I hear the barking dogs and I feel the goosebumps rise on my skin. I’m frozen in fear for just a second, wondering how close they might be. Then I move quickly, pulling my vest up around my torso and lunging for my jacket hanging on a nearby branch. I turn around and can just about make out a group of walkers further down the path. I laugh to myself and feel grateful to those dogs for warning me of the imminent intrusion.
I had been both lazy and bold on this particular day. Lazy, because I hadn’t got up and out early enough to have this part of the woods to myself. Bold, because I reasoned that it wasn’t a hugely popular thoroughfare, even at 11am on an early spring morning. Nothing about the situation was ideal. The sun was already too high in the sky to create interesting light. The cloudy moments increased the chill in the air. The dog walkers were out and about. Still, I had an idea in my head and I needed to try it out.
That’s how it begins of course, a clear image arises in my mind and then it hops on its little hamster wheel and goes round and round, until I’ve had enough mental agitation and decide it’s time to make the image real. Since moving to Somerset a year ago the images have all been about how my body does or doesn’t fit into this rural landscape. I am preoccupied with getting closer to nature. After all, that is why I moved here from London just before the start of the pandemic lockdown.
These days I find myself in strangely compromising situations, as I try to weave my physical and mental being into my new surroundings. On this particular morning I was prancing about half naked in the woods, with one eye on who might be advancing down the path, and one eye on the camera in front of me. One hand was steadying my balance on the nearest tree trunk and the other hand was holding the camera’s remote control. This exposed multi-tasking is how I’m making a series of self-portraits of my body appearing and disappearing the landscape.
I’ve long been preoccupied by humans’ impact on the natural world, having worked on visual storytelling about the environment and climate change for many years. My chief concern has been the lack of emotional connection between people and the land they live on, believing that if we truly understood our interdependence with nature then people would take better care of their environment. However, I was so focused on what other people were and were not doing that I hadn’t noticed that I myself was also completely disconnected from nature.
The more I learned about environmental pollution and climate change the more I wanted to spend time in nature, to find my own relationship with the natural world. I noticed how happy I was in rural environments when on holiday and had an inkling that I needed more nature to really thrive. The themes of my art practice were completely intertwined with the natural world, but I didn’t know if I could disconnect from the city completely.
Before deciding to make the leap to the rural landscape, I knew I needed a stronger foundation from which to jump from. In 2017 I started on the Creative Practice MFA at the acclaimed London conservatoire Trinity Laban. I had always been fascinated by artists who used their own bodies in their work and now I felt called to experiment with using my whole body in drawing performances.
The MFA really pushed me to the edge of the cliff. It made me braver, it readied me to make the jump. Two years of performing regularly in front of an audience built up my stamina for making myself vulnerable. When I arrived in Somerset in early 2020 I knew I didn’t want to let my new skills evaporate. I needed to find a way to continue making art that required the same level of vulnerability. That’s how I started making new work in the woods, with my camera and the odd barking dog as the audience.
The only thing I could do during lockdown was walk and so walk I did. Every day I would take a new route out of the small town of Bruton and follow the path wherever it led me. As I walked alone, barely crossing paths with another soul en route, I let my imagination off the leash.
Who was I moving along these footpaths? Was I myself, or was I one of thousands who had walked this way before me? Chronological time began to collapse in my mind and I felt that I could be any one of the ancestors who regularly walked this land. Was I haunting the landscape, or was the landscape haunting me?
I took photos of the changing seasons; the colours of the leaves, the light on the branches, the dew on the spider’s web, the frost on the ground. I noticed I wasn’t lonely on these solo excursions. In fact, I started noticing a curious sense of being accompanied.
Why did I get the sense this landscape was reminding me of who I am? Why did it feel so much like home, even though no family of mine ever came from here? Although, I noticed that mixed up with these feelings of returning to myself was a foreboding sense of trampling and trespassing.
Who was I, a city girl pretty much all my life, coming to ingratiate myself into this rural landscape? What was I asking of it? What had I come here for? And was it going to be a mutual exchange or did my modern sense of entitlement lay claim to something that wasn’t really mine? I began to sense a polarity in my experiences walking through the landscape. I was being warmly welcomed by some unnamable thing, but I also felt like a kind of illegal alien that was contaminating the land.
When a city girl like me arrives in the countryside, I just assume that I’m living in nature. After a while though, I came to discern that where I walked every day was farmland and, in fact, there were two natures in tense dialogue with each other. Human nature trying to control botanical nature. While the beauty of the changing seasons was clearly observable in the continuous cycle of budding, blooming and falling leaves, I could see that animals, birds, fungi, and various other organisms were living in a tightly controlled landscape.
It’s all relative, of course. There is a vast difference between a London park and a Somerset field, even though both are highly managed, if differently populated, spaces. Now I’m wondering about the differences between farmland and a patch of true wilderness. I’m told by locals here that I need to go south to Dartmoor to find nature really doing it’s own thing, rather than growing as a muted expression of itself.
I have been reading the book Wilding by Isabella Tree about the transformation of the Knepp estate in Sussex from managed farmland to managed wilderness. It has made me look at the gently rolling topography of Bruton very differently and certain themes of nature struggling to free itself have started to materialise in my work.
The parallel with my personal identity — a woman trying to free herself from a conservative and contained upbringing into true self expression — is not lost on me. In the process of rewilding myself, I have come to sympathise with the landscape around me. I know it’s doing its best to blossom under restricted circumstances. As a result of these musings in my mind, the images I have been creating capture both the human spirit and the landscape working to set itself free with limited success.
There is no getting close to nature without trampling whole worlds underfoot. I ask myself, what is a truthful depiction of my body in this landscape? How do I depict myself simultaneously as part of nature and as an alien in the landscape? We humans are part of nature, but we’re also living through an era of man-made environmental catastrophe.
I can’t see the pesticides being used on the manicured farmland I walk through or the depleted state of the mycorrhizal networks, those underground highways that transport nutrients between trees and plants. However, I have noted with concern the dirty balls of foam that collect at nooks in the otherwise idyllic riverbanks.
I admit I know too little about local land management to have a truly informed opinion, but after a year in the countryside I’m beginning to look at these pristine green fields with a more critical eye than the purely romantic appreciation I arrived with.
The term uncanny valley springs to mind. This is the notion that when a human figure is a little too polished or perfect in an animation, it becomes unnerving to the spectator’s eye. Are these fields around me a little too perfect? What’s really going on underground? Perhaps what I first thought of as the ideal of living close to nature is, in fact, living in a simulation of nature.