Sunday, 18 June 2017

Imagining Woodlands

Ash trees, Thoroughsale Woods, Corby
Imagining Woodlands is the new project I am working on in collaboration with Dr Suzi Richer at the University of York. We aim to explore perceptions of woodlands and forests through a series of events and conversations: bringing together science, archaeology, art and literature, through a collaboration between academics, artists and people in their local woodlands.

The following are my own notes, written when we began devising this project.

“Culture is ordinary”1– it is a lived experience, and an inherited one. Socialist writers such as Raymond Williams and Antonio Gramsci2 defined ways in which we learn through being surrounded by cultural hegemonic messages, which determine the way we think about things. By unpicking these influences, Williams and Gramsci wanted to break down the inherent power systems within them.

How does this relate to woodlands? Through Richer’s research3 she has identified that the way people think about woodlands and about nature is seen as ‘other’ to their own lives. Where does this attitude come from? As a palaeoecologist, Richer understands that humans and woodlands have long been interconnected; humans worked with woods as part of their everyday culture. So how has the more recent notion of separating woodlands and nature from ourselves come about?

It is important to think about this because, as Schiffman writes, “We need a story that properly situates humans in the world — neither above it by virtue of our superior intellect, nor dwarfed by the universe into cosmic insignificance. We are equal partners with all that exists, co-creators with trees and galaxies and the microorganisms in our own gut, in a materially and spiritually evolving universe.”4 If we think of nature as separate from ourselves, it affects the way we act in terms of issues like climate change. We act as masters or custodians to the woods, rather than as connected to them.

Williams uses the term “cultural materialism”5 to discuss ideas about how our beliefs about the world are formed: that is, through the absorption of material and mediated ideas through visual culture, literary culture, the naming of things, the terms we use in the news and media; these all affect, often in subconscious ways, the way we think about things and concepts around us.

I have long been fascinated by the naming of things. When we name something, it both reflects what we think of that thing, and influences what others think of that thing. Naming conceptualises how we perceive the things around us. Names also make things real. Once something is named, you see it properly. As Robert Macfarlane writes in his book about names, Landmarks6 “This is a book about the power of language…to shape our sense of place… 'The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,’ wrote J. A. Baker in The Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language”

Richer’s research also discovered that the naming of trees in the woods has changed over time. Fascinatingly, in the medieval woodland, people did not name the species of trees; instead, they called them by names for their use. For example, the hazel and the birch were known as “poles” because their straight grains made them ideal for making staffs. Now that you know this, you will see hazel and birch differently from now on!

But these colloquial names have been lost to us over time. As our perception of woods and trees changed, affecting our use of language for them, thus our words for them further shaped our sense of them.

Dr Mark Jenner at the University of York has written about Culture and Communication7 and how, if the concept of cultural materialism is correct, then our culture is communicated through much wider fields than that of the arts and humanities: “More interesting is the way sociologists and anthropologists have used the term culture much more inclusively in order to make sense of sets of shared meanings, of communication practices and ways of life”8. Jenner advocates that people working within different disciplines including the arts, sciences, history etc. must work together to discover how cultural communication of ideas, such as the perceptions of our woodlands, come about. More importantly, how can this knowledge be utilised to engage people more meaningfully with issues such as climate change and other global issues, which can be extremely difficult for people to grasp or conceive of fully, and especially difficult to relate to their everyday lives?

Our project with the woodlands aims to address these two things: 1. What are the perceptions and daily relationships that people have now to their woodlands? and 2. How can artists and scientists work together to formulate cultural materialism which engages people more meaningfully about the complexity of woodlands?

You can sign up for email updates for the Imagining Woodlands project at this link, or follow on twitter @imagwoods

1 Raymond Williams, Culture is Ordinary (1958), in Resources of Hope, R. Gable (ed.) London and New York, Verso, 1989
2 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers, 1971

3 Richer, S and Gearey, B,  ‘From Rackam to REVEALS: thinking towards a palaeoecology of woodland dwelling’, Environmental Archaeology, 2017

4 Richard Schiffman, March 2, 2015, We Need to Relearn That We’re a Part of Nature, Not Separate From It:

5 Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Chatto and Windus, 1958

6 Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, Penguin Books, 2015

7 Dr Mark Jenner, Research Champion for Culture and Communication

8 Jenner, ibid