Behind the scenes, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories

Pits (dis)

Pits. Everywhere, pits.

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©Crown Copyright 2015

The dimpled remains of an agricultural past litter the landscape. Farm labourers gathered its chalky alkaline nutrients, then applied it back to the topsoil as fertilizer around a hundred years ago. Then, fields were smaller and could be re-energized more easily with modest machines and brute strength. Pastures were dotted with people, talking, shouting, singing even.

Go to a ‘less advanced’ nation, Morocco say, and listen to the sounds the land encourages people to make. Whooping in the cold morning light. Toiling ‘till the sweat appears. I’ve been there and heard it. I’ve camped out under the stars on a rocky hill by the side of the road: pitched up by bicycle the day before, thinking I was the only one for miles. As dawn broke, a work party lying low nearby filled the air with the clatter of their pick-axes, which reverberated round the valley walls. These were the sounds that once resonated in the spaces carved out between these woods, in these pits. Now this clamour of voices is consigned to the past.

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Al Haouz, Morocco ©djnorwood 2015

Of course, this is not the whole story. There is quiet – in between the gunfire from pheasant and partridge shooting, when their less appetising cousins can be heard. Coppices are festooned with plastic feeders and barrels that could grace a gallery space, as Duchamp-esque ready-mades, such is their utilitarian sculpted form. The only way to negotiate these places, without straying across the sight lines of twin barrels, is with the help of a map. Maps help keep us safe.

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Untitled #1 ©djnorwood 2016

Maps also spur our curiosity, if we let them. At the risk of stating the obvious, the ordnance survey map aims to graphically represent three dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane, with all the necessary information needed for safe passage in the outdoors – the location of the nearest pub, for example, being of particular significance. But it also harbours information about physical features deemed necessary for safe passage through space. Pits are a fine example. Each one is marked as if it were a key feature to notice or negotiate – the map yielding these features – pit (dis) – as if they were waypoints on a quest. Yet in reality they are hard to find and usually disguised by mature trees, making full use of the fertile soil beneath.

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An open chalk pit ©djnorwood 2016

We are aware of the significance of local actions on the global whole, and this is the starting point for my curiosity. This was reinforced recently by reading the fascinating and far reaching biography of Alexander von Humboldt, ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt recognised the connectedness of the natural world back in the early part of the 19th century, and although much has changed in the way that we interconnect with each other, our interdependence with the land remains the same. Humboldt recognised both the significance of humans impact on ecosystems and the details of flora and fauna that gave flesh to his ideas. In the absence of so little of each, were he alive today, I’m convinced he would have searched out clues such as these.

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Humboldt in South America: Versuch über die gereizte Muskel-und Nervenfaser (1797)

These particular ones aren’t heroic monuments like the usual totems of our recent industrial past – in Cornwall for example – where the chimneystacks of abandoned tin mines break the horizon like spires. These are intimate , hidden depressions, surrounded by trees, and this is the M3 corridor of rural Hampshire – a heavily industrialized zone of mono-cultural farms and fields.

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A disused chalk pit, ©djnorwood 2016

Perhaps lingering significance lies with the map makers themselves, who have carefully documented their pock marked presence, laying cartographical bread-crumbs on the surface of paper, and leaving it up to the curious minded to discover and create their own narrative. Perhaps it lies in the simple notion that something insignificant marked on a map can arouse interest and curiosity, and this in itself should be a cause for hope and optimism.

Anyone with a (healthy) map obsession can scratch the itch at the British Library. The fascinating  Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is open until 1st March 2017.

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Aftermath, Environment, Stories

The Story of the Stuck Man

Groaning from outside my window is not in itself particularly unusual. This spot where the road meets the park is a place where all life mixes – the perimeter fence being a kind of shoreline between the suburban and the communal. Railings mark a displaced tide where the unexpected, from time to time, gets washed up. As I mute the women’s ‘slope style’ from Sochi, morbid moans settle on a disembodied space near the gates.

The Story of the Stuck Man (1 of 3)

I peer through the blinds onto the sickly sodium lit road and clock my neighbour – the one opposite with the enviable motor-home – in studious activity beside the park railings. Next to him is the dark dangling shape of a man – the source of the pained expletives; a shadow in contorted misery begging to be released.

I cannot un-see the impaled man. I grab keys and race downstairs before the hall lights have a chance to fully flicker on and cross the road to the man who is stuck like a pig at a banquet. The neighbour is trying to cut through his jeans with paper scissors; perilous, if not for the fact that they are woefully inadequate. A more threatening implement is needed. I find a serrated pair back in the kitchen draw, and try not to impale myself as I charge back outside, leaving strains of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ floating down the corridor.

Back outside, precise incisions are made in the denim around the spike until only gravity and fatigue have him still wedged. His free leg claws back and forth in mid air, but it remains hopelessly short. If the fight left him, he would probably fall back in a heap, maybe with a crump on the head; but then his knee would still be wedged and it might dislocate.

The Story of the Stuck Man (2 of 3)

I do another circuit back up to the flat for a chair then climb over the fence almost getting my foot caught next to his viced knee. The aroma of alcohol oozes from him, like he’s been marinating in ale. I thrust my back and shoulder under his rear end hoping he still has enough control over his bodily functions and inch his stranded leg up towards the respite of the waiting chair.

The Story of the Stuck Man (3 of 3)

‘Aaarrhh. No WAIT. Stop. STOP. Not all the way. I can’t reach it.’

There are some loose bricks nearby, so I build a little step and from these he manages to reach the chair and then we gently prise his limb up, off and down. He staggers as the blood returns.

‘Aargh. Tha…Thank you, boys. I really. I really a…appreciate you helping me. Don’t worry about me now. I’m going the long way round.’

He shuffles into the shadows, oblivious to his ragged state. I wonder about the ethics of photographing a helpless victim pinned to some railings for the sake of an interesting picture, as he disappears into the gloom.

The aftermath will have to do.

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