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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Book reviews, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories, Theory

Stories from the English Countryside

Something like a Nest, by Andy Sewell

“Visible out picture windows, however, are fragments of open sky and long views which obscurely make radiant even what frightens us.”

– Finis Dunaway, Beyond Wilderness

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©Andy Sewell

In his enigmatically titled new book, Something Like a Nest, photographer Andy Sewell engages in a poetic re-framing – both literal and metaphorical – of the English countryside. Employing a subtle and contemplative pictorial style, the book addresses aspects of rural life and living beyond that which is superficially dramatic or stereotypical.

Sewell’s is not a search for his own sanctuary amongst the common detritus of agricultural production and country life, but rather as a collector of small stories, and motifs, which allude in an oblique way, to their own unique narrative vignettes. The overall effect is not to define what the English Countryside is and what happens there necessarily, but to open up possibilities and connections between disparate aspects contained therein.

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©Andy Sewell

The simple act of noticing (as mundane as that sounds), or put another way, of understanding the reason for noticing, plays an important thematic role in the book. The third image, for example, depicts a still life of a jar containing what can only be described as a glutinous mass of frogspawn. Hermetically sealed in their iridescent enclave, the spawn seem safe and secure, like a new type of Kiwi jam from Waitrose, perhaps, with the label carefully peeled to reveal the tempting fruits behind. Yet, on a second look – second thought more appropriately – this is a precarious position for the entrapped embryos. The day could quickly turn from overcast and cool, to harsh and hot, boiling the life out of this primordial preserve.

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©Andy Sewell

Another still life also alludes, more subtly, to containment. This time a carton (cartoon?) of eggs is placed on a cloth-covered table illustrated with kitsch depictions of cockerels and hens. This stylized ‘wipe-clean’ version of nature – resplendent with repetitious, almost robotic looking roosters – cleverly negotiates a dialogue between the natural world and consumerism; between the rural environment and our manipulation of it. In this context, the letter lurking in the background from Tesco.com takes on somewhat Orwellian connotations. The cutlery clamouring in the corner – normally benign utensils clad as they are in sunny yellow – are now made lurid, adding a further tinge of artificiality.

This rubberized ‘cartooncloth’ adds to a sense of a reality somewhat skewed. Or is it perhaps a sense of the awareness of the photographer, somehow heightened? Either way, Sewell seems to celebrate rather than chastise these eccentricities, taking aesthetic pleasure in agricultural geometry and a keen eye for the significance in the minute and the mundane.

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©Andy Sewell

Two years ago I spent some time walking the route of the proposed HS2 rail line between London and Birmingham. Although that area of the Buckinghamshire countryside is designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, the land is visually and ecologically better described as a kind of green desert. Modern farming techniques turn nature into a monoculture fit for little, save for the very specific task of growing crops. In Sewell’s green desert, the washing line draped across the middle of the frame includes a Thomas the Tank Engine towel, playfully illustrating the precariousness of this symbolic rural retreat. In the foreground, a shrunken toy tractor seems the victim of some kind of agro-chemical blunder.

Elsewhere in the book, the colour red and the people who do appear, play an equally emblematic, unifying role, as do the five kitchen windows, resplendently back-lit with jewel-like ornaments and emerald green (radioactive?) washing up liquid. Religion appears as a metaphorical backdrop, and rituals are represented throughout, adding to the sense that repetition and renewal are key features of this unsentimental and complex vision of rural life.

The image on the front of the book reflects this too, showing the desiccated remains of a cornfield, and it is encased, like frequent objects in much of Sewell’s English landscape, in a thin and beautiful veneer of plastic.

Something like a Nest is available to buy via http://www.andysewell.com/

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