A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold, 1949.

Recommended by Tom Dobbins

A simply beautiful collection of stories and essays on land. Leopold has a wonderful knack of inspiring ecological stewardship through his intimate descriptions of place, while also managing to capture what it is to have an honest, evolving relationship with the world around us. His joyous month-by-month assessment of rural Wisconsin is backed up by sharp ecological critique, which continues to inspire a place-based management practice rooted in community and inhabitation.

The Mushroom at the End of the World

On the Possibility of Life In Capitalist Ruins

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton University Press, 2015)

Recommended by Tom Dobbins


Whether at the scale of a building, a material or an ecology, viewing place through a non-human lens is a necessary act towards an empathetic management of its character. It makes space for under-represented qualities and characteristics to gain value, which in turn can expand what is deserving of protection, rehabilitation or praise. Anna Tsing’s observations of the world in relation to the matsutake mushroom are one fascinating example of this. The book exposes a web of hidden global narratives, sited across a series of forests, where place is read in the spaces between ecology, commodity and community.

Explore the travels of objects at TIDEfest

For the last five years the TIDE Project has been exploring Renaissance travel, promoting transcultural education in schools, and revealing hidden wonders from archives around the world. Nandini Das and Lauren Working invite Arts of Place friends to join TIDEfest, a free online literary festival over the weekend 31 July-1 August.

You can register here for a Creative Writing workshop 5.00-6.30pm on Saturday 31 July. Led by award-winning poets Sarah Howe and Fred D’Aguiar, the session will explore ideas of migration and cultural memory through objects that cross borders and spaces. A tobacco leaf leaves North American soil and ends up pressed between the pages of an Oxford botanical book; an ivory salt cellar carved by West African craftspeople leaves Sierra Leone for the courts of Europe. Using artefacts in Oxford museums and beyond, this workshop will encourage participants to think about the connections between objects and the imaginative places they take us.

    Salt cellar from Siera Leone

Tobacco leaves travel to Europe… an ivory salt cellar sets out from Sierra Leone…

Practical drawing with Julie Brook

To celebrate the end of the first year of Arts of Place, we’re thrilled to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook to a summer residency with us. Brook registers the infinite drama of the four elements and measures time on multiple scales. She has worked over many years in Libya, Namibia, Japan and Scotland, learning from local communities about the materials of the earth.

Julie will be running a free Drawing Workshop on 23 June, 2-5pm. No artistic experience required! This is drawing for writers and readers, a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. We’ll be working with charcoal and swapping the usual A4 paper of our working lives for the expansiveness of A1. Julie will be providing special charcoal and rubbers for those who participate which will be sent to you in the post. There are a couple other things you will have to have to hand, but it will be worth it! Do join the experiment, you’ll be in for a treat of an afternoon.

To register: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/drawing-workshop-with-artist-julie-brook-tickets-158002753489

To ask any questions: artsofplace@contacts.bham.ac.uk 

Materials needed: 

  • Soft pencil 4B/6B
  • Scene painters Charcoal and rubber (provided by Julie and sent to you)
  • A4 sketchbook – an exercise book would be fine. Ideally portrait so it opens up to A3 so not spiral bound
  • A1 thin plywood board and roughly A1 paper with rough texture that is good for charcoal
  • Masking tape or equivalent to fix paper down onto board

Cover image: Firestack. Outer Hebrides, Autumn 2016

 

The Lives of Naturalists

Richard Mabey on Gilbert White of Selborne, in conversation with Alexandra Harris

The Summer 2021 Weinrebe Lecture, presented as part of a new collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Available to listen here now.

Portrait of Richard Mabey    Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne: Amazon.co.uk: Mabey, Richard: 9781861978073: Books 

Richard Mabey, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has been bringing people closer to the natural world since his first books Food for Free and The Unofficial Countryside delighted readers with their subversive outings to the hedgerows in the early 1970s. He is on the side of the weeds that refuse to be tidied; he takes his cues from the playfulness and conviviality of swifts; he gives us all a ticket to join the exuberant ‘cabaret’ of plants.

In this conversation, Mabey reflects on his work as a biographer, and particularly on his long relationship with the great eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne.

“White is talking about the possibility of birds being parallel citizens”

“I was able to find specific colonies of plants at the precise addresses where White had seen them”

Arts of Place is extremely grateful to OCLW for hosting and producing this lecture recording.

Related links:

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)

Richard Mabey’s website

Gilbert White’s House

Expand your Mabey reading list with help from Profile Books: Happy 80th Richard Mabey

Pallant House Gallery explores artist’s responses to The Natural History of Selborne in Drawn to Nature.

Edward Thomas: Out of Place

Monday Conversation, 19 April 2021, with Andrew Hodgson and Ralph Pite

“He handles the name Adelstrop as if he’s jiggling a key in a lock, expecting it to open up a feeling of connectedness”

Dr Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham) argued that, though Thomas is firmly associated with certain kinds of English landscape, his relationship to places is often deeply unsettled. Andrew read poems including Adelstrop and The Ash Grove as the work of a poet ‘out of place’, restlessly seeking forms for disconnection and doubt.

Professor Ralph Pite (Bristol) explored Thomas’s ‘terrestrial’ and ‘extra-terrestrial’ qualities – and the unpredictable relationship between them. Thomas emerged as a radical thinker, interested in non-proprietorial ways of belonging to the land.

“Thomas leads the conversation from a fanciful dream of escape, to disillusionment and world weariness, and after that pleasure in the everyday and he becomes therefore as perplexing a figure as the woman he meets…”


Dereliction and Healing among Coal Spoils

British coal mining is drawing to a close, with the last working mine in Durham extracting its final load in August 2020. The implications and legacies of coalmining are complex and often difficult, but abandoned spoil heaps provide unique habitats and opportunities for life which challenge common conceptions of what ‘healthy landscapes’ look like.

Essay by Michael Malay


A few summers ago, I was standing on a coal spoil in South Wales, overlooking the derelict structure of the Cwm Coking Works. I was there with Liam Olds, a young entomologist who specialises in the insect life of former collieries. ‘People see these places as eyesores,’ he said, ‘but they’re so much more than that. For animals, they’re a kind of shelter — a refuge from monoculture farms, conifer plantations and fragmented habitats. They’re important ecosystems in their own right. It just takes some time before you begin to see them.’  

‘How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’ Meno asked Socrates. It is also a question for our times. Without any of our interference, and without any of our planning, some of the landscapes we call wastelands have become difficult paradises. They are places where life is learning to thrive again, but they are difficult because they do not conform to our ideas of what healthy landscapes might look like. The miners who scooped coal from deep inside the Welsh earth brought other things to the surface, among them clay, shale, sandstone, and ironstone. The materials were piled up in the most haphazard ways, first in little hillocks, and later, as the mining continued, into landscape-defining hills. Limestone mixed with shale, sandstone was thrown up alongside clay, and the stratigraphy of the earth, which had been gradually laid down over millions of years, and which ran in large folds and faults beneath us, came to be mixed in the strangest proportions. 

What followed was bizarre, wild, unpredictable. The spoil heaps formed complex topographies of their own, characterised by varying gradients and aspects, and because the spoils were composed of different materials, with different pH levels and soil structures, they provided the underlying substrate for different landscapes to emerge. During my tour of the spoils, I saw more distinctive habitats in two hours than I usually do over a day of walking. There were bilberry-filled heaths next to wildflower meadows; patches of open, free-draining ground next to bristling reed beds; woodlands next to boggy marshes; and, on the other side of the spoils, what Liam called ‘inland sand dunes’, habitats usually formed by wind, but which emerged here under less natural conditions. 

The habitats were home to a bewildering diversity of plants. On some slopes we found carline thistles, which thrive in calcareous soils, and the low-lying fields were filled with undergroves of bird’s-foot-trefoil and kidney vetch. Nearby we found southern marsh orchids, a plant of damp alkaline meadows, and, half a mile away, round-leaved wintergreens, a plant that typically grows on coastal dunes. And interspersed among these plants were a variety of moss and lichen species, including greasewort, Clay Earth-moss, Olive Beard-moss, and Whorled Tufa-moss. ‘The soil here is nutrient-poor’, Liam explained, ‘which is why these plants are here. They thrive in the stressed ground conditions left behind by the spoils. In fact, the more stressed the ground is, the more flowers they seem to produce.’
 
With the greenery came the insects. There were dingy skippers and graylings, mottled grasshoppers and meadow grasshoppers, dozens of bee species, as well as dragonflies the size of my hand. And, amongst this heady mix, there were the parasites: specialist hoverflies that preyed on a particular kind of ant, flies that preyed on beetles and moths, and a wasp that preyed on certain miner bees. (Later in the day, as Liam pointed out a miner bee’s burrow, the wasp he was talking about appeared right on cue, a yellow flash in the air.) Some of the creatures recorded here are common to Britain, others are nationally scarce. Others still are new to science, including a millipede Liam’s friend found on the Maerdy colliery spoil, duly named the ‘Maerdy monster’. And here they all were, the rare and the abundant, sharing the strange commonlands of the spoils. Since 2015, Liam has found more than 900 invertebrate species on the coal tips, but there are many more surveys to conduct, and he suspects his list will grow substantially in the years to come.
 
‘too ugly to care for…’
 
No-one knew these spoils would be so accommodating to wild life. Inadvertently, the impoverished landscapes left behind by mining generated pockets of richness. Wildflowers that could no longer be found on intensive farmland began appearing here, followed by beetles and bees, moths and butterflies. Some of these abandoned collieries are among the most successful rewilding projects that have taken place in Britain, although they have never been seen or described as such. People find them too ugly to care for, and today hundreds of spoil tips are threatened by reclamation projects, including proposals to ‘green’ the spoils. Liam shudders at the misnomer. He wants them recognised as sites of special scientific interest.
 
Some of the places we have spoiled will never heal again, at least in our lifetimes. The barn swallows of Chernobyl continue to be born with strange malformations — misshapen beaks, bent tail feathers, crippled toes — while open-cast mines in Appalachia have completely terraformed the geology of the earth. But if many landscapes are in need of healing, there are also those places that have found their way back to health, although not in ways we intended or planned. They rebuke us with their strength, but also educate us with their presence, reminding us of the vitality that can sometimes emerge from damaged places. We should celebrate them, too, not in order to excuse destruction, or to uncritically celebrate nature’s ‘resilience’, but to appreciate what happens when we stand to one side. The Latin term relinquere gives us the adjective ‘derelict’, a word for forsaken and abandoned things, and it also gives us the verb ‘relinquish’, to give up or desist from. Not all derelictions are bad, and some of our plundered places can come good again. We do not necessarily have to withdraw from these places, but rather inhabit them more skilfully and on different terms. Liam has taken up a family tradition — both his grandfather and great-grandfather were coal miners — but he works the land in a very different way now, noticing rather than extracting, and standing aside rather than digging down.


Michael Malay is a Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities
at the University of Bristol

A Street in a Global Pandemic

As part of a remarkable project to record lives on a single British street, documentary photographer Martin Stott has been capturing images from the age of coronavirus as it unfolds in a very local context. Here, Alexandra Harris chooses a small selection, and recommends a visit to Martin’s website where you can see the full series.

All images are © Martin Stott.

A cobbled kerb-side, with the usual detritus of twigs and wrappers and cigarette ends caught between the cracks, and, blown here or thrown here, a very 2020 kind of cast-off: latex gloves, still holding the mould of whoever wore them, still rolled at the cuff where they were peeled off. I’m tempted to say there’s something ghostly in the image, but Martin Stott tends to steer refreshingly clear of hauntings and freighted symbols. He likes bright daylight in which we can see how things are.


Martin has been photographing places and communities since the 1970s. His images of the co-operative movement, of people in Mao’s China, and of Bhopal in the wake of the 1984 disaster, are all now valued for the social and cultural histories they tell, as well as for their distinctive qualities of openness, clarity, and keen watching. Martin photographs things so ordinary you hardly noticed they were there and bothers with every nuance of detail in a humble setting. He lavishes attention on pavements and dog-eared notices; in his portraits, people often look straight at the camera – there’s no pretence: they are having their pictures taken – but they are surrounded by the intricate business of their lives.

In recent years, Martin has focused on what is to be found within a few metres of his own front door. That door opens onto Divinity Road in East Oxford, a long street of Victorian houses just off the busy and super-diverse Cowley Road. Martin has lived here for more than thirty years, and has been active in community-building initiatives throughout that time. When the lockdown came, Martin went out with his camera. Many of his subjects will seem very familiar. Chalked pavements, children’s rainbows, unreadable eyes behind a visor: these are the visual language of 2020, passing across our screens each day. But here is one particular street, part of the global story but not exactly the same as anywhere else and containing multitudes within it. In the tradition of Mass Observation, the pictures tell us something of what is shared while revealing a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Each arrangement of window posters is individual. Each household is in its own lockdown. The relations between inside and outside, private and public, are being renegotiated.

How much can we tell about the street? We can sense the Thursday night atmosphere: families emerging from behind privet hedges or peering between the parallel-parked cars to see each other. The lockdown has made some neighbours more visible and part of the community; others have disappeared. Someone has needed the paramedics’ stretcher. There’s a party spirit further down towards the Cowley Road: housemates are making the best of things with an outdoor drink, though the flat roof of the Co-op isn’t anyone’s ideal terrace. Another group stands ready with new turf and spades: they are clearly embarking on a garden together. In fact they are medical students working at the sharp end of the pandemic through long hours up at the hospital. Their new lawn will give them a place to relax during the difficult months ahead.

The images of gutters and kerbs remind me of the sculptures made by the Boyle Family when they focussed in on certain squares of ground and made faithful reproductions of them in fibreglass and mixed media to hang in a gallery. They made us look at the pavement markings and the texture of tarmac. But any similarity here points up a contrast. The Boyle Family aimed for objectivity; they went to places they didn’t know and examined them like scientists. Martin has been trying to know this street for thirty years. He’s poised between objective recorder and long-term neighbour. He’s photographing ‘his’ place, with a curiosity and attention that comes from loving it. But he knows the street is always changing and that neighbourhoods are best not taken for granted.

Will May

Will May

Will May

Associate Professor in English, University of Southampton

My research explores how writing practices can inform our understanding of place. In the Leverhulme-funded project StoryPlaces, I worked with creative writers and colleagues in Electronics and Computer Science on a location-based authoring tool, running writing projects in Crystal Palace, Southampton Docks, and the Bournemouth Natural Science Society. In my teaching, I encourage students to read and write poetry in specific spaces, from secondary classrooms (‘Creative Writing in Schools), to city farms (‘Animal Forms: Poetry and the Non-Human’), to abandoned military hospitals (‘Writing Place’).

As a poetry editor and critic, I am drawn to poets who attend to the particular squelch of the earth beneath them, from Stevie Smith, the poet of flat coastlands and rainy suburban parks, to F.T. Prince, the South-African born poet whose works take in urban graffiti in Rome, Keatsian walking country, and the vast expanses of the veldt.

Publications include Stevie Smith and Authorship (OUP, 2010), The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith (Faber, 2015), and Reading F.T. Prince (LUP, 2017).

My new project explores the places and practices of mentoring in modern British poetry, from the university seminar room to the local park bench.

A Month in the Country

Hermione Lee reflects on the particular qualities and settings of J.L. Carr’s classic novel

 

“No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank”

 

Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, was a writer of laconic English humour, quiet precision, deep moral feeling, close knowledge of landscapes, buildings and history, and an interest in the heroism of obscure, unsuccessful, unprivileged people. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote eight short novels. He was also a teacher and headmaster, a writer for children, an antiquarian, and an idiosyncratic publisher of pocket books, under the sign of the Quince Tree Press. His friend and admirer Penelope Fitzgerald said of him: “Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past”.

His masterpiece, A Month in the Country, won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, was short-listed for the Booker and was made into a film. Carr, an obstinate man, didn’t care that it was already Turgenev’s title – besides, the novella has a Turgenevian mood to it. It’s a story full of sadness and nostalgia, told by a shell-shocked war-veteran, Tom Birkin. In the “marvellous summer” of 1920, he has come, a wrecked survivor, with no money and a failed marriage, to a remote Yorkshire village, in order to uncover a huge medieval Day of Judgement painting on the wall of the village church, the work of an unknown medieval artist who increasingly infiltrates his mind. Down below, another war-veteran with a secret history, Mr Moon, is excavating a 14th century grave outside the church. They are “two of a kind”, both quietly dedicated to their specialised work, and both beneficiaries of the late old lady of the decaying manor-house, whose shrewd eye still seems to be overlooking their work. An obstructive, stiff-necked vicar, his fragile, beautiful wife, and the friendly, level-headed Yorkshire villagers (source of Carr’s typical humane, low-key comedy), become Birkin’s whole world that summer. 

It is a war-novel set in peace-time, full of the horror and unspeakable fear of war-memories, which can’t be spoken about. It’s a love story of great poignancy about a missed chance, and it’s a memory of an irrecoverable past, of “blue remembered hills” that can’t be found again. “If I’d stayed there”, the sad narrator asks himself, “would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies”.

Above all, the novel is filled to the brim with a particular English place and time. Carr said he drew the village and its setting from his childhood in the North Riding, the church from Northamptonshire (where he spent most of his adult life), the churchyard from Norfolk and the vicarage from London: “All’s grist that comes to the mill”. Oxgodby, the name of the village, certainly echoes “Osgodby”, a village near where he went to school. And the novel brings us a vanished English country life in deep sunshine – haymaking, sleeping outdoors, Sunday School, rabbit pies, scythes, “ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars”. No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank. “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic – “Now you don’t see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!” Day after day it was like that….”  “As it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded. I turned away; it was immensely satisfying.”  

 

Hermione Lee was president of Wolfson College, Oxford from 2008 to 2017 and founding director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Her books include Edith Wharton (2006), Penelope Fitzgerald (2013), and Tom Stoppard (2020).