boundaries, butterflies & lines

A strange combination, but they have been on my mind. And not so strange if I explain that last week, the First Friday Walk with Walking the Land, was to a butterfly conservation area.

I set off with the intention of looking at the boundaries, how we separate one place from another. How we protect the area that is bounded, defend it, or, indeed as all wars prove, attack it. Any conservation area begins and ends somewhere, as does every garden, field, village, town, county or country. Planet. Let us not forget this planet. 

Or who ‘owns’ it.

Not us, or landowners, or governments.

No-one owns it.

We are part of it, it is part of us.

The very nature of the place, (forgive the pun), meant I was also distracted by the beautiful butterflies and wildflowers. I have a butterfly mind – just like the insects. I flutter about – looking for ideas, landing then taking off again on another flight path. 

It is so hard to write anything without considering the etymology of the words. But essentially they are spring-boards into new thinking, new worlds. I must not muddle up my metaphors (that is a deliberate statement – an action that demonstrates I have already done what I must not do.)

Stay with me, play with me, if you can.

This writing is a reflection of thinking practice. It needs some context. Walking the Land is a group of artists that connects art, landscape and community, with the landscape and walking providing the catalyst for their creative activities. I’ve been attending their monthly meetups online, this was my first in the flesh. Before meeting we congregated on zoom to discuss issues relating to landscape. I shared a quote from Tania Kovats ‘the river moves through us’. I took that thought with me to the butterfly enclosure. 

I also took drawing materials, which were hardly used – there was so much buzzing around in my head. I used my camera to net some of those thoughts. I have spent the last year walking, mostly on the flatlands around the Severn. The open fields and rolling Cotswolds were strange to me. Allowing my eye to trace the soft rounded hillsides sweeping into the valley, with a backdrop of woodlands, I was reminded of a series of photos I took when I first came to live in the Forest of Dean. I called them my squiffy landscapes, as they adjusted the framing to help me feel stable in this strange place. So I did the same again, I tried to level up what I saw. 

For the butterflies to take up residence the land is managed carefully. The meadows are beautiful, thick with diverse plant life. They are only grazed by small cattle – banded galloways – because they are agile enough to manage the steep slopes, and don’t poo as much as full size cows. Apparently too much poo encourages the limestone grassland to become suitably fertile for weeds to grow in. That would impact on the necessary species required to appeal to the butterflies. This is a complex ecology, a fine balance of maintenance.

On one side of the valley, the rolling meadow was animated by bees and butterflies. One the other side a steep bank of trees was seen, scarred by a massive band of ash trees, devastated by die-back. One hill is joyful, the other deeply sad to see. The view from ‘over there’ must be wonderful.

Other sides. Another thing that has occupied my thinking in recent years. 

I crossed a boundary, the Severn, to get to the meadow. I entered the conservation area through a gate. Either side of the gate was a drystone wall, recently built. Once inside, that length of boundary has two wire fences. In the liminal space between them, I saw remnants of the old stone wall. We followed the path along this line, then down towards the edge of the hill to take in the view.

As I wandered around taking photos I acknowledged my physical boundaries were being penetrated. The heavy scent of the ripe elderflowers rushed into my body and I inhaled deeply. However, I ejected a horsefly, caught in action on my wrist, flicking it off, glad to have not been gashed by it. But these devious creatures always win, as I found out later. Two big hot red bumps on my shoulder, where they slashed my skin (through my clothes!) and drew my blood. Odd to think our blood has mingled. I can’t help wondering whether the two jabs will make me immune to further horsefly bites. The insect repellent I had doused myself certainly didn’t defend me. 

This was evidence – the place had definitely gone through me, in a way.

As I wandered back to the car, having left early due to the copious number of biting things, I used my voice recorder to talk to myself. I love telling the story by voice, it helps me process what I have. I videoed and talked too, only pausing briefly when a man with a dog appeared. I try to keep my rambling thoughts private, if possible. 

On reflection, it was a very enjoyable experience. Lovely to see friends again, in the world. To discuss these thoughts with, to share reading resources, knowledge. We were very lucky to have Deb, a butterfly specialist, in the group, which is how I learnt about the grazing and maintenance of the landscape. I asked her if the owners of the adjoining farmland were asked to not use insecticides, but she said not.

I drove home thinking about Nick Hayes’ book about trespassing. About land ownership, land management. I thought about the precarious relationships between humans and non-humans. As I mentioned in my blackbird post – we humans have a colonial attitude to non-humans. But we are not better than them – we are, indeed, worse – because we have done more damage to the planet.

If the conservation area was publicly visible it would be destroyed in no time by humans marching around on it. I felt reluctant to stray from the narrow path, loathe to sit in the grass, in case I crushed a flower. Everything is fragile, especially us. We need to be more humble and accept responsibility. Not just for a field of butterflies, but for all fields, all forests and things that grow in cracks of concrete. 

There is always a gap of a few days before I assimilate things. 

Once home, I waded through memories, thoughts, photos and videos. They are the residue of my visit. I trapped my butterfly mind in a film that reflects on whether there are straight lines in nature. I have just started to read Tim Ingold’s book about lines – not finding it easy to get into. However, as the film shows, it has reactivated my interest in following lines with dual lenses, my eyes and my camera. Editing digital video is a linear thing, clearly not a thing of nature. As I worked up the imagery I found myself not so much investigating whether there are lines in nature, but more as to whether there is such a thing as nature? Or is it a construct? Every inch of our landscape is managed, whether by enclosure, farming, industry or conservation.

The nature we experience daily is a long way from being natural. The creatures and plants we experience have all been impacted by our presence on earth, sometimes positively, sometimes (most times) negatively. 

Look carefully at the film, some of it has been deliberately manipulated to create an illusion of straightness. 

Whether man made or natural, our landscape, and the things that live in it, are wonderful. The only way to keep it that way is if every human respects it and shares it. We put everything out of balance, we now need to rectify things, make good again.

p.s. I disagree that there are no straight lines in nature – you just need to look at cliffs and strata to see that.

Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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