River Ways and Land Uses

A drawing, a map and a guide are connected by the flow of water in the Tweed tributaries.

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This is soon to be published as a pecha kucha talk . It is about a catchment drawing, a Land Use map, and a guide to how carbon moves for water to air. The connecting theme is the flow of water in the Tweed tributaries. To begin, here are some of their names, collated for a project I was part of, “Working the Tweed” (2013)Kate Foster PC Mtb.003

Catchment maps are handy things for a project to have, but we needed one that was affordable. So I traced these River Ways to make a talking point on our project stall at agricultural shows. The drawing became a project motif. The Tweed is a very dendritic river – this drawing leaves out fine detail.

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This slide gives an impression of the project Working the Tweed. The Borders region is defined and connected by rivers, though people often think of it in terms of its towns. We learned that many people know their River Ways really well (and could point out  inaccuracies).

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Of course, many other artists have been inspired by The Tweed – these are just three that I have followed. Helen Douglas’ sumptuous bookwork Follow the River developed in the Yarrow Valley ; the Tweed Rivers Interpretation Project; and Andrew Mackenzie as project artist with the Hawick Flood Protection scheme.

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Here is Jules’ Horne’s Tweed Tweed made in cloth. It adapts an engineers plan for a re-meandering project at Eddlestone Water (near Peebles). These works were led by Tweed Forum. We showed this work with a toy-digger so people of all ages could help make the river meander again.

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At some point, I realised I should think about Drains too. People have been building a second kind of catchment over the centuries, rushing water to the sea. I began to look for drains in the landscape, and get interested in Subsurface drainage patterns.

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I also have become slightly obsessed by diggers (perhaps I’m not the only one). You see them everywhere when you start looking – performing Landscape Service and doing plenty of Groundwork. But they do seem to hide when it comes to Landscape painting and photography.


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Through the Tweed project, I and the other lead artists became involved in Pilot Land Use Strategy in the Borders, led by Tweed Forum as part of Scottish Climate Change Legislation. The consultation process focussed on maps and was framed by the concept of ecosystem services. The technical language of ecosystem services can be daunting …

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… but every person and every creature is affected by how humans use land. There’s various ways artists’ can contribute ‘intangible values’ and ‘cultural meanings’. As a starter, here’s the Tweed’s ‘indicator species’ – including salmon who need to migrate to cold Arctic waters.

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Stone Flies are a favourite food for salmon. Improvisational dancers also paid attention to their midsummer emergence on the riverbank. Stone Lives – led by Claire Pençak – developed as a result. This includes a dance score about personal associations with what happens in particular places.

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The 1930s Land Utilisation map is in the Mapping the Borders exhibition – it is still in copyright. Here’s a hint of what it looks like. This sketch was an experiment in using Claire’s score. The Land Use map itself is very colourful indeed, with yellow uplands of moorland and heath and flowing towards brown and green valleys, and red or purple towns.

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The 1930s map gives bright colours to times I have otherwise glimpsed through black and white photos. I imagine walking in these uplands then – curlew cries, shepherd’s calls, dark skies with crisp cold autumns … but perhaps the colours add gloss to what were hard ways of living.

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So, next, this is a scientific instrument – a Flux Chamber that measures how much carbon dioxide is released into the air from a flowing river. The amount of carbon being released as gas depends on the time of day, what season it is, and how the land is being used. Flux Chamber became the title for an interdisciplinary project about carbon landscapes.

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You cannot sense directly when carbon is moving fast from water to air, but you can learn to read signs of when it is likely – when the river is turbulent, brown and noisy. I piloted a ‘guide’ to carbon landscapes with a biogeochemist and a scholar of environmental literature.

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You can see this guide at the exhibition. It opens with an invitation: think of the lines on a catchment map as places where carbon is being released into the atmosphere. This piece combines Susan Waldron’s scientific observations with poetic responses by David Borthwick, and my drawings.

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Animal life plays a role too. Caddis flies –  like Stone Flies,  need clean waters and live in fast flowing upland streams. Expressed as poetry by David Borthwick:
.. the caddisfly larva (shredder, scraper, collector)
makes an armoured harbour
a tiny sequestration
sealed for instar
pupation for take off

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Another of the six pages is about Water Colours:
‘ soil and inorganic carbon colours the water and is swept downstream, which increases the flux from water into air. So the intensity of the colour of the water gives a clue about how much carbon efflux is happening.’ (Susan Waldron)

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These are colours of clear water of the upland River Yarrow, drawn out by the sun. The range of colours appeal to the senses, more alluring perhaps than after heavy rainfall when the river becomes dark brown.

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You can’t feel a river shedding carbon directly, but we can watch the leaf-fall onto its surface. We can see leaves snagged on trees at the river bank, left by previous torrents. Through drawing, I find meanings of a specific place which are not expressed by technical reports. For example, this next drawing about how autumnal leaves move in a swirling current.

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With winter rains, the rivers will become torrential, opaque brown with silt. I find this sight compelling and formidable.

The fears, hopes and meanings I find in places keep shifting around the metrics of mapping and surveys.

Dog on a bog (95% water)


I went, with a dog, to Kirkconnel Flow for inspiration for World Wetlands Day. The National Nature reserve noticeboard had just one message. Yofi and I took note.

dogbog2wFrom the start, Yofi was not sure about this venture, following me closely and not leaving the path. Odd behaviour, for a young dog.

But going through healthy blaeberry bushes, we found something that interested us both. What is “N31” – a Peatland Action?


Yofi was uninterested by Sphagnum, though I was trying out a new Moss app.


We progressed towards a drain blocked as part of the peatland restoration programme.


This open water harboured Feathery Bog-Moss:

dogbog6wYofi (who loves to swim) hung back: No go. No way.

I tried another path by the uncleared Scots pines, that were part of the plantation that almost destroyed Kirkconnel Flow). Yofi still was unimpressed.

A fallen tree made me very curious – but no dog followed me to the pool that had formed where it had stood.



I meanwhile, found much to distract me.


I wandered to the crater edge – more Feathery Bog-Moss.


Yofi withdrew to a safe distance and kept an eye on me.


I finally twigged, walking back to our starting point. Perhaps for a dog on a peat bog, the earth literally shakes? With all four feet on a quaking bog and a water level only just below the surface, she was certainly right to be very cautious.


Back at the carpark, I found myself compelled to conduct a litter pick.

dogbog13wAn empty bottle of Vimto. Fruit juices, I learnt, make up of 5% of its ingredients – so the other 95% is water.

Just like Kirkconnel Flow! The peat bog is a liquid lens of water and moss atop a foundation of glacial boulder clay. Long and well may it quake.



How Deep is your Bog?

An event organised by Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership offered a glimpse of the plants which create the depth and the breadth of Beggar’s Moss. The partnership intends to restore this rich Moss, which is fascinating culturally as well as ecologically.

At the end of August last summer, Emily Taylor  led an event for the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership to Beggar’s Moss in New Galloway Forest Park. This attracted a group of bog aficionados and had all the feel of an expedition.

Beware! It is easy to get lost amidst the Forestry Commission conifers around the bog. The awkward access was all the more exciting for those carrying peat probes and other survey equipment. I was glad that the sandwiches made it through unscathed.


We created a marker point for our basecamp, on the ‘shore’ of the Moss.


Beggar’s Moss is a peaty island left within the extensive afforestation of this area that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The Moss triumphed as it was too wet to plant. Being protected from grazing by the plantation, the Moss has become ever more verdant – with colourful Sphagnum mosses mixed amongst other plants.

Emily’s guidance helped understand something of the environmental contexts that led to the luxurious depth of the bog, and also the plant profile of its living layer that gives it a fascinating breadth. We learned to survey a line of quadrats, showing the plant transitions across the Moss. It took me a long time to tell the difference between deer grass and cotton grass, but expert eyes made it look simple to identify the intriguing bog plants.


At the same time, others in the party probed the peat and found it was 8 metres deep.


We discussed the impact of our footprints on the living surface layer. Perhaps wellies do more damage than bare feet?

Sundew plants growing between the mosses were the stars of the day.


Lodgepole seedlings are menacing because when they grow, these trees’ deep roots can crack the bog. Some seedlings were uprooted exposing their long taproot – perhaps this was the start of a process of restoration.


At lunchtime, eating sandwiches kindly provided by Galloway Glens, we discussed the Moss’s changing fortunes and the irony of our introduction of olive pits to its plant record. I intend to keep track of the restoration of Beggars Moss, and to learn more of the plants that made the bog a wonderful eight metres deep.

Thanks to Emily Taylor and McNabb Laurie for creating this public event, which was part of the Galloway Glens programme.

‘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?

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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?




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

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.

water colours

Today, in preparation for a Flux Chamber event at EAFS (29th August – Thornhill in Dumfrieshire), I’ve dug out my brushes and used brand new earth colour watercolour pans. Not something I feel expert in, or have tackled for a while, but there is a logic to this.


The colour of riverwater is an indicator of how much carbon dioxide the river is shedding into the atmosphere. So looking at riverwater colour is one of the ways that you can see carbon landscapes. We’ll be talking about this on riverbank walks at the foot of the Lowther Hills. The idea is that walkers will get a leaflet which is a guide to seeing Carbon Riverscapes.


Last month, I took a geographers’ Munsell’s guide to Soil Colours (courtesy of the University of Glasgow) to Wolf Glen. Crayons proved a slow way of rendering stilled movement of water. Another problem with this method of staring deeply into water is that the reflections on the water are not what is important to a biogeochemist – what matters most to her is the sediment that the water is carrying.


The next step was to obtain watercolour pigment jars from Cornelissen’s Fine Art shop in London – and see how they looked. I’ll give these to the Flux Chamber biogeochemist (Susan Waldron) for her collection of samples of dissolved inorganic carbon (said to look quite like whisky).


The ambition of doing daily watercolour readings fizzled out in the face of other jobs, but here are some initial impressions from video clips of the Ale water in fast flow.


For the Guide to Carbon Riverscapes, the logic of the medium of water colour pigment was irrefutable – it is a suspension in water and comes in a range of earth colours (ochre, sienna, umber etc).  And so I am dashing off a few paintings which hopefully will dry in time for Saturday week when we meet on the riverbank of Cample Burn.

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EAFS is taking place over the weekend of 29 and 30 August. If you are able to join Flux Chamber on Saturday 29th (and are prepared for a walk on slippy muddy ground) there will be two riverbank walks along Cample Cleuch, starting out on a minibus from the EAFS basecamp at Morton Castle (book the morning walk online, or the afternoon walk at Morton Castle ‘Post Office’). We will explore Carbon Landscapes by walking along wooded sheep-paths in the company of a biogeochemist (Professor Susan Waldron), and an environmental writer (Dr David Borthwick). We will think about ways to sense and see carbon cycling, especially carbon’s movement from river-water to air, and see a demonstration of how carbon release is measured with a Flux Chamber. You are also invited to join in further exchanges (on paper and in conversation) over Saturday evening, information will available on site from the festival organisers – but do BOOK into the festival as a whole first).

Introducing ‘Flux Chamber’: pecha kucha format

This pecha kucha was given at July Green Tease run by Creative Carbon in Glasgow School of Art.

Flux Chamber is a multidisciplinary project which is finding ways to see Carbon Landscapes. We are preparing an event for the Environmental Art Festival of Scotland on Saturday August 29th. I am working on this with biogeochemist (Professor Susan Waldron) and a teacher of environmental literature (Dr David Borthwick) from the University of Glasgow.


 A Flux Chamber is also the name of a biogeochemist’s tool that shows exchanges of gas and energy as a river flows. Susan assesses scientifically how much carbon dioxide a river releases in different conditions. We will put a Flux Chamber to work to look at Carbon Landscapes in rural Dumfrieshire.


In April, I joined a field trip where Susan Waldron taught undergraduates how to use a Flux Chamber, in a river flowing out of carbon rich limestone at Malham Tarn. This is a classic Carbon Landscape where the carbon-loaded river degasses into the atmosphere.


Despite the enjoyment of paddling in a river on a sunny day, I was taken aback to find that the atmospheric baseline reading was up to 400 ppm. The students interpreted what they found in relation to river velocity and Ph readings, and found the CO2 levels on the surface of the river near the cliffs were much higher than the atmosphere – the river was shedding carbon.


Below, you see the spot we have chosen as a Demonstration Site on our riverside walk (Cample Cleuch, near Thornhill). We will take measurements – and as you see, the scene will be documented by a plein air artist. I plan to graph the Flux Chamber readings (I will need to take an easel and an umbrella). An artist of carbon landscapes, I learn, must become interested in river meanders and armoured banks.


It seems that you have to think about Carbon Landscapes before you see them. There is nothing new about these processes, but if people are to protect naturally stored carbon, we need to develop sensibility to see how carbon is gained, lost and recycled.


I use drawing to think through flows of carbon between different reservoirs – marine, terrestrial, atmospheric. I begin to understand Susan’s fascination with the influences on the release of carbon into the atmosphere – which has daily and seasonal patterns as well as human impacts.


The way that humans use land influences how much carbon the river carries, or how much is sequestered. To a biogeochemist, this landscape at Morton Castle is a register of seasonal tree growth, biomass of silage, and the transformation of carbon between different kinds of life-forms.


We did a preparatory walk on site last week. As a visual artist, I am focussing on how carbon landscapes can be seen, and David Borthwick is applying expertise about how poets work with such themes, and Claire Pençak – a choreographer – joined us in thinking how to move along a riverbank and sense how carbon moves through water.


A catchment map of Morton shows Cample Cleuch running from the reservoir (in the centre of the image). The blue lines on the map are places where, we learned, efflux of carbon into the atmosphere is constantly taking place. In other part of the map, there might be carbon gain as well as loss.


On site, we learned that the more sound a river makes, the more carbon it is losing. In other words, turbulent waters release carbon dioxide much more readily than smooth waters. This gives an additional meaning to the cascades of a waterfall.


These additional meanings (which are available via our senses) are what Susan considers to be ‘auras’ of carbon landscapes. Another ‘aura’ is conveyed by water colour, indicating the amount of organic carbon within river water. (These samples are in pigment jars from Cornellissen Fine Art Supplies).


Soil erosion is something our new Carbon Landscape school must bear in mind! Not just a source of pigment and vivid coloration – think of the carbon leaching from this exposed site, the activity of microorganisms, and the prevention of sequestration.


Within the grand sweep of global carbon cycling, microclimates can be studied such as how moss favours wetter sites, and how trees bend in relation to soil composition.

Photo © Kate Foster

Different meanings of the idea of ‘scores’ came up on our preparatory walk. Claire, a choreographer, suggested a score as a possibility of shaping movement along the riverbank. Meantime to Susan, a biogeochemist, this idea of ‘scores’ evoked possibilities of rating and measuring carbon flow.Photo © Kate Foster 2015
For me, other creatures are a proxy to understand why the details of gas exchange are important (see earlier post). On a walk near Selkirk I found caddisflies, entomological indicators of pure water. I watched them in their larval cases move slowly across the river stones. My photo sits next to a textbook illustration of varied larval cases.


Each insect stage and species has a different means of wresting oxygen from the air. Aquatic insects depend on a variety of elaborately evolved body parts to breathe, and conditions can be unfavourable, such as heat, stagnation, poor aeration.

Drawing © Kate Foster 2015
I learned that inside their larval cases, this species of caddisfly waft water over their several tufts of finger like gills. The cases use found materials – wood in this instance – bound with silk.


As well as global reservoirs of carbon, I am trying to envisage carbon landscapes in the small-scale activity of different species within microclimates. Of course carbon landscapes can be seen in urban settings too. We depend on scientific research to be clear about the ‘anthropogenic signal’ in carbon landscapes . To indicate that, here is an invasive and destructive signal crayfish…


This artist-led project is also about finding ways to work across disciplines on what could be categorised as public engagement, but at heart is an exchange of ideas, values, and impressions to create a multi-layered perception of processes occurring around us.


All images © Kate Foster 2015, with permission to use as relevant from staff at University of Glasgow 
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