There’s something funny in the Philosophy Barn…

Echo-Maker: Cranes and Continuity from Sean Harris on Vimeo.

How lovely to be here again.

It’s been two years since Echo-Maker lit up the wetlands around Langport – in the teeth of a gale at the Willow and Wetlands Centre Christmas extravaganza. I won’t forget that in a hurry – we all needed a mug of cocoa-with-something-in-it after that one…

BUT… we haven’t gone away; the echoes reverberate – and may soon grow louder again. At the end of September, as you can see in the above video, the Hector family hosted an event at Stathe Bungalow Farm; a Crane Calling to mark the return of the Somerset flock to its wintering grounds in the landscape around West Sedgemoor and Aller Moor.

There are crane festivals all over the world, seasonal markers celebrating renewal, continuity and the beginning of another cycle. ‘His annual return is the clicking of the evolutionary clock’ as Aldo Leopold wrote…

So why not in Somerset? That was the question posited in Roderick’s ‘Philosophy Barn’ to an eclectic gathering of farmers, conservationists, locals, academics and creatives – some of whom would answer to every one of those designations (don’t tell Roderick, but we even managed to smuggle an archaeologist in!)

It’s amazing how, when y’all get together and talk, perceived boundaries become porous – and everyone begins to find that they had more in common than they had previously imagined, a fact borne out by the events leading up to the Crane Calling.

For who’d have thought three years ago that Roderick Hector would become the UK’s first farmer/animator?

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In the kitchen, demonstrating how to animate a crane for a niche television programme crew

Or indeed farmer/foley artist?

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Laying down a wigeon whistle track for the Echo-Maker soundtrack…

Or recording studio proprietor?

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The control room

Or roadie?

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Diverse morphologies on display in the course of facilitating field recording

Or celebrity tour guide and sometime media personality?

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Leading farm safaris on the back of an enhanced media profile

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But he did – all of those things. And it strikes me that farming – and indeed conservation – will, in a time of great change, more widely need to embrace the adventurous spirit of collaboration that he and Damon (of the Great Crane Project, now RSPB conservation officer for the Levels) have brought to this endeavour.

Bertolt Brecht described art as being not a mirror held to society, rather a hammer with which to shape it. The blows, however, need not be harsh; artistic process carries a soft power – is a means of building bridges, a vessel for gentle activism.

There’s more to come…

Sean Harris – The Crane Community

The chorus for Echo-Maker, made in the stunning wetland landscape of the Somerset Levels as part of the Cranes and Communities project; a collaboration between Sean Harris, Jim Brook and community groups undertaken as part of a commission from Somerset Art Works.

All the cranes here were animated in community and primary school workshops across the Levels at which readings of this powerful excerpt from Aldo Leopold’s ‘Marshland Elegy’ were also gathered. Many of the adult voices are of volunteers from the Great Crane Project – people who have contributed so much to the return of these magnificent birds, thereby helping to secure the future of this vital habitat.

Echo-Maker Animation Installation 7 and 8 October 2017

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Showcasing in 2017 for Somerset Art Weeks Festival

Projected through layers of gauze within a three-dimensional ‘magic lantern’, Echo-Maker explores in mesmerising and meditative fashion a unique and special story of birds and people – and of resilience and hope amidst turbulent times. A film about loss and return in the wetlands of the Somerset Levels and Moors; returning this autumn in the archetypal landscape that inspired it…

Reformatted for the intimate surroundings of the Romano-British dining room at the Avalon Marshes Centre, the installation takes place amidst marshland that our ancestors – inhabitants of the nearby prehistoric lake villages of Glastonbury and Meare – shared not only with crane and bittern, but also the Great Northern Diver, Dalmatian Pelican and White-tailed Eagle.

Combining animation, live-action footage and sound recordings gathered during the course of the Cranes and Communities project in 2016, the film evokes a lost world which might, through the potent combination of science and community action, return once more – as the Great Crane Project has already so powerfully demonstrated. Our actions, no matter how small, can and do change the world for the better…

Echo-Maker is the work of artist Sean Harris, commissioned by Somerset Art Works, in partnership with The Great Crane Project.

Come and see Echo-Maker on 7 and 8 October 2017:

The Romano-British Dining Room, Avalon Marshes Centre, Shapwick Road, WESTHAY, BA6 9TT

Screenings begin every hour from 11 – 4 inclusive.  Echo-Maker is 45 minutes long. Free, drop in – but some screenings may fill up so come for the morning / afternoon,  beautiful walks are to be had on the reserve and at nearby Ham Wall, use the cafe, browse the gallery.

A collaboration with South West Heritage Trust and Natural England.

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Echo-Maker Part III – Archipelago

EchoMaker2Archipelago 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…