Dialogue 1. On Land.

Sonya to Fiona 24 September 2020

We spent time during the last months looking at patches of land. One is in Kent where you live and one is here in Berlin, where I am located. You saw my patch when you visited the allotment garden that Christof and I lease. I remember a very happy and hot day building little entry aids for insects to be able to drink without drowning from the odd miniature pond that the previous owners had built in the garden. 

I just briefly checked Wikipedia’s explanation on what a garden is. In the first to sentences it says: A garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, or enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature, as an ideal setting for social or solitary human life. The single feature identifying even the wildest wild garden is control.

The control is not put into italics by me but by someone writing that article. Checking Wikipedia again for what they write under control, I find 102 different subpoints to click through. Okay, some are the names of songs and films, but it makes me feel that control is exemplary for what mankind focuses on. Or let’s say a certain part of mankind. 

When we leased the garden, my hopes and ideas were not so much about controlling a land, but about finding a place of solitude in which I could dive into whenever I wanted. A space for myself. A space for thinking and just being. What I wasn’t aware of and possibly naive about is that a garden in an arrangement like this can never be a space for solitude. It is foremost a social realm reflecting society in a very direct and bare way.  The fences and bushes might be there for claiming a stake but can never avoid acoustics to travel. So you get drawn into the lives of the surrounding people in a way you have never imagined – and vice versa they are drawn into yours. 

I also began to get more interested in the stories of the land, the soil, the space itself. What was it before it became a garden in 1932? Franz Körner was the owner of an influential building company at the end of the 19th beginning of the 20 century. For creating the city as we know it – or knew it before the war – he had to find land which could be exploited. He owned gravel pits all over the margins of the city and in Neukölln. He also owned the patch that now houses the garden that we lease. What is today the area of Berlin has been part of a glacial valley. Therefore gravel was to be found in big amounts. Nobody keeps in mind where the material came from when you wander through this city and look at the impressive Gründerzeit buildings that were erected with the help of Körner. He got extremely wealthy by exploiting the land.

The gravel pits however had to be filled. Sand was at hand, it seems. If you dig more than 10 centimeter, you reach sand. This is not an easy ground for fruitful gardening. But obviously some plants love this sandy environment.

The patch I chose for our „Vibrant Turf“ is a stone garden that I started right away in 2015, as I needed an idea for the many roundish stones that were used all over the garden as decorative limitation markers which irritated me. Where did they come from? Possibly they were once bought in a garden center that sold them in certain shapes.

Anyway, the stone garden is a pleasure now. Firstly it’s very easy to handle and it offers an amazing hiding and recreational place for insects and other tiny beings. One plant growing happily and very colourful on it is the „Fette Henne“, the fat hen, Sedum Spectabile „Brillant“. This nearly succulent plant loves being in the full sun and also on stones and sand. It thrives and I really love the combination of light pink and faded green. She comes from China and Korea where she loves the rocks and cliffs. In 1860 she was first brought to France and from there to Germany and Great Britain as an ornamental plant.

How did you choose your patch for our vibrant turf? And what is happening on it?

Fiona to Sonya 27.9.20

That’s funny. In the UK, ‘Fat Hen’ is a totally different plant – a tall arable ‘weed’ with white flowers. It has oil-rich seeds making it great forage for wild farmland birds like Yellowhammers and Linnets. These birds are now becoming rare in Britain, because of the ever more intensive and monocultural approaches to agriculture that we impose upon the land.

The confusions that occur with many ‘common’ names of flowers provided the impetus for the Latinate Binomial system that was developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th Century. Linnaeus’ system names and categorizes one particular plant, and places it in relation to its evolutionary and familial associations (‘my’ fat hen is Chenopodium album). One name in all the world for botanists to use for that species. One name, often imposed by colonial invaders, suppressing the rich knowledge of indigenous peoples and the multiplicity of ecological associations in each landscape that plants were uprooted from.

My patch for This Vibrant Turf is very tangled, which feels suitable! Plants, as all living things, live in very many layered and differing kinds of relation to other beings. They have pollinators, predators, associates, neighbours, competitors, mates, children… Not to mention their relations with humans, be they visiting scientists or artists, farmers or herbalists. Plants can be described in terms of their colour, size and shape, preference for shade or sun, edibility, toxicity, scent, medicinal properties, beauty. Ways of seeing and thinking about a plant proliferate, compete, and enrich one another.

I chose a piece of wildish meadow on a chalk hillside about fifteen minutes’ walk from my house. The 170cm circle is part of Fackenden Down nature reserve, owned and managed by Kent Wildlife Trust.

I chose it partly for its proximity and abundance of grasses and flowers, its ‘turf’ qualities. But I also chose it because it is not so simple to find a patch of land in England upon which I am allowed to stand, (not to mention lie down on, draw, nibble, photograph, talk to and contemplate. In between the nature reserves dotted around the North Downs, the land locally is pretty rigidly policed. There are footpaths, but stray off them at your peril. Trespass is not yet a criminal offence, but the British Government are currently attempting to pass a bill through the Commons to change that. Even so, if you are caught on private land, you will not uncommonly be met by a landowner with an off-road vehicle and a gun. Their initial question (delivered with exemplary passive-aggressive English politeness) will probably be “Are you lost?” or ‘Can I help you?’ If you respond ‘No thanks’ to either of these openers, things can escalate for the worse rather fast.

All these above examples – categorisation and naming, the monocultural approach to agriculture, and the policing of access to the land, speak to that emphasis on control that you wrote of.

This mania for control has become so rampant and profound, so defining of our relation to the Earth, that we have coined a new geological era after ourselves – the Anthropocene. When considering our exploitation of human and nonhuman bodies, land and plants, the most pertinent variation of the words that have been offered up to nuance this much contested term is, for me, Plantationocene. The word ‘plantation’ evokes visions of global historical horrors, especially of the sugar and cotton plantations that were the bedrock of the Atlantic slave trade, but the reality is that Plantationocene behaviours are as active now as they ever were: “we are witness to a wave of industrial plantation agriculture in a global rush for land… Estimates suggest that 75 million acres of land worldwide have been sold or leased in the past decade to foreign investors for large-scale oil palm, rubber, and other agricultural concessions.” (https://edgeeffects.net/plantation-legacies-plantationocene/

In the UK, it is easier than in, say, the USA, to pretend that we are somehow not subject to these devastating practices ourselves. We might not recognise our local style of monocultural farming as ‘plantation’, because we have not seen images of slaves tilling and harvesting these ‘green and pleasant lands’. But, alongside our talent for exploitation across the whole of the globe via Empire and now Global Capitalism, we treat our own land and wildlife with similar contempt as that of the peoples’ we invaded and exploited. A recent report by the Natural History Museum in partnership with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) places the UK as bottom in the list of G7 nations with regard to the protection of biodiversity and habitat.

We have destroyed 90% of our wildflower meadows since 1900. Fackenden Down, and the 170cm diameter patch with which I have worked, is intrinsic and emblematic to me, through its own astonishing ordinary loveliness, of all we have destroyed and failed to understand. 

Sonya to Fiona 27 September 2020

This makes me think of the moment and circumstance when we have met last year during a conference on ‘Rewilding’ in OmVed Gardens, London, where you talked about some of your works and researches. I went there in the first week of my residency because I was searching for something. I guess I was searching for you. It was also there where someone said (I have forgotten who), that there is no such thing as wilderness surrounding us. This thought struck me in that moment. An area, a meadow, a creek, might appear as wild on first sight, but everything that is there has been changed and altered towards the needs and wishes of the humans. An animal, a plant, the soil has no say in this. But yes, not only that: only particular people have a say in something. Not everyone is allowed to express what he or she want and need and like. A big part of our world has been muted a long time ago.

Yesterday I watched Kush Badhwar’s film Blood Earth from 2013. In the description of the film one can read: Kucheipadar, a Khonda tribal village in Odisha, India, is a bauxite-rich block that since India’s economic liberalization has been the subject of violent conflict between the indigenous Adivasi inhabitants and a mining venture. The singing and writing of songs has come to articulate creative forms and political structures that steered a resistance movement from subalternity, through solidarity, into dissolution. Blood Earth interweaves the efforts to record song, farming, village life, and a political meeting to improvise a junction between voice, music, silence, sound, and noise. 

In the film, the helplessness of the natives is portrayed in a very sad way. The filmmakers and sound collectors speak with a group of men about them losing the ownership of their lands, and their strategies to keep them. But also that they want compensation and guaranteed jobs for their loss, when suddenly someone supporting the mining company jumps between them and the camera, and making clear that someone coming from the outside should not talk to them at all. A dispute unravels and it is clear that the villagers that were asking for their rights have nothing to say in this deal that is already done a long time ago. The Company should not have come here at all!, one man shouts.

The soft, sensitive and maybe clumsy behaviour of the villagers made me think of my ancestors. My maternal grandmother had two siblings, a brother and a sister, Marie and Hubert, who were still living in their parental house, a small roundish farm in a rural West German area call Eifel. They never got married and lived together for quite some centuries in that very basic cottage. They spoke a strong dialect and you could probably call them natives, as they had never left their areas (only he was forced to go to France during the war). They appeared very uninfluenced by anything from the outside world. You could also say they were calm within themselves living with the seasons and the animals and the soil they worked on. I loved being with them and in that house. My mother would sometimes say – not without jealousy: “As a baby you were so attached to me that you would cry each time someone else would want to hold you. But you never cried when Marie picked you up.” I still remember everything in their house and also the smell of certain things. I would ask her for chocolate. As I felt I was her favourite, I wanted to be spoilt. She only had those white and pink lentils – Schokolinsen as we call them. Do you know them? A few of them she would put into an empty small paper bag of baking soda that she would always collect. It represented how poor she was but also that she was from a generation that didn’t have the concept of disposability. I only understood that later. The taste of those chocolate lentils in combination with the fine powder that was clinking to the walls of the paper bags was like a luxury to me, I loved it and I still remember the smell and taste. If there were no lentils, which could also happen, she would fill this little bag with wheat grains that were stored on the attic. I loved that too. She also had a green thumb and understood everything about plants and animals and the circle of the year and life. They used an outhouse and she would cut newspaper into pieces to be used as toilet paper. I loved that too. My parents however didn’t like it and installed a fancy bathroom including a toilet. But you can guess it: they never used that room for what it was. It might have become a storage space in the end. The end of them however was not very happy and that is due to the greed of the family wanting to sell that beautiful house and land coming with it to make money and not further care of them. It hurts me too much to write of this here, to describe the end. But it feels that also they had been colonized and robbed of their land and free will and rights as human beings. They had been muted, because they were natives.

I am longing for this people. I wish I could be there with them one more day.

Fiona to Sonya, 28 September 2020

That is a sad and beautiful story. All my near family, as far as I know, were in bourgeois professions – teaching, accountancy, medicine, pharmacy, sales. But when I was six, my parents bought a small farm. Most of the fields were rented out to the neighbouring dairy farm, but my parents kept the market garden, growing salad crops, and we had a hundred+ chickens. Half of the farm’s 80 acres were woodland, which at that time was considered pretty worthless, but its tangle of Oak, Hazel, Birch and Sweet Chestnut, sheltering two dark overgrown ponds, was a world of wonder and exploration for me.

Being often without human company, I found personhood in the creatures and plants around me. The stories I chose to read centred on the lives of animals. The animal protagonists were individuals, with personalities and trajectories of their own, and with developed emotional and social lives. My favourite stories centred on animals who were not primarily defined in relation to humans. These fictions mingled in my imagination with the lives of animals I saw in the woods and fields. I grasped the difference between real and fictional creatures, but I did not perceive that the interior lives of animals and plants were necessarily of a completely different order to the interior lives of other humans. Both were rich, mysterious, and rather opaque.

In the West, one does not hear the idea articulated that a landscape might ‘belong to’ its nonhuman inhabitants. Sometimes (usually only once we have driven a species near to extinction) we might place a preservation order on a habitat, for example we might award a pond SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest) to protect the Great Crested Newts who live in it.

In many other cultures, perhaps exemplified by First Nations Australian and North American peoples, land is not something saleable, or ownable – by a human animal or any other body – because it exceeds us so completely, temporally and geographically. It might rather be something that us creatures belong to. Animals often have territories, but they usually only compete to dominate the hunting, mating, or foraging rights for these among their own species. Do plants have territories? Or are they territories? In the natural world, the difference between ‘a landscape’ and ‘its inhabitants’ is largely one of perspective. The landscape is mostly made up of living beings, who through their activities co-produce that landscape.

In Britain, the concept of land ownership was formalised by the Norman conquest, when King William declared all land in England as his own, and then doled it out to various favoured (land)lords, who in turn doled it out to various underlings for services rendered. Interestingly, it was only in research for this project that I learned that, in essence, all land in England still belongs to the Crown (i.e. Queen Elizabeth II). WTF?!  Our model of land ownership, termed ‘freehold,’ means only that our leasing of said land is free from regular payments. Originally, you were awarded this free use of the land in perpetuity because the service you had rendered to the King (for example sending your sons to fight in a war) was of such high value.

At the bottom of this medieval hierarchy was the serf. Yet most serfs still held rights over an amount of land, which was farmed communally and apportioned in strips. Alongside their area of these crops, they had access rights to the ‘commons’ – lower grade land like woods and rough pasture, where they could graze their animals, collect wild food and firewood. They paid the land lord in tithes – a portion of their crops, and a portion of their labour. Of course, this was all potentially pretty grim. Serfs could be bought, sold, or traded (though usually only with the land they worked). They had no real rights over their own bodies, could not leave the land they were bound to, and could marry only with their lord’s permission. Not so good. But then the ‘enclosures’ happened – land was literally fenced off and aggregated by the Lords, and the serfs were thrown off. And that made things a whole lot worse. After that, a peasant had only their own labour to sell, so if that was poorly valued, not needed, or if they perhaps suffered ill health, they were basically screwed.

In one book I’ve been reading on this, it positions these historical enclosures alongside the acceleration in sale of public land since Thatcher came to power in Britain in 1979. The Commons are again being enclosed – social housing, school playing fields, access lands, woodlands, hospital sites, huge amounts are being sold off. This has fuelled the rocketing land prices in Britain, which in turn fuels a chronic housing shortage, and allows developers to make fortunes, almost without doing anything.

The land/power grab, and its mirror image, the disempowerment of ordinary people, has been a very coherent and directed project, enforced across centuries, by a tiny minority (the 1%?) who fully intend to keep the land/power to themselves. This long history of alienation and disenfranchisement from the land underpins so much ecological devastation, not to mention our poverty of access to land in England (Scotland took a much more robust path on access, enshrining the Right to Roam in 2003, and rescinding the ultimate Crown ownership of land in 2004).

Whose land is it, anyway, if not the multispecies communities who live in and among it?

Sonya to Fiona, 1 October 2020

I had to look up the word Serf. In German, we say ‘Leibeigene’, which literally means someone who does not own his or her body. This is a bizarre image and yet a very normal one.

I don’t know about you, but every time I am in a situation that I physically don’t like, lets say I am on the bike and get completely wet, or I really freeze outside in the snow or the sun is burning down on me, I cannot help but think of people and their bodies in situations of distress. First World War, mud trenches: Nowhere to clean yourself, no fresh food, no toilet, nowhere clean to sleep. People stripped to their bones in concentration camps, wooden clogs, too big, too small, left and right separate sizes, no underwear, no way to use a toilet when you need it. The people in Moria. Fleeing from a war, unfortunately trapped in a camp, no way out. No answers to any questions. No housing, no future. I cannot stop thinking of all these bodies in relation to my body. My examples might seem a bit extreme to you, but I really cannot help it. You know that since many years, I am meeting people and collect their memories from the time of the Second World War. So believe me, I have heard these stories over and over and as I am a visual thinker, my imagination has connected all these things together.

I loved the image you had sent me: You were lying on that chosen patch in Kent. Calm and immersed. Erich Fromm created the term ‘Biophilia’ – although he wasn’t the first to come up with it. It describes the need of humans to constantly seek connection with nature. This might be the product of biological evolution. Biophilia tries to explain why people care for animals, and keep plants and flowers in and around their homes. It seems to us that our natural love for life helps sustain life.  

I believe this concept can mostly be applied to Western Societies.

Fiona to Sonya, 8 October 2020

The horrors you mention are extreme, and visceral. I am not sure I could withstand the work that you do in this field. I see the ant hills being obliterated, once again, by the mechanical brushcutter, and I feel it as a kind of horror. It sits at a different scale than your ‘my body is their body’ immersion, because ant bodies are so different, so small to my eyes and apparently numerous. And yet their unthinking destruction by our machines fills me with dread and sadness. I would be ridiculed by many people, who would consider it indulgent, but this is what I bring to my work, and the world. A delight in small things. Do you know that passage by Arundhati Roi, right at the end of her novel The God of Small Things? The doomed lovers (doomed because they belong to such different castes) ‘have no future’ and so obsess about the wellbeing of a tiny spider. That. A deep longing for our species to care, to respect, to undo the damage, to delight in the shimmering. There is a Yolngu term bir’yun, which translates as shimmering, which means the fecund interaction of things, the complex shining of their coming together. When an ecology is healthy, it shimmers and dances. As species diminish, as climates change, we stumble out of step with the dance of one another, and these iridescent meetings shudder to a halt.

It’s true that modern Western peoples are alienated from the land, and so sometimes romanticise it, but it pisses me off when people set up a false divide between town and country people, and suggest that ‘townies’ approach the land aesthetically, because they know ‘f**k all about it’, while ‘country folk’ are utilitarian and practical because they ‘understand the land’. Many country folk care deeply about what the land looks like, because what land looks like is irrevocably entwined in its health, and how it is used. We are suffering devastating losses of species, and sheer loss of life, because of the way the land is being (ab)used. Health and sickness have aesthetic results. What alienation really looks like is not knowing – not seeing – the difference.

Where do we belong? How do we belong there?

I think we are drawn by certain topographies and ecologies like we are drawn towards certain people. I know I was pulled towards Shoreham, or more accurately the valley in which it is set, and moved here out of some deep activity that I wasn’t fully conscious of and seemed to involve a huge amount of luck (or fate). Sometimes these affinities come from our childhood, or where our ancestors come from, but not always. They are definitely not aligned to reactive and dubious ideas around blood and soil, which are more about excluding others that seeking connection for oneself.

When I was lying on the ground in the patch, I was thinking about being rooted there like a plant, living, growing and dying in one spot. And so also about being dead, and my body sinking back into, and becoming the earth. It was a peaceful feeling, and also playful, at least the part about what it would be like to be a plant.