Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Ecocriticism Study Day

At the end of January four women gathered in a room at King's Manor in York.  They came from different disciplines and backgrounds, and travelled from across the country, from the Midlands and Cumbria, to meet in this room.

On the table they laid out books, texts, postcards, pamphlets, laptops, badges and biscuits. After pushing random buttons on a coffee machine, and discovering that it made no difference, the coffee came out the same anyway, the Ecocriticism Study Day began.

Each of the women had chosen a 'text' of differing sorts, and the other three were to read them before the day.  The aim of the day was an experiment:  if we bring together four people from very different disciplines to present and comment on each other's approaches to a subject, will they discover a new and shared methodology?

The subjects in question:  woodlands and walking.

The women:  
Dr Freya Sierhuis, lecturer in English literature and eco-criticism
Dr Lynda Dunlop, educator in science
Dr Suzi Richer, archaeologist and palynologist
Jo Dacombe, artist and creative walker

The discussion began with Lynda thinking about the pedagogy of philosophy, specifically pedagogy outside of the classroom.  What are the different motivations people have for engaging with philosophy? How does the space in which learning is happening change the way people learn? Could philosophy be taught through walking?

Freya introduced notions of Environmentalism, and the idea of "Slow Violence" as described by Rob Nixon. How does critical literature become activism when dealing with subjects such as "environmentalism of the poor"?  They also discussed the impact of colonialism, and how to measure impact; how measurements can be presented to back up any argument, depending on where one chooses to place the boundaries of how those measurements are made.

Freya went on to examine further the politics of landscape, vernacular landscape and the notion of vitalism, as discussed in John Wylie's book 'Landscape'.

Suzi made an excellent presentation on pollen diagrams, how they could be interpreted and some of the problems of presenting the information. She related this to an intriguing book of poems by Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, 'Of the Elm Decline',  which generated in-depth discussion on the use of the page in poetry and the visual arrangements of words, poetry referencing science and the effect of knowing or not knowing the meanings of technical words used in a poem.

Finally, Jo presented a work by artist John Newling called 'Dear Nature', a work that literally addresses nature through a short letter, but also concerns context, relationships, material, generosity and exchange and other ideas that were unpicked from this work located in a forest in Scotland.

Several themes seemed to reoccur throughout the discussions, enabling the group to identify common concerns.  The naming of things was discussed more than once, and the power in words to change the way we conceptualise the things we name. The effect of a sense of place was a common theme, and the use of words and images together to augment meaning.

All four women agreed that the day was useful and, if opportunity arose, a further Study Day could be held.

Following a full day in a room, the group went to St Nick's nature reserve and walked in the woods there. Plans began taking shape for workshops that they will hold in the woods for students of the University of York in the summer.  The Study Day certainly seemed to have tied together some of the common threads between their practices, and it will be exciting to see how this will support the Imagining Woodlands work with students later in the year.

Thanks to Freya for initiating and organising the Study Day.

Study Day Reading List:

Philosophy: A School of Freedom, (UNESCO: 2007) chapter 4.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Harvard University Press: 2011) Introduction.

John Wylie, Landscape (Routledge: 2007) chapter 6.

Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, Memorious Earth, (Corbel Stone Press: 2015) chapter v.

John Newling, ‘Dear Nature’

Friday, 16 February 2018

Everything is spinning

Today was sunny, that bright and crisp light that you get on a winter's day. The sun has no warmth but everything it touches seems to glow.  I held up one of the test tubes to the light and stared intently. Everything in it was colourless; a fluid globule of glycerol and water sitting in the bottom, underneath the fibre fluff which shone like it made its own light.

I have installed two pollen traps in the Meadows, changing them fortnightly for new test tubes so that we can track the change in pollen as the seasons move on. The test tubes are mysterious things. Pollen is microscopic, so you can't see it in the tube. Occasionally you see a few bits of dirt caught in the tube, but this sits on top of the polyester fibre and the pollen filters through, theoretically at least. You just have to trust the pollen is there, handle the test tube with care as if it contains a precious, invisible magic.

Everything spins with pollen collecting. The mixture in the test tube has to be spun centrifugally to try to mix each one evenly. Once the trap has been on site and (we hope) collected pollen, it can be spun again to help separate out whatever is in the tube.

The installation and changing of the pollen traps is a cycle. I repeat the activity once a week, alternating the sites, and recording the date and other observations each time. As I do this I'm aware that the whole process is measuring a larger cycle, an annual cycle of trees releasing pollen to begin the process of fertilisation to grow new trees. Once those new trees are grown, they will then become part of the cycle too.  And on it goes, endlessly cycling on this spinning planet of ours.

I wonder how I could represent these cycles of different scale and speed; the fast spinning of the centrifuge and the slow spinning of the life cycle of a tree. My original thought, when I started the microseasons project, was that the art work should be presented around all four walls of a gallery space in a circle. Somehow visitors would start in the centre of the room so that there is no start or end point of the sequence of works, just one continuous loop. If you know of a gallery that has a trap door entrance in the middle of the room, let me know.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Counting seasons

I have been visiting the Meadows to think about how I will approach the microseasons project. Trying to observe the changing environment of the Meadows over time, it has quickly become clear to me that the architecture of plants, trees and the landscape is only one aspect of the Meadows' own seasonal fluctuation. Changes in colour are increasingly catching my attention.

When entering that particular landscape (and it does feel like you enter it, coming off the main Aylestone Road from the city and up over the bridge to reach the Meadows), at first there is a sense of an overall colour change.  Is it something in the light, or the actual colour of the natural growth in the woodlands?  Often it is a combination of both, the natural objects themselves cannot be separated from the weather's effect on them.

One day just before Christmas I was suddenly struck by a flourescent yellow - as the cold but bright winter light hit lichen on the twigs, they seemed to glow like iridescent pencil sketches against the sky.

Then the snow fell, turning the light an eerie lilac-grey as it layered the trees' bare branches, making the trees appear more like black ink marks and losing their colour by contrast.

I began making watercolour swatches of the colours infront of me. I made drawings of lichen-covered twigs. But none of this quite captures what I'm looking for.

I've been looking at Japanese art of the Edo period.  I knew that Hokusai had made 36 woodcut blocks of different views of Mount Fuji, and I wondered how he had described the seasonal variation of the mountain. The microseasons project is, after all, inspired by Japanese tradition of observing the seasons.

And there was the effect of light again, in Hokusai's work "Clear Day with a Southern Breeze", 凱風快晴 Gaifū kaisei. As a print, Hokusai made different impressions of this work in a number of colours, perhaps each describing a different time of day or the differing lights of the time of year, and how it affects the mountain.  The best known version, known as Red Fuji, is described by a curator of the British Museum: "When conditions are right in late summer or early autumn, with a wind from the south and a clear sky, the slopes of Fuji can be dyed red by the rays of the rising sun... This is the most abstracted composition and yet the most meteorologically specific of all the 'Thirty-Six Views'"1

It is one in the series "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" (you can see the full set here). There seems to be a cultural custom to have many numbers of things. Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views was followed by Hiroshige's "The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō". Our microseasons project, as I wrote in my last post, is inspired by the Japanese naming of 72 seasons.

What can I learn from this? How would I count the number of ways that seasonal light can be observed? Will this help me find a way to capture something of the Meadows?

Saturday, 6 January 2018


New Year's Day:
Silent pine trees
on Higashiyama
                Takakuwa Ranko

What is a season? In Britain we recognise just four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter - which are divided equally throughout the calendar year. Looking beyond our shores, seasons are not always restricted in number, defined by the calendar year, or based on weather.  Ancient Japanese society had 25 main seasons and 72 microseasons, each defined by experience and observation of the natural world. The beginning of January is the microseason of "Beneath the Snow the Wheat Sprouts."

Drawing on the Japanese notion of microseasons, Suzi and Jo started to wonder how we might recognise British microseasons, and what this might tell us about the changing environment in our own back yards. Thus we are starting this project, bringing together the arts and science to redefine our seasons based on microseasons; not based on the date, but elucidated from the sights, sounds and smells of the weather, animal activity, changes in vegetation and human behaviour.

It is often hard for us to imagine the impact of climate change on a global scale.  Everything seems so vast when talking about climate change - the numbers, the lengths of time, things that are happening miles away which we know will affect us but it's difficult to truly connect to imaginatively.  By focusing on the local, on a much smaller scale, we can really start to see small changes and understand what might be happening where we live.

Thus we will start this project in Jo's neck of the woods:  Aylestone Meadows in Leicester. Jo has been discussing with the local council and has permission to locate a pollen trap in the meadows. Suzi will analyse the pollen collected throughout the year. Jo will also make her own artistic observations.  We aim to experiment with how art and science, which both use techniques of close observation, can influence each other to generate a detailed way of describing small changes within small time periods or microseasons.  How will this affect our human perception of the time period of one year? How does this challenge how we perceive seasons? How does this alter our scientific and artistic practice?

We also encourage you, our readers, to get involved!  Email us any observations of change you have made wherever you are - do you notice flowers blooming later in the year than usual, or birds returning from their migration at unexpected times?  How are the microseasons changing your environment - have you spotted small changes that tell you that a new microseason is starting?  Please send us photos, written notes, or even poems and we will post what we can on this blog to share.  Please make sure you note the date of the observation too!

You can also track the Japanese ancient seasons through a beautiful free App by the Utsukushii Kurashikata Institute (translated as Beautiful Living Research Lab), which includes photographs, illustrations, haiku poems such as the one above, and words based on the poetic names of the seasons. Click here to find out more.

Images in this post by Andrew Postlethwaite.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Imagining Woodlands in 2018

We have plans for Imagining Woodlands throughout 2018, starting in January with a Study Day to take place in York. Dr Freya Sierhuis, Lecturer in English and Related Literature , Dr Lynda Dunlop, Lecturer in Education,  environmental archaeologist Dr Suzi Richer and artist Jo Dacombe will meet to discuss ecocritical criticism, art and pedagogy, focusing in particular (but certainly not exclusively) on the idea of place, the relationship between walking and thinking.  We will share some of the outcomes of that day on this blog.

Following that, Freya, Jo and Suzi have developed a teaching module for Imagining Woodlands, which will be delivered for students at the University of York in May.  Collaborating with other experts, we will explore woodlands from various viewpoints and disciplines, and challenge the students to make their own creative responses to a day walking in the woods.

Also, Suzi and Jo are working with Dr Benjamin Gearey, an environmental archaeologist from University College Cork, to develop a special session at the EPPC conference in Dublin in August.  Artists, academics, archaeologists, scientists and anybody else interested are invited to submit a paper or other presentation on the connection between the scientific practice of palaeoecology and that of the visual and other creative arts.  Click here to read more about our special session no. 29:  Palaeoecology Through the Lens of Arts and Science.

Finally, Suzi and Jo will be collaborating on a project called The 72 Seasons, to identify micro-seasons in a woodland in Leicester through scientific and artistic observations. This project will start early in the year and run throughout the 12 months.  Regular updates will be posted on this blog.

So here's to new adventures in 2018, when we will launch The 72 Seasons project and let you know how you can get involved!

We leave you with a short, beautiful film by AP Film of woodlands in the snow at this link: Snow in the Woods.

Thanks for following.

Photos in this post by Andrew Postlethwaite.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Sacred Spaces of Milton Keynes

I will be leading a creative walk through Milton Keynes on Sunday 1st October, for the community organisation Back to Books, one of a series of walks they are commissioning to celebrate parks and gardens, woods and water, crafts and industry.

We will work as a group to create temporary art installations in some of the locations, reflecting on the spiritual and metaphysical designs, structures and geometry that can be found in the unique town of Milton Keynes.
The event is free and there is a free bus to and from Corby, or you can meet us in Milton Keynes.

The walk will be about 4 miles with a stop for a picnic, please bring your own! 
Places are limited, so please book via the Eventbrite page.

Back to Books' project is funded by Awards for All and Tesco Bags of Help.

I hope you can join us.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Introducing Imagining Woodlands' collaborators: Freya Sierhuis

Dr Freya Sierhuis teaches English literature at the University of York. By training a historian who specializes in Renaissance literature and literary culture, particularly of religious writing and of the stage, she has in recent years branched out into the field of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities.

At York, she teaches a module on literature and the environment which offers a variety of historical and critical perspectives on our relation to the environment, ranging from the poetry of Wordsworth and John Clare, to classics of nature writing, such as Thoreau’s Walden and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, to the novels of Aboriginal writer and activist Alexis Wright. Drawing on studies in literary criticism, nature writing, and philosophy, it asks the question of what constitutes environmental literature, how such literature shapes environmental consciousness and action, and how new perspectives generated by the emergence of ecocriticism raise questions about the relationship between human perception and the natural world, and our co-existence as human beings in the larger living organism of the earth.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it”.
Søren Kierkegaard
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in”.   
John Muir
A keen hiker and mountain walker, Freya is interested in the relationship between walking, writing and thinking. The connection between walking and philosophy as we know it from Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker and Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’ is part of a tradition whose roots stretch back far into history; perhaps to the very origins of philosophy with the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece. Walking, writers like Rebecca Solnit and Frédéric Gros have argued, can be a form of liberation through the crossing of spatial geographical and personal boundaries, and through the freedom afforded by simplicity and self-reliance. Yet walking also affords a particular kind of knowledge or insight, both of the self and of the walked landscape. The act of walking itself involves a kind of knowing that is both sensory, cognitive and embodied, reliant on physical sensation, movement, sight and smell as a medium for thought. Nature writers often describe this sort of knowledge as a process, rather than an outcome, and view it as ever-developing, and open-ended, rather than fixed, stable and finite.
“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love — and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.”
Wendel Berry

Walking can also be a way of retrieving, recuperating specific forms of knowledge about the natural world. In our late-capitalist, urbanized, and increasingly digital culture, time-honoured forms of knowledge of our natural surroundings are beginning to fall into abeyance. Words to describe the natural world, its flora, fauna, soil- and weather conditions are, as Robert Macfarlane noted in Landmarks, disappearing from our dictionaries and vocabularies at alarming rate and speed. If language does indeed shape perception, and if the limits of our language constitute the limits of our world, such a process of linguistic impoverishment must inevitably have a detrimental effect upon our relationship to nature.

Walking, then, Freya claims, can function as form of cultural resistance against environmental ‘forgetfulness’, by enabling an imaginative and affective re-possession of the landscapes that were shaped by centuries of human coexistence with the natural world. Beyond and behind the routes marked out on the Ordinance Survey map lies a myriad of itineraries and pathways, parish boundaries, pilgrimage routes and Holloways, many of them now sunk into oblivion. Taking imaginative possession of a landscape thus makes it possible to ‘read’ its physical and linguistic signs and features, to know the etymology of place names, and to understand how geography and environment evolved over time.  It is here that environmental activism and literary criticism converge. For the language of place, the ‘particularising language’ of which Wendel Berry speaks has common ground with literary criticism in its attention to what is historically specific, singular, and irreducible.

Such intimate attention to the particularity of place we can find for instance in the work of John Clare (1793-1864), perhaps England’s best, and certainly most radically innovative, nature poet. Clare was born in Helpston, Northamptonshire, and witnessed the transformation of the rural landscapes of his youth in the wake of the industrial revolution and the enclosure movement. As a naturalist, his knowledge far exceeds that of other Romantic poets like Wordsworth. Clare’s bird poems betray an intimate but entirely unsentimental understanding of animal behaviour, while a poem like ‘A Copse in Winter’ requires the reader to make the link between the woodland practice of coppicing, and the appearance of flowers in summer.

Yet Clare’s poetry does not simply celebrate the beauty of a vanishing world in a pastoral, elegiac mode, rather, it creates through its language a poetics of resistance. Clare’s highly personal, idiosyncratic spelling and frequent use of dialect words (eliminated by his editor John Taylor, but reinstated in most modern editions) shape a poetic voice that is as unique as it is specific to the particularities of place: only in Northamptonshire is a song thrush called a ‘throstle’, a ladybird a ‘lady-cow’. Local language, Clare knew, conveys forms of knowledge that is historically and locally specific, and which is often lost in attempts of classification or systematization. Throughout his career Clare rejected any form of language that was abstract and universalizing, and whose rules he associated with the rationalist, efficiency-driven impetus behind the enclosure movement. He had no patience with grammar, which he viewed as a tyrannical form of constraint on the freedom of language. A skilled herbalist, he was indifferent to the grand classificatory work of Linneaean botany, yet discovered in the vernacular language of plants and flowers something that filled him with delight, something which he regarded as a kind of poetry. Rather than nostalgic, or backward-looking, Clare’s poetic language is radical in the sense that it articulates a claim, made explicit in poems like ‘To a fallen Elm’, that the land belongs to those who truly know it, rather than to those who merely own it.

If you have any favourite literary quotes about woodlands, please send them to us at and we will share them.

Images in this post by Jo Dacombe.

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 8 July 2017