Working with young people: Reflections from Anne Waggot Knott
Let’s burrow and borrow,
hand in hand, for tomorrow.
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.
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.
Find out more: the NERC-funded Moss of Many Layers project.