Echo-Maker Part III – Archipelago

echo-makerArchipelago begins with sunset over West Sedgemoor. The evolutionary clock, held in stasis within the conservation environment of the museum, begins to rotate once more. The skulls of the disappeared recede into the depths of time…

 But then – a reawakening suggested by a kaleidoscope of eggs; the white-tailed eagle, pelican, osprey, bittern, great northern diver. And, of course, the Eurasian crane.

 The scene shifts to an archipelago; a network of islands both physical – suggested by archaeologist Richard Brunning’s The Lost Islands of Somerset – and in the mind. Each island is isolated, alone, the water a barrier. But atop them, crane’s nests, each of which (for me) also suggest one neuron within the landscape of the brain. And within that, a glowing synapse or latent creative impulse waiting to fire…

 Creative thoughts take wings, transcending boundaries, enabling new connections, forming clusters and communities based on shared identity.

 I have encountered such wonderful creative thinking – adaptability in action – within the communities here, but nowhere, to my mind, is it better exemplified than at Coate’s English Willow and the Willow and Wetlands Centre. “You can’t sit still for a minute – you’ve got to keep on evolving” says Jonathan Coate.

 This ethos of constant evolution has also been pivotal within the development of the inventive ‘puppet rearing technique’ used to raise the young cranes and, of course, may be observed in the behaviour of the Somerset cranes themselves as they ‘learn’ their landscape.

Creativity is key.

 

Creative thought – and sometimes the suppression of it – defines our humanity.

 

 Thank you, people of the Somerset Levels and Moors for helping me to better understand some universal truths….

 

 Thank you, Somerset Art Works, for giving us the means to enhance our creativity, to explore, to look within us and to look out…

  

And for giving me this experience – which I will never forget.

 

Archipelago was first presented as part of complete work at the Willow and Wetlands Centre on 10th December 2016.

You can see Archipelago here:

Echo-Maker Part II – Black Earth

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A ghost landscape entombed within museum drawers and boxes – but evoked by a walk around the reserves at Shapwick Heath, Greylake or Ham Wall. Hopefully, in decades to come these oases will be viewed as one time ‘islands’ that evolved into a restored, integrated landscape – rather than as vestigial museums of another kind…

The title Black Earth refers to the layer of crushed wood, churned peat, mud and other debris unearthed by archaeologists in the course of the excavation of Glastonbury and Meare lake villages. These remnants, an ‘occupation surface’ within two thousand year old swamp dwellings, are part of a somewhat resonant story in which for two centuries our ancestors battled with rising waters and sinking clay platforms – before eventually giving up the fight.

Uncovered in the late nineteenth century by the GP and antiquarian Arthur Bulleid, the excavations yielded a rich assemblage of avian bone fragments representing some species with which twentieth century inhabitants of the Levels would be familiar (ducks, swans, grey heron, cormorant, barn owl, geese), a number of which are now gone (Dalmatian pelican, white-tailed eagle, red throated and great northern divers) and some which were lost but have returned (crane, bittern). Those within the latter two categories particularly interested me in their capacity to evoke a lost wilderness – within us and in the landscape; something both physical and metaphysical. More prosaically, in an environmental sense, the (far more extensive) full list of species provides a powerful demonstration of the dramatic decline in wetland biodiversity over the last two millennia.

Black Earth holds a looking glass – and perhaps an ear trumpet – to this dream world, now represented solely by a collection of fragments housed in boxes within the holdings of South West Heritage Trust and by small protected and managed fragments within the landscape itself. The sound world, again created by Jim Brook, is assembled from field recordings made at Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall into which has been woven recordings of the now-absent species contributed by collectors to the wonderful xeno-canto archive.. It reaches through a veil into this ghost landscape – which may yet become a physical reality once more…

You can see the two thousand year old crane skull shown in the piece, along with pelican and white-tailed eagle bones at the Tribunal in Glastonbury. I’m so grateful to Steve Minnitt, author of The Lake Villages of Somerset who gave me access – to both them and the non-display material – so I could examine and photograph them.

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And also to Julian Carter of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, who very generously opened the door to skulls and taxidermied mounts held in the collection there. Some of the material from the species found at the lake village sites has dispersed in the course of various research projects – and so Julian, who is custodian of a cornucopia of beasts stuffed into the Vertebrate Conservation Laboratory at NMW was able to fill the gaps. Whilst here, I was distracted by an old chest of drawers containing hundreds of sepia glass slides – which ultimately provided the inspiration for the ‘slideshow’ still images within the piece. These had a very quality to the digital oeuvre – one which, along with that of magic lantern slides, have surfaces that are full of life, much like that of an etching.

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Whilst I find something quite compelling about stuffed animals, they are also profoundly still and sad, conveying an absolute absence of ‘anima’ – the life force that defines an animal.

In Black Earth, these un-animated beings are juxtaposed with a vibrant – yet constructed – sound world that presents what has been – and what might be again. It was first presented at All Saints Church, Langport on the 3rd December, 2016 in collaboration with the Churches Churches Trust – and with thanks to Janet Louth.

You can view it here:

Echo-Maker Part I – Lost Land

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This is the first part of the trilogy of films which collectively represent a distillation of my experience of the Levels, their cranes and communities. Each one might be thought of as a verse in a song, with The Crane Community as refrain or chorus. Together, and all at the same time, they span a day… a year… millennia… the ticking of Leopold’s ‘evolutionary’ clock.

Despite being founded on the energy of a sunrise on West Sedgemoor – the reserve which the cranes still regard as their winter roosting ‘home’ – Lost Land is mournful and dreamlike. It introduces the crane as the raucous Echo-Maker, heralding the sunrise from the depths of time before being banished to a distant place beyond memory.

The animation is often quite still, much influenced by observation of the cranes on the Hector’s fields, so much in their own (rather than our) world as I peered surreptitiously over the hedge. Although apparently oblivious to my presence they seemed tense, wary, ready to take to the air. Long legged, mostly standing still – always one preening and another pecking – they nevertheless had an intensity and strength of which both Damon and Amy had spoken earlier in the year. These, rather than being constructs of the human mind, were wild birds…

Sonically, there are a variety of components, some instrumental, some drawn from music found in the landscape. The metallic sound at the beginning (and throughout) is a field recording of the rotation of the Coate’s windmill which overlooks the willow paddy on Curry Moor and which I photographed on my first field trip in January. This seemed to perfectly evoke the revolutions of the evolutionary clock, whose machinations are visually suggested by the rotation of‘cogs’ formed from circular crane footprint trails.

green dot sunsetThe piercing, intense call of the crane emanates from the guitar of Jim Brook and the array of other stabbing notes from various blown instruments played by Tim Hill. The latter were created in response to field recordings I found on the Xeno Canto sound archive and represent the lost avifauna of the Somerset wetlands as suggested by the archaeological excavations at Glastonbury and Meare lake villages – more on which in Part II….

Lost Land was first presented at Thorney Lakes on 19th November 2016. Here, the England family have diversified from farming and now host festivals and a thriving campsite. They have also created a haven for wildlife within the beautiful system of lakes where the event took place.

You can view Lost Land here:

NB. Whilst you are watching or reading this on a flat two-dimensional screen, it was entirely engineered, both visually and sonically for our ‘magic lantern’ field rig as part of a ‘live’, site-specific, shared experience – the priority for this project. Consequently, it may appear and sound rather direct in places and seem repetitive. This takes into account the multi-faceted images created within the contraption itself, which are quite complex and demand another less passive way of seeing –  and a three dimensionality which the camera is unable to capture satisfactorily.

This, therefore, leads to the whole experience becoming an ephemeral moment in time within a landscape, creating a special bond – founded in collective memory – between those who were there and whom, by the very nature of the experience, became participants rather than viewers.

Sound recording at Stathe Bungalow Farm…

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I got to know the Hector family back in the spring in the course of my research phase. I was struck by their passion for the landscape and how they seemed to be so much a part of it. Their depth of understanding of its rhythms and echoes – evolved over long habitation – is perhaps indicative of the knowledge we all once had but have mostly lost…

I camped here quite a lot (great campsite, AMAZING beef to be purchased in boxes) in September whilst I was gathering footage of the landscape –and also over the course of a memorable (and often surreal) weekend in which Jim Brook, Tim Hill (North Curry musician and craniac) and I turned one of the barns into a somewhat agricultural yet undoubtedly state-of-the-art recording studio.

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Along with covert-yet-talented musician Damon Bridge (Great Crane Project manager) we also made a foray into the landscape, where Tim, in the course of creatively responding to a variety of bird calls via various blown instruments, found himself embroiled in a freeform jazz improvisation with a frog that had secreted itself in a nearby ditch –
and obviously found some amorous attraction in the resonant frequency of Tim’s ‘drone-pipe’!

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You can hear a lot of Tim’s sounds within Lost Land, the first part of the Echo-Maker trilogy. Roderick Hector’s wigeon whistle appears in part two Black Earth – and the wind sound of the returning cranes in the third part Archipelago is Damon opening and closing the bellows of his piano-accordion whilst watching the animated birds on my laptop screen. It seems so apt that the man who drove the reintroduction project should also provide the sound of wind rushing over the animated bird’s wings…

The Crane Community

 

crane-workshop-007If you think of Echo-Maker as a song, then The Crane Community is the chorus. It is, in so many ways, the most important component of the entire project. All at once, a nucleus, overture, coda and continuum; a clock, a flock a community choir whose making process encapsulated everything that is special and good about the relationship between cranes and community in the Somerset Levels.

The flying birds were entirely animated in schools and community workshops using paper cut-out artwork I devised especially for the purpose. The movement cycle of a wing beat is a complex motion, so much more nuanced than the straight ‘up and down’ which we might imagine it to be. It is technically challenging, time consuming and demands considerable focus – but I wanted to make it possible for anyone prepared to invest the requisite time and energy to make their own crane fly – in an hour.

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Via a week or so of quite technical drawing, I reduced one wing beat to twenty different shapes resting atop the foundation of an articulated body. The latter is really important in that it drives the wings. If the body doesn’t flex you end up with what looks like a plank of wood being propelled through the air…

From the drawings I made collagraph printing plates and printed them (another two weeks work) in the studio at Llangynog. Then a day or so cutting the shapes out – and then the first stop frame animation tests…

After about a week of trials, I’d ended up with two variants; a ten frame loop (which we used in the workshops) and a smoother but much more time consuming twenty frame cycle which I’ve used at the end of the film trilogy.

Here are some more great images taken by Julie Meikle of the animation process in Stoke St. Gregory Primary School…

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The words in the soundtrack are from Aldo Leopold’s Marshland Elegy. I wanted to give those with perhaps less time, good voice skills – or perhaps a certain technophobia – a way in to the process, so thought it would be great if we could gather as many readings of these deeply evocative passages as possible. Most of these recordings were made in the course of a session at Somerset Art Work’s offices in Langport (in the course of which we also animated a number of cranes). But some were ‘harvested’ in the barn at Stathe Bungalow Farm, one of the spiritual homes of the project.

So, as you listen, you hear the voices of a diverse community; many of whom, as volunteers, contributed directly to the Great Crane Project – but also those of farmers, school children (and their parents), artists and arts administrators, RSPB staff and so on…

All of these were stitched together into a spine tingling sound collage by regular collaborator Jim Brook, sound engineer, composer and musician.

Here are Leopold’s words in full:

‘When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in
the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of
that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the
daily affairs of birds and men.’

‘Our appreciation of the cranes grows with the slow unraveling of
earthly history. His tribe, we know, stems out of the remote Eocene.
The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since
entombed within the hills… And so they live and have their being –
these cranes – not in the constricted present but in the wider reaches
of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the clicking of the
evolutionary clock. The sadness discernible in some crane marshes
arises, perhaps, from their once having harboured cranes. Now they
stand humbled, adrift in history.’

You can view The Crane Community here:

Echo-Maker

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The universal picture presented by my time in the Somerset Levels – through multiple conversations, time spent in the landscape, both on my own with the birds, and against the wider backdrop of Brexit, Trump and ‘post-truth’ – is one of deep change and turmoil. One is often left contemplating feelings of helplessness and unfathomabilty…

And yet – life goes on. I have, over the last year, been struck many times by the fact that nature is (despite our best efforts!) so powerful, irrepressible, resilient. Give it just the slightest chance and it will grab it. Nurture it and it will quickly thrive. And – in a variety of contexts – by the fact that many small actions collectively seem to make a greater difference than one seemingly gargantuan one (which may, in the first instance seem more impressive). And it has become clear to me that because of a combination of these apparent truths, in this vital wetland habitat a unique and thoroughly potent combination of science (much of it enabled through EU collaboration), conservation and community energy and action has made something very special happen that will ultimately benefit us all.

Healthy cranes signify healthy wetlands. Healthy wetlands are a central component in the water cycle and signify clean water. Clean water is a central component of life on earth.

And, of course, flooding is synonymous with wetlands – so if we can look beyond our immediate spheres into a wider universe, even in catastrophe we can find positives.

Without science and conservation the Great Crane Project, which has done so much to boost the outlook for the Somerset wetlands would not have been possible. But equally, without the communities of the Levels the project would have been unsustainable. There is a beautiful symbiosis here.

So, when I think about what has been achieved through and in association with the reintroduction of the cranes, it dispels the gloom and fills me with a sense of hope. It makes me think that we can and so often do make a difference…

Consequently, rather than conveying ‘messages’ to the people of the Levels, it seems more appropriate to simply hold up a mirror to what they have achieved; to create a work which reflects this landscape; its past, present and a future enabled by the actions of conservationists and rural communities working together to an extent which I for one have not witnessed elsewhere. And perhaps then this looking glass, rather like the reflectors on a communications satellite, might ‘bounce’ the story onwards into the wider world…

But, in the first instance, because this story is first and foremost about the wetland landscape, in seeking to bring truth, resonance and connection, it seems appropriate to locate this lens within that landscape. In this way, I hope that Echo-Maker will first and foremost serve to shine a very localised light on the fact that, by enabling the return of the cranes, people here have not only contributed to the well-being of their own environment – but have also helped change the wider world for the better.

Echo-Maker is the English translation of ‘Baswenaazhi’, the name given to the Ojibwe Indian crane clan, whose members were renowned as advocates, translators, ambassadors and orators. By creating this work in this place with its inhabitants – both human and feathered, past and present – I hope that it will ultimately represent a distillation of all I have learned and experienced here. And, more importantly, give shape and form to the very special Somerset Echo-Maker clan I have got to know who in turn, by participating in the making process, might bask for a while in the light of what they have achieved – and at the same time, contribute to the telling of a story that will be conveyed by words, but through the universal language of light, sound and colour. Not a documentary – that has already been done, perhaps something akin to a tone poem…

A great deal of what we read about ‘rewilding’ seems concerned with loss and is tinged with a degree of mournfulness and anger that isn’t always helpful. So, whilst I do want to examine what has been lost (it’s important not to sweep this under the carpet – and, at the same time, to acknowledge that it’s not always our fault) ultimately I want to celebrate  renewal, reinvention and resilience, all of which which, in cultures around the world, are symbolised by the wonderfully adaptable crane tribe.

And it is this adaptability which we should also place under the spotlight, alongside what we as humans term ‘creativity’ – which is much the same process of evolving solutions in the face of a challenge by making new connections. I have found the latter commodity to be much in evidence in the Levels, not, as is often supposed, within the realm of Art but in day to day life; as the thought process – or way of being even – that shapes and drives our response to the truth of constant change and therefore enables our survival.

This deeply spiritual bird, I now understand, also has a toughness; a certain savagery even. It is robust, raucous and more than a touch aggressive and in that, this work will have what may to some seem a surprisingly hard, intense edge. But this, rather than an unattainable purity, perhaps makes the crane an even more truthful mirror of our own souls. This anthropomorphic quality is at the heart of the crane’s hold over us – a power which archaeological research shows to have been as much in evidence seven thousand years ago, within the society of the first farmers, as it is in rural Somerset today…

In the words of the American environmentalist Aldo Leopold:

When we hear the crane, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in
the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past; of
that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the
daily affairs of birds and men

From Marshland Elegy, 1937

ECHO-MAKER: Lost Land at Thorney Lakes

These dark winter days are just perfect for artist Sean Harris and his travelling art and landscape project: Echo-Maker.
When first encountered his curious, conical contraption could be viewed purely as a sculpture set within the landscape. However, as darkness descends its true potential is gently released in the form of light and animation, sending forth multiple images and echoes into the night.echo-maker-contraption-2-r-jelleyreflection-2-d-jelley

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Last Saturday I caught up with Sean in the wilds of The Somerset Levels to see the first showing, and first instalment of his new film commissioned especially for Somerset Art Work’s ongoing Cranes and Communities project. The event was staged at Thorney Lakes, near Mucheleny, a family run campsite with a huge emphasis placed on creating a haven for wildlife. Sean explained that he was keen to set up his transient film rig in locations where the custodians of the land had imaginatively reinvented their relationship and use of the environment to maintain a sustainable future for both, and Thorney Lakes certainly fulfilled that desire.

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Working closely with the community Sean is in the process of making a trio of film chapters that aim to create a greater link with those now adjusting to sharing their familiar landscape with the Common Crane. The first ‘chapter’ entitled Lost Land presents a sense of loss that this enigmatic bird has long been absent from Somerset. The complete film title, Echo-Maker, is the English translation of ‘Baswenaazhi’ – the Ojibwe Indian crane clan, and refers particularly to the birds’ piercing cry, a sound now audible once more rebounding at dusk around West Sedgemoor.

Sean has nothing but praise for the collaboration between Somerset Art Works and the Great Crane Project and if he could choose just one strong message for his work to convey, it would be to highlight, to the world, what amazing work is being undertaken on our doorstep. Stating that with regards to reintroduction and conservation projects ‘Somerset is light-years ahead in terms of how they have brought communities and science together – one simply cannot work without the other.’

This sense of connection and ‘ownership’ can be achieved with the simplest of ideas, one I witnessed during the evening. On arrival guests were given a jam jar banded with coloured tape. Each represented an individual crane as they too bore the same coloured rings on their legs. So as Damon Bridge from The Great Crane Project handed over each tea light, the name and story of that crane’s reintroduction, whether it was full of plight or good fortune, was shared. The lights were then gradually placed in front of the rig, building on the installation and nudging guest from unattached observer to participant.

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You can catch the next stage of Sean’s film triptych, Black Earth, indoors at All Saints Church, Langport, on Saturday 3rd December. This chapter aims to connect us to the ancient archaeological evidence of Cranes inhabiting the levels long before man. The final piece, Archipelago, will be revealed at The Willows and Wetlands Centre in Stoke St Gregory on Saturday 10th December and celebrates the successes of the past six years re-establishing the Crane population, and we all know how Cranes love to dance!

If you do get the chance to go along to one of these evenings I highly recommend that you walk around Sean’s amazing rig. Your experience will be tenfold. The pews in Langport Church will lure you into the false illusion of sitting still, but this no ordinary cinema and certainly not your average projector and you need to immerse yourself fully.

BLACK EARTH: Saturday 3rd December 5 – 7pm

Location: All Saints Church Langport TA10 9QF

Follows on from Langport Christmas Fair

ARCHIPELAGO: Saturday 10th December 4.30-6.30pm

Willows & Wetlands Centre Stoke St Gregory TA3 6HY

Follows on from the Willows and Wetlands Christmas Fayre

links connected to this post

SOMERSET ART WORKS

WILDERNESS: a ghost within us

THE GREAT CRANE PROJECT

SEAN HARRIS

 

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY by Davina Jelley

Guest Photographer: A Level student Reuben Jelley