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

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)

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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:


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.


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.

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.


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.)

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)


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.


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.


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  

What a nice plant!

I have adopted a small cactus in a jar. She was on the table that has become my studio in the Home Turf Project. As Dutch phrases form slowly in my head, a statement bubbles up: Wat een mooie plant! It’s a bit like you might say if you happen to be given a bunch of tulips: Those are nice flowers! The typical oilcloth I have been lent for my table contributes to this homely appearance, a comfort and inspiration as I start work.

An image of a cactus in a jar with some earth, maybe peat, and gravel.

An uncomfortable question surfaces however. The jar has layers of brown amongst the white pebbles, it is a kind of soil that looks very like peat. I struggle with how to express these diverse little words in Dutch: Waar komt haar aarde vandaan? Where does her soil come from?

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  

Thinking about Angus

Angus is a Black Grouse whose afterlife persists in an atmosphere of geographical enquiry.

Questions come to mind. Who hunted the moorlands where he came from? Who transformed his body into this pose, and where? Investigating such a skin creates the task of travelling back and forth in time and place: I know this from a previous encounter with another quintessential moorland bird, a female hen harrier (in Dutch blauwe kiekendief, or blue chicken thief). Shared investigations led to reflections on the ongoing persecution of birds of prey to conserve the interests of those who hunt gamebirds for sport. Scottish cultural geographers, Hayden Lorimer and Merle Patchett, added new lines of enquiry to a study skin held in the University of Glasgow Hunterian Zoological collection.

The name that Angus has acquired creates a Scottish connection within a hub of European Life Science, Wageningen University. I am mindful of our contemporary concern over intensified human management of moors that produce grouse. But perhaps this bird originated on the Hoge Venen, the High Moors – perhaps in the Ardennes or the former peat colonies in the North of The Netherlands?

This skin indeed offers a spectral presence of not only one bird’s life but also the ecological web that created it, and the human histories that are imbricated.

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