Warm weather around Easter put an abrupt stop to the woodcutting season here, and I have been noting this year’s effects on the town and the surrounding countryside.  Two much-loved smaller trees are gone, but there are also comforting signs that the neglect of some of my favourite places is of a benign sort, and not the mark of abandonment or – worse – imminent redevelopment.  It has been fascinating to see decisions being made which will have aesthetic consequences well past my children’s lifetimes.  

Lund is finally getting round to taking down some of the standing dead trees within the town boundaries, prompted by a large poplar which nearly crushed a baby and toddler as it fell over.  After much wailing and anguish in the local paper money has been found for some long-needed preventative medicine, albeit at the cost of adding rotten willows and poplars to the already extensive inventory of diseased elms needing attention. 

The gardeners in the large nineteenth century graveyard which abuts our house on two sides came and took out their last few remaining elms, but gratuitously saw fit to also chop down a harmless but lovely thirty-four year old hornbeam.  We are hoping they will lack the resources or the determination to come and grind out the stump, giving the tree a chance to send up shoots and live on.  There is hope: a similar-sized maple cut down outside my office last year managed to put on five feet of new growth in as many months before the groundsmen got round to grubbing it out for good.

Nobody really knows why trees in the temperate zones evolved the ability to recover from trauma by starting new growth from dormant buds hidden under the bark, but the same mechanism that is thought to have saved early trees from the depredations of megafauna, disease, and windthrow now serves to frustrate the tidy gardener, just as it frustrated clearance-minded settlers from the Stone Age to colonial times.  Before American landscape painters discovered the barren West, their tame foregrounds were almost always populated by a field of stumps.  The difficulty of eradicating ironbark eucalypts in Australia meant their remains were employed as markers in the landscape long after agrarian use had been established.  The phrase ‘back of the Black Stump’ is still used to indicate land beyond the outer rim of civilisation.

Sometimes a tree’s resilience is used to advantage: without it, garden favourites like knotted limes, formal topiary, and espaliered fruit trees would not exist.  Mostly though, woodcutting is seen as a necessary evil, a winter chore to keep gardens and parks looking as planned, or a way of dealing with trees which have become inconveniently large, unstable, or old.

This attitude is a consequence of a deeper-held misconception: that deciduous hardwoods cannot be a continuously productive asset.  In the contemporary urban imagination to ‘use’, say, an oak, means to let it grow to the desired size, and then to cut it down entirely, planting a new tree – or a housing estate – where it stood, and leaving no trace of the original tree.  Woodcutting indicates an emotional, end-of-times event, associated with the destruction of something known since childhood; an irreversible step along a path that leads away from the diversity and complexity of free nature to the monotony of ordered domestication.

Quite apart from the fact that no tree in Western Europe has been free of human influence for at least two thousand years – there is no ‘free’ nature here – this way of looking at trees ignores the existence of a once extensive industry based upon regular cycles of cutting and re-growth for the production of small-scale timber, firewood and leaf fodder.  Like working dogs, these working trees look different to their domesticated pet cousins such as pruned garden trees, or trees subjected to a crown reduction late in life, and their physical structure and ecology, and the knock-on effects on the surrounding landscape, are all characteristic.



Jacob Epstein Glade in Epping Forest c. 1945


There are two main shapes to regularly-cut trees.  The first is the coppice, where the tree is cut down to the ground, and the new shoots form a ring that grows outward with each cutting.  The second is the pollard, where the tree is cut back to a level above the teeth of grazing animals so as to protect the new shoots.  Cutting can be as often as every two or three years to produce sticks for weaving or other craft use, or up to fifteen or twenty years for small-scale timber and long-burning firewood.  There is also ‘shredding’, a catchall word describing any cutting back of side branches that stops short of outright pollarding.

All these forms of cutting keep the tree in a juvenile state.  For pollards, this can prolong its life to two or three times the span of uncut, ‘standard’ trees, and a coppiced tree can live essentially forever.  Allowing the limbs to grow too thick makes it harder or impossible for the tree to recover from the cutting, and the top-heavy tree becomes susceptible to rot and wind, so ancient pollards and coppices are indicators of long periods of continuous human care.  The decline of traditional underwood management since the Second World War has meant that many woodlands which have been in dynamic equilibrium since the Middle Ages or earlier are now full of ‘overstood’ coppice, or ‘candelabra’ pollards with top-heavy, thick-boughed crowns.  Re-starting the cutting cycle risks simply killing the tree, which leaves owners with an interesting dilemma: renovating the aspect of the woodland which is truly ancient risks losing it altogether.



Stephen Thompson After the Storm 

From the British Library


Individual ancient pollards are celebrated for their size, odd shapes and sheer age.  The life-prolonging effects of pollarding means that the oldest trees with the largest girths are often pollards, or ex pollards grown out.  A celebrity worship has built up around individual trees – the Thomas Pakenham “Remarkable Trees” franchise is one notable aspect – but that harvesting from entire stands of pollards was once relatively common is poorly appreciated, even in places like Epping Forest which penetrates deep into metropolitan London, and where large stands of pollard hornbeams and beeches are still to be found.

Coppices have if anything fared even worse.  ‘Copse’ has come to mean any small wood, and attempts to re-start the coppice cycle in ancient woods are seen as pure vandalism.  North of Lund, where the underlying moraine turns from lime to acid is a band running across the country once known as ‘risbygden’ – the withy lands.  Here, sandwiched between the rich southern farmland and the true evergreen woods further north, was a region that provided the wood-poor farmers further south with the underwood products – particularly fencing and dead hedging – they did not grow for themselves.  Vast areas of sixteenth and seventeenth century maps are covered with ‘surskog’, word for a type of wood whose meaning and etymology is unknown, which is almost certainly coppice, although nobody knows for sure.  Even more remarkably, it is not even known which species of tree were grown in these woods.



Felled Hornbeam


The odd man out is willow.  Historically, pollard willows and coppiced osier for basketry were exceptional in laws and customs compared to other trees, and that exception continues today.  In my county, Skåne, pollard willows are everywhere: with rows of old, flayed handlike ones marking the fields, roads and watercourses as they were one to two hundred years ago, and livid-stemmed new ones around houses, paddocks and estates of new builds.  Osier is still grown on a small scale for basket making, but it is also farmed like an arable crop in dense stands of ‘short rotation coppice’ to produce biofuel.  However, new pollards of other species are very hard or impossible to find, and non-willow coppices are almost entirely accidentals.

There is a class aspect to the neglect of pollards and coppices.  The spreading oak tree is a rich man’s tree.  It symbolises stability, reliability and longevity, but also wealth.  You have to be rich to allow the tree room to grow, and to forego the income from regular cutting.  Cut trees represent the poor commoner, so except for Versailles-derived models, they do not figure in the aspirational gardens of the growing urban classes.  They are mostly ignored in literature and art too, a prejudice which has been inherited wholesale by photography.

There is also a utilitarian logic to this forgetfulness: although traditional practices do live on in the form of craft-fayre handicrafts like wickerwork baskets or cleftwood fencing, plastics and cheap steel have taken over the roles of most traditional woodland products, and burning wood as fuel is now for the most part either a secondary way to heat a home or purely decorative.  Cutting leaf fodder for grazing animals is regarded as a hopelessly backward practice, suitable only for feeding third world goats in lands with no grass.  In Northern Europe, we simply no longer have any practical need that can be serviced by economically viable cyclical harvesting.

However, nobody seems to have told the trees: not only do the older ones retain the mark of our vanished attitudes in the patterns of their branches and the spacings of their annual rings, but trees of all ages carry on reviving and sprouting wherever they are given the chance.  Low-maintenance verges on roads and railways are the new coppices in the landscape, as they favour quick-growing trees which can survive hacking down by mechanical flail every few years or so.  Deliberately created modern pollards are rare, and tend to be in gardens or parks, but the need to maintain free passage for delivery lorries and fire engines past the spandrels of the suburban road system can also lead to regular pruning back to the stem.

My personal interest in these trees is twofold.  First, the older trees are telltales of a change in land use.  Grown-out windbreak pollards around a farmhouse tell a story of changing fashions as well as the shift from on-site to off-site energy production.  Groups of similar trees amid housing developments show graphically how the town has swallowed up the surrounding farmland, and the thickness of their candelabra boughs dates the estate as surely as architectural styles or papers in the local records office.  Coppices are largely eradicated, but the few old stools I have found are unmistakable signs of human activity in the nominal wild.



Woodcut by ‘BB‘ from Brendon Chase


Secondly, current attitudes betray a wealth of unspoken assumptions about the landscape, the purpose and value we put upon it, and how we see ourselves within it.  These include the aspirational habit of only growing – or photographing – prestigious standard trees; the selective nature of a so-called tradition which only remembers one species, willow; and the modern cult of self-centred nature worship, with it’s highly codified rules about beauty and how it should be portrayed.

Trees are the part of the landscape which most closely matches the timescales of human memory and myth making.  They show their history in their structure and distribution, and they preserve in visible form the consequences of decisions made by many previous generations.  Their survival, unchanged yet ever changing, can be regarded as a minor miracle, or an accidental by-product of the art of the possible compounded over centuries.  Either way, they are signs that deserve to be read and understood, at the intuitive level, and the intellectual.

The black sheep of the contemporary arts family is commonly supposed to be beauty, but if you are truly determined to be erased from the Blackberries of your creative friends and relatives you should try putting in a good word for charm.  The drama-free, accessible beauty of small gestures and quiet moments, charm is simply too nice, an embarrassment best left to historians of the eighteenth century and the home styling pages of middlebrow newspapers.  True art is not supposed to be comfortable or easy to live with – it should challenge! address! engage! – and the vital processes of discourse and narrative are expected to convince by argument and assertion, not rely upon the suspect crutches of easy sociability and gentle persuasion.


Charles Rennie Mackintosh. La Rue du Soleil, Port Vendres 1926

From the Hunterian Art Gallery


Charm has an obvious and close relationship with kitsch, and the art world’s wholesale embrace of the lowborn and tacky might make the rejection of charm seem like an inconsistency.  The difference however is real, and is at base a distinction of class: charm is the kitsch of the chattering classes.  Celebrating authentic kitsch is a way of elevating the decoration of unexamined lives, and it allows the artist as anthropologist to gather credits for revealing overlooked truths.  Works with a self-aware artistic charm however, are already recognised for their explicit art value – canonised even – and are found, not in obscurity, but framed in reproduction over a thousand sofas. They present an artist or critic with nothing to do except admit to having joined the consumerist mainstream.  There is a certain macho element to the rejection of charm, but also a combination of aristocratic yearning for singular art objects and the playground desire to be part of the exclusive cool set.  All of which leaves these works dangling, acknowledged perhaps as icons, but so ubiquitously appreciated as to be irrelevant.

However, an appreciation of charm can be much more than a milquetoast taste for girls on swings or a way of taking refuge in a tidy list of uncontroversial art talking points.  Charm has a serious and deep-seated link with aesthetics, particularly with the Gesamtkunstwerk idea that your life and the environments you create about yourself should represent a holistic approach to making and enjoying art.  As a refusal to be seduced by melodrama and the lure of the exceptional, charm crops up regularly in the ebb and flow of contemplative and expressive forms of art.  From Sung scholar poets to Gilpin’s picturesque and the eighteenth century cult of sensibility, charm is always there, and at its best it proceeds well beyond its caricature of a sincere prettiness to an informed appreciation of subtlety and nuance.


Eric Ravilious Chalk Paths 1935

(Reproductions from Gorgeous Things)


In my personal work I find myself returning to the subject of charm repeatedly.  Partly because my obsession with pattern and form leads naturally to the applied arts and the makers of designer consumables; partly because my concentration on plants and agrarian landscapes has me sharing subject matter with the unpretentious, undemanding home decoration market; but mostly – at least at the conscious level – because many of the works I group under the heading of charm have an explicit concern with the interaction between the past and the present.  This last point is my own yardstick, used to separate the kitsch sheep from the art goats: the harder an artist works to eliminate the marks of the present, or to squeeze their work into a preconceived notion of how the world ought to look, the less interest I have in their work.  My favourites have what Kitty Hauser in her book “Shadow Sites” calls an archaeological imagination:

“The difference between a preservationist and an archaeological sensibility is often one of emphasis: while preservationists tend to mourn the disappearance of a historic landscape, campaigning for its conservation, the archaeological imagination perceives the presence of the past in a landscape despite the incursions of modernity.  To preservationists, modernity tends to be an irremovable barrier in the way of aesthetic pleasure, whereas to those who see the landscape archeologically, it is a barrier that can be seen through, over, or round: the past may no longer be so evident in the modern landscape, but its increasing invisibility does not make it sensuously unrecoverable.”



John Nash The Flooded Meadow


Hauser’s book concentrates on the last great serious-minded generation of British artists, working before Pop and post-modernism doomed them and their concerns to a tragically irrelevant uncoolness.  In my own youth this school was both everywhere and nowhere: everywhere in the form of superseded design elements on coronation mugs, illustrations for children, and the covers of unloved secondhand books; nowhere when it came to arts reporting or discussions of contemporary activity.  To my regret, I have only recently started to try and visit the shrines of the movement like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, or Coventry and Liverpool Metropolitan cathedrals, and at least part of the reason has been a personal version of the gut prejudice against the perceived triviality of charming art.

It is ironic then that I find my own visual explorations of the land around me leading me to a close affinity with an art movement I have always respected, but have rather taken for granted, and never really loved.  In particular, the landscapes of Eric Ravilious and John and Paul Nash now have a force and relevance that surprises me given my prior neglect.  Perhaps it is just a question of growing up.



Paul Nash  The Orchard  c.1914


What I have always loved is the line-strong, semi-abstract feel of prints, etchings and engravings, and the tones and overall look of watercolour paintings, so it is possible that gravitating to the English New Romantics was inevitable.  Paul Nash in manifesto mood describes this preference as typically English:

“English art has always shown particular tendencies which recur throughout its history.  A pronounced linear method in design, no doubt traceable to sources in Celtic ornament, or to a predilection for the Gothic idiom.  A peculiar bright delicacy in the choice of colours – somewhat cold but radiant and sharp in key.  A concentration, too, in the practice of portraiture; as though everything must be a likeness rather than an equivalent; not only eligible persons and parts of the countryside, but the very dew, the light, the wind as it passed.”

I see a similar approach in the graphic arts of many of the early C20th European folk-romantic movements, as well as in much Chinese and Japanese painting, so I am not convinced that in my work I am merely reproducing an inherited English aesthetic.  What is clear is that Nash’s comments are directly applicable to my photography.


Paul Nash The white horse at Uffington



Paul Nash Boat, Atlantic

Both photographs are from “A Private World“, a portfolio assembled by John Piper from Nash’s negatives after his death.  Available online as part of the UK government collections, or reprinted and for sale at Abbot and Holder.


Nash himself took many photographs and regarded at least some of his photographic work as on an artistic par with his paintings and watercolours.  This excites me, not because I want to join in the usual supine photographic joy when an acknowledged artist condescends to treat photographs with respect, but because what I find most attractive about the formal aspects of this school of art turns out to be largely a matter of seeing.  Painters are usually described as having the freedom to put anything into their work they care to imagine, and it becomes easy to console myself that their paintings are more interesting than my photographs because they are not constrained by the particularity of an actual place and time.  That Nash’s photographs have so much in common with the composition and design of his paintings entirely negates this, both as an excuse and as a discouragement.

It is no secret that I am fascinated by how the past lives on in the landscape, both as physical forms, and in the unquestioned mental attitudes associated with tradition and habit.  My desire to acknowledge and recognise the past is tempered by an intrinsic suspicion of the consumerist heritage industry, and it is a relief and a pleasure to have finally woken up to the existence of an artistic movement with similar concerns.  I already see myself as a sort of neo-pictorialist, and just as soon as I graduate from charm school I will be adding neo-New Romantic to my list of working titles.

Whenever artists start to talk about how their work is exploratory or documentary I instinctively think of vomit.  Not, you understand, as a gut reaction to the whole idea of documentation, but as a reminder that even the most survey-minded exploration is selective, and that the selection is often the result of a mixture of peer pressure and habit rather than the workings of a conscious, open mind.

Norovirus is the new Touch of Flu, something children seem to get every winter, and adults too if they are unlucky, or incautious.  The proper English name doesn’t seem too threatening, but the colloquial name, and the name used in Sweden, is “winter vomiting disease”, which gives some hint of the anti-social effects this virus can have.



Helene Schjerfbeck The Convalescent (1888)

There was a time when nursing sick children was a simple matter of holding their tiny hands, mopping their brows, and waiting for the fever to break.  Antibiotics and socialised medicine added the stress of wondering whether to bother the doctor, and finding ways to pour bitter fluids down reluctant small throats.  Now, parents around the world have added mopping up and rapid changes of bedding to the list of routines to be performed in the bleary middle watches, and the light-sleepers have learned just how much subsequent effort can be saved by leaping out of bed with jug and cloth at the ready at the first hint of deep coughing.  At low moments, or after a succession of false alarms, this can seem like a wholly gratuitous development in the tit-for-tat evolution of minor human diseases: it is not even as if the virus uses regurgitation as a way of transmitting itself.



Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Gluttony

The physical act of being sick has never been especially popular in visual art, although it was a staple of satirical and moralistic prints well into the nineteenth century.  A few cartoonists continue the tradition set by Rowland and Gillray, but as a rule both high and low contemporary art has consistently overlooked this particular aspect of the human condition.

Being sick, and illness in general, have become like war and death.  They are something that happens to other people – other helpless people who we pity, but cannot aid.  As is usually the case with the picturesque pathetic, distance escalates the seriousness of the situation depicted.  At home we get to see fever-cheeked children and mothers-to-be with morning sickness, while TB and meningitis outbreaks show up in neighbouring countries and horrors like ebola and sleeping sickness are afflictions of the distant other.  The rare rabies patients in the local hospital are accorded respect, dignity and privacy, which is well and good, but it gives the impression that they do not exist and that the disease is someone else’s problem.



James Tissot A Convalescent (1876)

Convalescence used to be a standard trope in writing and pictures, but it is now usually regarded as obsolete.  This is partly because modern medicine has made many chronic diseases curable, and Sanatoriums and Spas have become subdivisions of the wellness industry rather than the tools of front-line treatment; but it is also because we have changed our self-image to one that is more denying.

Images of convalescence divide neatly into two classes.  The first is comprised of pictures of hope and reassurance: children on the mend, pallid ladies on their way back to health, soldiers smiling from their beds.  The second class is the call to charitable action which runs right through the history of photography from the slums of Lewis Hine to James Nachtwey’s disease-resistant TB.



Russell Lee Mexican Boy Sick in Bed, San Antonio, Texas (1939)

In both cases modern western society prefers to tell itself that the problems represented by the pictures have been solved, at least locally.  Endemic disease is a problem for foreign countries, and social reform has either happened, or been made irrelevant by rising living standards.  Where a problem persists in mutated form, it has been pushed into the private realm: poverty stays in its own home and the unemployed queue indoors rather than down the street.



Nurses with convalescent soldiers, Hickwells, 1915

The case of convalescent soldiers is particularly instructive.  At one time photographs of military personnel recovering from their wounds was a standard part of the compact between governments, their armed forces and the general public.  Smiling recoverees projected the message that war was survivable, even if a few people did get hurt.  It reassured combatants and their families that they would be looked after properly should the worst happen, and it reassured non-combatants that men and women in service were being cared and provided for as dignified human beings, and not simply sacrificed as numbers on a board.

The recent World Press Photo competition winners illustrate well just how much has changed.  In a news media where photographs of injured Americans or allied forces are non-existent or actually forbidden, there have never been so many gruesome photographs of foreign dead.  There is something very disturbing about the way the press acquiesces in the US and British Governments’ efforts to present their middle-eastern wars as casualty-free while awarding prizes and much page space to grisly images of dead Chinese, Burmese and Kenyans.

In many ways, nothing has changed since Felice Beato aestheticised the Opium Wars and the suppression of the Indian Mutiny into a triumph of the Imperial British over lesser races.  Some may take that as a sign the human nature hasn’t changed much over the last hundred and fifty years.  I find myself reflecting on the equally persistent strain of self-delusion that runs through our pictures of ourselves, and instinctively, I think of vomit.




I took this photo the first winter we lived in this house and know all the stories behind the minor details, none of which are worth telling to others, but all of which have a personal significance.  A case of the particular in the universal.  In a few more weeks there will be two more trees perched on the woodpile, and between now and then I expect to be fully engaged with three over-excited children, a glass or two of something good, and ridiculous amounts of traditional food from two separate cultures.  

May all your holidays be equally full of punctum.


cemetery of other men’s bastards let
wane and peter out
because I am jealous of the Muse’s fornications
and over timid to be a cuckold!


Meanwhile you
have raised a sufficient family of versicles;
like you in the main.

Basil Bunting, On Reading X’s collected works



Sally Gall, Quadrant.



David Burdeney, Mercator’s Projection



Mike Smith, Gray, Tennessee







Mike Chisholm is a man obsessed, and the Twiglog salutes him.  He is well-practiced in the English art of self-deprecation, but no amount of wry humour can mask his deep-rooted and serious fascination with water.  Not the portentous water of crashing ocean waves, mighty waterfalls or chocolate box alpine lakes, but with the moods and ever-shifting subtleties of small watercourses and their surroundings.



It probably helps that he lives and works not far from my parents’ house in the south of England, and that the streams and aquifers he loves are the same ones I paddled in as a child, but there is more to it than that.  Chisholm’s observation is of the long term kind, built up over many years and yet still fresh enough to be able to see the unique in the familiar and to pay attention when seeing the same place for the ten thousandth time.

It certainly helps that his photographs have a wonderfully attractive, abstract quality.  There is a simultaneous sense of shapes and colours in two dimensions, and a series of layers and collapsed-together image planes in three.  Given the complexity of the scene, and the camera’s mad insistence on seeing all things equally, the coherence of the finished presented photographs is a wonder.  I suspect that his long term commitment to a few well-loved places is one root cause of this coherence.



He recently started a blog, Idiotic-hat (www.idiotic-hat.blogspot.com).  Anyone who can combine morphic resonance and Kelvin vortex atoms in a single post has to be doing something right.

J.M.W. Turner – Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Tate Gallery, London

These days, science and aesthetics are commonly supposed to have an antagonistic relationship, but two hundred years ago they were less professionalised and their boundaries more fluid.  Then, a writer like Goethe could publish a scientifically well-regarded treatise on colour vision, and Thomas Young could combine fundamental physics with deciphering the Rosetta Stone.  Today, young artists seem to be actively discouraged from thinking in any way that could be called rigorous, and popular science has become a pale offshoot of the cult of celebrity biography.


Colour juxtapositions and edge effects from Goethe’s Farbenlehre

There is, I suppose a certain schadenfreude in seeing a well-known photographic artist offer a signature series of ‘fractal’ photographs which have nothing whatsoever to do with fractal geometry, but mostly I end up with the sad conclusion that all artists really want from science are a few bauble-like soundbites to pad out their conceptual statements.  I scream inwardly every time I read the photographic world’s oft-repeated dogma that Berenice Abbott “wasted her talent” on scientific illustration.  Sadly, most scientists are no better: art in science tends to take the form of adding a canonical stamp of approval to the introductory part of a lecture or article.


Berenice AbbotCycloid, from her science photographs

The idea that scientists already have all the answers has somehow lodged in the public consciousness, reinforced by science in the news and on television programs which inevitably takes the form of brainy boffins handing down tablets of wisdom.  What seems to have been lost from popular and artistic conceptions of science is the link between observation and the unknown, and the understanding that much new science originates from the visual or intuitive discovery of previously unsuspected symmetries or systematic behaviours.  Botanising, that is, the art of wandering undirected but alert while trusting to serendipidity, has been lumped with taxonomy as the scientific equivalent of antiquarianism or stamp collecting – a mildly interesting but tragically non-analytic poor cousin form of activity.  There is little interest in what happens before the answer is arrived at, much less the practicing scientists’ truest delight: the process by which you come to realise that a question exists to be answered.


Colour juxtaposions à la Gaud-Gray

So as an antidote, I offer an article that describes some of the ideas floating around in my head about colour, and colour theory, and colour perception.  This is not an analysis, much less a synthesis, and it is not meant as a manifesto or a prescription.  It is rather a collation of the things I feel and know about colours and and how they relate to each other, and to standard theories of the physiology and psychology of colour perception.

Secondary Primaries

The article was inspired by an interest in tricolour photography, and the enthusiastic adoption of the technique among a mostly French group which includes Henri Gaud, Philippe Do, Colombe Levi and several others.  They, and especially Henri, deserve any credit for the actual work involved here, my contribution is to stand on their shoulders and peer off into the foggy distance.

Henri has posted a French translation of the article on his Trichromie blog, see here: Primaires Secondaires.  Many thanks to him, and to Marc Genevrier for the translation.

From Wild Things XVI: Indian Brook

My own preoccupation with undergrowth and weeds grew out of a desire to show the natural world as I encountered it, rather than as it was being sold to me in the mainstream media and the photographic press.  When I started I was naturally isolated by the sheer practicalities of finding space to photograph in the cramped odd corners of my life.  Later, I decided to avoid too much exposure to other photographers because I felt strongly that my biggest problem was a tendency to take photographs because they looked like photographs.  I wasn’t looking at the world as it was, but rather waiting for a predetermined photograph to come along so that I could capture it.  I spent a long time groping my way out of a lazily-learned behaviour and eventually arrived, somewhat pleased with myself, at a point where I thought I had something uniquely my own.

Then I discovered Friedlander’s landscapes, and Ray Metzkers, and older work from Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Frederick Sommer.  I also found that many other contemporary but less canonical photographers were also grubbing about in the underwood, sometimes for well-articulated conceptual reasons, but among those that resonated most strongly, just because they found the places to be visually fascinating.  The largest surprise was how many of those I found had backgrounds very similar to my own.  I half thought of calling this blog’s “Twigographer” category “Middle-aged Expat Englishmen Who Photograph Undergrowth”, but that seemed unfair to the middle-aged expat English women, and in any case it was too long for the sidebar.  I can’t believe that every single one of us spent our childhood leisure hours mucking about in neglected coppices and golf course gorse stands, but perhaps we did.


From Wild Things XI: Indian Brook

I don’t know how old John Brownlow is, but he’s an expat Englishman who photographs undergrowth.  Some of his photographs have a similar narrow field of view to my own, but it is his marvellously constructed panoramas that really excite me, not least because I know from experience how hard it is to maintain any sense of coherence in wide angle views of this sort of subject.  There is a touch of the sublime in Brownlow’s work, but no bombast, and an overall sense of composition which balances the parts and the whole beautifully.  He also occasionally uses colour, which is rare among any of the twigographers I have come across, and obviously speaks to my own interests directly.


From Wild Things I

Brownlow’s photographs are spread somewhat haphazardly across his website and his Flickr stream.  If you can live with the incredibly annoying Flickr interface the best way to take a comprehensive survey is to browse the “Wild Things” sets there.  The galleries on his website are easier to navigate, but you’ll miss some recent work.  Wherever you browse, Brownlow has been generous with his file sizes, so I recommend taking the trouble to look at the large images.  These sorts of photos work best at a particular size which is rarely as small as a blog or Flickr placeholder.  The formal and tonal relationships need the correct amount of room to breath and express themselves, and in the sweet spot the detail becomes an accent rather than a distracting mess, so I recommend finding a large monitor and treating yourself to the full resolution pics.


This blog’s blogroll is a small one.  Like most others who enjoy skiving off work by surfing the net I have a large constellation of sites I visit regularly in search of distraction or amusement, but those in the blogroll are the ones that regularly make me think, or challenge my complacency, or both.

All are worth a visit, but Wood s Lot is special because it bucks the seemingly universal trend towards ever more simplified and edited sources of information. Although it is cunningly disguised as a collation of fragmentary links and severed chunks, the blog as a whole presents a consistent and coherent engagement with art, literature, politics and the world of thought.  In particular, as someone frustrated by the insularity of the photographic world I find Mark Woods’ mixing of many different visual arts – painting, illustration, photography and more – both refreshing and a relief.

So when Wood s Lot picked up on my Rachel Brown post, and followed up with a link to my Sand Boils photos, I felt rather like a small child seeing the Presidential cavalcade stop, and the great man getting out of his limo to congratulate me on my flag waving skills.

In honour of this moment, and to ensure that no good deed goes entirely unpunished, I have restored the whole Sand Boils essay that I wrote to accompany this set of twelve photographs.  If nothing else it will perhaps help to unbaffle the poor souls who bothered to wonder what the title had to do with the pictures, as well as those unhappy few who stumbled fruitlessly into my website as a result of googling for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Essay here: Sand Boils

Flying into Copenhagen or my local airport, Sturup, is a fascinating exercise in landscape history.  Away from urban areas the ground you look down on is divided into roughly evenly spaced farms, which form a semi-regular patchwork spread right across this southernmost tip of Sweden and on over the Danish islands.

It is tempting to read into these patterns a heart-warming lesson of cooperation and collaboration in early agriculture, but they are almost entirely the result of C18th and C19th land reforms, often imposed from above by an ruling class bent on higher profits.  They are the equivalent of – and were in fact inspired by – the Enclosure Acts in Britain and similar wholesale reforms on the European continent.  Instead of piecemeal working of thin strips scattered across a variety of communal fields, individual farmers and families were allocated a contiguous parcel of land equivalent in area and quality to their previous holdings.  Histories of the reforms tend to emphasise the rational, more productive agriculture that resulted, but the human cost and the social upheavals were vast.  I do not know of a Swedish poet to match John Clare in England in lamenting what was lost in the changes, but before and after maps make clear the immensity of the disruption and effort.  It is remarkable in today’s world of drawn-out planning permissions and zoned development to contemplate the audacity and determination of the reformers.

In Sweden the reforms included breaking up the old village centres and rebuilding many of the farmhouses out in the middle of their newly allocated land.  Ghost village squares can be found where all the farms simply evaporated, and it is quite common to find older parish churches in baffling isolation with no obvious community to attend them.  Another aspect of the Swedish enclosures was that there was no obligation to actually enclose the newly divided land.  To this English observer, the lack of hedges and mature boundary trees is one the most striking aspects of the Swedish agrarian landscape.  The difference is obvious even from the air.  Over Skåne the eye picks out block-like patterns of field shapes, whereas in a similar area of, say, the Welsh marches, it is the linear boundaries of the fields which dominate.  One thing however is common to both landscapes: the way that the most open fields often have a tree-ringed blob at their centre.


Slättåker, north of Lund

Maelor Saesneg, in the Welsh Marches

Further north in Sweden, such blobs are almost always an “åkerholm” or “field skerry”; a pile of stones laboriously cleared from the cultivated earth by hand and built up over the centuries as a monument to drudge and hard graft.  It is no accident that these features are largest and most common in the areas of Sweden that saw the greatest emigration to the USA.  Around Lund however, the farmland is the best in the country, and a closer look at the aerial views shows that most of the blobs are not heaps, but holes, usually filled with water.

Popularly, the holes are known as “duck ponds”, but their ubiquity suggests that either this is a misnomer, or earlier generations of Swedes had an unusually close and all-encompassing relationship with their web-footed friends.  Ducks and other aquatic fauna and flora do indeed love these handily placed mini-lakes, and today’s farmers are bribed to retain the holes as refuges for species whose normal habitat of marshes and meanders has been obliterated by drainage and canalisation.


An archetypical pit

The classic form has a squared-off end opposite a rounded one, and if the field is on an incline the rounded end is almost always on the upslope side.  If you are tempted to swim with the ducks you will find that the squared off end usually has a gradual slope into the water, while the rounded end is steep-sided.  Were it not for the green soup of algae and duckweed that thickens the water in any weather warm enough for skinny dipping, you might imagine the holes had be designed for swimming in.

Here, as is often the case in the utilitarian world of farming, form is a good guide to function.  The holes were not dug to provide a charming recreational water feature; in fact, they are usually sited so as to minimise water infill, which is why they turn so soupy in the summer.  Instead, they are the remnants of an early and extensive form of soil improvement called “marling”, in which chalky clays were dug out of the subsoil and mixed with the surface layer to improve its consistency and chemical balance.  The slope into the marl pit was there to allow a horse and cart to approach the steep workface.

In areas of easy waterborne transportation marl was mined on a large scale and distributed to farms some distance away, but the amount required is exceedingly bulky and heavy, and in most areas cartage fees could easily triple the basic price even for journeys as short as a few miles.  Where the subsoil was of the right type, it made sense simply to dig a hole in the middle of the field and thus to move the marl over the shortest possible distance. 


From Nordisk familjbok – a Swedish book on husbandry, 1913

The amount of marl dug out of a pit varied widely, which is not surprising considering variations in the clay’s composition and on the type and quality of soil on which it would be spread.  Figures range from a few tens of cartloads per acre up to several hundred, and either amount represents an almost unbelievable level of backbreaking toil.  It is no surprise that marling was an unpopular activity among those who actually had to do the work, not least because it usually took place in the summer between haymaking and harvest-time, just when custom demanded a period of rest leavened by dancing around the maypole and a relaxed attitude to public drunkeness.

Marling was practiced by the Romans, and has left sporadic traces in the European archaeological record for at least two thousand years.  Its great heyday was in the C18th and C19th when land reform, population growth and the early glimmerings of the science of soil chemistry combined to give purpose and intellectual respectability to an old country practice.  At best, marling could double the productivity of light acid soils, and because it was slow acting it needed only to be applied every ten to fifteen years.  A C16th saying put it: 

“a man doth sande for himself, lyme for his sonne, and marle for his graunde child”

However, marling was unpredictable: the principle effect of marl is to counter acidity and raise the soil pH, and until reliable chemical assays were available, marls could only be judged by crude measures such as their colour or consistency.  In the worst cases, marl could impoverish a soil by promoting the rapid breakdown and leaching of all its organic material, which led to the contradictory C16th saw:

“..ground enriched with chalke makes a fiche father and a beggarly sonne”

In Swedish there is a saying that is an almost literal translation:

“kalk skapar rika föräldrar men fattiga barn”

Once transport links improved, marling gave way to more frequent applications of lime from kiln-fired limestone or shell deposits, and later authors tend to be unusually dismissive about what had once been a widespread and productive agricultural practice.  Condescension to the supposed idiocy of the past is nothing new, but the tone in which marling is described as primitive and crude is more than usually supercilious.

Today, we have the scientific tools to understand marl as a fertiliser, but we rarely apply them because mechanisation and oil-based fertilisers have made the questions irrelevant.  Some marls especially rich in phosphate or potassium are still mined, but small-scale local use has completely disappeared.  The history of agricultural chemistry has generated many curios, and marling has joined others like the guano and coprolite fevers in leaving clues written in the landscape, but little in the memory.  The ducks at least seem grateful.