When was the last time you listened to the world around you? Heard the call of the earth? It’s a question that might feel difficult to answer. In a time of smartphones and social media, many of us access the countryside remotely; watching viral videos of ‘van life’, craggy hilltops, or crystal clear seas.
But there’s something about nature’s call, isn’t there? Just three years ago, in March 2020, we entered a new world, stripped back to basics. In a time of trauma and difficulty, many of us were given the gift of time. A long hot spring, followed by a long hot summer. We worked from our gardens, explored our localities, and our nearby parks and green spaces were more used than ever before.
Even if you’re a regular nature-wanderer, when you’re out, do you take time to commune with the land around you? Meaning: being an active listener, or an active observer of the world you’re inhabiting. Could you challenge yourself to take your shoes off, and feel the coarse mossy texture of the ground underfoot? Could you climb a tree, and lie in its branches? Could you shut out the world, and observe a flower for an hour?
With For About is Heart of Glass’s yearly conference programme, and Care and the Commons, a day-long programme of presentations, talks and workshops, was the 2023 edition held on 25 May. It was a day by, and for, artists and thinkers, with the aim of inspiring reconnection: with each other, and with the world around us. Topics like climate, cost of living, colonialism and displacement were the talk of the day, in an open context where speakers, artists and guests were invited to collectively listen and reflect.
Defined by Elinor Ostrom as ‘land or resources that belong to, or affect the whole of a community’, ‘the commons’ and its interpretation was the day’s theme – whether it be meadows, forests, or riversides. In today’s world, ‘the commons’ is an ever-evolving term, but it’s always been political because, generally, where there is land, there is also someone seeking to claim it. In Britain, over hundreds of years, much of our land has been privatised. Privatisation of land benefits individuals, to the detriment of communities, often leading to both ecological and social exploitation, and eventual collapse.
It’s with this context that we met in the beautiful setting of Court Hey Park, Huyton, inside a Victorian walled garden owned by Knowsley Council, and beautifully maintained by the local Incredible Edible group.
The sun was hot, flowers in bud. It felt safe and open: an atmosphere for creating new connections. Care was felt from the attendees as well. Fiona Whelan acted as Listener in Residence, and Madeline T Hall, as mental health practitioner. There was coffee and good food, and the birdsong helped to create a bubble away from normality, a little bubble of goodness.
Artist Youngsook Choi started off the day with a presentation, alongside Wendi Sia via Zoom, about her project, ‘In Every Bite of the Emperor’, describing it as an exploration of what it means to grieve. At its basis, she said, grief is a feeling of loss that is inevitable when something or someone that we had a deep relationship or connection with is gone. And grief, in this definition, is the basis of Choi’s practice.
Grief is part of what makes us human. It’s one of the deepest, most visceral feelings that we can experience. In Choi’s reflection, what is also evident is that grief doesn’t always equal pain. Grief can be a motivator, leverage for social change. In the case of land, and the climate, it can be a force for good, motivating us to ‘do something’ and enable the land to heal. But grief can also be temporary, just like human intervention. As Choi says, both in nearby St. Helens, and in far away Malaysia, where once were bare patches of exposed earth, ripped open by industry, today is green as far as the eye can see. This cycle of destruction by humans and rejuvenation by nature, or destruction by nature and rejuvenation by humans, will ever continue.
Because as long as people have lived, we have been harvesting, using, eating, building and creating with the earth. Our interventions are as ‘natural’, or as necessary, as nature itself. So when we grieve the earth, when we grieve as a result of climate change or land grabbing, we are staking our claim to it. We say: ‘this place means something to me.’
Writer and activist Radha D’Souza addressed her audience directly, locking eyes with people in the crowd. Land and colonialism are tied together, she said, and the division of people continues to happen through the division of land. She showed only one presentation slide, with one image: a plaque, mounted on a wall, built around a hot spring in Sri Lanka. Written in Tamil, Singalese, and at the bottom, in English. The Sri Lankan army have built this wall, it says, and these changing rooms, for people to access the hot spring.
It’s a demonstration, said D’Souza, a representation, of how colonialism has affected land. That even after independence was fully achieved, the legacies of it stayed. Isn’t it an incredible concept? That people from another land can come to your homeland, declare it their own, say that they don’t trust you to run it, and then generations later, ‘allow’ you independence from them. The independence you had, and enjoyed, before they even arrived. The colonial legacy will stay, forever.
Later, the group split off into smaller sections, as we were led in workshops by artists Sean Roy Parker, Frances Disley, Liz Postlethwaite and Taey Iohe. But it was in the rose garden of Court Hey Park, that Lucy Powell led a small group of us in an exercise of rewilding the mind. We took our shoes off and felt the grass between our toes, and the earth pushing up from below us. A few of us climbed trees, while others lay under leaf-laden branches. The whisperings of the trees, and the heat of the sun, helped to guide us to a quiet state of relaxation. It was a commune with nature.
Powell guided us over to a buttercup patch, that stretched as far as the eye could see. There, we laid out in a circle, and over the course of the next forty minutes, we closely studied the length of a buttercup. The tiny, soft, hairs at its base, the nodules on the stem. It wasn’t just a connection with the natural world, it was an invitation to reconnect with what matters. We filled our cups. When was the last time you focused your attention on something seemingly so small? We slowed down and became children again.
It was the perfect way to round off the entire day, and seemed to speak directly to the event’s purpose. Instead of needing answers, we were provoked into asking better questions; even given a glossary of terms to help us along the way. Heart of Glass’s Care and the Commons encouraged open and honest observation, reconnection and exploration.
From the morning’s gentle grounding activity, to the intensity of Youngsook Choi and Radha D’Souza’s talks, the deep consideration in Lucy Powell’s workshop and the open-ended reflection in the group listening circles, it was a day of thoughtfulness. But really, it was a reminder: to treat the earth with tenderness and to tread carefully.
With For About 2023: Care and the Commons was convened on 25th May 2023 by Heart of Glass.
Grace Edwards is a writer and ceramicist based in Liverpool.
This review is supported by Heart of Glass.