to nurture nature or not, art thou

soil culture[i] at the national soil symposium, @bristol 131113

“Man takes root at his feet, and at best he is no more than a potted plant in his house or carriage till he has established communication with the soil by the loving and magnetic touch of his soles to it.”  John Burroughs

communal painting, soil association symposium, @bristol 2013 (photo courtesy CCANW)communal painting, soil association symposium, @bristol 2013 (photo courtesy CCANW)

During a series of fascinating presentations, workshops and discussions among soil scientists, farmers and other interested parties at a recent Soil Association conference[ii] it became apparent that within contemporary ecological thinking the relevance and importance of the specific conditions and circumstance of any entity or system are paramount in any action or intervention we may deem necessary for its’ sustained well-being. Whether it is the health, condition or resilience of the soil for the production of food for human consumption[iii] or the empowerment of our children and fellow beings through education and experience, it is our understanding of the intrinsic and individual nature within a unique and particular dynamic environment that may enable suitable decisions to be made and implemented. The age-old principles of nurturing, of allowing and encouraging each to exist and flourish according to its’ own nature with respect for all, are as relevant today as ever. Indeed, it may be said that strict adherence to such principles are the only way we may challenge a currently accelerating and diabolical ecological crisis.

painting with the earth workshop, skern lodge, north devon; field work, donnington bay, west somerset (p ward 2013-14)painting with the earth workshop, skern lodge, north devon; field work, donnington bay, west somerset (p ward 2013-14) 

However, the virtual impossibility of adequate comprehensive empirical certainty (science[iv]) within the holistic complexity of this ever-changing world may only lead us to seriously question our ability to consciously or correctly intervene at all. As experience continues to show, often in the most alarming and catastrophic ways, human arrogance, our we-will-know-it-all tendency, seldom does get it right – the long-term implications of our well-meaning actions, in the name of progress or survival, leading to further unpredicted and unpredictable complications that adversely impact the diverse and subtle dimensions of this wondrous and profound universe. As I have written before[v], the unintentional but all-pervading intrusive resonance of our becoming is our nature, our unavoidable presence within this emerging world, and thus must be wholeheartedly embraced for any sense of understanding to evolve; neither denied and discarded as the fault of another or else employed as an excuse for apathy and inactivity, but maybe seen as the ‘funny side’ of being, the irony of and purpose for it all, without which we would not bother to be at all (or otherwise act despicably without due respect for what we have been generously granted). Likewise the necessity of intuition, its development and our ability to base decisions and act on them according to inter-sensory experience and contemplation, is essential if any positive shift is to be made both in our perceptions of this world and also as our behaviour within it.

human imprint, crow point, north devon (p ward 2013)human imprint, crow point, north devon (p ward 2013) 

“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

Personally, my own innate and inherent intuitive ecological abilities, or the power to observe, perceive and manipulate a range of sensory, emotive and energetic materials within specific or predefined but shifting natural and manmade systems, for both personal and political, aesthetic or altruistic intentions, have been greatly developed and further understood (in relation to intimate experience) by the practice of art. Irrespective of whatever media, material or discipline we may choose to employ, whether the bias may be object or process based or with what audience, human or otherwise, we wish to interact, it is the energetic relational concepts of space, composition, juxtaposition, environment and movement, combined with an empirical and intuitive appreciation of the nature of the entities and processes involved that create the foundation for an artist’s work. The refinement of such aptitudes and their investment, especially within more specific environments, may obviously be greatly enhanced through the familiarity gained by prolonged and disciplined research and practice within that space and the materials that it consists of, with a similarly diligent awareness of the broader picture and the spaces that lie within its close proximity, for these are by its very nature of equal relevance to the whole – ‘no man is an island’ after all, as the saying goes.

making earth pigment paper with bideford black (f owen 2013)making earth pigment paper with bideford black (f owen 2013)

So, how may such long-sentenced and wordy expression manifest in this world? Does the theory become the practice? At this time, art and its soul-mates of sentiment, spirit and communal good sense have become such threats to the deceptions of Cartesian science and the politics of capital and greed it upholds, that its rightful integration is too often subjugated to hedonistic consumerism and investment or meaningless modernism, trapped within the rhetoric of its own contemptuous intellect. But as arts’ worth is pitifully suppressed through ignorance and fear, so its’ power is more widely recognized, utilized and amplified by those in need, its voice speaking with eloquence, compassion, humour and grace through acts of disguise, defiance and defence, invisible in its own magic, often unrecognizable but determined by its own perpetual presence within the nature of life itself. Art is healing and revealing all at once.

2 handfuls of soil:molehill storylines, west sussex and surrey (p ward 2013)2 handfuls of soil/molehill storylines, west sussex and surrey (p ward 2013) 

The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt 

My own life is about to change – soon I will be a father again and another living breathing being will enter the dynamic hubbub of perpetual decision-making. I am both utterly overjoyed and somewhat afraid. How can I truly know what further changes this new life will bring? It is the most natural event in the world, but in a world that is collapsing in our hands. While it may be impossible to deny the underlying implications of our behaviours within this world, I will endeavour to constitute a personal policy of postive, guilt-free intuitive holistic action with each new breath, whether it is in my art, my parenting and every relationship I am able to maintain or through a basic integrity to the soil on which I continue to stand. I will continue to do. I will touch the soil and learn. I will breathe its scent, speak its language, shape it and form it in its own image, as the soil itself stretches and breathes its life-giving life for all, an ebullient interface between earth, air, fire and water. We may know beauty and beauty may know us…

© P Ward 2014


[i] http://www.ccanw.co.uk/assets/files/Uploads/Soil_4pg.pdf

[ii] http://www.soilassociation.org/

[iii] At least at this conference there was no pretense otherwise, that as humans we are somehow aloof from the very physical needs and implications of our actions. Of course, we are motivated by our desire to survive, but not necessarily always to the detriment of others.

[iv] This is not to disregard entirely the practice of science but to question its ability to realistically and finitely take into account all the factors that may lead to our decisions or policies in relation to the world. Indeed, if science, or even science in measured or logical combination with other disciplines such as art and religion, did present the incontrovertible Truth to policy makers, as many are hoping and striving, would we be in the illogical, ridiculous and catastrophic predicament we are currently facing?

[v] https://intim8ecology.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/searching-for-a-voice-of-love-in-an-ecology-of-blame/

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3 Comments on “to nurture nature or not, art thou”

  1. Clare Thomas says:

    Pete, you do my head in!

  2. artbykcp says:

    Reblogged this on artbykcp and commented:
    One can not grown until he finds his roots, life flourishes once they have been found.


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