Finding a poem to fit a place. Harriet Fraser reflects on the process behind the composition of a poem that will be sited on Bolton Fell Moss, as part of the Moss of Many Layers Project.
A bog is an other place. A place where time happens at a different pace. Writing too.
As the poet on the team with Moss of Many Layers I’ve been feeling my way in to the place and its story, listening to the scientists who relate tales of peat creation, carbon sequestration, mosses and more. I’ve been listening to and getting a feel for the place, the wind sweeping through grasses, the birds who change their tunes depending on the time of year, the silence of a surfaced bog oak, the buzz of dragonflies, the squelch of peat when I push a finger or a rod through it, and the sense of space and expansion out here. I’ve chatted with men who work on diggers moving tonnes of peat around to fashion bunds and ditches, doing what they can to help the water on this drained peatland find a level that’s perfect for moss. I’ve learnt from the Natural England reserve managers, from ecologists, and I’ve heard from people who once worked here, or knew someone who did, cutting into peat, or moving the tracks that supported carriages that carried peat out of its soft deep home and onto hard standing before being sent off for the horticultural industry. This moss is a place of layered lives.
The words for poetry have behaved a bit like ancient peat, staying quiet, taking time. They work their way to the front of my mind slowly, mostly while I sit with the vast bog and the edgeless sky around me, and let my mental tempo shift.
Away from the bog, I’ve listened back to recordings of conversations and the sounds of the bog to remind me of the things I’ve heard. Parts per million. A thousand years in a metre of peat. Lapwings playing. Children wondering about carbon. Laughter about machines sinking. The colours of sphagnum. The call of a golden plover.
Early on in the ideas-phase of this project, I had the intention of composing a poem that could be placed, physically, in sections around the bog, visible from the boardwalk (which runs for roughly 3000m). I enjoy the challenge of installing words on hard materials – it’s not just finding the right words for the location but there’s the necessity of paring things down to fit available space. Returning several times to re-think and re-work the words has been essential. Using a large canvas to play with some phrases was also a key part of the process: a way to spend a lot of time sitting with place and words, with wind, sky and birds, and get a sense for what feels right.
in this moss of many layers
time settles darkly
a measure of healing
The words for the physical poem have now settled with me: they will be laser-cut into galvanised steel so the letters are voids, with a steel surround. The material I’ve chosen picks up on the industrial heritage of Bolton Fell Moss – remnants of steel are still scattered here, rusted to the colour of young peat. It won’t be long before the poem signs take on this colour. The letters will pick up the colour and texture of sky, moss, cotton grass, or maybe mist.
There will be seven signs, each with a short phrase. Each phrase, I hope, invites a pause, and also connects with the next, whether you walk clockwise or widdershins. Together the set of seven forms a poem that can be read in either direction.
In thinking about the physicality of the work, I’ve had lots of conversations with others in the team, particularly with Rob who often helps me work through logistical issues, and with Emma Austin, who’s Senior Reserve Manager, and Jack Brennand, whose PhD study dives into peat restoration; he has explained the way ‘surface-level rods’ are used to measure long-term peat growth. All this has influenced the decision to use supports for the signs that run down to the mineral layer beneath the peat, so that they can act as monitors of change. As peat forms at a rate of one millimeter a year, it’s true that we personally won’t live to see much difference in the peat layer, but where sphagnum grows the upper layer (or acratelm) can accumulate at around ten centimeters a year. The poem signs will join other measurement tools across the bog. This crossover between poetry, place and science, head and heart, makes me grin. Is it just me? It feels so very satisfying.
The phrases contained in the short poem will appear in a longer poem (that I’m writing on paper instead of steel), as part of a series. My aim is to bring in a number of perspectives: time, peat, the work of extraction, and restoration, birds, animals, questions, concerns, change, hope.
The poem signs will be installed on Bolton Fell Moss ready for the site’s opening to the public next year.
how does it feel
sky and earth