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2. A Piece of Turf
The following is taken from a presentation delivered in 2022 at ICON11 titled Twists and Loops: Illustrating Ecologically. The aim of the talk was to reflect on the inputs and development of A Piece of Turf, a collection of drawings and prints produced in response to observations of a small patch of weeds. This work was brought together into a publication and exhibition alongside prose by Beatrice Karol.
Do you remember when,
Things were really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s twist again,
Twistin’ time is here!1
Deep ecology sees a problem with seeing the world (nature, environment) as permanent, immobile space, overlaid with illusory movement2. The implication being that things have always been this way that the view outside the window has always been there. There is a rock. There is a stream. There is a tree. This ignores the very loopy, twisted mess of existence. Things entwine, influence, permeate, commune or parasitise one another. From the opening page of Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology ‘To be a thing at all - a rock, a lizard, a human - is to be in a twist.’3 This is characterised by T.S. Eliot in the line, ‘for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.’4 The roses are caught in their own twist of existing to be looked at and looking like they exist to be looked at. The looking influences their appearance, which influences the looking, which influence their appearance, which...and who is doing the looking?
From the point of view of an ecosystem, the loops, twists and connections between things (both human and non-human) is, at a human-scale, fairly straightforward to get to grips with. Let’s look5 at an allotment. I can plant my pumpkin seeds in some fresh compost; they sit in the greenhouse for a week or so. The seed sensing the moisture of my watering and nutrients of the compost starts to put out roots and a small shoot above the surface. I continue watering for a few more weeks, this, along with the nutrients of the compost and energy transference from sunlight let’s it grow until it’s big enough to be transferred outside. I plant the plantling in the ground where it continues to grow, putting out more leaves and spreading its tendrils along the ground. It puts out a flower, which is pollinated by a passing bee (with pollen from a nearby pumpkin plant), which sets the fruit, which grows into a delicious pumpkin. Autumn comes, the leaves die back, the skin of my pumpkin hardens, I pick it, scoop out the seeds, leaving them to dry, cook a delicious pie, put any scraps of skin or leftovers into the compost bin. Next spring, I plant my saved seed in my rotted down compost and the whole process starts over. Easy.
I’m a twisting fool,
Just twisting, yeah twisting,
Twisting by the pool.6
That is until we start to look more closely, consider different scales and explore those interactions. Take the compost (more compost talk to come in later newsletters); which has been cooking for a year or so. Old pumpkin bits, banana skins, grass cuttings, oak leaves, worms, bacteria, mycelium, external temperatures, rainwater, passing rodents all interact in some way with the makeup of that compost. Rainwater; affected by local climate; affected by national energy initiatives; affected by explosions on the surface of the sun. Or take the moment of transplanting the small pumpkin plant to the earth outside. Its relative success or failure depends upon so many interactions and loops with other systems. How healthy is the soil? What grew there previously? What’s happening underground? The rhizome networks of fungi, bacteria, insects, roots, microorganisms, eggs and larvae. What’s leeching from even further below the surface or from above? Nitrogen from the air is fixed in the soil by other plants, buried plastics from previous allotment-holders crumble over the course of thousands of years. Ecological awareness is just another name for this explosion of context.7
‘...but it occurred to me that I could no more catch spring by the tip of the tail than I could untie the apparent knot in the snakeskin; there are no edges to grasp. Both are continuous loops.’8
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Twist. Twist. Twist. Twist.9
According to Morton, ‘There is a really deep reason why when you examine things from an unusual (to human) point of view, they become strange in such a way that you need to include your own perspective in your description...’10. You are caught in a twist with the thing you are observing: and with yourself. This is a strange realisation, one that was quite aptly recognised by many Romantic artists and poets. When you get up close and personal to the world, you start to realise that it isn’t your own. Or, as Dillard puts it, ‘Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow...’11.
As an illustrator, one of my primary methods of responding to a subject is through observation and drawing to try to understand a thing (idea, tree, stone). To look at it in isolation to try to make sense of it. To unpack it into component parts and lay them out in a line. But I feel that this is just an attempt to cancel out the strangeness, to appear objective. Maybe, an ecological approach would be to arrive emptied and hollow, to allow myself to become ‘acclimatised to the strangeness of the stranger’12 in an open manner. As there are no right or wrong scales on which to judge things, and if everything exists in the same way then there can also be no whole, neat or tasteful idea of beauty.
Thanks for reading! Continued next week in Part Three…
Checker, C. (1961) ‘Let’s Twist Again’, Let’s Twist Again. [Vinyl] Philadelphia: Parkway
Setreng, S. K. (1992) ‘Inside Nature’. In H. Norberg-Hodge, P. Goering & S. Gorelick (Eds.), The Future of Progress: Reflections on Environment and Development. Bristol, UK: Green Books
Morton, T. (2016) Dark Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 1
Dire Straits (1983) ‘Twisting by the Pool’, ExtendedancEPlay. [Vinyl] London: Vertigo
Morton, T. (2018) Being Ecological. UK: Penguin Random House
Dillard, A. (1975) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. London: Pan Books Ltd. p. 74
Korn (1996) ‘Twist’, Life is Peachy [CD] Los Angeles: Immortal
Morton, T. (2018) Being Ecological. UK: Penguin Random House. p. 73
Dillard, A. (1975) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. London: Pan Books Ltd. p. 80
Morton, T. (2016) Dark Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 92