MECO360: Bog Hopping on the Pennine Way

Anne Collett | 1 February 2017

rain coming in (Photograph: Anne Collett)

In the break between sessions in 2016 I squeezed in an 18 day walk in the UK – 450km up and down the Pennines. I told my Romantics students who had enrolled for Victorians in the next session, that if I didn’t make it back in time for the first lecture, it was surely because I had disappeared into a bog. The Pennines are the ‘mountain’ chain that runs up the spine of England – starting level with Manchester and up to the Scottish border. The walk is usually done south to north (supposedly with back to the prevailing winds). It’s very very wet and about as wild as it gets in England – far far from the madding crowd – and I love it! The lonelier, the wilder, the boggier, the foggier, the more I like it. Of course the wet and cold and even falling into the bog is fun, only because I can look forward to a hot shower, a pint and a meal at the local pub, and a comfy bed at day’s end – no wild camping for me.

Most people are puzzled by my love affair with bogs (and sheep) – less puzzled by the sheep than the bogs; but I love bogs because they are so intractable, so uncivilizable – but they are being badly eroded by so much human and animal traffic (walkers, fell-runners, bikers, sheep, a few wild goats, rabbits…). They are also fascinating because the black peaty pools are a haven for a myriad of plant and mini-animal life, and they are beautiful because these pools are a shiny black mirror for the changing colours and shapes of sky and cloud, of wind ripple, mist and fog. And then I love the layering of history in bogs – it’s like poetry – so much cultural and natural change is recorded in the bog as it is in poetry. The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, famously speaks about writing poetry as a kind of digging, and many of his bog poems are written in a state of wonder and awe:

The ground itself is kind, black butter                                                                           Melting and opening underfoot,                                                                                     Missing its last definition                                                                                               By millions of years.                                                                                                       …                                                                                                                                 Our pioneers keep striking                                                                                             Inwards and downwards,                                                                                             Every layer they strip                                                                                                     Seems camped on before.                                                                                           The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.                                                                     The wet centre is bottomless.                                                                                       (from ‘Bogland’)

beautiful bog (Photograph: Anne Collett)

It is this sense of bottomlessness, a kind of infinite depth – cultural, historical, geological – that has me entranced. If you read some Heaney you’ll see what I mean; or P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (1965), the book upon which Heaney based many of his bog poems. The black and white photographs and the text that describes the discovered ‘bog people’ are strangely peaceful and disturbing – a kind of ‘terrible beauty’ (W.B. Yeats) is revealed:

An early spring day – 8 May, 1950. Evening was gathering over Tollund Fen in Bjaeldskov Dal. Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression – the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.

The dead man who lay there was two thousand years old. (19)

But Glob is forced to reassess his interpretation of gentle rest, peace and silent prayer when a lump of peat is removed from beside the man’s head:

This disclosed a rope, made of two leather thongs twisted together, which encircled the neck in a noose drawn tight into the throat and coiled like a snake over the shoulder and down across the back. After this discovery the wrinkled forehead and set mouth seemed to take on a look of affliction. (20)*

Glob writes with wonderful honesty, making apparent the human tendency to make much of little, to fill in gaps of knowledge with imagination. His record of feeling projected upon the bog man, points to the dangers of poeticising and the importance of attempting to remain anchored to a material reality that is often treacherous ground. My recent ‘bog hopping’ across the Pennines cautioned me against too ready an assumption of surety and the need to constantly rethink, reassess, retune my relationship with a world of bog in which I was an interloper, a stranger in a strange world. What I believed to be firm ground often gave way beneath my weight. All systems of negotiation proved fallible, my bog-hopping confidence deflated by a misjudged step. The bog claimed its woman but I survived to tell the tale, a wetter and wiser woman. Now I truly understand the phrase ‘that sinking feeling’! (And my next walk? Long service leave beckons: 14 days along Offa’s Dike in Wales – I hope there’s lots of bog.)

*This is the description upon which Heaney based his poem, ‘The Tollund Man’.

References:

P.V. Glob [1965]. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.

Seamus Heaney. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

W.B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’ in Selected Poems. London: Pan Books, 1990.

MECO CAMP 2016: Collaborations on Collaboration

Kim Williams | July 2016

Eva Hampel

Photo by Eva Hampel

This time we weren’t going to get caught out, no! Most of us came prepared with Arctic-style clothing and bedding to insulate against the dry, biting cold typical of mid-winter at Riversdale. Of course it was warm and wet this year. A balmy 23 degrees, then a full night and day of rain, transforming our spectacular view along the Shoalhaven River into an atmospheric arrangement of muted greens, greys and silver, with rising mists over mirrored water.

Photo by Louise Boscacci

At Riversdale (The Boyd Education Centre), 20 July 2016. Photo by Louise Boscacci

The view is compelling – your eyes are drawn along the broad, straight avenue of water flanked by forested hills on one side and rolling farmland on the other. It is one of the reasons that the MECO camp has become a highlight of the academic year. It is a camp to quieten down and slow down, allowing us to rest, reconnect and regenerate. Now that the MECO camp has a rhythm, this being the third gathering, there are stronger connections and collaborations forming within this research group. This year’s camp was a hive of quiet and not-so-quiet activity: reading, writing, making, thinking, sharing, planning, walking, talking and of course eating. MECO members continued and built upon existing collaborations, formed new connections and planned future projects. Some of these projects are:

  • Jo Law and Agnieszka Golda: Workshopping their contribution to Bundanon’s Siteworks
  • Su Ballard, Joshua Lobb, Cath McKinnon: Developing a project on “learning to write” a critical reflection on non-fiction practices.
  • Brogan Bunt, Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, with guest contributor Eva Hampel: Walking Upstream: Waterways of the Illawarra
  • Louise Boscacci, Su Ballard, Eva Hampel in collaboration with Bridie Lonie (Otago University, via Skype) worked on content for a forthcoming panel, Affect, Capital, and Aesthetics: Critical Climate Change and Art History, to be convened at the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ) Conference, The Work of Art, ANU, December 2016.
Collaborative work project by Kim Williams, photo by Louise Boscacci

Collaborative work project led by Kim Williams; photo by Louise Boscacci

Emerging from this year’s camp is a whole-of-MECO project: we are planning to produce a book/object using the term ‘Atmosphere’ to frame the collaborative work. The idea came from a fruitful roundtable discussion, a product of the cumulative experience of three winter camps over the past three years since the inaugural CAST (Contemporary Arts and Social Transformation) in 2014.

A big thanks to those whose hard work and careful planning makes this camp happen. Special thanks this year to Jo Stirling, whose menu planning, co-ordination and mammoth shopping trip provided us with fresh, healthy food for thought.

MECO360: Guangzhou Delta Haiku

Lucas Ihlein | 9 May 2016

I’m writing this contribution to the MECO360 shortly after returning from the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou. I’ve been working on a cultural exchange project sponsored by 4A Centre for Contemporary Art (Sydney) and Observation Society (Guangzhou).

Sydney and Guangzhou are sister cities. Did you know that? Well, 2016 is the 30th anniversary of this siblinghood, and to celebrate I was invited to go and and embody the relationship by hanging out with Guangzhou/Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung.

We spent several days together. For me, there was a process of geographical adjustment, as the view from my window radically shifted – from this (where I live in Bulli, north of Wollongong):

Tall gum trees on old
Asbestos dump near the sea
Hide the horizon

view from bulli window

…to this (in the Guangzhou district of Haizhu):

Vertical City:
Forty-sixth floor horizon,
Bright blue roofs below.

guangzhou view from hotel room

After I posted this photo of Guangzhou on my blog, I noticed a dark line surrounded by trees curving through the city. A creek!

In the following days, Trevor and I – together with our trusty local guide Hanting – went on some meandering walks around Guangzhou’s waterways. We walked as a way of getting to know Guangzhou, and each other. Sometimes when we tried to follow the creek we were blocked by busy roads or construction.

Street water flows;
Overflow pipe drains;
River meets rubble.

small river linking pearl river

Blockages like this forced us to make detours into the small back streets adjacent to the creek, where we discovered odd couplings.

Stone elephant’s leg
Tethered to folding bike —
Bike tethered to elephant.

elephant bike tether

The waterways are habitat and transport and sustenance and midden to humans and animals and plants.

Tadpoles in dead boat.
Mosquitoes bite her ankles.
Sofa in the drink.

guangzhou waterways

Wherever you are in Guangzhou – which comprises a network of cities that have all grown so large they have joined up into one of the world’s biggest “mega-cities” – you’re never far from water.

In Guangzhou I began to be aware of the complex water flows that comprise the Pearl River Delta upon which this place is built. I didn’t realise it until much later, but as we wandered around, my eyes and my camera were seeking out delta-like patterns everywhere.

Seen from space: Branching
and dividing. Seen from earth:
Branching and dividing.

pearl river delta satellite
tree roots

By definition, the land within a delta is very low lying – whatever is above the waterline is formed by the deposition of silt as the river makes its way to the sea. So this makes the Pearl River Delta region – and the 25 million people that live there – especially vulnerable to the sea level rising from climate change.

Well, I looked it up, and this is what I found. Of all the cities in the entire world, Guangzhou is listed at number one. Guangzhou is THE single city most likely to suffer damage due to sea level rises:

In terms of the overall cost of damage, the cities at the greatest risk are: 1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka. The top four cities alone account for 43% of the forecast total global losses.

So it looks like future of Guangzhou is going to be increasingly watery. How will it evolve? What kinds of decisions will the city make to survive over the next couple of hundred years? What does survival even mean?

Habitat, transport,
Sustenance, trash disposal:
Everyday life.

What do people who live here think about all this?

I’ll be continuing to explore this phenomenon as I work towards a joint exhibition with Trevor Yeung at Observation Society in June 2016, and later at Gallery 4A in July.