‘lungs of the earth’

The meanings of Fala Flow near Edinburgh are sung by Karine Polwart at the Eidnburgh Festival, placing cultural value on the ‘lungs of the earth’. Meanwhile a ‘review of permissions’ may allow peat extraction to accelerate nearby, at Auchencorth in Whim Moss – undermining climate action, and the quality of future lives to be lived.

A wonderful performance about a peat bog is running at Edinburgh Festival – Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart. This interweaves people’s lives with those of plants and migrating birds over generations. Fala Flow is a peat bog near Karine Polwart’s home, south of Edinburgh, and with her voice the Flow becomes urgently alive with wondrously named sphagnum mosses and life-giving (but also deadly) plants. Glimpsing uncertain futures with foul weather, Karine Polwart also draws out what can be done collectively. After listening to this performance, I was left wanting to breathe deep, and keen for Flows and the lives lived within them. As Karine Polwart said, peat bogs are the ‘lungs of the earth’.

Whim Moss is a raised bog at Lamancha not far from Fala Flow and in part of it, called Auchenforth, peat is being extracted. You can see the machinery used here – not quite so industrious as the fearful Two Headed Vacuum (below) but along the same lines, and still able to pick up peat infinitely quicker than sphagnum can ever lay it down.


It seems that people buy massive quantities of horticultural peat, despite alternatives being available. So extraction continues (see a previous post) and for Whim Moss, a legal loophole has allowed yet more peat extraction:

Plans to dig out large amounts of Scotland’s precious peat from a landowner’s estate near Edinburgh look set to go ahead despite widespread opposition from conservationists and government.

A loophole in the law is likely to allow peat to be extracted from Auchencorth Moss on the Penicuik Estate in breach of local and national planning policy. Peat is a vital store of carbon, and is meant to be protected to help prevent climate pollution.

12 June 2016, Rob Edwards, Herald Group –  full article from the Herald. 

What does Whim Moss look like from above?

whim bog peat extractionS
Photograph: Hugh Chalmers, Tweed Forum

The photo, kindly supplied by Hugh Chalmers of Tweed Forum, shows that Whim Moss, if perceived as lungs, have two lobes that are not equally healthy. Overall, the dark brown ‘lobe’ (of active peat extraction) is releasing carbon dioxide from the ground into the air – but the lighter ‘lobe’ slowly absorbs carbon, and has its uppermost vegetation layer intact. The healthy part of the lung is an SSSI bog which has been restored, as part of Peatland Action, to reinstate the dams and fell inappropriately planted trees.  You can also see, middle left, an experimental area used by the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology to study how peatland ecosystems respond to different levels and forms of nitrogen deposition.

Think about the time frames invoked in this image. The raised bog has been creating itself since the Ice Age.  The Clerk family has run the Penicuik Estate since 1654, while their tenant, Westland Horticulture, was initially given permission in 1986 for peat extraction. Since then, Scottish Government has taken legal steps to protect peatlands, but Westland wants to extract 100,000 cubic metres of peat every year until 2042, under a ‘review of minerals permission’ process. A decision is to be announced this summer.

Hold on! a review of permissions? A process that takes account of what time frames, what places, involving whom, and for whose generation?

A peat bog, according to Karine Polwart, can be appreciated best by being seen from two distances. A moss can be understood from the widest possible viewpoint – but also in close-up, its richness and beauty is revealed by the narrowest focus. Shouldn’t a ‘review of permissions’ take the widest possible viewpoint for future generations of all species, so that they are able to enjoy the meanings and values to be found within the slow, cyclical, small-scale pace of the living Flow?




place drawing as a shared process

Three days of field-drawing in the Scottish Borders let Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe and Kate Foster develop a method of shared drawing that helped weave individual observations with each other’s expertise.

Three days of field-work in the Scottish Borders let Jethro Brice,  John Fanshawe and myself find ways to share investigations of particular places. Preferring to work collaboratively,  we developed a method of shared drawing that let us weave our individual observations with each other’s expertise.

Accompanied by umbrellas, waterproofs, sketchbooks and numerous pencils, we went to three different places in the Scottish Borders. The first was Whitlaw Moss, a SSSI near Selkirk which is marvellously categorised as being a very wet mire likely to have an unstable ‘quaking’ surface. Access to the Moss is restricted – my view of it had up till then been from a car window on the road above. Getting close-up, a wonderful variety of plant and insect life came into view.

How could we possibly represent this? Grasses, sedges, orchids, ragged robin, moths, beetles…

Close-up of Whitlaw Moss (image Kate Foster)

Attempting to draw generated further unsteadiness – my A3 sketchbook pages flicked over with impatient speed.

A quaking oat stilled on the page (image Kate Foster)

I found this self-imposed flat rectangular format frustrating, and also the sedentary character of plein air drawing.

I considered swimming in a ‘well-eye’, and admired bogbean.

Photo: Kate Foster


Drawing: Bogbean and welleye,  Kate Foster


In truth, we left somewhat frustrated with our attempts, and wondered where to go with this. Pursuing the model of individual artist in landscape seemed to have led us to clamber into boxes of our own making.

Drawing: Jethro Brice


How could we make more use of being in such places together? We began Day 2 with an exercise suggested by Claire Pençak: using three bamboo sticks to generate collaborative patterns of movement.

Photo: Michael van Beinum

En route to St Abbs Head, we talked about two much-missed painters, John Busby and David Measures, who remain important influences for groups of artists committed to observational drawing of birds.  Measures and Busby  both found ways to express their unique voices – coaxing their students away from photographic styles of representation towards an exploration of movement and place. Few of us can hope to catch birds’ giz as Busby could, or look at their subjects with the commentary and dynamism that Measures achieved. What could we offer instead?

In different ways, we each work towards exploration of what can be termed ‘biocultural’, jargon for the goal of acknowledging people’s activities and concerns within more-than-human processes. Also, given contemporary complex and knotty environmental problems, we discussed how the process of making artwork must include the possibility that everything is not OK. A visit to St Abbs is imbued by a possibility that this year could be the last seabird summer – as Adam Nicholson investigated in a recent BBC programme.

The cliffs at St Abbs at St Abbs are hard to encapsulate, though Jethro found his efforts greatly freed up by the collaborative exercise:

Drawing: Jethro Brice

Listening together offered an additional pathway for exchange. We drew soundscapes by passing our sketchbooks round every 5 minutes, yielding these images:




Above: Shared drawings at St Abbs, by Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe, Kate Foster

We found this way of working to be constructive. John’s poetic and expert eye for movement and Jethro’s structural intelligence, in combination with my restlessness, let us make something different than we could achieve individually.

As ‘drawings’, the early marks on paper staked out composition and focus: we worked progressively to adjust tone, flow, and colour. As ‘conversations’, these shared works allowed us to see different aspects of each place we were in. We puzzled on problems, such as how sounds have shape and colour. Above all, this process helped articulate emotional and subjective responses – in St Abbs where loss can be felt vertiginously, and marvellous and terrifying elements beyond our control can be glimpsed.

The third day saw us walking on the glorious Southern Upland Way, to practice our method, but in less sublime conditions.

Photo: Kate Foster

Sheltering behind a wall, flattish wetness became a shared drawing that included lark, curlew and snipe call.

Shared drawing on the Minchmoor by Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe, Kate Foster

In these ways, we succeeded in opening up spaces of encounter – and helped hone specific questions and possibilities.

What now? Perhaps this may extend beyond an interdisciplinary conversation, to engage further kinds of knowledge of place – tacit, instrumental, more than human?




a blind eye

Although it is a really bad idea for climate, peat is milled on an industrial scale in Scotland, and elsewhere.


“Coined “global coolers”[2], peatlands remove or “sequester” carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and are known as “carbon sinks” or “pools”. Peatlands are thought to contain between 329 and 528 billion tonnes of carbon (equivalent to 1,200- 1,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide). Unless the bogs are disturbed by human activities, such as commercial peat extraction, much of this carbon can be stored for near geological time-scales [3]. ”  Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, report available here

Since the 1950s, gardeners have bought peat in large quantities.


So…private companies profit without paying for the environmental cost of releasing CO2. Meantime, some public money has been dedicated to restoring peatlands.

The way peat extraction releases carbon into the atmosphere is invisible unless you have developed an eye for carbon landscapes: seeing carbon in flux requires a new way of thinking.

As well as its ecological impact, peat extraction means the disappearance of an environmental archive; a previous post described the kind of information a peat core offers.


You can see signs of peat extraction on the A75, between Annan and Dumfries.


I stopped at a lay-by where you can see the Nutberry Moss works, with the old Chapelcross Power Station in the distance.


This is a place that is really only for those who work here.


You cannot get any closer to the diggings, even if you skirt round the smaller roads to the north. When I visited, the rifle range was in operation.



I am now curious about what happens here.

“The drains separate the peat mass into long ‘milling fields’, from which several thin layers of peat are then stripped during a year, amounting to around 200 mm per year. This bulk removal of the peat in the form of the industrial crop represents both loss of carbon and loss of the peat archive. The latter is lost forever because it recorded a particular set of moments in time which cannot be repeated. In the case of carbon, the net result of cutting and restoring a bog will be a loss of carbon compared to leaving the bog in its natural uncut state.”  IUCN publication  Source here

I wonder how much height Nutberry Moss has lost, and imagine a peat-core that could once have been taken here standing as a vertical pillar.

The scale of extraction at Nutberry is at a far remove from traditional peat digging.

source: http://www.islayinfo.com


All the same, the machinery at Nutberry Moss is not nearly as massive as the Two-Head Vacuum Peat Harvesting Machine developed to get peat for fuel power stations in countries like Canada and Russia. This kind of machine hoovers up peat vastly more quickly than Sphagnum moss can ever generate it.


In 1999, a mysterious ancient object was found on Nutberry Moss. This two centimetre wide artefact is now in Dumfries Museum:

“This ball has been decorated with coloured concentric rings of grey, red and green enamel or glass. It is probably Iron Age, although it was believed that enamel decoration like this was more characteristic of the Roman period. Archaeologists do not know what it was for. Carving such hard rock would have taken a long time. Perhaps it was a hereditary object, passed on from one generation to another, or maybe it was carried as a status symbol, or perhaps it was part of a game for which we will never know the rules.” Source:  Future Museum 

I lingered with this beautiful item, marvelling at its six faces and how its paint-marks survived sitting in a peat solution for centuries.



This Iron Age painted ball stayed in my mind as I returned past Nutberry Moss along the A75. I began to think of it as a seer’s eyeball, or a forebear of carbon’s helical symbol.

According to Janet Suzman, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table concerns the ‘essential matter of life that makes us, binds  us, and with the detachment of the natural world, ignores us‘. Levi’s story of a carbon atom allows it to escape from being bound up in bedrock for hundreds of millions of years, to become the energy giving him capacity to impress, on paper, the dot at the end of his story.


With thanks to those who have helped me start to see carbon landscapes, Dumfries Museum,  and Michael van Beinum.

















getting down to the Ice Age

A core taken from a peat bog offers a form of time travel, letting us think of landscape as layers of its former self.

On April 22, 2016 (Earth Day), a group gathered at Kirkconnell Flow for a demonstration of peat-core sampling by Dr Lauren Parry  – lecturer in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Glasgow.


Kirkconnell Flow is one of the best preserved raised bogs around Dumfries, thanks to an EU funded peatland restoration project. Lauren explained that this kind of bog plays a really important role in locking up carbon, which has been laid down over thousands of years by Sphagnum moss.  For this reason, preserving peat bogs plays a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Peat bogs store carbon in a different way than forests. One way of understanding this is to think of peat bogs as being like a long-term savings account: they store carbon over millennia, but accumulate slowly. Forests, on the other hand, are like a current account – they accumulate fast, but store carbon in the short-term.

As these ideas about carbon landscapes sunk in, we learnt why drainage ditches had been blocked to raise the water table and plantation conifers were removed in order to restore Kirkconnell Flow, as I have documented in an earlier blog.

As we walked to the heart of the Flow, we sensed through our feet that a peat bog consists almost entirely of water. The topmost living layer of plants is underlain by the plants’ dead ancestors: the moss has captured water to create a lens of peat in what was, ten thousand years ago, a glacial lake. ‘Ombrotrophic’ is a word used to describe raised bogs – this means that nutrients within the peat bog have built up from rainfall only, as carbon was sequestered from the atmosphere via photosynthesis.  Poets and scientists in the group were equally fascinated by this entity, and the meanings that can be extracted with a peat core.



Lauren explained how her research techniques allow her to ‘read’ the archive that reaches down through metres of peat – Ann Lingard has already described this very clearly. With Lauren instructing, we learned how to explore the depth of the bog with a ‘Russian’ – an instrument that yields semi-circular depths of peat to researchers and their assistants.



Each time the Russian was drilled under the bog, it came up with about a thousand years of history. The first section, we learned, could be dated by traces of Chernobyl’s nuclear accident and other pollutants of the industrial era. Each sample was placed in guttering, labelled and wrapped in cling film; we bored down, seeing how the dark top layers changed to become lighter and wetter as we got deeper.


After five and a half metres, suspense deepened. Would we reach the boulder clay that was deposited when the last glaciers melted, with our final sample?


Yes! Pale grey boulder clay was drawn up from six metres below.


On 23rd April, the peat core became a conversation piece for a second Borderlands meeting at the Stove. The successive depths of the sample were shown with the Russian corer, alongside drawings I had made in anticipation of peat core analysis. As Lauren pointed out, our imperfect technique meant that this sample cannot be used for scientific purposes – but it offers much for artists to think with.


The science Lauren uses for analysis of a peat core includes proxy measures which age the sample, providing ways to document changing environmental conditions through which the bog has developed.

One of these proxies are testate amoebae – microscopic protozoa with hard shells, in varied shapes. Different species flourish according to how wet or warm the living layer of the moss is.


The books describe them as ‘vase-shaped’, making me speculate about potential Iron Age remains to be found amongst the amoebae.


These became intertwined in my studio drawings, as I began to consider the ideas a peatcore may convey.


Pollen grains in the core provide information about which species flourished as the bog grew, making beautiful shapes when seen under a microscope.


I combined the idea of these pollen grains with Russian paisley patterns.


Bog-bodies also came to mind as I prepared drawings in the same dimensions as Russian peat core samples. I would like these to accumulate into a new body of work.



With thanks to Dr Lauren Parry and all who took part in the Borderlands 2 event, held with generous support of the Stove. This event and the ideas it generates will continue to be recorded on this blog.



Peatland Actions: questions of scale

It’s been great to do this project at the Stove.

If I’ve published in triplicate by accident, sorry + sorry + sorry… do let me know how not to!

Coinciding with the COP21 Climate Talks in Paris, The Stove’s exhibition Submerge has brought issues of climate change into the heart of Dumfries. With Nadiah Rosli, I have brought together two considerations of peatland – from the Solway and South East Asia.

The work also celebrates the form and function of bog-moss. With the dream of seeing restored peatland across Southern Scotland, I have become interested in how that curious and unique plant, Sphagnum, can be regenerated.


Very few complete Mosses survive – for example only 15% of Lochar Moss by Dumfries remained as moss by 1973, compared to its extent in 1889 (source – Peter Norman, The Great Moss). Until recently Mosses have not been valued for their ‘ecosystem services’ but peatbogs are the most effective carbon sinks known. Conversely, peat releases greenhouse gases when it is exposed. Damaged Scottish peatlands are being restored using public money for climate mitigation – but at the same time, peat extraction is pursued privately. I see this, passing by on the A75 to Carlisle.



For me, this grim landscape of carbon emission is a glimpse from the car window. Nadiah Rosli’s has had to breathe far more damaging airs – the thick toxic haze from fires raging in Indonesian carbon-rich peatlands. These affect countries in South East Asia, including Nadiah’s home country of Malaysia. This year is one of the worst years on record, and it has become a strange annual ritual for Nadiah’s family and friends to wear face masks and to stay indoors when the air pollution is particularly bad.


The scale of this smoky haze can be seen from space, and huge carbon emissions result. It remains to be seen if the UN talks in Paris can require the Indonesian government to take action against this illegal burning of forest, that makes space for plantation monoculture.

Friends of the Earth International believe Indonesian fires to be one of the most pressing climate change issues. At Paris, they are calling on the EU and US governments to introduce and implement strong and binding laws in order to stop the fires.  You can read the report here, describing how EU shareholders are profiting.

Setting out extracts of these investigations next to each other has posed questions of scale, and thoughts about the comforts and discomforts of distance (in both space and time). In relatively short periods ecological damage to slowly formed natural heritage can become ‘normal’.




Nadiah, now a University of Glasgow postgraduate student of Environment, Culture and Communication, explains why she urgently wants us to know about ‘extraordinary injuries … committed through deliberate acts’.  Her experience takes us into the emotional space of people for whom “Haze” has become an everyday weather condition, that can kill. Images of children in face masks at school compare with instagrams rejoicing at the sight of blue sky.



There are also impacts on wildlife – a third of the worlds orang-utan population has been smothered, ancient rainforests wither in the heat, and skies are silenced of birds.


These scenes of devastation are hard to imagine, and difficult to hold in mind when set alongside a Scottish peat cut for the hearth. Yet in combination,  desiccation and fire becomes a disturbing theme amidst the watery concerns of Submerge.



To return to Sphagnum, this moss is a kind of aqueous superhero which allows bogs to soak up flood water and release it slowly.


Sphagnum has spongy cells, so dried-out strands can be submerged to absorb perhaps 20 times their own weight of water. Another statistic: a peat bog is perhaps 98% water and 2% moss. I am rapidly becoming an enthusiast for this rootless plant that survives only in dense upright mats and collectively creates peatlands.


These themes will be discussed at Questions of Scale – an evening event on Thursday 10 December. You can see Submerge at the Stove, Dumfries until 12 December, and download our exhibition notes here: QOS printout

This changes everything …

Yesterday the weather warnings map looked like this …

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 08.22.59


… but still almost 40 folk gathered at MacArts in Galashiels to watch a film narrated by Naomi Klein – This Changes Everything. This was to coincide with the UN Climate Summit in Paris.  The discussion after flagged up several  local sustainable initiatives – many of which are in The Little Green List.


Introduced by Mark Timmins, the event was initiated by Inge Panneels, (below) supported by Ranald Boydell (above) and myself.IMG_4754

You are welcome to join us for a second event next week:

Inge Panneels, Kate Foster, Ranald Boydell and Jason Baxter are organising a walk into the Heart of the Borders on Saturday 12th December starting at the Focus Community Centre in Galashiels to form a heart shape made up of people in the beautiful Borders landscape to be part of events taking place all over the world. If you can make it, wear something red. 

This is a free event. You can sign up for the walk here

for the love of … Sphagnum!

The Stove in Dumfries had a craftivism session last weekend for the forthcoming Stop Climate Chaos March  in Edinburgh. This was a heartening session of ‘slow-activism’ – helping me decide what I care to wear as a heart on my sleeve. This was the moment to declare a growing love for mosses, and Sphagnum in particular.


Living with water is important around the Solway, and I’m learning that Sphagnum is a kind of aqueous super-hero. An individual Sphagnum moss is a strand of water-holding cells that can collectively create raised bogs many metres deep, over thousands of years.

Complete raised bogs are now rare. Dogden Moss in the Eastern Borders and Kirkconnel Flow west of Dumfries give hints of what the landscape in Southern Scotland was like before bogs were drained and dug. Beginning  a tour of mosses,  I have discovered the equivalent of mountain-top removal has been inflicted on them. My eye is getting tuned to tawny strips on the low horizon.


Dogden’s gravelly kaims make a curving ridge between two moors, debris of rivers that flowed under ice sheets.  Woodcock sheltered in the heather and the moor houses shooting butts.


I did not dare leave the footway across Kirkconnel Flow.



Sphagnum in autumn colours, with frost later in the month.



Close up, you see different shapes and colours of different sphagnum species, which in 3D stretch in watery suspension metres down to the underlying rock. A natural environmental archive of eight thousand years of watery life is underfoot.


This human-made drainage ditch has been dammed, a recent reversal of policy. Peatland Action is a restoration programme co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage: the reasons to conserve peatbogs are beautifully laid out in the National Peatland Plan. Importantly, peatbogs sequester carbon and are sinks for atmospheric carbon. This process is starting in the blocked ditch at Kirkconnel, as Sphagnum strands start a slow and steady occupation.


The Southern Upland Partnership has engineered  a “bringing together of minds” connecting those looking after trees, soils, and water quality (Peatland Action, the Forestry Commission, Galloway Fisheries Trust).



Photograph courtesy of Southern Upland Partnership

Peatland Action has also included a Bugs on the Bog training event – getting local wildlife recorders enthused about bogs.

 Photograph courtesy of Southern Upland Partnership

Across the Solway, Cumbrian Boglife is bringing raised bogs back to life.  At Wedholme Flow, moss starts to grow back over peat exposed by years of extraction.


Wedholme Flow was covered by gossamer strands, with spiders spinning above.


I will march with a Sphagnum heart on my sleeve next Saturday.  Also, I am inspired by craftivists, artists, bog enthusiasts, land managers and researchers  to look more at mossy carbon landscapes in southern Scotland.

My thanks to:  the Stove, Tabula Rasa Collaborations, Sarah Eno, Lauren Parry,  David Borthwick,  Pip Tabor.