For me, like others who are fortunate enough to have unrestricted movement, one of the few positive outcomes of living in the midst of a global pandemic has been having more time to spend in nature. Last spring I began a series of daily walks around my local park which culminated in ‘Gränby Park’ an artistic project which I submitted as part of the ‘Perspectives on Climate: Ecopsychology, Art and Narratives’ course at CEMUS, Uppsala University. In this blogpost I write about the inspiration behind the piece and reflect on walking as way of connecting to nature.
‘The wild and the human are severed only when the land is imagined as passive or a malleable tool for human progress and therefore never truly seen’ Gerry Steinauer, Ecologist.
The artwork ‘Gränby Park‘ is a reflection on the human and non-human visitors and inhabitants of Gränby Park, the largest green space within my neighbourhood. The project itself is best described as a journey both in the literal sense of my travel to and from the park and the metaphorical sense of a journey into the perspectives of park’s visitors and inhabitants. To explain my creative process, I have divided this journey into four stages.
The daily walks taken during this project can be seen as a form of ecotherapeutic practice in which I attempt to expand my awareness of the natural world and to reconnect with the more-than-human web of life around me. I began recording my walks through photographs, written notes and foraged natural materials, such as fallen leaves, plucked flowers and sheep’s wool. The latter I found in small quantities stuck to the grass and bushes within the paddocks connected to Gränby park. The wool became the catalyst for the physical form of my project and a symbol of my dependency on non-human others. I collected the wool over several trips, washed it, brushed it and felted it into a canvas. I see this as the first stage of my journey where I begin to pay attention to my surroundings.
In the second stage of my journey, I was inspired by Dale and Latham’s writing on the intertwining of bodies and materialities and their critique of the ‘Rousseauean image’ of humans as self-contained, self-sufficient and separate from the material world (2015). According to Dale and Latham, humans cannot be disentangled from the material world; we cannot exist outside of our relationship with the environment. While I believe this to be true, in practice attempting to shift from the assumed separation of self and other (or material and object) is messy and raises ethical questions about how we relate to the material world. During the time I spent collecting natural materials I had in mind the following questions: ‘what otherness is covered over as we make the world in our own image?’ and ‘how do we avoid turning the otherness of the other into a “thing-for-me”?’ (Introna, 2009, as cited in, Dale & Latham, 2015, p. 22). These questions are hard to answer and through the creation of the project I felt myself walking a fine line between consuming nature and being an active part in it.
In the third stage of my journey, I began to embellish the sheep’s wool canvas. I decided to work with embroidery as a way of connecting to the history of female domesticity and the marginalisation of female artistic practices within my own culture as well as the female mysticism surrounding ‘mother earth’ and the female forces connected to the land found in many indigenous cultures. I experimented with embroidering the surface with pine needles, grass and straw. This didn’t work well, as the felted wool was too dense to allow the fine grass strands to pass through. So I decided to work with embroidery thread instead. The style of embroidery is inspired by the work of Sami artist, Britta Marakatt-Labba.
On the surface of the wool, I explore three main motifs; a gold band which represents the tussilgao flower, walking paths which represent human movement and trees and houses which represent human-nature entanglement. Together these elements make up a map of Gränby Park and my journey through it from my memory.
The tussilago flower became a metaphor for spring and the changing of the seasons which I became aware of during my walks. The flower grew in the most unexpected places. In the areas of ground that looked the most dead and inhabitable, the tussilagos sprang up, their thick, dark green stems pushing through cracked earth to produce bright sun-yellow flowers. Despite the harshness of the soil and the cold Nordic spring, they were one of the first flowers I saw bloom, heralding sunnier days to come. The tussilagos trained my eye to see the environment in more detail. After watching their cycle from bud, to flower, to seed clock, I began to notice more flowers bursting into life. Dandelions, bluebells, violets, daisies, apple and cherry blossom, forget-me-nots, primroses and others that I don’t know the name of.
The walking paths present human perspectives and our communal experience of the park. During my walks I encountered many different types of people; children, sports teams, dance groups, teenagers, slack liners, skaters, dog walkers, parents, elderly couples, cyclists and more. Some stop for a while, play, listen to music, picnic, smoke cigarettes, some pass through laden with shopping bags or pulled on by a dog on the end of lead. Others sleep in the park, perhaps with nowhere else to go. The trees and houses, which occupy opposite sides of the canvas, represent human-nature relationships which are physically separated on the canvas and in real life. There is the park and connecting green corridors where nature is allowed to ‘be’ and the apartment buildings and paved roads where people have less opportunity to engage with nature. Few people here have private gardens and most of the greenspaces around the apartment buildings are managed by private companies.
During this stage in the journey I reflected on how traditional urban planning creates a physical distance between humans and nature. However, the park can be seen as a meeting point between these artificially separated parts. For instance, in one area of the park there is an allotment garden where people can become entangled with natural processes. The cultivation of plants, in particular fruits and vegetables, has beneficial outcomes for the land through the provision of seed dispersal and pollinating plants and for humans through the provision food and an increased sense of connection to nature (Barthel et al., 2010). Here people have the opportunity to play a vital role in shaping the surrounding landscape and to invite the land to play a vital role in shaping their community.
In the final stage of my journey I stopped walking and took time to reflect. By putting non-human perspectives at the centre of my creative process, I was able to look with fresh eyes at my neighbourhood. It opened up my ability to experience my surroundings through my senses rather than through the act of ‘sense making’ in my head. In this respect, I believe art gives space for both the creator and the viewer to assess the version of reality being presented. The creative process allowed me to experience theory in practice through direct engagement with ecotherapeutic practice. As such art can be seen as a way to process our separation from nature. Deeper still, it offers a way in which to start healing the wound of our separation. ‘Art gives space for ambiguity’ and emotional responses which, are usually excluded from the rigid, logical driven world of scientific knowledge production (Hine, 2019).
During this project, I have attempted to truly see the land as something living and dynamic and not just as a passive backdrop to my wanderings. Through the process I have begun to notice the life in more detail and have planted the seeds for deep attachment to the place I live. Now I have come to the end of this project, but not the end of my journeys to Gränby Park which continues to shapeshift through the seasons.