Land art and Permaculture

I spent August 14th to 17th, 2014 at Friland ecovillage in Denmark, my first ever Nordic permaculture festival. The fabulous Bärfis gang from Malmö (they run two forest gardens where they work with schools) had a spare seat on the bus and took me along.

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The drive there gave us time to talk and throw ideas around – and resulted in me volunteering with Bärfis and teaching some land art workshops.

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It was a fairly small and very well organised festival. Karoline Nolsø Aaen who lives in the ecovillage was the main organiser and ‘held the circle’ when the entire group met. That was when we all found out what had to be done that day. No shilly-shallying. I loved it. And we all did our bit – food preparation, dishwashing, toilet-cleaning – and yet none of us had to do very much. It returned my faith in the idea of the communal project, that if we communicate and do our share, the commons do not need to be a tragedy. And there was even a bar, with music and campfires and dancing.

The festival was a great mixture of practical, reflective and educational activities, often in English, which I appreciated. I would have preferred more games, and hope to offer some myself at future festivals. Pontus Dowchan, survivalist extraordinaire, held a nature connection workshop that I can only describe as tender: look, feel, breathe, be.

 

pontus

I especially enjoyed the activity of asking a tree questions (not about the tree, but to the tree, and for good reason: on a normal day, you are not going to get a direct answer). So the question ‘floats’, you will get no brownie points for knowing ‘the right answer’, or this name or that name. Instead a space is opened up. A space for asking, waiting, listening, learning. A space for wonder.

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A quick aside.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working with words all my adult life. As a translator, my entire output is based on naming names. Yet, as I learn over and over again, in the realm of nature awareness and nature connection, something’s name, in Latin or the vernacular, can be both a key to the door and the lid of a jar that screws our curiosity tightly shut.

Describing a plant’s colour and shape, smelling a flower, touching the bark of a tree, watching the way an earwig walks, eating a sunflower seed that you just picked. If we are interested enough, we will want to learn the names because they will help us understand a place and all that lives there.

But I humbly request that we sometimes leave Linnaeus out of the loop and let our other senses do the learning.

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Back at the permaculture festival, I got talking to an Englishwoman who was moving to Sweden to set up a smallholding. We spoke about my land art practice and how I had gone about designing my research project for my course in outdoor learning. I had not consciously applied any permaculture design principles when designing the project, but when we went through them together, I was surprised to realise how much overlap there was.

This is an extended version of our conversation. The permaculture principles in this post are from The Essence of Permaculture.

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1. Observe and interact

The very basic premise of my land art research project (and any other land art project I do) is that of observation.

Start where you are and see what you can see. Use all of your senses and switch off the rational mind for a bit, as well as any need to show something or prove something. Then you can begin to use natural materials to create a site-specific piece of art that has no choice but to interact with its surroundings because it is made of its surroundings.

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2. Catch and Store Energy

The land art I create or co-create does not need canvas or paints or turpentine or whatever. The colours, shapes and textures come directly from their environment. In these works, only human energy (and human ingenuity) is used to catch and store the energy of the natural world.

One could discuss whether this second principle applies when land art uses a lot of resources, as in some of Andy Goldsworthy’s works, like the exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which was created together with large numbers of volunteers and large amounts of natural materials. However Goldsworthy does use the natural resources that he finds on-site and even in large projects like these, the vast majority of the work is done by hand(s). My favourite review of the YSP show is here.

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3. Obtain a Yield

Ephemeral as many land art works are, the ‘yield’ is a work of art, created by specific materials at a specific time in a specific space. An interaction has taken place between at least one person and the space in which they find themselves. Something has been produced that adds to our aesthetic experience of the natural world. The yield might not feed us, but it might give us something else.

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4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

What is inappropriate growth or behaviour in the context of land art? This could be ignoring appropriate ways of acting in the countryside that are codified, for example, in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code or the Swedish Right of Public Access.

Positive feedback could be using the energy of the waves to wash away a work in sand. Negative feedback could be cultural, for example, ‘don’t pick all the flowers in a field to make a work, build your work around flowers that are alive and growing’. In this way something is left for the next generations of the specific ecosystem where the land art is being sited.

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5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

This is where land art can fit into permaculture principles ‘hand in glove’. In a typical land art piece, you observe to find out where you are in order to find out what is already there. Then you begin to create. Nothing added and nothing taken away.

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6. Produce no Waste

In land art, this principle is very closely linked to principle five. After the land art has been made, perhaps documented, it is might be taken apart again, but very often it is simply left to be dismantled by the wind and rain, to decompose and return to the soil, sea, water, forest.

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7. Design from Patterns to Details

In land art, this is linked to taking in ‘the lie of the land’. Are you in a forest? At the seaside? It is summer, winter? What natural resources are there – stones, sticks, sand? What contrasts can you create? Is there space for a large work? Will it be something intimate? I would summarise by saying: first determine the patterns of the landscape, then – alone or with a group – start in on the details of the land art.

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7. Integrate Rather than Segregate

Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition network, makes a succinct comment, referring to permaculture ‘as the science of maximising beneficial relationships’.  I sometimes make land art on my own, small, quiet works for my own pleasure, often when walking to or from somewhere. Maybe other people see them and enjoy them – who knows, I’m not there, and there’s no gallery doorway to be negotiated.

However I very often work with other people, and my research project was a case in point: it was designed to promote collaborative art works, and to question the trope of the lone genius being hit by inspiration all of a sudden and firing off a work of art. I set up the situation, offer activities to get things rolling and then my main task is to ‘hold the space’.

the balance between intimacy and distance

 

The group – who may be adults or children or teenagers or senior citizens or or all of the above; who may be related to each other or have never met before; who may or may not have a common language; who may define themselves as artists or say things like ‘I cannot draw a straight line’, work together to decide what they are going to make and how they are going to do it. And perhaps most importantly, they decide when they are finished.

It doesn’t always run smoothly, and not everyone is happy with the result, but in my workshops, the land art is a collaborative work, where process is just as, if not more, important as the product.

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8. Use Small and Slow Solutions

Why are we always in such a hurry? Why do we often feel so busy? Why is it so hard to switch off?

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Even a very small piece of land art forces you to stop, look around and breathe. Spending several hours with a group, with games and breaks and walks and lunch thrown in, gives you a lot of time to process and to try out the art process. At the end of the workshop, you might have made one tiny work out of a few twigs. But if you took the time, you might have looked closer at those twigs and the space they came from. You might have created a time and space where something could begin.

With specific regard to the design of my research project, I decided to host four workshops, on Sundays from March to May, and to work with friends, and friends of friends. I deliberately did not work with a school class, although I had the option of being linked up with a class via Malmö Nature School. I wanted a very small, manageable project and to go at my own, very slow, pace. I created a safe but flexible container that supported me while I experimented with something very new.

How confident do I need to be? How humble?

I have gone on to host teacher-training, work with young people and workshops that involve consecutive interpreting in three languages. I’ve made critters from clay and sticks with some very lively schoolchildren. But each step of the way I considered very carefully: Is it time? Am I ready? How far will I push myself this time?

 

10. Use and Value Diversity

If the only bit of open space you have is an asphalted school playground, you can make land art; if you only have 15 minutes before lunch during a day of teacher-training, you can make land art, if it’s raining, you can make land art.

But don’t expect it to be ‘one-size-fits-all’. Learn from the great diversity of spaces, students and materials. Your friend who thinks art is pretty boring but came along since the sun was shining might surprise you by being an excellent pattern-spotter and material-finder. Your other friend who hates bugs but loves art will throw themselves into the bushes to find just the right leaf for just that bit of the land art.

By acknowledging and respecting all this diversity, the harvest may well be more abundant than you ever dreamed of.

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11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

There are some ‘big’ names making land art, Andy Goldsworthy being probably one of the most famous, but for the most part, land art is not a big deal in the art world. How do you price, market and sell a work of art that will soon melt?

Liminality – ‘Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold’ – is a concept originally from anthropology. Liminality fits in well with this permaculture principle and land art because it emphasises the idea of movement and change, not getting ‘stuck’ at the edge.

On the – perhaps more – prosaic level of my own art practice, the works I make cost nothing more than my lunch or the maintenance of my bike, nothing special and I might be the only person who cares about them (the last point, being, of course, the lot of most artists).

On a yet more prosaic level, I make the art in marginal spaces: bits of paths, around trees, on the pavement next to the school. Yet, at this edge, this margin, something can develop that does not stop there, regardless (or because of) the ephemeral nature of the work. Again it is the process that matters. And it is the ‘liminal space’ that creates an opportunity.

The Edge is Everywhere.

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12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

The idea of there being nothing new under the sun has been around a long time. Every piece of art is a palimpsest of superimposed layers, not of soil, but of remembered ideas and suggestions. But it still begs the question: How do we make art?

In her essay ‘Where do artists get their ideas from?’ Ursula le Guin refers to Gary Snyder’s image of composting, ‘The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story’. We all begin with an empty page, a lump of clay, a piece of sand and some stones. We may then plant the seed into our rich, composted soil.

But in order to grow a garden, or make a piece of art, we must first be able to imagine it. And then we begin. And then it doesn’t work out they way you thought it would. At this stage you can give up. Or you can keep on imagining, and keep on tinkering until you get something you are happy with it.

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The problem is the solution

To conclude. The entire research project grew from the ‘problem’ I have as someone wanting to run workshops working with nature, outdoors and in Sweden: I am an immigrant, I don’t speak the language perfectly nor do I have years of experience and knowledge of the area I live in. I’m not a botanist or a survivalist, I didn’t study the natural sciences. My background is the arts, in words and images.

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I took this ‘problem’ as my point of departure. What would happen if I just did it anyway? Learnt along the way? Made art with leaves without knowing the name of the tree they came from? Without knowing how to say ‘serrated leaf edge’ in Swedish? What if making land art were the ‘solution’ that would fill up this lacuna?

Since my research project, I have run several land art workshops as well as working regularly outdoors with schoolchildren. Getting back to what I saying about ‘names’, I learn a great deal when working with children. When one of them sees a ‘creepy-crawly’, their reaction is often ‘Yuck!’ and then – immediately after – ‘What is it?’

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Instead of freaking out because I’m not sure what it is (and even when I am sure) I ask ‘What does it look like? What is it doing?’ I might get out my creepy-crawly book. I might not.

‘It was in a wet, dark place under a stone, had a bunch of legs and this shell-thing that looks like armour. Or an armadillo. It was black and it curled up into a ball’.

And the answers to our questions, the solution to my problem, is that we work it out by observing and talking and wondering.

I might say it. Or one of the children might say it.

‘It’s a woodlouse.’

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Pill woodlouse (Armadillidium vulgare)