a young child looking at a fern through a magnifying lens

hand in hand

Working with young people: Reflections from Anne Waggot Knott


Let’s burrow and borrow,

hand in hand, for tomorrow.


a child's hands squidging a lump of wet peat_creditAWK

The crux of the Moss of Many Layers project has always been about facilitating a deeper connection between the community and Bolton Fell Moss, more than just visiting the bog and creating work inspired by our visits. Reflecting on our engagement with young people, I think we’ve achieved a rich and profound process of exchange and reciprocity, of sharing and balance, between the students and the bog itself. Not just sharing information and ideas, but a tangible, physical, corporeal exchange.

The students have contributed their time, their minds, their hands and their handiwork. They committed a level of bravery; physical and mental exposure to this unpredictable, new environment and its elements. They’ve been listening and looking and trusting and digging and pushing and probing deep into the peat itself, getting dirt behind their nails, and (literally, in some cases!) immersing themselves the bog. They planted restorative species, putting something back into the landscape, a physical symbol of their involvement.

In return, Bolton Fell Moss has given back to them. As new ambassadors and stewards for this valuable place, they have watched it change through the seasons and they carry with them fresh knowledge and understanding from the land. The bog also gave up pieces of flora and fauna to take away and use in their artwork.

a young child looking at a fern through a magnifying lens

Building relationships

Foraging forces a slow, vigilant journey in the landscape. Through the careful acts of identifying, collecting, handling, protecting and transporting their finds, students developed a sense of ownership and responsibility for these tiny fragments. Their pride was evident in producing their foraged items back in the art room, examining them repeatedly and becoming familiar with the detail. This physical contact with the plantlife over a period of time, this guardianship and forensic examination, cements and reinforces a relationship, like hugging or holding hands.

Prior to industrial peat extraction, bogs were similarly part of the community as domestic sources of foraged foodstuffs. People picked berries, fungi and medicinal plants, and enjoyed a familiarity with their peat landscapes. It’s satisfying to have catalysed an intimate, tactile relationship between the bog and people once again. I like to think of the students’ work as a collective portrait of the bog, personifying and celebrating it as we would a prominent member of the family. We’ve welcomed it as part of the community again.

Letting things happen

I had very fluid expectations of these creative sessions. Although structured, I’ve assumed a broad acceptance of whatever the students and the bog bring to the table on the day. The act of making has proved fruitful as a vehicle for continued, pressure-free conversation and discussion. As we drew and stuck and printed, we’ve created so many opportunities for holistic conversations, anchored in the bog but relevant to the climate emergency and the way we use our natural resources. The students have enjoyed an opportunity to manifest their findings in a personal way, playing to their own strengths, reaching their own conclusions, and processing their experience with no judgement or assessment.

Art, science and community

I think we’ve also helped to embed the idea, early and subconsciously, that science and art don’t sit separately. And that this is a generation of connected, multidisciplinary young people who are broad, creative, confident, analytical thinkers, capable of bringing great breadth and depth to future environmental research and policymaking.

Artists and scientists work in similar ways: we research, experiment, create outcomes, disseminate and evaluate. From my perspective, Moss of Many Layers exemplifies the successful intertwining of approaches and processes, with funded time and space for experimentation. It has created a basis for triangulating art, science and community around our protected landscapes. It’s encouraging to see many more research and engagement projects take this approach as a matter of course, recognising the value of embedding artists and scientists in relationship with our natural world, hand-in-hand.

a child's hands holding the root ball of a plant
a child's bright collagraph print of a butterfly

Find out more: the NERC-funded Moss of Many Layers project.

'Time Settles Darkly' Canvas installed on Bolton Fell Moss, with artist Harriet Fraser

A poem, Settling

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.

A large canvas set on the flat ground of a peat bog. The words on the canvas read 'AN OTHER PLACE'

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.

Cutting out phrases, moving things around, working things out over breakfast

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.

I’ll be sharing some of the poems during the Poetry Walk on September 10th, and the full set of poems will be revealed at the ‘Wide Open Day’ on September 19th.

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
shifting

A notebook is held open on a table, showing pencil-writing; these are notes made by poet Harriet Fraser
Some of the notes I’ve made while spending time with the bog
Animage of a pepper moth which is black and white, shown against a branch

Many layers

A blog from Anne Waggot Knott, reflecting on the Moss of Many Layers project


a school minibus in the distance, driven by sideways rain

heralds the widening of eyes

and the blooming of minds

in the wilderness

 


Animage of a pepper moth which is black and white, shown against a branch

As we reflect on the second of three creative activity sessions with young participants on Bolton Fell Moss, I realise we have now really begun to unpack the many layers in the title of the project.

This visit was all about exploring what lives and depends on the moss: plants, insects, spiders, moths and birdlife.

We unloaded moth traps, uncovering beautiful, fragile beasties camouflaged against lichen and logs. We foraged for slugs and beetles and squirmed as a mass of spider babies spilled from their mother’s egg sac. We wafted our sweep nets after butterflies and captured all of the breathless wilderness wonder we could find.

A line of children on a mossy piece of ground watching a man reach into a moth trap to see what they have found
Looking in the moth trap

Our final exercise was to guard ‘curlew eggs’ (actually hardboiled chicken eggs), encouraging the students to understand the vulnerability of ground-nesting birds. I had to leave them at this point but the pupils each took an egg and spread out intrepidly to find their own nesting sites out on the reserve.

I turned to face the rain and my trudge to the car park. As I looked back across the vast expanse of heather, I could see little eight-year-old heads hunkered momentarily alone in the moss; sitting grounded like curlews on a nest, looking quietly around themselves with a new wonder and awareness, fully entrenched in their environment. They were totally absorbed, individually forming new ways of understanding the world.

A child making a picture of a moth by sticking fabric and buttons to an outline of a moth
Collograph plate

Reinforcing and embedding this experience through creative activity is a challenge, a layer of learning for me and for the other delivery partners too. This time we made collagraph printing plates inspired by the beasties we found, using recycled and repurposed collage materials, embedding another level of environmentally sensitive practice into the project.

An image showing the process of making a collograph print, creating a moth with drawing, ink roller, ink pad and print shown on a table

One of the most rewarding things about truly multi-disciplinary science-arts engagement is that we can find ways of reaching every individual participant. As an accompanying teacher pointed out last time, literally everyone enjoyed it. A neurodivergent student was completely mesmerised by the insects and moths. This generated a new admiration from their classmates and helped them focus on the follow up creative session too as they were already hooked. Abstract printmaking is satisfyingly inclusive – it doesn’t matter if you ‘can’t draw’ – it’s just mark-making at the end of the day – and the vibrant effects look enticingly cool. 

Also enticingly cool are these climate change faces produced during our reflective debrief. We hadn’t talked much about the bigger picture of carbon capture and storage during this session, focusing instead on flora and fauna on quite an intimate scale. But these expressive, striking images paint a thousand words and give me confidence that pupils have made the connection with the broader environmental catastrophe. I hope that by delivering sessions like this, we will help them develop a broad range of tools and knowledge to really make a difference. 

Climate change faces drawn by children on yellow and pink post-it notes
Art piece: Determined Pasts (iii) by Anne Wagott Knott

Determined Pasts

blog by Anne WagGot Knott

Determined Pasts (iv) by Anne Waggot Knott

Pitted metal, sinking, taking its stories down. Broken remnants of an excavation that shattered our bonds with this earth.

And now we pit ourselves against the tide of time, to build a fire once more. Our fingers and minds picking and unpicking, scratching and collecting.


In order to get on with designing forward-looking schools activities I felt a strong need to first make some work about the industrial past of Bolton Fell Moss. This is enabling me to consider and process the history of the site, freeing myself to move on in my creative mind.

Art piece: Determined Pasts (iii) by Anne Wagott Knott

Often we only understand a place in the context of what we can see there now, but the now is built on layers and layers of history. To understand a place more fully, we need to go back in time. This is particularly true of a peat bog.

I anchored Determined pasts around rusted metal fragments scavenged from the peat bog, left behind when the peat excavation came to an end. I think I have coined a new term: peatcombing.  A Google search for the word reports that “it looks like there aren’t many great matches for your search”, which is a rare and rather lovely thing to read.

I embellished these industrial remnants of peat excavation with waxed linen, a natural, malleable material. The colours of the thread are inspired by field visits to the bog, evident in the flora and fauna and the huge sky it shares with all of us.

Determined Pasts (i) artpiece by Anne Waggot Knott

By weaving the colours of a bright future around the redundant machinery parts I am wrapping up the destructive, invasive history, swathing and choking it with our newfound determination, our will to change things for the better. I am packing it away into the past and changing its context, but preserving its memory for a new and thoughtful audience.

Borrowing from ancient craft techniques, like weaving and basketwork, lends these pieces the aesthetic of archaeological relics or talismen. They toy with our recognition of time, seeming older than their rusty components, like trinkets from a pre-mechanised age. They blur the boundary between artworks and artefacts, between gallery pieces and museum exhibits.

And so I look back into the past and forward to the future. Understanding the long, deep passage of time, well beyond our own generation, is crucial in our quest to protect and nurture our peatbog environments.

Anne is one of the PLACE collective artists working on Moss of Many Layers. As part of her work, she is running creative activities with young people from nearby schools, helping them enjoy and engage with Bolton Fell Moss, a peat bog in north east Cumbria. The bog has been intensively excavated and depleted, the peat extracted for compost over a number of years, resulting in severe degradation. It is now a National Nature Reserve, and is being slowly restored.

Determined Pasts (ii) by Anne Wagott Knott

Artist in Residence opportunity

Open Call: practice-led research with ‘deep time’

We’re so excited to announce 3 opportunities to carry out practice-led research from May-November 2022, connecting with the wider Deep Time programme, and focusing on the west coast of Cumbria.

The PLACE Collective will be working with the Deep Time programme, Copeland Borough Council and the University of Cumbria, to support three artists in residence and to connect them with researchers at the Centre for National Parks and Protected areas for their period of residency.

Residency: May – November 2022

Deadline for application: May 8th, 2022

Artist award: £5000

For details about the residency, including dates for research and engagement and potential for involvement in the wider Deep Time project, and notes on how to apply, please download the PDF.


More about Deep Time

Deep Time: Commissions for the Lake District Coast is a major new public art programme for Copeland in West Cumbria. Launching in September 2022, the project will see 6 new artists commissions installed along 60km of the Irish Sea, proposals by international artists for a major new landmark artwork, and a series of new writing commissions. Deep Time also includes a curated programme of film, talks, performances and site-specific artworks to be launched during the opening weekend in mid-September.

The practice-led research residencies will provide an opportunity for three artists / creative and cultural practitioners to carry out a period of research by embedding themselves in the West Cumbrian landscape. Copeland is home to four of the thirteen valleys of the UNESCO Lake District World Heritage site, Wast Water (England’s deepest lake), and Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain). The borough also takes in the iconic Sellafield nuclear site, the Georgian town of Whitehaven and historic landmarks including Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, and remains of Roman occupation.

The selected artists / creative and cultural practitioners will be partnered with an academic/researcher from the CNPPA (Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas) to frame their research within one of the CNPPA’s four research strands: (1) cultural landscapes, (2) wildlife conservation and ecology, (3) rural and visitor economy and (4) human-nature relationships. The academic will be selected in consultation between the resident artist, and University staff.

Our aim is to explore Copeland and expand upon the core themes of the arts programme, including its rich history of geology and mineral extraction, the ‘deep time’ evoked by the presence of the nuclear industry, and the cultural heritage of rural dwelling and patterns of land use over the centuries.

For more information : DOWNLOAD THE APPLICATION HERE


Deep Time residency partners and funders

images of the logos of partners and funders for the deep time project: Copeland Borough Council, Arts Council England, Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, PLACE Collective and University of Cumbria

An adder (snake) pictured among heather, with its head raised.

Shifting grounds – mapping Bolton Fell moss

Guest Blog from Helen Cann

As part of the NERC-funded ‘Moss of Many Layers’ project, Helen has been commissioned to create an artist map of Bolton Fell Moss – a 400-hectare site that has experienced large-scale peat extraction and is now being restored. Helen’s map will show the bog’s industrial peat cutting heritage, ongoing restoration, and its future state as a National Nature Reserve, which will also be a massive carbon sink.

Helen has been busy researching from a distance, and has been talking to other members of the Moss of Many Layers team and was finally able to visit the bog to find out for herself just how it looks and feels. The  blog is Helen’s description of her day there last week when she visited with Rob Fraser (photographer).


“We walk over the old milling grounds to the Reserve Field, the four of us – the current warden, the volunteer (an ex-warden), the artist and mapmaker. Most of us know the lines of this land. I do not.

I have mapped it in my head, of course, researching online, digitally flicking through the yellowing pages of ancient books written in Cumbrian dialect and old land documents. I have an idea of Bolton Fell Moss but, like those papers viewed through a screen, that idea misses any kind of real life energy.

Now I’m here.

An image showing dried grasses and exposed, dark peat, extending into the distance: a raised bog.

It’s different to how I’d imagined. Wide skies. Less bleak. Parts are still scarred a burnt black, as if scorched. The evidence of peat milling shows as giant scrapes across the land but in places, those lines are softening with moss and rush, or silvered with water reflecting the early spring clouds. The landscape has shifted to something else over the past few years as it’s started to recover.

We stand on the Reserve – the small part of the Moss that was untouched by industry. To demonstrate the surface instability, the warden and the volunteer jump up and down. As they land, I watch ripples spread out across the mounds of moss like a small earthquake. This whole world feels like a strange but perfect animal – part plant, earth and water and forever moving. The sphagnum moss on the surface holds water like a sponge, keeping the peat underneath it wet; exactly how it needs to be for the bog to act as a carbon sink and for its delicate ecology to survive.

We walk further. It’s clear we’re not alone and share this space with many others. We hear the bubbling call of the curlews before we see them. Blunt tailed, they fly as a pair, their scythe-like beaks almost half the size of their bodies. They’re an unlikely-looking bird for sure.

A hare sits against the black earth in the distance. She turns her pale eyes towards us – and then she is gone.

Against the sphagnum and the silver heathers basks an adder, his back a graphic pattern of blacks and whites. The bog trembles as we step closer. The snake must be able to feel us but the sun is too seductive and he flattens his body some more against the highest hillock. We walk on. When I turn back, I’ve lost him, camouflaged against the grey of the ling. The warden finds the spot again, practised in reading the mounds of moss like a sailor can read the waves.

An image of an adder with diamond shaped black pattern along its back, resting on heather and pale mosses.

The volunteer and warden offer to take a core from the bog for us. A huge pipe, open on one side, perhaps a couple of centimetres in diameter and many metres in length, is slowly twisted into the ground like a corkscrew. The pipe is pushed down through, perhaps, 8 metres of peat until it hits the bottom. They pull it out with a cheer, as if unbottling champagne. Inside the core it’s clear to see the layers of peat changing in colour and texture as climate and interaction with the land has changed. This place has always been shifting.

Two men on a heather-covered piece of ground, holding parts of a very long straight pole, which is used to get a core sample of peat.

At the very bottom of the core sits grey glacial mud full of tiny stones. It comes from a shallow lake that must have been here during the Holocene. I scrape some of the clay out and ball it in my hands, pushing my thumbs in to make a simple pot. An age-old human interaction with the earth.

A woman and two men are looking at a peat sample taken from 9 metres beneath the surface of a raised mire.

The colour of the layers in the core rises to warm, wet browns of moss and plant debris that once fell into that lake, eventually to compact and create peat. I find an 8,000 year old birch twig, its bark still preserved, and the husk of a seed, the ghost of a life.

An image of a person standing and holding a peat corer, with some plant matter held between their fingers. the core shows peat as well as clay. the emblem on the person's jacket reads 'Natural England'.

Rob and I tread the boardwalk to a small central island of trees to take photographs. The boardwalk is being relaid and there’s a smell of fresh cut pine. It mixes with the yellowgreen scents of the Moss, cut with sharp ice off the Fells and the warmth of valley silage. The wind brings the calls of lapwing and greylag geese.

An image of a woman facing away from the camera, with trees either side.

We sit on a massive bog oak that reclines languidly now, although at one point, no doubt, it was pulled roughly from the peat as inconvenience to the digging machines. Its dry, silver bark reminds me of the patterns of moth wings.

I look out over the site. It’s a work in progress and will be for decades to come. Ideas are being trialled and constantly readjusted to calibrate to a shifting environment’s needs. The belief in the restoration of Bolton Fell Moss as a carbon sink and nature reserve is unwavering for the future though, however long it takes.

A woman sits on an old section of blackened bog oak, sketching in a book.

Now I’m here, I’m less certain of my first map drafts – I will need to change them as the restoration work and the bog itself have changed from my initial understanding. I have to accept that this is a place in flux and my map can only be a document of this landscape at one particular moment in time.

I’m happy, though, that I can take some stories from the Moss today, stories I might never have heard had I not visited. On the map I’ll include the larks and the lichen, the creaking frogs in the rushy pool, the voices of the warden, the volunteer and the artist. The science. The history. The hope. They all add to the multi-layered understanding of a place – to be used in a map that’s not simply a reductionist document of roads or territory.

The world’s climate is shifting now; and so must we. We have to find ways to capture carbon and prevent carbon release. Restoring bogland will help us do that, so in order to encourage this equally shifting landscape, this forever changing land of peat and water and moss, we must learn to shift with it too. And on a personal level, on coming to Bolton Fell Moss, I recognise that my own ideas have shifted and subtly, with them, so has my own world.

We walk back to the car. The yellow sunshine-faces of the coltsfoot flowers smile up at us.

Yellow flowers growing from peat.

To find out more about the Moss of Many Layers, visit this page.

To find out more about Helen, visit her profile page here.

Tracing Inspirations

To follow on from the last blog, and before this blog roll begins to feature reflections from other artist members, we wanted to reflect on some of the inspirations that have fed into the PLACE Collective. Life is a continuous learning journey and we all pick up so much – often without realising that it will filter into later decisions.

Continue reading “Tracing Inspirations”