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 

Drawing Breath in Wolf Glen


The stream in Wolf Glen joins Glenkinnon Burn, a small piece of ancient woodland protected by Borders Forest Trust. For a while, I watched small scraps of wood move slowly across stones in a sunlit pool – sometimes turning upstream or pausing.


Back in the studio I consulted a textbook about what I had been seeing.


Different species of case-building caddisfly each have their own style of larval case, and these were carefully drawn out.


Caddisfly larvae spend their time underwater, and those in fast flowing upland rivers must prevent themselves being swept downstream. A further text on Aquatic Entomology taught me that larval cases have been investigated to find out how their shape influences the velocity of water passing over them. I should have looked more carefully, to think how fusiform larval cases might influence isovels (lines connecting points of equal velocity).

But what do the larva themselves look like, inside the case?


Looking at the textbook illustration, I realised I needed to include the insect’s gills on its abdomen. Such intricacy! Every stage of insect life has its own respiratory system, and this varies between species.

Gas Exchange is the concern of a whole chapter in Aquatic Entomology. I find this complicated. Oxygen diffuses very slowly in water, unlike in air where it diffuses fast. Insects living underwater have to extract this oxygen somehow – and cope with different conditions, such as temperature and aeration of the water, which has daily and seasonal cycles. I must get some basic facts sorted: what is the difference between a pupa and a larva? What meanings can the word plastron have? After some head scratching, I deduce that Trichoptera (caddisflies) may have closed tracheal systems, and their gills may form finger-like structures, often in tufts.


I still do not know what kind of caddisflies I was looking at, but I have a better sense of what happens inside the larval cases. I imagine water being wafted through finger-like tufts as they draw breath in Wolf Burn, grazing algae from the stones and growing.


This blogpost shows research drawings by Kate Foster for a new project ‘Flux Chamber’, which encourages exchange between biogeochemistry, environmental literature and art at the Environmental Art Festival for Scotland 2015 (29th and 30th August , Morton Castle, Dumfriesshire). More details will follow.