Tuesday, 16 September 2008

the playstreet dig - portman connections

I passed by the Play street dig at Bickenhall organised by the Neroche Scheme. They had decided to do a two week dig to see if there was any evidence of a settlement that aerial photographs from the 70s had revealed. The site had been turning up medieval potsherds and tiles from ploughing.

I was particularly curious, as Diane and Brian Hood had talked me through the story of Rachel Portman and her white horse ghosting the road way. 'In 1602 Rachel Portman (daughter of Sir Henry Portman) obtained the property and made it her residence. The name Playstreet is probably Saxon in origin, meaning quite literally the street where people played.'

'Rachel Portman (1554-1631) was buried in Bickenhall churchyard, which has since been demolished. It is said that her ghost riding a white horse roams the area from the old churchyard at Bickenhall, through Park Farm to Playstreet.' (Neroche Scheme website).

We arrived a little after the 'tour' of the dig had begun, so we joined in - as we arrived I sensed a tense atmosphere and realised we were in a group of very obsessive people; posturing, competition, distraction, a man with a child on his back talking so loudly into his mobile phone I couldn't hear the guide, men undermining the woman archaelogist - a really weird atmosphere, lots of agendas. There might have been some very interesting observations going on, but the tension negated anything useful happening. This bit of film demonstrates it accurately enough....

it was weird - i couldn't work out what was going on - the project seemed to have dragged the strongest agendas to the surface. I wanted to watch and listen closely to everyone, to watch the difficulty - but it was so tense that the 'tour' dispersed through the field, and I turned away to film a poignant piece of hazard tape in the corn stubble, and thought about the horse ghost.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

walk 4 : hemyock, up and down the valley

for a while, i've wanted to walk the 'bowl' around Hemyock. Sally (artist co-ordinator) and Megan (placement artist) set out from Hemyock with me on a circular route. i'd provisionally mapped a walk traveling through or passing by four commons: Clements, Black Down, Hillmoor and Owleycombe, partly to continue the thread from mine and Megan's last trip to Staple Common, and also to witness the variations in the sense of the land as the Commons appear out of the field systems.
as we set out from Hemyock, this old milkstand, travelling further and further towards invisibility.

m & s free range eggs

up in the forest, yellow staghorn fungus matching megan's pen,

out onto Blackdown Common which you can see from the M5, a high flat moor with bracken, roaming ponies and these beautiful wide green lanes - does something mow them? i wanted to lie down and sleep within the sound of the galloping horses hooves - that peat moor resonance would be something to hear travel past.

so much of the time, nature seemed to appear as something framed, composed - the orange staghorn in the spikey moss as a miniaturised surreal forest, the vivid grass in the black peat water as a zen garden. all kind of overwhelming in their sense of completeness - 'gardens in a tea-tray' Megan said.
and, all down to our perception too - how our minds and senses frame this landscape, how my viewfinder makes a square.

here, some kind of penis, or tentacle or delicate new fungus in the 'tea tray'. apologies for out-of-focus, it's magnified hugely, as i only noticed it while looking at the photo zoomed up. but there it was, right at the centre of the frame, discreet yet all powerful.

"I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.... Every glistening egg is a memento mori." Annie Dillard - "Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek"

descending over Culmstock Beacon, we tracked along the plimsoll line, springs emerging all along the side of the hill - so much water - and settle on a hillside with a strong atmosphere. we can't quite make out why it's so perfect a place to stop; the perspective, the quality of grass, the degree of slope, the sudden change from where we had come from - who can tell.

i photographed the back of our heads.

on down past Pitt farm, i was running 'common' around my head, thinking about what we have 'in common', common (shared?) language and land, and the notion of commonality.

a passing conversation with a farmer running his own archaeological dig on some of his land: it had potential to be an interesting conversation, but especially as three women, we tended to suffer his 'common' male banter: he referred to our overheard conversation at a distance as "the sound of mad cows" and
his parting shot was "like moses said, keep taking the tablets". it's the kind of exchange that makes me want to headbutt a gatepost, and never do anything with rural england ever again.
still, the historical knowledge he had built up of his farm was extraordinary, and it's all in his head right now. he should write it all over the wall of one room in his house. that way it would be out in the world. people could come and read his house.

down to Culmstock, through amazing farmyards. some more exchange as we crossed a new bridge over the River Culm - two men just finishing the build, and unable to accept our genuine remarks on their work, bantered us off with directions to the nearest pub.

Sally leaves us and we cut along the road, and then up the drove.
on the corner, i hear 'Sweet Caroline' coming from behind a hedge. it sounds beautiful in the now soft afternoon warmth of the day. as i come to the garden gate, i realise that radio 2 is being played to a garage full of Indian Runner ducks.

three white geese appear from the front door.

and a beautiful and highly affecting conversation begins with a woman who tells us some of her life story in just a few minutes: about how keeping animals has healed her bad times, how they've helped her in her life. we talk about 'how good a goose is at being a goose'. she tells us about her sheep further up the road, how she sits in the field and listens to them eating; just the sound of them grazing calms her nerves, makes life ok.

as Megan and I move away, we are both unbelievably filled up with her story, a kind of
swoon. it is the most dynamic yet stillest moment of the walk, our whole trajectory has gone towards - and away from - this point, here at this corner, with 'sweet caroline', a woman, three geese and the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Owleycombe Common: that same atmospheric as the other commons, that quality of grass again, unturned earth - is that it? - spaced trees, full of rowan and their red berries that the blackbirds love.
a view back to where we had come from - Culmstock Beacon.

i'm up here still dreaming of that temporary community back in the valley, about what we held in common there.
then a long descent through horse fields, black cattle and white sheep grazing and a hazy beginning of rain, and back to Hemyock
, and a different kind of horizon.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

field & gate

a wasted morning going to the launch of an arts/museum fund called new expressions in Taunton. i found the event depressing on two accounts: the suggestion that the artists and museums 'speed dated' each other, and dried coffee in those thin packets with plastic cartons of milk (supremely bad signs). i wished i hadn't gone, and spent the time driving into Neroche trying to shake off the bad atmosphere that corporate wedding reception furniture generates. this soft horizon and september light helped.

on my way to the RSPCA Animal Centre in West Hatch, to see if i could meet up with any of the staff, introduce myself and the project, and arrange a couple of interviews. sometimes i phone ahead, but usually i prefer to call by - it's somehow easier to engage and to know if the person's up for the meeting. also, they get a sense of who i am and whether they want to be part of a conversation, or not.

i have really enjoyed these encounters on this project - often i'm daunted by approaching people but this time, it's been fine - perhaps a sense of 'nothing to lose' alongside a quiet confidence that my approach to this particular landscape in relation to things on the move, appeals to people (so many people love the swifts for example). i usually have mixed feelings about introducing myself as an artist, but again, i've done this every time. perhaps that comes from a clear kind of conviction that i feel right now, that it's the clearest way to frame what i do, and i like it as a way of living.

It's hard as an artist i find, to justify asking for an exchange with people who are clearly doing such practical, demanding and immediately necessary jobs, when compared to the more obscure and illusive role that the arts play in the world. but even so, i was interested to see how i could gather some material around the Animal Centre's role in taking in pets and domesticated animals, and re-homing them, and the Wildlife Centre's role in helping rehabilating wild animals that have been injured, for example they deal with cleaning oiled sea birds.

Anita showed me around the cats and the rabbits. there was a volunteer there, just doing cuddling i think, trying to befriend a frightened cat. well that's a thing, that's a good thing to do i thought.