a simple film about connecting with the earth – just walking barefoot along a muddy track in west somerset. the film was made with francesca owen as part of our ongoing collaboration and research towards the SOIL CULTURE project 2013-17 led by CCANW and RANE (http://artsandecology.info/pdf/Soil_culture_info_Oct2013.pdf). the images were captured on continuous shooting mode and edited using i-movie.
© Francesca Owen & Peter Ward 2014
(to be continued)
Soil, like oceans, rivers and skies, creates the foundation of our lives. It is through their devoted dynamic interchange of energy and matter that our lives and all life emerge. Small changes in composition may alter the innate ability of such primal elements to support certain life forms in favour of others, or even none at all. The relative proportions of water, air and minerals evident in these environments lead to specific conditions that may in turn determine an infinite variety of new dynamic conditions and life forms. These changes are caused by the constantly evolving ebb and flow of nature, of which we are an integral part.
In previous posts I have commented on the shortcomings of scientific data to communicate the importance of soil (or any ecologically sensible and intelligent thinking) within our lives and the necessity to love, respect and care for it. On second thoughts I have recognized a lack of fundamental understanding regarding such issues and realize how I may have taken for granted the knowledge I have acquired throughout my life and especially more recently through my present research. So here is a simple list of some of the information about soil that I have accumulated and hopefully assimilated so far…
- Soil is the largest carbon sink on the planet. Its ability to absorb and hold carbon is conditional to specific local conditions, land use and management.
- Soil may also be managed as part of environmental policy, if needs be, to absorb and hold water during times of excessive precipitation. The soil of woodland and rough pasture and in well-hedged land may hold more water than cleared, intensively farmed arable or grazing land.
- There are 3 basic types of Soil – Sand, Clay and Silt.
- Loam is a name given to a soil made up of roughly equal proportions of each.
- Soil may be acid or alkali depending on its underlying geology and to a lesser degree any resulting vegetation.
- The amounts of water and air held within, as well as the proportions of sand, clay and silt, affect the quality and character of a soil.
- Each soil has a unique and specific mineralogical and biological structure – this may change from one side of a field to another.
- The quality of a soil may be influenced by weather, bedrock, vegetation and land use. For example, walking on or grazing livestock intensively on soil with compress, or compact, it leading to less air and space for life to thrive.
- There is no single formula to manage soil – each is unique and requires specific understanding to reveal and maintain it’s evolving potential for all, and management, if any, is dependant on chosen land use.
- Basic organic farming methods – the non-use of chemical fertilizers in favour of more complementary methods of propagation – are not enough to create and maintain healthy productive soils. Rigorous and ongoing monitoring of water, air and mineral levels and neighbouring environments, along with sensitive indigenous knowledge may all contribute to intelligent soil maintenance. More holistic management is often known as biodynamic farming.
- Similarly there is no definitive tillage (ploughing) strategy applicable to all soil types and habitats. The decision to plough land and to what depth can only be correctly made when factors such a drainage, air content and compaction rates have been taken into account.
- There are 17 minerals that make up a healthy soil (to produce healthy, mineral rich vegetables). The most important of all these is molybdenum, which acts as a catalyst towards the absorption and utilization of all others[i].
- The mineral content and biological nature of a soil directly affect the nutritional value of any food produced and consumed from that soil, as well as its flavour, size and ability to thrive.
- Fundamentally, the biological organisms that live within it maintain the soil. Worms, moles, bacteria and fungus, endless varieties of insects and microbes are constantly processing and restructuring the elements – air and water ways, minerals and vegetation – that constitute and compose it.
- The quality/character of a soil, determined predominantly by its underlying geology, but also by the vegetation that it may support influences its subsequent habitat and/or land use, and hence the cultural identity of the entire region.
- Soil is an essential, constantly evolving and site-specific entity upon which all life depends. While it is easy to evaluate its worth in purely human terms, it is equally, if not more, necessary to consider its intrinsic place and function within the universal web of life.
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
This post has been written as part of my continuing research with the CCANW/RANE Soil Culture Project 2013-17[ii]. The project hopes to raise awareness about the importance of soil in light of its continuing degradation by past and present industrial, agricultural and behavioural practices and tendencies. The project aims to employ various contemporary art practices, events and strategies to engage policy makers, farmers and industrialists along with members of the public in the hope of catalyzing a change in attitude and behaviour in favour of soil and a healthier global ecology on the whole. The project is one of numerous similar projects worldwide in line with the UN Year of Soil 2015[iii].
© P Ward 2014
[i] From a presentation at the Soil Association’s National Soil Symposium @ Bristol 2013 by Charlie Bannister (Headland Agrochemicals) http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=KZwmjuWsC7g%3d&tabid=2143
as we make way
accumulating and assimilating
it is often hard to fully appreciate
what and who and where we have become
so as we grow
it is in everyone’s interest
to allow some space to grow apart
like the water and air around us
a breathing space
some elbow room
to stretch and flex
to test our boundaries
to assess our newly found wisdom
our freedoms and limitations
our sensory shell
like a root in the earth
following the worm’s way
or a branch reaching for the sun
we must each find our own path to grow and share and heal
The photographs above were taken on a midwinter visit to some youthful haunts on the South Downs in southern England. It was brilliant to see and feel the difference of light and rolling ambience of chalk bedrock and sandy Surrey soils in contrast to my local wet culm grassland and beaches of northern Devon. Harting Hill, on the newly attributed South Downs National Park, exhibits a rueful example of soils degraded by overgrazing despite the obvious rural beauty of the area, while Kingley Vale, nestled in the dip slopes of the Downs near Chichester, has some of the oldest living yew trees in the United Kingdom estimated at about 2000 years old. It is utterly awe inspiring to share space and time with such incredibly ancient beings.
© P Ward 2014
Doniford, West Somerset 291113
This day, I was sent two disturbing articles relating to the research I am presently doing about soil. One, posted by the Soil Association on Facebook from the Ecologist magazine, stated how the majority of meat sold and consumed in the UK is now fed with Genetically Modified products, which has led to sickness in the animals and in turn is passing such illness onto humans who (choose to) eat the products[i]. The other, published in the Telegraph was sent by a fellow artist, and expressed the realization by American soil scientists that the biological life and energy in a great deal of US soil may have been irreversibly degraded by continued intensive farming methods similar to those employed in the UK[ii]. The articles unfortunately did not surprise or shock me, but both left me feeling, yet again, utterly helpless and frustrated in the face of such odds. What, as an artist or otherwise, can I do to change or shift human attitudes and behaviour? Why do big companies, governments and the majority of the population continue to adopt, support and employ technologies that have been proven without doubt to be for the good of no one, let alone the few? Just where is the sense in a world motivated solely by power over, by profit and material gain? Is it small wonder that many of us chose to bury our heads in the sand, or to numb our senses to the facts? Just how can we expect to cope not only with the constant barrage of distressing information but also the even more distressing reality?
More recently, with the immanent prospect of my second child, such information leaves me utterly terrified at what the future may hold. While I may personally accept, with much difficulty, the debilitating truth of this present ecocidal reality in which we live, I still have not fully realized the power or belief within myself to confront or even challenge it. Over the last few years my previous optimism and enthusiasm has been sorely tested by the constant exposure through social media and the internet to the cumulative implications of our self-imposed abuse. Can my own chosen vocation as an artist really affect the world, as I once believed, beyond simple and crude awareness-raising? Can it truly reach people who really don’t want to hear? And even if it can, how can I financially sustain my work as an artist? In the current political climate many aspects of the cultural sector, including education, seem to have been deemed such a threat to the status quo that artists are finding it harder and harder to find support for our work beyond the stultifying and questionable confines of academia or, if we are ‘lucky’, the morally spurious world of commerce. How in such a time can we find the strength to pick up our pens, our brushes or our cameras, to stretch and flex our aesthetic and intuitive muscles, to squeeze more paint from the tube, so to speak? What drives us on and inspires us to arrange, compose and juxtapose; to experiment, investigate and perform our plethora of creative maneuvers and how can we not respond to the situation in which we find ourselves wholly immersed?
My own interest in art and my resulting practice as an artist was born out of a desire and an aptitude to observe, manipulate and record the processes and materials of the world – in other words to enjoy and share the process of making things. Alongside this I have had a lifelong fascination and sense of wonder with the other creatures and life forms that share this world. At some point these interests (and every other aspect of my life) merged to create the art practice that I share today. At no point did I consciously decide to make my work political. By Nature it simply is. To make good and affective art, to interact fully and with energy in the world I must allow myself to become utterly absorbed in the processes of creativity and the materials and subject matter that fascinate me. To do this, artists must be fully supported in their role. I find it difficult to tailor my work in response to ecological crisis or to any economic or intellectual climate. My tendency, based most likely in mental and physical self-preservation, is to turn away from suffering and trauma and to make things that bring myself and hopefully others joy – to celebrate the privilege of being alive. This is not to say that I am not willing to accept the facts or implications of the present ecological crisis, nor that I cannot deal with the sorrow and grieving that such suffering entails. It is more that to celebrate existence, to engage with it in all its gory detail – its birth, its life, its destruction and decomposition, its ignorance, helplessness and despair, its beauty and magnificence – is my way of responding. This may not be obvious or directly related to the more empirical evidence that science relies upon as proof; it is more simply an act of defiance! My way of saying my energy will not be subdued! I am not ready to roll over and die just yet…
tribute to ana medieta 1, doniford, west somerset (p ward + f owen 2013)[iii]
Art by its very nature is transformative. Our actions as artists do not need to be directed at any particular issue or thing, we must simply do! And the more we allow ourselves to do, the more we allow ourselves and are allowed to become emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually in the work that gives us joy then the more power and resonance that work may hold and convey. This is true of all things.
So everyday I continue to act in this world. To walk and observe, to interact with and explore the wonder that it continues to express through its very existence, and to share my own sense of wonder with it all. And this day – a dull grey day in late November – I visited a what-may-seem rather unimpressive stretch of coast along the Bristol Channel in West Somerset. I am presently reflecting upon how my work with earth pigments may engage audiences with contemporary issues relating to soil as part of the CCANW/RANE Soil Culture project[iv]. While there is an obvious relationship between what lies beneath the soil, the rocks and geological structures and their mineral content, and hence its ability to support flora and fauna specific to a particular geomorphological region and then whatever agri-industrial-cultural manifestation that may become evident, how may creative and intellectual engagement with such materials raise awareness about contemporary soil issues? So to follow my own lead, I must simply do and invite others to do the same. Stop the overly analytical head and partake in those things that give joy, that bring peace, and share with others. Maybe that way we will find a way…
© P Ward 2013
This is the house of God
PLEASE REFRAIN FROM
EATING ICE CREAM & SMOKING
LEAVE YOUR PETS OUTSIDE
We ran around searching for daddy,
Touch the stones, carved,
Amazing at the floors, patterns, the colours.
We shined at the windows sun beaming colours, stained glass.
We craned at the ceiling,
Carving in wood, clean, intricate, detail.
Tom sang with delights.
Tom moaned with anxiety.
Organ pipes lie around in disrepair,
Collection boxes moaned for money.
People stared frankly as we smiled
and smiled, over their shoulders.
‘This is where a man tells stories.
‘People sit there and listen to him,
There is a little house
Just like Tom’s pig house.
We found daddy.
He was looking too.
‘Mind your head!’
Tom carried on running.
Outside the sun was shining.
green lush grass.
There was a wall to sit on.
Tom pissed in the gutter
around the church’s foundations,
and it nearly reached the drain.
He gave me a daisy.
I put it in my buttonhole.
Mummy found us.
(I was recently sent this poem, written in 1988 when visiting a friend in Pembrokeshire, South Wales. Some have already commented that it’s ‘better than what I write these days’! Ho hum, how the wheels do turn!? I have also chosen a few old paintings, not quite from 1988, to accompany the piece. For me it is so refreshing, and humbling, to look back over old work and to recognize the spirit of intent that is held over such a period of time.)
© Peter Ward, for Tom Ramage, 29th July 1988
a short essay for the NAFSO Journal 2014*
Art is the means through which we may investigate, appreciate and express our relationships within the world. Contrary to popular opinion it is not just the production of art ‘objects’ for public consumption but more an intimate and personal process through which we test and apply our powers of observation and analysis. Such powers are not limited to empirical measurement but encompass and encourage multisensory and intuitive evaluation whose open-ended outcomes and expression may utilize a combination of disciplines from painting and sculpture to movement, film, writing and music. Quite simply Art, in whatever form, offers a space and structure to experience and create a deeper sense of the energies, material or otherwise, that animate this world.
In the opening keynote speech at the NAFSO annual conference at Skern Lodge in North Devon, Leszek Iwaskow (OFSTED inspector and HMI National Curriculum advisor for geography) stated how experiencing ‘a sense of place’ was possibly one of the most important motivations for contemporary education, especially in respect of the current trends towards the virtual classroom and shifts away from real and tactile engagement with the outdoor environment. This ‘sense of place’ based in personal experience and encouraged by geographical processes such as map reading and making, Leszek enthusiastically explained, is what allows us to connect to and make sense of our world, and our role within it. For me this all sounded very familiar!
While recently studying for an MA Art & Environment at Falmouth University, the phrase ‘a sense of place’ was associated with an American artist Lucy R Lippard whose book, LURE OF THE LOCAL senses of place in a multi-centered society, expounded ideas of the social, ecological and political importance of engagement with the local environment. The book combines artistic and geographic methods of research and presentation. Many contemporary artists have adopted this form of interdisciplinary practice. Indeed collaboration between artists and scientists, from whatever discipline, has increased as the inability of science to both communicate its findings and acknowledge the more than empirical nature of the world has become increasingly apparent. Until recently Art and Science have been inextricably linked, both utilizing observation as a means to learn about the world. Scientists throughout history have often employed and displayed excellent drawing skills to record and document their research.
Through personal involvement with an Australian Aboriginal Elder it also became apparent how this exploration of the local or ‘sense of place’ also resonates deeply with the indigenous processes of learning utilized by tribal people around the world, as children are encouraged to explore their own skills and aptitudes in relation to their environment and the materials it provides. Rather than dictating an outcome within a narrowly prescribed set of options, tribal education provides space for individuals to reach an understanding of their own creativity and purpose within society. Children are ideally allowed to grow into an intimate understanding of their aptitudes, limitations and possibilities. Such methods have more recently been adopted by exponents of experiential learning techniques, while the benefits of learning in the outdoors through more tactile and sensory participation has been championed by the likes of Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) and the principles of Ecopsychology.
So how does Art differ from other methods of engagement with the world and why is it important that we consider its inclusion within outdoor education? Art provides a space and structure for learners (of all ages, abilities and experience) to participate within and creatively reflect upon actions and materials on a multitude of basic and complex sensory levels. It offers opportunity to explore the ways and means we may communicate our findings and, more simply, how we may express ourselves within a specific environment. Through its very nature, concerned as it is with the practical application of materials, composition, colour, light, juxtaposition, observation and relationship, Art explores an ecological and interrelated perception of the world and therefore encourages a sense of personal and social responsibility.
On another level funding for the Arts within the national curriculum has been drastically cut. This is maybe based on ignorance about the specific nature of learning and experience that it offers not only from curriculum advisors but also from practicing artists themselves. In recent history Art, like many other areas of study, has been conceptually detached from the world in which it exists, creating a seemingly vacuous and purposeless aura to its study – we are all familiar with the phrase ‘Art for art’s sake’ with its roots in the Modernist art movement. However, in a society suffering so drastically from such a lack of cohesion and respect for the world a return to the basics of study through first hand observation and manual dexterity are in my opinion essential. Art offers a space for this, leading to an understanding of the principles of technology as well as primal sensibilities.
My own work as an environmental artist, as some of you may have experienced at the NAFSO conference in North Devon in January, looks at our relationships with locally gathered materials, such as earth pigments, in a variety of ways including painting and paint-making workshops, walks, participatory art and art in the environment. For me an essential aspect of this work is creating a relaxed and open space for participants to explore and then reflect upon our actions. It is a place to play and to feel through the medium of our own sensory experience. However, while basic art activities are often utilized within outdoor education the implementation of more specific art methods by specialist artists may increase their impact. Whatever forms the art making takes, whether it is painting, drawing, sculpture, singing, dancing or writing, the process relies on intimate personal response to materials and place through the plethora of senses available to us but also the skills to facilitate a deep appreciation of those processes and the possibilities they may offer.
If we are to be open to a sense of place, as Leszek Iwaskow suggests, then the process of Art allows us to do just that – sense a place, to experience it with all our senses and thus to make those experiences more memorable, more pertinent and practicable and more enjoyable on a very personal level. But then surely this is the intention of good education from whatever discipline we come from?!
*In January 2014 I was invited to run a Painting with the Earth Workshop for the NAFSO (National Association of Field Studies Officers) Annual Conference just up the road from me in North Devon at Skern Lodge Outdoor Activity and Education Centre (www.skernlodge.co.uk). It was a refreshing and inspiring experience to work alongside other outdoor education specialists from a variety of different organisations, backgrounds and disciplines and to share ideas and approaches to a common goal – to provide memorable, meaningful and enjoyable outdoor experience for all. As the only practising artist present it became a good opportunity to impress the relevance and importance of art within this arena. I was subsequently invited to write a short piece for the NAFSO Journal to expand upon my ideas to a broader audience. Many thanks to Skern Lodge for inviting me along.
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FIELD STUDIES OFFICERS - http://www.nafso.org.uk/
RESEARCH IN ART-BASED ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION (www.naturearteducation.org)
RESEARCH IN ART, NATURE & ENVIRONMENT (www.rane.falmouth.ac.uk)
CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART & THE NATURAL WORLD (www.ccanw.co.uk)
© Peter Ward 2014