A Project Studio for Peatland Exchanges

Peatland Exchanges

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.

As Stephan Mantel said, the Wilnis specimen contains much to puzzle over. He also introduced this six million year old tree trunk. You can see my reflections on this tree trunk “From the Miocene” here.

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

https://wsm.isric.org

Responding as an artist

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.

Source: Turf Vrij https://turfvrij.nl/en/

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.

Temporary show of a growing collection of Inspirations in the World Soil Museum

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.

Compost bag found underground during landscape gardening work. This dates from the earlier era of peat extraction within The Netherlands.

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.

Poem by David Borthwick, created for Earth Words workshop
(David Borthwick & Kate Foster, University of Glasgow, 2021)

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.

Three Turfstekers (peat-digging tools) in the World Soil Museum, from Roy van Beek’s personal collection.

In my first talk I mentioned The Keeper of the Soils project as a participatory and creative way of collecting soils and exploring their value (image below).

The Keeper of the Soil. Image and caption © Natalie Taylor

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.

Sensing Time: Peatland Exchanges #1

Introduction

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?

The whole session can be viewed HERE.

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

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 1 Kate Foster

I am an environmental artist who has focused on peat since 2016. I worked in Scotland on a project Peat Cultures and 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. 

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 2 Kate Foster

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. 

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 4 Kate Foster

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. 

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 5 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 6 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 7 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 8 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 9 Kate Foster

Spectral Landscape

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 10 Kate Foster

Peat has a particular quality as a Spectral Landscape, as the quote in the image below suggests.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 11 Kate Foster

 

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”.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 13 Kate Foster

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).

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 14 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 16 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 17 Kate Foster

 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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 18 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 19 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 20 (video), Kate Foster

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. 

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 22 Kate Foster

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  

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 23 Kate Foster

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. 

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 24 Kate Foster

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.  

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 24 Kate Foster

This is how I showed it in 2019 in Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show.  

I wanted to mediate how people related to it. This following quote helped this

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 26 Kate Foster

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. 

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 27 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 28 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 30 Kate Foster

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.

Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 31 Kate Foster

Inspirations

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.

Image courtesy of Natalie Taylor 2021

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.


Image courtesy of Natalie Taylor 2021

The weather wasn’t always this wet, this is a better view of  the Keeper’s Cape in Glasgow.

Images by Natalie Taylor 2021, combined as Peatland Exchanges #1 slide 33 Kate Foster

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.

Images prepared by Natalie Taylor 2021

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.

In sum?

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.

Further information: https://linktr.ee/katefoster

All welcome to Peatland Exchanges !

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

Further information and free registration – click here.

a space for inner and outer landscapes to evolve

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 from RE-PEAT manifesto

One way of working

An exhibition in de Grote Kerk in Wageningen (July 2021) showed four different ways of working. This post documents my contribution to the exhibition which also included Bert Hoekstra, Kitty Doomernik, and Laurens van der Zee. This was part of the Wageningen Cultuur Zomer and organised by the artists’ group, Platform.

I asked:

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.

Click here for the brochure I made for the exhibition. It gives the background and information about what I was showing.

De Grote Kerk (the Great Church) was an extraordinary setting to reflect how peat is placed in Dutch landscapes and culture. I also valued being able to make links with earlier work in Scotland.

People were interested in why peat restoration is needed in the iconic Scottish landscape – and what ‘mending the blanket’ might mean.

Below are installation shots (explained in the online brochure ).

Exhibition: four ways of working

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.

Texts below, in Dutch and then English.

What is Veencultuur?

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).

Mending the Blanket

A new film by pantea and myself, Kate Foster

We made this short animated film to show how wetlands are now being valued across the world. An example from a remote part of Southern Scotland pays tribute to the commitment needed to restore a ‘blanket’ peatbog. Our Iranian – Scottish creative collaboration seeks to find new ways to say why wetlands benefit people, wildlife and landscape. 

Iran, Scotland, The Netherlands (5 mins)

Dear Agricultural Policy Maker

Peatlands matter to people in so many different ways. RE-PEAT’s Global Peat Fest last May showed this really clearly.

Since peatlands are very much in the news just now, I can imagine you have lots of technical reports to read. So here are some images to help keep peatlands in mind.

Please put peatlands in the picture!

This picture is of Silver Flowe in Galloway. It is one the best preserved peatbogs in South West Scotland. Like all healthy ‘squelchy’ wet peatlands, you can feel it move when you jump. I hope people in the future get to sense what it is like to walk on 95% water.

But you’ll know that most peat bogs in the UK don’t look healthy. It’s really urgent that they are restored and protected.

‘Something as small as a wish can take root and breathe the peatbog alive’ (Jos Smith).

This was my banner for a peatbog workshop when families joined in with peatland restoration. The event was the first ever Sphagnum Splat; we helped bog moss grow again in areas of bare peat. This raised bog is near Silver Flowe and it has recently been re-wetted. Conifers that had been wrongly planted on peat soils had to be felled. Peatland restoration is part of a nature-based solution. And it is creating jobs.

Bog mosses absorb rainwater and create peat over millennia.

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

I feel lucky to come from the UK which still has beautiful moorlands. In other countries, like the Netherlands, peat bogs have almost completely disappeared. All told, an unimaginable amount of peat has disappeared into the atmosphere and water-ways over the centuries. When peatlands are demolished, histories and sustainable futures disappear. So I really want you to protect those that remain.

Almost all brands of compost contain peat. It’s shameful that peatlands in UK and elsewhere are still being dug up and used in compost for gardens and horticulture. Surely gardeners would be upset if they knew about the damage this causes!

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Peat in garden compost causes damage to wetlands.

It’s ironic that sometimes peat compost is even used for plants that like arid conditions. Like a Cactus that I looked after in my old office.

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 didn’t really thrive. It would be better off in a desert – not on a wetland soil! So I made this image to help remember about not growing the wrong plants on peat.

Reminder, things like a Cactus really shouldn’t be grown in peat.

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

My next drawing is a Water Table. The legs are different lengths because people don’t agree about the ideal height. Wetland species are finding it hard to hang on.

A Water Table. We need to level up.

Right now, things seem to keep slipping off the Water Table.


But it’s urgent, for the climate and other reasons, to stop peatlands drying out.


Please get round the table and work out a new agricultural policy!


Please stop wetland drainage altogether.


Please support new methods of nurturing peatlands.


Thank you.

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

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?

TurfstekersWeb