As I have mentioned in my previous post, I am currently taking part in an eco-art residency with the underGROWTH project in Coventry. Over the next couple of months, I will be exploring the environment through an artistic lens, and creating work inspired by ecology. My portfolio will be focused on those beautiful, intricate organisms I have been so enthralled by recently: mosses and lichens.
My residency will conclude with the production of a final product – a booklet, exploring mosses and lichens through a variety of art forms and perspectives. As the booklet is brought to life, I thought it would be interesting to map my journey here, through a number of blog posts.
My residency for the underGROWTH project was originally meant to take place in April of 2020, but of course, with everything happening in the world, plans were forced to change. Now, a year later, the shape of the residency is quite different to what was originally imagined. Due to local travel restrictions, I cannot visit Coventry to conduct my research or gather inspiration, and the final product can no longer be in the form of live events. Yet, the extra time that the lockdown has afforded me has enabled me to really consider how I want to approach this project.
When I first began thinking about my residency, I was working to the broad prompt of ‘foraging’. This was a really exciting starting point – foraging is, like poetry, an act of exploration and discovery, and is tied closely to folk tradition. Before the lockdown, and with the summer and autumn ahead of me, there seemed to be boundless ways in which this project could go.
Then we entered ‘the strange year’, and while plans were up in the air, I did not think further about my underGROWTH residency. Autumn turned to winter, and as much of the natural world fell into dormancy, my interest grew in the few organisms that still flourished. Taking a closer look at mosses and lichens requires us to pause, and see what we might otherwise miss. If there’s one thing this year has taught me, it is how to slow down, take stock, and notice the little things. I have really enjoyed discovering these miniature worlds, where all this time, life has gone on much as usual. I have, as Robin Wall Kimmerer put it, learned to see through ‘moss coloured glasses’.
Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer is a bryologist, and the focus of her book Gathering Moss is on, well, moss. Kimmerer draws on her scientific learning, as well as the ‘indigenous ways of knowing’ of her Potawatomi ancestors, to give a glimpse into the lives of these organisms. For me, the book has been a wonderful introduction and guide into the world of miniature flora of all kinds. I have learned a lot about moss species: how they are sustained, how they reproduce, and how they respond to pollution and deforestation. But the most valuable lessons I learned from Kimmerer were how to see, how to learn, and how to relate – and these lessons can be applied to lichen as well as moss.
Kimmerer explains how studying this flora ‘takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive’. Knowing a species by its scientific name might require a closer look under a microscope, and access to a comprehensive taxonomy. Simply seeing mosses and lichens needs nothing more than our eyes, and willingness to stop and look. Exploring the Latin names for each species is quite alienating (especially for an arty-type like me) – so I found it comforting to read that even a bryologist gives unfamiliar moss species ‘a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem’. Even such basic, descriptive labelling is a way of seeing – it ‘creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation’.
Once we have learned to see, we can begin to learn from and to relate to these organisms. Kimmerer introduces the indigenous notion of the web of reciprocity: that all living things have a role in the world, according to their natural gifts. To learn the role of a plant requires seeing: observing where and when a plant grows; noticing its colour, texture, or shape; or seeing how other creatures respond to or use it. Once we understand the particular role of a plant, we can begin to relate it to ourselves, and find the connection between plant and human in the web. For example, the absorbent and antiseptic qualities of moss has, in the past, made it useful as a wound dressing, sanitary products, or babies’ nappies. Appreciating these uses, and this relation, is key to respecting a plant, and as Kimmerer believes, helps sustain them.
Reading Gathering Moss has enabled me to really see, and find renewed respect, plants like moss and lichen. It has given me a brilliant starting point for my project, and provided lots of inspiration for the poems I am hoping to write. While these ideas are circling in my mind, I have been exploring moss and lichen through other creative means. The freedom of the underGROWTH project has really allowed me to embrace creativity more broadly during this residency. As well as poetry, the booklet will also include photographs, illustrations, and even a small resin piece to allow the beautiful colours and shapes of this flora to really speak for itself.
I also really wanted to include some other voices and perspectives in this booklet. After all, I have only been exploring the world of moss and lichen for a short while, and so I am limited in how I see, what I have learned, and how I relate to these organisms. The booklet will include two interviews: one from a more creative angle, which looks a little closer at the folklore of mosses and lichens; the other from a more scientific angle, which touches upon the environmental importance of these organisms. I am really looking forward to weaving these other voices into the project.
Over the coming months, I will be following up with another couple of blog posts, recounting the journey of my underGROWTH residency. In the next post, I will talk a little bit more about the interviews I have conducted, the photography, and the illustrations I have created. In the third post, I will talk more about the poetry I am writing for this project – the inspiration, the process, and the story they tell.
underGROWTH is a series of eco-art residencies designed to confront issues relating the Coventry’s environment. It is curated by Lauren Sheerman and George Ttoouli, with The Pod Cafe and allotments in Coventry. Learn more on Twitter at @underGROWTHcov, or on Tumblr here.