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