Peat Cultures at New Networks for Nature, November 2018


This presentation was given at New Networks for Nature Conference on 17 November, 2018. Please note image credit and collaboration details on the slides.

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I’m an independent environmental artist working on a project called Peat Cultures to contribute to a peatland restoration programme in SW Scotland. Things began last summer at the end of the drought, with a workshop to Silver Flowe – a remote raised bog in Galloway that now is within a forestry plantation. This was my suggestion for a ‘postcard from a bog’.

Silver Flowe is described as ‘One of the least interrupted and undisturbed mire systems in Europe’. It is a reference point for restoration work in the area.

This presentation is about working with peat as a material. I will say something about discovering the strange properties of bogs and also mention some earlier explorations of haunting and atmospheric presences of moorlands.

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The slide above shows more of the activities on Silver Flowe, including this panorama by another workshop participant. We heard a reading from a Victorian romantic novel about this supposedly bleak and dismal place which is now valued as a Ramsar site, an international designation. We learnt how deep the bog is (see bottom left, the probe stretching into the sky). You need to look close-up to identify bog moss – this sphagnum clump had responded to an earlier fire by growing several heads (shown in my drawing). There was also the tantalising possibility of stepping accidentally into a peat pipe and disappearing into the mire system (bottom right).

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Sphagnum does not just live in the bog, but is the bog! Bog moss creates conditions for its own growth, and helps generate a mosaic landscape on a wide scale. Sadly it is now rare to find an undisturbed transition from moorland to native woodland – or to hear the call of waders in summer, that was a quintessential sound of peatland.

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Bog moss has a tremendous capacity to absorb water, explaining its various traditional uses. If you drop a dry strand in water you can see its cells fill, as people could do at a group exhibition (called Submerge) that took place in Dumfries during the Paris Climate talks. The flood-prone River Nith burst its banks in the town centre that same week; it was a timely moment to talk about the absorbent qualities of mosses!

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This slide shows some sketches made in anticipation of a peat core workshop, using information supplied by the research scientist who gave a demonstration. It’s a tidied-up version of my studio wall. Peat gives a timescale to think with, as moss successively replaces itself. A pollen record is one way a peatbog creates an environmental archive – expressed poetically by Seumas Heaney.

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Walking over the bog, we felt it quake – experiencing how the living mossy layer is like a cap over a lens of water. The peat was 6 metres deep, which represents 6 000 years of growth. It’s texture changed as we neared the bottom of the bog – reaching the boulder clay deposited when the last glaciers melted.

This was the first day of a Borderlands network meeting that I co-ordinated, a series of gatherings prompted by New Networks. The next day we went – with the peat core – to Dumfries town centre for a series of talks on Wetlands and Questions of Scale.

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These two maps – from SNH and the IUCN – show peatland’s extent. In Scotland, Galloway bog mentioned here are in the deep purple bit in the south west. The world map shows that peat is also concentrated in SE Asia which is preoccupying, because this is where most of the world’s palm oil comes from.

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Many agencies, including those who drew up the maps, are now focussing on peatland restoration. These are extracts from presentations at a very busy IUCN Peatland Programme conference last month. They emphasise the value of restored peatland, using the frame of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ offered.

My concern might be, rather, less tangible, intrinsic values, that can be forgotten or ignored.

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As this quote says, current restoration is a reverse of public policy. On the ground, considerable expertise is developing to block drains that were dug in earlier decades.

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Despite this public and voluntary effort, peat is still extracted as a commodity, including for horticulture. This site in Midlothian is on the same peatbog as an SSSI and an atmospheric research facility. Continued extraction until 2042 was recently approved – this is on quite a different scale to traditional peat cutting.

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Peatland’s role in storing carbon is a strong motive for restoration. The restoration of South Dee is led by Emily Taylor of the Crichton Carbon Centre. The team are very committed to working with different local stakeholders, generating local understanding, and tailoring land use to small scale variation in landscape.

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I am one of now many artists whose work concerns peat and peatland restoration. My project aims include profiling existing community culture skills and knowledge, as well developing new artwork during the restoration. The programme is to include an event with another Landscape Partnership presenting and reflecting on art practice.

As the artist Helmut Lemke suggested, the question “why not collaborate?” (rather than why collaborate) should be a guide to practice.

These are anticipatory sketches – altered pamphlets – as I prepare for fieldwork.

So far, I have described efforts to restore peatland’s expansive, fluid and living properties, and suggested some tangible ways of perceiving them.

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I will now describe earlier steps on a path to moorlands and peatland. Firstly, Disposition, in 2003, was one of a series of projects which drew out the unique history of zoological specimens. The University of Glasgow Museum label, attached to the skin of this female hen harrier, noted it had been killed in the 1920s in Reay Forest, a large shooting estate now belonging to the Duke of Westminster and formerly the Duke of Sutherland.

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With this label as a guide, I travelled with the dead bird and retraced her journey past Macpherson’s former taxidermy shop in Inverness, where the bird had been turned into an ornithological study specimen and placed on a stick.

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Going further north to the estate village of Achfary, I went to the point on the map called Reay Forest and found this spruce plantation – territory which would be useless to hen harriers who are ground nesting birds. I was fortunate to meet an estate ‘ghillie’ whose father was head gamekeeper in the 1920s. He was sure that if it had been his father who shot the bird, he would have known about it: there would have been a financial bounty. So what happened? Most likely, he thought, the bird was in passage, and had been shot by a ‘gun’ – a gentleman guest. When the Gun discovered how much taxidermy cost, he must have abandoned his idea of a mounted bird and left his kill in Macphersons taxidermy shop on his way south. From there, the bird was purchased for the new University of Glasgow museum.

Back in the museum, I exhibited this photo.

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The bird herself lay on a swatch of Westminster Tweed generously donated by the estate factor. Tweed was, apocryphally, created as a local disguise for the hunting fraternity; you can see what a good camouflage it is for the female specimen. This rather spectral bird held me in a tight grip and her afterlife also inspired work by cultural geographers Merle Patchett and Hayden Lorimer, coining the phrase “hollow eyed harrier”.

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This next project (see above) was called Flux Chamber, involving a biogeochemist – Susan Waldron – who is keen for people to learn to see carbon landscapes, and an environmental scholar, David Borthwick. We piloted a guide to help people see carbon ‘in flow and in flux’ between its reservoirs of air, water, and soil when you walk along a peaty upland river. As David wrote:

carbon moves

at a variable rate of exchange

it is stock and commodity

it is hard asset and liquid currency

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This page reflects on carbon’s integral part in life – a caddisfly larva as:

a tiny sequestration sealed for instar

– pupation for take off.

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I now will reflect on how we have ‘ghost hectares’ – how in the west we consume product of tropical peatlands which are cleared to plant trees for palm oil and pulp. I worked on the Submerge exhibition with Nadiah Rosli, then a Malaysian postgraduate student, who wanted to communicate the impact of illegal burning of tropical forest in Indonesia. The satellite image shows a smoke haze of pollution right across the continent in 2015. Nadiah described her relief to arrive in Scotland – to see blue skies and to breathe deeply. She conveyed a sense of what being part of Generation Haze meant, by showing  social media images from her friends and family, experiencing painfully polluted toxic air. Even birdsong stopped. Yet this grotesque new annual season is now normalised. How should we proceed with this awareness?

NNN kf FINAL.020Given wetlands changing reputation and fortune, it is a challenge to see current, and former wetlands, as places of both life and death. To quote ecocritic Rod Giblett, the challenge is to be ‘To be poetic, but not romanticist, and ecological, but not mechanistic.’

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