, that she had heard in Southern Scotland with sounds from her present surroundings in Tehran.

Pantea Shabhahang: Every place with its own story of time and space sparkled memories in my head, an experience similar to what Pauline Oliveros calls Auralization, a practice to ‘hear’ memories in one’s mental space as opposed to visually imagining them. While playing around with the process of Auralization, the distinction between these recordings and my memories would blur. Also, it seemed like every sound could assume multiple identities in the context of other sounds.

Finding new materials for story in-completion


Where I live near Wageningen, the planting season was heralded by the arrival of a pile of compost bags containing peat – which is sometimes called  ‘brown gold’ in Dutch.

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This is imported from other countries where expansive peat deposits still exist. The shiny plastic packaging was a sharp contrast with my experiences of appreciating the lively surface of a peatbog, and wondering at the depth of time quaking underfoot (explored in earlier work, Mending the Blanket.)

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Kate Foster 2019:  ‘Bog mosses make layers of carbon-rich peat from air and water.’

A study of bog moss turns attention to time and connectivity. As air and rainwater draws Sphagnum mosses’ crown-shaped heads upwards, their stems are collectively pushed down. Over millennia their brief life in the light creates a deep, dark, suspension. A quaking peatbog is a sensory memory, archiving varied patterns of life since the Ice Age meltwaters left a foundation of boulder-clay.

Kate Foster, New Networks for Nature catalogue, 2019.

The compost bags were like distant time arriving on the doorstep, dislocated and appropriated. I began to collect these bags and quickly acquired several different brands, kindly given me by people in my locality.

These empty plastic sacks have become a new art medium for different ongoing conversations and exchanges of images. These compost bags are like ‘pages’ on which to document unfinished stories. The first one I am working is on the theme of a Roman helmet that Dr. Maarten Jacobs (Wetfutures project) showed me. This impressive gold helmet was photographed on a black field – as black as the lining of the compost bag. I began on my own version of this story.

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I read that this gold helmet – known as the ‘Peelhelm’ – was found in a peatbog near Deurne in the Peel in 1910 by ‘Gebbel’ Smolenaars. The reasons why the helmet was left in this spot have been reinterpreted since then, because contemporary archaeology pays more detailed attention to the circumstances and context of finds. New evidence helped researchers create a fuller history of the Peelhelm.

Un-finishing stories

This post has documented some conversations exploring different ways of connecting remotely to wetlands in Corona times. I have described how through conversations with Pantea, the idea of ‘Story Completion’ has been replaced by a process of Un-finishing Stories.

Perhaps this iterative creative process has a parallel with scientific enquiry. Ecological understanding is shifting the ways wetlands are valued, and archaeological research painstakingly attunes past cultural practices with contemporary scientific interpretation.

As an environmental artist, inspired by wetland cultures in the Netherlands, Scotland and Iran, I find myself negotiating distance by weaving between different places and times, with explorations yielding broken strands and fragments of stories-in-the-making. I am starting to work images into found materials in a mood of tenderness, leaning sometimes towards disruption and sometimes towards reparation.

This method of working, from the ‘tiny aperture of the deeply personal’ can allow fragments to gather multiple meanings. This process can be developed by using the tremendous Dutch resources of archival photographs, such as those found in the Netherlands Photo Museum and online tools to make historical comparison like topodijreis.nl.  Artwork may develop in other directions when I can reach wetlands themselves and talk directly with people who understand these places in different ways.

As an artist I have the freedom to shape narratives over interwoven timescales. This may open up other connections, as Paul Robbins suggests:

Artists may play a role by paying attention to the more than human, acting as catalysts by placing things in the world into the path of potential interacting actors and investigators. Paul Robbins (2012)

Reference

Robbins, P. (2012). Talking through Objects: Multidisciplinary Dialogues with “Things’. GROUND \ WATER: The art, Design and Science of a Dry River. E. McMahon, Monson, A, Weinstein, B. Tucson, Arizona, Confluencer for Creative Inquiry: Pages 59 – 64.

Acknowledgements

To dr. Roy van Beek and all members of the Home Turf and Wetfutures projects at Wageningen University.  Especial thanks to Aukjen Nauta for comments and contributions, and also to Klaas Strijbis and Michael van Beinum. 

Any unintentional errors are entirely my (Kate Foster) responsibility.

Information about the artists

Kate Foster trained as an environmental artist in Glasgow School of Art, and since then has developed an interdisciplinary collaborative approach. Her work largely takes place outwith the gallery, being a socially engaged practice supported by drawing.  Peat Cultures   has a project website. Archive: www.meansealevel.net  www.inthepresenttense.net Twitter @peat_cultures

Pantea Shabhahang is an artist working with experimental documentary, analogue photography and field recording to explore new ways of telling stories. She studies themes of the environment, immigration and wetlands. Pantea’s work on Sundew has been recently published as creative nonfiction in Plumwood magazine. Her recent release everydaymeal is available in different formats.

 

A place for shelter and spending the winter.

On a windy February lunchtime, I set out for the Natuurtuin (natural garden) in Wageningen University grounds.

The board explained that the garden was laid out using local soil types. Along the edge of the path leading to the large pond, heaps of earth have been brought to the surface.

Green shoots were springing through the mole-hills.

A gentle sound of bricks being tapped into place came from the adjacent block of ground, with a swish of sand being swept across them.

A pump suggested underground construction. I had learnt from the notice-board that rainwater from the large pond is used as grey water in Lumen (one of the university buildings).

 

Further along the path, I saw that the natural garden is bounded by a heap of rubble. I am learning to see this as a sculpture – a work in more-than-human progress.

I was prompted to read more about this artwork which was created in 1996 by the sculptor Krijn Giezen. He was known for re-using debris to create structures that might eventually be seen as a natural part of the landscape, as plants grow over them. Giezen proposed a hollow wall that would with time provide shelter for wildlife, including bats.

This proposal for a Shelter and Overwintering Place for Flora and Fauna seems to have been criticised by staff. Some people were uneasy about the use of waste materials, and could not envisage what the completed work would look like. The installation was also complicated by the municipality’s requirement for both a building and environmental permit.

Despite being reduced in scale and scope, Giezen’s work survives as a refuge amidst new building work.

Trees are slowly becoming established. This work really grows on me too.

I returned on an even wetter day to see what creatures might be using the shelter, and realised that this artwork must be watched over time. Perhaps video conveys the place better than a photo can; you can see and hear the raindrops on this short clip:

Parts of Giezen’s wall seem to have become a research site. I assume the way some trees are wired up means that they are being studied.

A Coot was foraging by the banks of the large pond, unperturbed by the water-drops running off its back.

 

 The natural garden affords different kinds of foraging and shelter; it is a place with heaps of possibilities within a University of Life Sciences. I appreciate the pioneering environmental art of Krijn Giezen: right behind the bike-sheds, he has created a place that rewards attention.

Postscript

The next day, the builders took the barrier tape away. Pieter Slim kindly guided me to the focal point of the wall which I had not been able to see earlier. At the western edge, there is a tailor made entrance for hibernating bats – protected from martens who are also catered for.

This post is one in a series of #wetlandsketches in and around Wageningen University, a centre of expertise in the Life Sciences. As author of this post, responsibility for the content, and any unintended errors, is all mine.

My thanks to Pieter Slim for highlighting Giezen's project. 

Reference: Jansen, B, Ruyten L, de Windt, R and Zaal, A. (Editors) Lumen, Gaia, Atlas: Architectuur, kunst en tuinen van de gebouwen van de Environmental Sciences Group. Wageningen University: 2010.

Blue Room

Why might a nature reserve be called ‘De Blauwe Kamer’? In English this means: ‘The Blue Room’.

I visited this enticing place on a sunny Friday in February and worked out that this reserve was created in 1992 to give room for the river. This was an early project in what is now a national programme. The dyke was deliberately breached and the Nederrijn gained space for its ‘highly dynamic’ flow.

Board walk at Blauwe Kamer, 7th February 2020

I went again on Tuesday 11th after Storm Chiara had passed over. The river certainly had claimed room for itself.

Board walk at Blauwe Kamer, 11th February 2020

A section on the reserve noticeboard describes this changeable landscape. It notes that Wageningen University benefits from a rich range of soil-types for study and research. This includes swamps and raised bogs that grow in particularly wet parts to the north of the river.

Another noticeboard offers cyclists a rich choice of routes, giving the bodies of water clear blue edges.

Despite the recent storm which had created white crests on the water, the ferry to Opheusden was running as normal. We crossed fast-flowing water from inland Europe.

Coming back along the river dykes from De Blauwe Kamer, I saw how the dykes create a series of meadows with shifting water levels.

After I had returned to the calm of the university, a friend sent an email with a link to a compulsive video. This shows a familiar riverside cafe crumbling into the River Teviot in Hawick, Southern Scotland.

River levels are beginning to attract my automatic attention. I appreciate the firmly placed blue measuring posts you can see stretching into the sky along the dykes of the Nederrijn.

This post is one in a series of #wetlandsketches tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University, a centre of expertise in the Life Sciences. As author of this post, responsibility for the content, and any unintended errors, is all mine. 
Kate Foster 
Follow #wetlandsketches on twitter: @peat_cultures 

Missing Bog Moss

Water lifts its wings in Sphagnum Moss

This line encapsulates the dynamic relationship between rain and Bog Moss, and was written by Jos Smith (poet and academic at the University of East Anglia, UK).

My line-drawing responded to the idea that Sphagnum species (bog-forming mosses) are typically 85% water.

Sphagnum moss growing in a pool at Fochterloerveen, Northern Netherlands.

The green in the photo above is made by a species of Sphagnum moss that especially loves water. This was taken in January in Fochterloerveen (Drente Province, Northern Netherlands). The bog pool is surrounded by Molinia grasses that are beautiful in their own right, but whose success can pose questions for land managers.

Domination of a peatbog by Molinia grass might be the legacy of fire. Usually, a strand of Sphagnum moss has just one head (called a capitulum), but these plants can respond by growing many heads if a fire burns just the top layer off (as described by Dr Emily Taylor, recorded in a previous post).

I miss the presence of Bog Moss in the landscape, and went to look for it in Wageningen University Library. The botany collection has a definitive book on Dutch Bog Mosses: De Nederlandse Veenmossen by ACAM van der Pluijm and GM Dirkse.

The diagrams in this book describe typical Bog Moss structure, and give information about how to key out different species. All Bog Mosses have hyaline cells that expand when the plants become saturated with water, within their varied structures. Before now, I have experimented with how lines can show the presence of water in the hyaline cells of these remarkable plants.

Thank you to Jos Smith for permission to quote from an unpublished work, ‘Upstream Thinking’, created in celebration of peat restoration projects in south west England. 

This post is one in a series of #wetlandsketches tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University, a centre of expertise in the Life Sciences. I am also making connections to other artwork on wetland themes. As author of this post, responsibility for the content, and any unintended errors, is all mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches on twitter: @peat_cultures  

From the Miocene

The World Soil Museum is an independent foundation in Wageningen University with a display of soil monoliths and an extensive reference collection. ‘Monoliths’ are vertical sections of soil that are up to two metres deep and show the varied layers of soil. As a collection, the diversity of soil colours and textures is striking. I have to make frequent visits to learn to draw from this splendid array.

A different kind of object stands upright in the museum: it seems to be a sculpture of a tree trunk.

I draw to learn about it’s form. A series of ‘knots’ hint at a ring of branches.

The museum label tells me that this 6 million year-old fossil was once part of a forest of Glyptostroboxylon tenerum. Googling tells me that contemporary mammals had largely evolved in the Miocene era, but I fail to track down the shape of the tree itself. It seems many upright trunks were found, but very few that were lying down. What happened? I cannot envisage the environment in which this tree once grew or how it became a fossil.

However, the museum label does help imagine the place where this upright tree trunk was found – an open cast lignite mine at Hoensbroek in the south of The Netherlands.

Detail of label for Glyptostroboxylon tenerum in the World Soil Museum, Wageningen University.

Lignite, or brown coal, is peat that has been compressed by the layers above. It is still widely mined in western Europe, as detailed here. While I draw, tonal scales combine with timely reflections and my tongue rehearses names and concepts that are new to me (such as N.V Maatchappij tot Exploitatie van Bruinkoolvelden ‘Carisberg’ – The Company of Exploitation of Lignite Fields at Carisberg).

A small detail brings this fossil’s more recent history to life.

Until recently, it was displayed in the Soil Science and Geology Department (now Soil Geography and Landscape) in Wageningen University. Four drawing pins mark a previous label.

Later, I meet a former student of Soil Science and wonder aloud if it had been tempting to touch the object? No! I am assured that this specimen of Glyptostroboxylon tenerum was well out of reach in the stairwell. I appreciate the close-up view that I am now able to enjoy.

I am marking World Wetlands Day by spending a week tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University. Maybe the biodiversity of peatlands can be tracked down in the archives, in the landscape, in artwork, in libraries… ?  This project also seeks connections with artists working elsewhere on wetland themes. As artist and author of this post, responsibility for the content and any unintended errors is mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches #art4wetlands on twitter – @peat_cultures  

Aspen, perhaps

As homage to Betje Polak’s scientific drawings of pollen, this morning I studied a leaf found on wintery peatland ground in the Hoge Venen / Hautes Fagnes in East Belgium. From the length of the leaf’s stem, I thought it might be Aspen.

Seeing these leaves on the ground had reminded me of how scarce Aspen is in Scotland. The edge between our bogs and forests are often sharp lines of plantation spruce. I once tried to soften such a line, in an earlier project where I cultivated aspen.

Leaf – perhaps an Aspen – with a photograph by Ed Iglehart of Silver Flowe, Galloway, Scotland.

Back in Wageningen, I pinned my sample leaf on a noticeboard – imagining the presence of aspen in a panorama of Silver Flowe (a Ramsar site in south west Scotland). Aspens are known for how their leaves move in wind, making a rustle that can reach a crescendo in autumn. The leaves edges are toothed – a definitive shape that I need to learn.

The tree bark has whitish areas, with a diamond patterns.

This sketch followed. I thought about how a leaf can be collected and stilled. The intricate tonal range caught me.

I was tempted to keep working, but then decided to use this leaf as a pointer to take a breath outside, where the sun is shining.

It takes a hot summer to bring Aspen to flower: perhaps I may learn more about the ancient history of curious and beautiful tree from Betje Polak’s innovative studies of pollen in peat.

I am marking World Wetlands Day by spending a week tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University. Maybe the biodiversity of peatlands can be tracked down in the archives, in the landscape, in artwork, in libraries… ?  This project also seeks connections with artists working elsewhere on wetland themes. As artist and author of this post, responsibility for the content and any unintended errors is mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches #art4wetlands on twitter – @peat_cultures