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Grass and Walt Whitman’s ‘circle of life’

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

Skomer Grass I

Skomer Island National Nature Reserve is an offshore scrap of mentally energising volcanic rocks set in the wild seas pounding the south west corner of Wales.  It is a sombre place clothed in greens, grays and browns.  Occasionally it is flushed with amazing sunsets and deep blue horizons of sea and sky,  This small piece of land can be thought of as a secular place having no historic or archaeological connection with the Celtic saints who evangelised the mainland from other Welsh islands, yet it was settled at least a millennium before the birth of Christ. Most visitors today come to experience the wildness of the sea birds that nest there in prodigious numbers.  Nevertheless to cross over a turbulent Jack Sound isolating Skomer from the mainland, is to make sacred voyages of the mind, which are experiential journeys deep into the Spirit of places with a strong past.  These are responses you can get, if you are lucky, when visiting ancient places elsewhere.   Musing on the island’s farmers who, tuned to the tides and winds, had to regularly row across the Sound in times past, can generate a state of mindfulness.  Pondering on the relevance of shared experience, and its ability to potentially transcend barriers of space and mortality, gives Skomer a temple quality not of this time and place.

One of the first people to express this state of mind in art was the American 19th century poet Walt Whitman in his work  “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.   Whitman was an outstanding American who felt at one with nature and in most of his poems he tried to encompass the connection between nature and humanity. Reminding himself that others have seen, and fifty years from now will still be seeing, the islands of New York City, he realizes that others have also shared his range of emotional and spiritual experience. This makes him significant as an individual but also part of a larger whole.

Skomer Grass II

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

This poem seeks to determine the relationship of human beings to one another across time and space. Whitman wonders what he means, not as a poet but as another anonymous individual, to the crowds of strangers he sees every day. He assumes that they see the same things he does, and that they react in the same way, and that this brings them together in a very real sense.  This kind of thinking is amplified through contact with wildness; a wildness not of the African savanna but of a neglected lawn dressed in its bare patches and invading weeds.  

Skomer Grass III

These transformational life-changing experiences take place on all islands where the veils between humanity and nature are thinner and where miraculous reorientations of urban attitudes and behaviours regularly happen.  On Skomer itself such a reorientation comes about because the surface is dominated by the socialising of wild creatures with untamed grassland, littered with the desiccated corpses of seabirds and rabbits.  The resemblances of the grasses to oats, rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for millennia, connects the visitor dynamically to the first prehistoric farmers who have left evidence of their small community as stone walls networked to a family of round houses.  Nestling in the wild grassland and dense bracken of a sub maritime habitat, these archaeological remains spark feelings of humanity’s oneness with nature because they are now a significant part of  unmanaged ecosystems.

Today we would call Walt Whitman an ecological poet who was trying to express in words the dynamic biochemical cultural relationships we have with the material world of the soil and stars.  He often refers to humanity being part of the circle of life, believing in the idea that in terms of our chemical makeup humans never really die.  “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” is one poem where he relates himself and humankind to nature.   In this poem, he offers the idea that we are part of the chemistry of nature, which is flowing through the life forms around us. One line reads, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air…”   

Skomer Grass IV

Whitman makes something mundane, like grass, seem extraordinary and unusual. He takes this seemingly inconsequential object and imbues it with meaning, making it a symbol for the human condition. By doing this, he challenges his readers to take a moment to ponder the world around us, just like children learning about nature for the first time.

In “A child said What is the grass? ” he responds with another question  “What has become of people who have died”.  His answer is, they are alive and well somewhere, the smallest sprout incorporating some of the chemistry of human breath says there is really no death.  In other words we have a temporary existence as part of a chemical sequence of beings, maintained through evolution as a series of temporary biochemical steady states.  Like a candle flame that is burning steadily as wax enters and leaves as carbon dioxide and water, there is a steady coming and going of the elements of the bodies of all living things.  In life and death elements passing through humans day by day and year on year, are quickly incorporated into other life forms.  Whitman develops the concept that we are part of a chemical circle of life that goes on, even after death. For instance, in “The spotted hawk swoops by. ” he says that when we die, we become part of the non-living world from whence we came. If he is missed after death, we will find him under our shoes!. To finish his poem he says, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you. ”

Skomer Grass V

In “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Whitman compares humans to a spider in nature.  He says as spiders throw out their web, so do we also try to throw out our “web” to make connections with the universe. He says that humankind is, “Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them…”   His poems are his attempt to encourage us to maintain this effort of creative inquiry into our origins and our fate, which makes us human

A child said, What is the grass?

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

The poem begins with a child asking a simple question: “What is the grass?” The speaker contemplates that it is hard for him to answer, since he hardly knows any better than the child does. He goes on to ponder possible responses to the query. First, he calls the grass “the flag of my disposition,” woven from his own hopes. Then he calls it the “handkerchief the Lord,” intended to remind us of His power. Next he muses that the grass is also child of the vegetation. He then calls it a “uniform hieroglyphic,” pointing out that it grows around all people regardless of race or identity. Then, he writes that the grass seems like the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

Skomer Grass VI

He pronounces that he will “tenderly use” the grass, considering the possibilities of its origin. It may have come from the breasts of young men whom he might have loved. It may have grown out of the remains of old people, women, or children who died too young. He remarks that the grass is very dark to have come from the white hair of old mothers or the colourless beards of old men. The speaker wishes he could translate the hints grass gives about the individuals who lie beneath it. He asks for the reader’s opinion on what happened to these men, women, and children but then answers his own question. He decides that they are alive and well somewhere; the sprouts of the grass indicate that death is not permanent because it leads to new life. He then concludes that death is different and much “luckier” in passing its substance on to other life, than he had previously believed.

Though the majority of the poem is made up of the possible ways to define the grass, the third-to-last stanza contains the speaker’s own question.  What has become of the dead buried in the ground? In the following two stanzas, he answers this question himself.

Skomer Grass VII

This poem contains traces of the global ideals that resonate throughout Whitman’s poetry, notably in the stanza in which he suggests that the grass is a “uniform hieroglyph” that can unite people regardless of race, occupation, or social status. He reminds his reader that nature connects all human beings and the divisions between us are superficial. The line,

” I give them the same, I receive them the same” represents Whitman’s recommendation that human beings take a cue from the grass and treat one another equally.

Skomer Grass VIII

Death is a major theme in this poem, which takes the child’s innocent query into a much darker place. Whitman incorporates all facets of the human condition into his poetry because, in his opinion, death is a major part of life and nature. Whitman showcases his belief that death marks a beginning rather than an ending. The grass grows, dies, and is reborn in a constant cycle, and Whitman believes that human life is the same.  This is the contemporary message of Skomer to its visitors.  Every year the visual impact of its grassy ecosystems is different as new patches of colour and form appear, only to disappear in following years.  A regular visitor will remember seeing swathes of dead grass, which were followed by a revitalising  greening up succession involving a few common species that bring the island full circle back to what it looked like before being disturbed by changes in the weather or mortality of rabbits.  Other changes in vegetation seem to be progressive, tracking climate change as an indication of a mainland economy organised to gratify our immediate wants, which grow year by year, paying no attention to the cycle of life which sets the ecological limits within which we all must live.

Skomer Grass IX

Skomer Grass X

Skomer Grass XI



Bird’s-eye ecological microcosms

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

Ecology and visual culture

Visual culture is the aspect of human culture that is created and expressed in visual images.  Visual ecology is the study of how animals, including humans, use visual systems to meet their ecological needs, how these systems have evolved, and how they are specialized for particular visual tasks. This highlights the fundamental importance of visual culture in defining the human ecological niche.  Human visual ecology is therefore the study of the visual relationship and interactions between humans and their environment.  It considers the ecological, evolutionary, historical and socio-political dimensions of different people’s engagement with each other and their surrounding environment using visual media.  Not the least of these interactions is discovering the visual beauty of environmental mysteries.  

Increasingly visual media are dominated by computer-dependent information technology. In an interview with the Journal of Visual Culture, Martin Jay explained the rise of the marriage between technology and the visual as follows:

“Insofar as we live in a culture whose technological advances abet the production and dissemination of such images at a hitherto unimagined level, it is necessary to focus on how they work and what they do, rather than move past them too quickly to the ideas they represent or the reality they purport to depict. In so doing, we necessarily have to ask questions about … technological mediations and extensions of visual experience”.

Digital technology has certainly produced a radical change in the conditions of visuality and the subsequent transformation of a person’s perception of the world into images.  Digital images now enfold people in their domestic and wider social environments.  In this sense they are an increasingly powerful component defining the human ecological niche.  They now participate in the making of mental worlds and have become forms of thought constituting a new kind of knowledge, one that is grounded in visual communication and thereby dependent on perception, demanding the development of the optical mind.  Seeing  puts things in the mind’s eye and casts a particular power over place.  In particular, it reveals the hidden, conveys precision and offers control to the observing eye.  This is why overhead satellite imagery and drone cameras are now closely associated with scientific and managerial approaches to the environment.  In this sense digital imagery engages the eye with new visual experiences aimed to promote a holistic meaning or message.

A collection of pictures deliberately assembled by an individual, may be thought of as a ‘data island’ whether or not it defines a real island.  The brain starts to make sense of it, attempting to turn the images into a pattern, trying to construct a reality from the pictorial signals available to it.  From this angle, John Gillis argues that real islands have played an essential role in Western culture, which “not only thinks about islands, but thinks with them”    Islands are distinct worlds, miniatures of large communities where different issues are closely related to one another, in which it is easier to recognize the links between culture, economy, society and nature in contexts of insularity,  The important thing is that islands of knowledge enter the minds of most people through collections of pictures.  

Understanding a small island community is not easy, whether it is your own, a collaborating island or one that you only visit.   The long standing complex relationship between islands and fiction writing illuminates some of the seemingly infinite connections between the mind and the environment which, like gradually eroding strata on a sea cliff, continue to unfold before us and yield new treasures. The plethora of such images has promoted the artfulness in people.  An example is Sarah Nordean’s ‘The Islands’, which could be seen as a collection of these sorts of mental maps.  Relationships between objects are not always geographic relationships of measured direction and distance. A memory of a flower or a broken down wall can be as important as the weave of a streambed.  

In ‘The Islands’, Nordean explores the relationship between image making and our connection to space and place. Considering place from afar as well as from within, from a macro and a micro perspective, she is curious about how we organize and classify our environment, as well as how we experience places first hand.  Nordean’s process begins with walking through spaces while recording her movements using GPS, then using these “drawings” as compositional elements for her visual works. This project began as an exploration into parks and green spaces within Calgary, and how these spaces interact with their urban surroundings. It evolved into something more personal, encompassing daily practice and a connectedness to place. She says her art works from ‘The Islands’ are linked through continual movement, repetition in returning to the same places again and again, and a rhythm of step and breath.  In this respect the Island Series displayed on her web site is  an example of Open Data.  Open data is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.  Open Data has primarily been seen in terms of large entities and ‘big’ data: however islands and other isolated communities have a lot to gain and much to give from an Open Data, perspective,  This was the perspective which led to the creation of a mind map of the small offshore Welsh island of Skomer to mark the an anniversary of it being declared a national nature reserve.  It was intended to highlight the four flows of data necessary to connect an island, large or small, with the wider world and begin the development of an educational model to explore the technological mediations and extensions of visual experience.  The four flows of data are:

  • from the community to the world;
  • from the world to the community;
  • within the community;
  • between communities.

This blog concentrates on the role of digital imagery in the analysis of surface topography to generate an interdisciplinary understanding.


Bird’s-eye microcosms

Geographical places and their physical features are sites of remembering, where landscape operates as a storehouse for personal and collective memory.

The artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), who wrote extensively on the aesthetics and philosophy of modern art, identified the aerial landscape (especially the “bird’s-eye view”, looking straight down, as opposed to an oblique angle) as a genuinely new and radicalising paradigm in art of the twentieth century. In his view, air travel, and more specifically, aerial photography had created this broad change in scenic consciousness. The Italian Futurists were similarly fascinated with aerial views of landscapes.

Unlike traditional landscapes, aerial landscapes often do not include any view of a horizon or sky, nor in such cases is there any recession of the view into an infinite distance. Additionally, there is a natural kinship between aerial landscape painting and abstract painting, not only because familiar objects are sometimes difficult to recognize when viewed aerially, but because there is no natural “up” or “down” orientation in the painting..

The Cornish painter and glider pilot, Peter Lanyon, imagines being hundreds of feet above the Penwith Peninsula as a bird, wings spread, with wisps of cloud, and fields and hedges far below represented in a style that straddles the figurative and the abstract (Fig 1).   Another interpretation of this painting is that it encapsulates a body of interdisciplinary knowledge about Cornish cultural ecology of the lands to the south of St Ives.

Fig 1  ‘Bird Wind’, Peter Lanyon (1955)

It is only recently that science and art have come together in the presentation and analysis of the surface landscape.  The methodology and  evidence is that of aerial survey. The first aerial photograph to obtain geographical information was taken of a French village and its surroundings in the late 19th century. The man who took the picture was photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon.  He patented the concept of using aerial photographs to compile maps.  The invention was to prove much more effective than the time-consuming ground surveys that had then been used by national mapping organisations that developed throughout the 19th century. George R. Lawrence took aerial photographs of San Francisco in 1906 following the devastating earthquake, but it was not until World War I,  when potentially military applications were foreseen, that a systematic process of taking aerial photographs would become key to the development of the photographic method for obtaining environmental information.  Science meets up with art in digital technology when an artwork is produced from an aerial photograph taken in an ecological survey. (Fig 2).

Fig 2. Skomer: ‘photoshopped art’ from snapshot of grassland taken from a helicopter

Archaeology has gained the most from the application of aerial survey to reveal buried remains of earthworks and buildings, but there have been few collaborations between archaeologists and ecologists in understanding the common ground between the two professions.  One such collaboration was initiated in the 1980s, when biologist Denis Bellamy and archaeologist John Evans explored the the impact of prehistoric farmers in the creation of the fixed point ecological microcosms we see today.  The site was Skomer, a small offshore island in West Wales, which in prehistoric times had been home to a small number of farming families, A commonplace ‘Galapagos’ dignified by its outstanding sea bird colonies and a subspecies of the mainland bank vole.   The first farmers divided up the island with a system of stone walls interlocking with low narrow outcrops of volcanic strata.  The remains of their activities provide a sense of the visual language required to explore the environmental dilemmas at the heart of our globalized world. They are the things we have left behind.  As part of our visual culture they tell us that everything we do to survive leaves an imprint on the land.   Edward Burtynsky is one of a modern generation of photographers who use aerial images to seek to portray the visible outcomes of a globalized economy and humankind’s impact on environments around the world.  The Burtynsky visual perspective tells us although we have moved on from the old words to the new ages: the Information Age and the Biological Age of nature conservation , the Stone Age and the Iron Age and the Copper Age are all alive and well, and expanding manufactured landscapes on a scale that from a bird’s eye view is visually breathtaking.

In describing the message of his images Burtynsky says it’s like our consciousness is forging ahead into the new world.  He thinks that it’s those old worlds that can come up from behind us and undercut our ambition.

“So, to me, the work is this meditation, is this walking through those worlds, through these wastelands that have been left behind, through that residual kind of place in the world where the taking has happened and we’ve walked away, and try to remind us that there is this other side to the built world that we have. And it’s out there, and it’s largely forgotten and abandoned, and not ever actually even seen as a subject. Very few have actually treated it as a subject.”

In terms of making a studied response to these old words made large we are failing to respond to the problem of human survival.  Our brains worked fine in Neolithic times, when if we saw immediate danger, we knew what to do.  We are now encountering something we have never encountered before and have little capacity to understand with our primitive brains.  As we drive comfortably in our cars from home to work it’s hard for a driver to imagine that  if she leaves the car at home it’s making a difference, even if she understands the science behind global warming.  We are particularly good at acting on threats that can be linked to a human face, that present themselves as unexpected, dramatic or immediate, The slow pace of climate change as well as the delayed, intangible and statistical natures of its risks simply do not move us as individuals to change our behaviour,


Ecological microcosms

As the largest terrestrial ecosystem on Earth, grassland is associated closely with many of the most challenging environmental and ecological problems that humankind will face during the next several decades at a global scale. These include desertification, land degradation, climate change and loss of biodiversity. It is vitally important that better long term temporal inventories are obtained of grassland and that improved surveillance and monitoring with relative accuracy takes place, so that sustainable, long term  grassland management is achieved. However, due to its great expanse and diversity, rapid and low-cost evaluation and management techniques are required. For this reason, remote sensing technology provides a powerful tool for producing an inventory, managing it and monitoring outcomes.

Remote sensing has been recommended for at least 30 years for use in the management of grassland resources on a worldwide basis. The first black and white aerial photography became available for investigating grassland as a resource in 1935. Remote sensing developed into a science in the mid to late 1960. The launch of Landsat 1 in 1972 ushered in a new era extending remote sensing beyond air photo interpretation into the realm of digital analysis of multispectral and multitemporal data. A literature survey shows that 407 papers on grassland remote sensing were recorded by CABI information database from 1995 to 1999.

The application of remote sensing technology covers land classification and changes in grassland-use, grassland productivity-assessment, conservation and recreation, detection and monitoring of stress caused by fire, drought and pests.   Today, remote sensing, along with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have provided a powerful and sophisticated approach to the utilization, development and management of grassland resources throughout the world.

The fine details of a rabbit burrow microcosm had been defined by Mary Gillham in her research on the island of Skokholm in the 1940-50s. She had placed a rabbit proof exclosure between five burrows in a patch of degenerating Armeria. (Fig 3).   Her map depicts the exclosure in the sixth summer after its erection.  Regarding its complex dynamics she says:

“Festuca in the interim had occupied practically the whole area except the north-west corner which was exposed to the prevailing winds and close to a burrow entrance. As the burrow system was extended by puffins and rabbits the Armeria reinvaded locally above its ramifications, and with it the perennial, deep- rooted Spergularia rupicola which is one of its commonest associates in all burrowed areas, although seldom abundant because of its palatability to grazing animals. Rumex species are also able to resist the Festuca in the ungrazed vegetation over burrows, whilst Poa annua, Stellaria media and Erodium maritimum may invade temporarily as the Festuca succumbs.”

Fig 3.  The relationship of ungrazed vegetation to the underlying burrows. Rabbit-proof enclosure, N.E. Skokholm, July 1953  (Giillham, 1956).

Gillham’s research was mainly concerned with the impact on vegetation of the faecal nutrients from nesting colonial seabirds.  Although only a mile away along the coast from Skomer, the island of Skokholm is more exposed to South Westerly air flows and is like a promenade regarding the impact of gale driven waves and salt spray.   In this respect, Skomer although only two miles away to the South has sheltered valleys and rocky outcrops and therefore responds to weather variations in more diverse ways.

The vegetation of Skomer Island was first surveyed on the ground by J Sadd and presented as a bird’s eye view of the surface of the island  in 1947.  The map makes a scientific statement that the ground cover was about equally shared between sub maritime grassland and dense stands of bracken with a scattering of small areas of  heather heath (Fig 4). From the mapped distribution of these habitats bracken seems to be more dominant in the north east of the island with grassland more common in the south west. A glance at the current Google satellite image suggests that the distribution of these two habitat features has changed little in the last 70 years (Fig 5).  The positions of the  bracken areas are controlled by shelter from south westerly winds.

Fig 4 Ground survey of Skomer’s vegetation (J Sadd, 1947)

Fig 5 Skomer: Google satellite image, 2017

Blue line is part of the footpath network

Within a global context, the treeless island of Skomer is currently classed as a Western Eurasian Thicket, maintained dynamically by a combination of south westerly maritime air flows and heavy rabbit grazing.  In the classification of Palaearctic habitats Skomer may be described holistically at the present time as an arrested succession towards Atlantic Blackthorn/Bramble Scrub.   The bìg question is how bracken heath and grassland have coexisted in a dynamic equilibrium  for such a long time without management.  This question will be answered through long term aerial surveillance of the vegetation patchwork to assess the stability of patch boundaries and the life strategies of the plant species in border microcosms.

The culling of rabbits  was prohibited when Skomer became a national nature reserve in 1958.  By the 1980s, at the Wick and North of Skomer Head, rabbit activity had stripped the peaty soil of the coastal slopes down to bare rock.  A rabbit exclosure at Skomer Head showed dramatically the difference that unchecked rabbits had made.  Inside, there was a 0.5 metre deep development of a monoculture of  fescue peat (Festuca rubra), which contrasted with the surrounding bare soil, rock and the patchy colonisation by the rabbit avoided species listed above.  Several Shearwaters had burrows inside the exclosure highlighting the fact that rabbits had destroyed a considerable area of its nesting habitat along this part of the coastal slopes

Because it is only about two miles wide and relatively flat, Skomer is an ideal habitat for aerial surveys,  which can easily be accessed and truthed as microcosms on the ground from a network of visitor footpaths.  In this context the production of the 1947 vegetation map by J. Sadd is a remarkable achievement.   It delineates the island as a botanical patchwork of ecological compartments comprising about a dozen common plants (Table.1)

Table 3.1  Common plants of of the Skomer microcosms

Species Common name
Calluna vulgaris Ling Heather
Holcus lanatus Yorkshire Fog
Silene dioica Red Campion
Glechoma hederacea Ground Ivy
Teucrium scorodonia Woodsage
Armeria maritima Thrift
Silene maritima Sea Campion
Rumex acetosella Sheep’s Sorrel
Endymion non-scriptus Bluebell
Matricaria maritima Scentless Mayweed
Agrostis/Festuca community Rabbit occupied grassland
Arrhenatherum, elatus False Oat

The ecological compartmented microcosms have been simplified to produce a map of 20 topographical divisions for locating observations and projects (Fig 6).  In the centre of the island these divisions coincide with the fields laid out in the 19th century to create a ‘modern’ farm linked with the mainland economy.  At the time of Sadd’s survey the commercial farming enterprise was utilising the central fields to grow early potatoes for the mainland market.  This venture provides a baseline of zero biodiversity for at least three of the fields (compartments 4,5, 6, & 18) from which their present wildness has developed over the following six to seven decades.

Fig 6.  Skomer: topographical compartments

It is probably significant that Sadd records areas of burnt heath north of the farm.  This is indicative of management of heather for livestock grazing.  It is known that cattle grazed the outer regions of the island at this time, and Sadd mentions there were also sheep and goats.

Walking round the island today, it doesn’t  take long to recognise that some of the local botanical patchwork is related to geological features.  Persistent grassland often occurs in the immediate vicinity of rock outcrops.  It also becomes clear that human activity has produced subtle ecological patterns and that some of the impacts have been transient.  The was the case for Compartment 8 in the 1970s, where grassland managed with ridge and furrow had been colonised by heather.  It flourished along the ridges but was absent from the troughs.  Over the next decade or so the heather was displaced by bracken, a trend that instigated a management reaction aimed at protecting the incipient heathland from rabbits.  Rabbits, were introduced by the Norman lords of Haverford West as a commercial enterprise to produce meat and fur and every part of the island is now dominated by rabbit grazing.  Rabbits are not managed and their impact is assessed by establishing fenced exclosures.

Today one often comes across ecological differences across man-made boundaries, recorded as the loss of species or changes in their relative density (Fig 7).  There are patches of nettles alongside hut circles. Scatterings of nettles are also found in some small prehistoric fields.  Nettles are evidence of soil phosphate, which originates from waste disposal and livestock dung.  Are these the outcomes of the behaviour of prehistoric farmers that have persisted as local differences in soil chemistry for thousands of years?

Fig 7  Differences in density of Red Campion and Bracken across a prehistoric lynchet south of the Garland Stone (1980: Compartment 3)

In the 1980s good examples of small scale patchworks could be observed in Compartment 12 (Fig 8).    

Fig 8  A diverse ecological microcosm (compartment 12, 1987)

With the advent of satellite mapping the patchiness of bracken in grassland was obvious in the 2017 Google map of Compartments 16, 17 & 18 (Figs 9 and 10)

Fig  9 Compartment 16 (Google satellite map,, 2017)

Fig 10  Compartments 17 & 18 (Google satellite map, 2017)

Regarding ground truthing, the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) is one of the key common standards developed for nature conservation agencies that takes a macrocosm view of botanical diversity. The original project was initiated to produce a comprehensive classification and description of the plant communities of Britain, each systematically named and arranged and with standardised descriptions for each.  It was originally commissioned in 1975 by the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and was intended as a new classification, not an attempt to fit British plant communities into some existing scheme derived from elsewhere in Europe. The general approach adopted was phytosociological and, therefore, concentrated on the rigorous recording of floristic data. It did, nevertheless, try to avoid over-scrupulous selection of samples, rejection of awkward data and preoccupation with the hierarchical taxonomy of vegetation types  Quadrats are used to collect data on the abundance and frequency of each plant species. This information is then analysed using NVC community/sub-community descriptions. Each NVC habitat type then uniquely defines a macrocosm as a particular statistical combination of frequency and abundance values.  

A quadrat-based approach was applied to survey Skomer’s vegetation in 1979 based on a random distribution of 270 sampling sites of which  90 were made permanent. The plants common to this survey are listed in Table 1.

The results did not fit any of the NVC categories, which was to be expected because  there was no rejection of awkward data and the averages do not match the obvious patchwork perceived visually as local high levels of diversity produced by the activities of rabbits.  In 1998, 76 of the quadrats were re-surveyed for the six main species and 13 were analysed in 2015. Due to time constraints and the fact that the position of most plots is unknown, only 13 were surveyed in 2015. Much time was spent searching for the plot markers. Because of the small numbers of quadrats that were actually found no firm conclusions were possible regarding temporal trends in species abundance.  This testifies to  the futility of trying to organise long term surveillance by positioning quadrats on a map without precise grid references that can be readily re-visited.  

Therefore, there is only anecdotal evidence as to long term changes in the surface landscape.  In this context, there has been a great loss of maritime heath.   Up until the last farming episode on Skomer in the 1940-50s maritime heath had been maintained by a combination of grazing, probably by sheep, and periodic burning.  These operations were likely to have been managed at relatively low densities of culled rabbits, which had always been controlled by owners and tenants by shooting and trapping them.  Sadd only mentions the impact of rabbits when he described Compartment 9, which was definitely not grazed by farm livestock.  

The abolition of the livestock production system and the banning of rabbit culling when the island became a nature reserve could have been responsible for the gradual loss of heathland.  Uncut heather has a relatively short lifespan, It is possible that in recent years climate change may also have played a part in its degeneration.


Microcosms of ‘Mother Nature’

From the Stockholm conference on sustainable development  to Rio +20, the term “Nature” rarely features in the international discourse outlining strategies for limiting the damages to the environment while promoting economic development. This is not simply a matter of semantics. The World Charter for Nature, [Adopted by the General Assembly October 1982] and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth [Adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia in 2010] are ignored in the Declarations of the subsequent , respective World Summits on the Environment and Sustainable Development. We really do need to give more weight to the concept of ‘Harmony with Nature’ in the debates on sustainable development. The neglect of “Nature” is at the core of many problems with which we are confronted.  A shift of emphasis in our policies and actions to give greater attention to “Nature,” rather than environment, as such, would give humankind a better holistic ecological strategy of survival.

According to Barbara Sundberg Haudot, coordinator of the Triglav Circle, the following three points support this conviction:

  1. There are two political world views on the relations between humankind and the natural world. One conceives humanity apart, as the steward or master of the “environment.” The other begins with Nature and its visible and invisible manifestations, including humanity.
  2. To approach Harmony with Nature it is imperative to consult other relevant sources of knowledge including philosophy, the arts and religion as well as the physical and social sciences, which currently monopolize the political focus on the “environment,” and how to sustainably develop it.
  3. There are concrete examples of working in harmony with nature that demonstrate the practicality as well as the benefits of considering nature, itself, as an imperative focus of political thinking and action.

The Triglav Circle was established to pursue the discourse begun in the United Nations Seminar on Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress held in Bled, Slovenia, October 1994. The seminar was a step in preparation for the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen, March 1995.  In January 1996, nine of the Seminar participants drew up a constitution for the Triglav Circle. Triglav is the name of the mountain that serves as a national symbol for Slovenia. It was at its base that the Seminar took place. Mount Triglav is the namesake of the three-headed deity who symbolised Love, Spirit, and Wisdom and was always accompanied by his noble stallion, “equus divinus.” The combined symbolism evokes solidarity, responsibility, and humility in the pursuit of a harmonious world community in which ecophilia, love of nature, is at the centre of action. In other words, the love and pleasure of nature instills a fellow-feeling.  The American entomologist Edward 0. Wilson calls this inherent love of all living things ‘biophilia..

Every group of ecophiliacs requires its own Mount Triglav.  In this sense, Skomer Island may be regarded as an example of a geological focus in Wales for the core messages of the Social Summit articulated in the Copenhagen Declaration:   

Our societies must respond more effectively to the material and spiritual needs of individuals, their families, and the communities in which they live…

We are committed to a political, economic, ethical, and spiritual vision for social development that is based on human dignity, human rights, equality, respect, democracy, mutual responsibility and cooperation, and full respect for various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of people.

Since the times of the ancient Egyptians, and before, culture and its relationships to the local environment were a means to give hope to humankind with reassurances, through rituals and rites, about death and the separation from life and its benevolent resources. Civilizations developed harvest rites in order to honour the Earth: these rites have not only ecological and economic benefits, but also psychological ones. By working with symbols and re-enactments to support fantasies of immortality, people create a psychic phenomenon that comforts them.  Moreover, cultural norms, delivered through the rites of passage and rituals, allow human beings to put a distance between themselves and topics too painful to deal with at an individual level, such as death and separation. By providing rules for responding to these ecological situations, culture both protects and heals; it has the ability to connect with our deepest emotions.

Love of nature is a response originating in an attachment to place.  From the Amazonian Yanomami, to the Arctic Inuits and the Namibian San, and even for people in urban areas, deep down we all harbour feelings of belonging to “a land”, and belonging to “the land”. Indeed, attachment to a place, to a scenery, to a soil that has nurtured people for generations, is one of the contributors to our sense of safety and our psychological stability. This need for a locus to lean on is vital to human existence.  Such has been the role of Skomer from prehistory.

In modern tunes, the eco-activist and Nobel Prize recipient Wangari Maathai was among the most audible voices arguing for a reconsideration of nature as a concept deserving dignity and respect, and retribution. Personifying nature, Maathai seems to be calling for a broader perspective on ecological issues, going beyond the traditional economic worries.  She underlines the fight for our humanity and what exactly makes us human, through the fight for nature. These issues emerge on Skomer because of the intensive use of the surface of the island as a home for a few prehistoric families immersed, from time to time,  in the island’s ecosystem, where the topography must have penetrated their primitive religion.  Hence the island has a bearing on the concept of Mother Nature.

Barbara Sundberg Haudot put it this way:

“Now, imagine a world society as immersed in nature as it is in technology, where we use all our senses, where we feel more alive. “Harmony with nature” is not a mere catchphrase: it is an imperative for society. To create more amenable conditions for an ecologically sustainable future in harmony with nature demands considerably more thoughtful reflection, intellectual work, and practical initiatives by governments and civil society.”

In a sense we owe it to these ancient Skomer families to consider their legacy of deep ecology.  Primitive religion is a name given to the dimly understood religious beliefs and practices of those traditional small and, often isolated, preliterate cultures that helped equilibrate them with their limited ecological resources.   They have not developed urban and technologically sophisticated forms of society, but the term does not mean that the religions of those peoples are somehow less complex or less effective than the religions of “advanced” societies. In fact, research carried out among the indigenous peoples of Oceania, the Americas, and sub Saharan Africa have revealed rich and very complex religions, which organize the smallest ecological details of food gathering and reproduction through which Nature, as Mother, governs people’s lives in harmony with the ecosystem services that support them.

This is why the words ‘Mother’ and ‘Nature’, implying harmony between cultures and ecosystems, is the ancient Skomerian’s legacy for introduction into the relevant debates and texts produced for sustainable development by the international community. Surface conditions on Skomer have been, for most of its geological time, produced by life,  This does not mean that “earth is a “life form” in the sense of a self regulating entity of the Gaia Hypothesis.  The Gaia Hypothesis is incorrect.  Organisms do not manipulate deliberately the biophysical systems of which they are a part so they can support them.  Life is produced by natural selection, by the competition between individuals for reproductive success. Evolution has no goal of making Earth a better place for life. Earth was not produced by natural selection, and hence it is not itself a living thing.  Nevertheless, Gaia in its original context in Greek mythology, Gaia also spelled Gaea, is the personification of the Earth as one of the Greek primordial deities is an example of the prehistoric idea of an ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth.  Are we right to think that the first human inhabitants of Skomer brought this idea with them to this small, prosaic Galapagos?


Thinking with rocks

Fig 11. Stonehenge

There is no doubt that stones are common global resources for spiritual journeys.  In this context, stones are rocks used for a particular purpose, such as altar stones and foundation stones, and are given individual names like Stonehenge (Fig 11).  There are three such named stones on Skomer; the Garland Stone, the Mew Stone, and the Pig Stone.  All three lie a few metres off shore.  

Seeking spirituality is a common behavior these days. It is a way of stepping beyond religious divides. To others without religion it is nothing so esoteric. Instead, it is simply reacting to a “feeling” that there must be ‘something else’.  Science has replaced God for many today, but while science may be able to explain the working of a material world, it doesn’t evoke how many people feel about their emotional place in nature.  Awe and wonder is how these people often describe their positive relationship with the world. There’s a sense that life is more than dollars, work, childcare and the rest of the daily grind.  There are moments that seem transcendent; a beautiful sunset, a football crowd filling a stadium with noise, or a moving piece of music.  The experience triggers something within that has evolved to enable humanity to become one with the environment. This feeling of oneness is what most would define as a spiritual experience.  In this context, stones, large and small, are often used as spiritual triggers.  Among archeologists a view is growing that the first peoples on Skomer were part of the culture of the New Stone Age (Neolithic) that focused feelings of spirituality on stones; a  movement that eventually carried the local bluestones of the Preceli Hills to Stonehenge.

The modern visitor’s first impression of Skomer is that it is a special rocky realm.  Visually it is quite distinct from the mainland landscape.  Its narrow parallel ridges of lichen-clad rocks make a dramatic scenic impact that follows the visitor round the island and gives Skomer a distinctive air of ‘otherworldliness’.  On a misty day even someone who knows the island well can lose their bearings.  In this sense a visitor can share a basic visual impact that must have struck the first prehistoric farmers and singled out the island as a special place.

Skomer’s rocks are unique and are thought to have been extruded as a series of lava flows spread out onto the seabed.  They were laid down horizontally as a geological multilayered sandwich consisting of a large number of outflows, one on top of another, each not exceeding a few metres in thickness.  From that time, the land has risen relative to the sea and the volcanic strata have been tilted in a south easterly direction at an angle of 20 to 25 degrees.  It is possible that the mass of lava passed through an uplift phase where the ridges were eroded as marine reefs.  Nature is an aggressor that imposes its arbitrary life-cycle on anything that gets in its way.  

From the time of the first farming settlement down to modern times people arriving on Skomer have been forced into thinking with rocks.  The basic geological puzzle of where and when the Skomer volcano was active came long after the first families arrived with their native spirituality.  The latter was probably very close to a belief system that came to satisfy a basic need for humans to understand that all objects share  the same origin that people share.  This is a very ancient fundamental statement about spirituality which comes close to the cosmologists view on the origins of the universe and the place of humankind within it.   Prehistoric art, that fuses rocks with paintings depicting humans and animals, seems to have been produced when totemism, shamanism blended with everyday life, implying that besides animals and plants even rocks stimulate mental connectedness.  Indeed, rocks and stones have been used  by people as bridges for the retrieval of former cultures and their belief systems. Today, we see this articulated in Aboriginal culture and the nature-spiritualism of Shinto and Buddhism, both of which may have a bearing on the spiritual beliefs of  Skomer’s first human community.  By thinking in this way we are memorialising the dead of Skomer Island in response to the imperative of an inward condition,

An Aboriginal person’s inward condition produces a mind set where the spirit is believed to continue on after the physical form has passed through death.  After death the spirit returns to the  Dreamtime from where it will come back through birth as a human, an animal, a plant or a rock. The form is not important because each form shares the same spirit from the Dreamtime.   There is a similarity of this view to that of Shinto and Buddhism,which are bound together in modern Japanese culture.

Shinto (“the way of the Kami”) is the name of the formal state religion of Japan that was first used in the 6th century C.E., although the roots of the religion go back to at least the 6th century B.C.E. Shinto has no founder, no official sacred texts, and no formalized system of doctrine. It has been formative in developing uniquely Japanese attitudes and sensitivities, creating a distinct Japanese consciousness about the environment. Belief in kami, understood to be spiritual essences joining people and nature, is one of the foundations of Shinto. The spiritual messages actually originate in the observer’s brain where they can elicit feelings of awe and wonder.

The kami exist as imagined beings within mountains, trees, rivers, and even geographical regions. In this sense, the kami are not like the all-powerful divine beings found in Western religion, but the abstract creative forces in nature. Related to the kami is the understanding that the Shinto followers are supposed to live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with both nature and other human beings. This has enabled Shinto to exist alongside other religious traditions. As the foundation for Japanese culture, Shinto has also played a significant role in the political realm. For centuries, Shinto religious festivals and ceremonies have become indistinguishable from the affairs of the government.  

It is significant in this context that it was a Japanese artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto who was  inspired to make images that would have been recognizable to primitive man. In doing so, he holds up a mirror to our own identity in the present.   For more than 30 years, Hiroshi Sugimoto has travelled the world photographing its seas, producing an extended meditation on the passage of time and the natural history of the earth reduced to its most basic, primordial substances: water and air. Always capturing the sea at a moment of absolute tranquility, Sugimoto has composed all the black and white photographs identically, with the horizon line precisely bifurcating each image. The repetition of this strict format reveals the uniqueness of each meeting of sea and sky, with the horizon never appearing exactly the same way twice. The photographs are romantic yet absolutely rigorous, apparently universal but exceedingly specific.  By blurring the line between human history and eternity, representation and abstraction, the seascape project takes its place in the traditions of nature photography and achieves the status of a contemporary expression of the sublime.  These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence ‘other than’, an existence which lies ‘beyond’.

History has shown us that there are always those who wish to expand their borders to include additional territory, and those who wish to close them to preclude immigration.  Walls are the inevitable outcome of these behaviours.  Skomer’s drystone walling, separating family from family and crop from crop, has the power to take us back in time, to periods that were slower, less stressed, more in tune with nature and the pace of the natural world.  It is with these aspects of stones in mind that we pick our way through the anatomy of neglected fields, hut circles and a ruined farmhouse; at the end it is a doleful experience which foretells our own earthly absence.  Beyond the wall is the ‘waste’; a cliff-edge no-man’s-land, where sheep go to die. The first naturalist to examine Skomer described it as ‘Golgotha’, a place of bones; the remains of once alive rabbits and shearwaters.  Death is everywhere but leads to life.  Rocks become dust, become clay, become plant, become those that ate the plant.  In the acid volcanic soils bones are rapidly recycled.  Chemically, Skomer is an example of a steady state economy.  Like a candle flame the island burns brightly as a dynamic equilibrium, as the elements pass through rocks, stones and living things each of which has its own half-life measured in aeons and minutes.  Thinking in this way is more complex than consciousness. Consciousness is more complex than awareness. Awareness is more complex than susceptible to influence. These are all expression of time, yet where is the biochemical dividing line between the inorganic oxygen molecules in the air, and the oxygen in your blood, or the iron in the earth, and the iron in your blood?   The air becomes you, and the iron, can travel in you, and leave again. When is it you, and when is it not?


Are you foam, or core of wave?

Serpent’s tooth, or lock of knave?

When were you last fishy fin

Part of happy otter’s grin?

Are you, all of you, everywhere

Sliding down old Darwin’s stair?

When were you last a corral chain

Moose’s head in Maine?

Do you truly know each bit

Of matter making up your wit?

Are not atoms of stellar source

Formed in novae and set on course

Shared in aeons many times

By quetzal birds, critics of rhymes?

Does not the copper in the Earth

Maintain its worth

As part of noble steed

Or the book you read?

What happens after use

Does it return to moose?

Go blow thee high, oh solar wind

Find a place where none have sinned

For they may not reject your ions

Jealous like a pride of lions.

                                                        by Generalist

                                                        ©Copyright 1998


Internet references

Art and visual culture

SKOMER; a brief human history

Are rocks thinking ?

This blog: a work in progress

Skomer Drone Survey

Lure of Islands

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

“Islands have exercised a fascination on the human imagination. Yet today it is possible to identify a positive need for island experience – an island imperative – in whole sectors of society in developed countries. This condition invites the geographer to investigate the nature and fundamental causes of this ‘lure of the island’….. It can be argued that the enhanced impact of islands on the human imagination is not a passing fad: there is rather an essential contribution of, and by, small islands and their inhabitants to the urban and globalised civilisation of our time”

 From an abstract of a  paper by FRANÇOISE PÉRON

For an inhabitant, an island is a space representing spatial clarity and identity.   For a temporary visitor, an island is a small space riddled by puzzling  topographical and infrastructural detail.  But are these differences between the attitudes of natives and visitors clear cut?

Islands, seen from a distance, are first and foremost places of the imagination for residents and visitors alike.  They have always sparked the imagination with notions of danger, adventure, isolation and even perfection. Islands have lured explorers and been the reason for battles between colonizing empires. Islands have given birth to unique cultures, they have prompted scientists and anthropologists with clues to ecological and cultural beginnings.   They have been known to occasionally disappear without a trace.

The tradition of weaving islands into the imagination began with Homer’s Odyssey and  is expressed today with the destinations of modern-day holiday cruises. Islands have come to be master symbols and inexhaustible metaphors for so many different aspects of planetary origins and cultural beginnings.  Contradictory images of islands, range from the allure of the desert island as a paradise where the world can be made anew, to their roles as prisons,  In this respect, from ‘Treasure Island’ to ‘Robben Island’, from the paradise of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ to Napoleon’s purgatory on Elba, islands have proved irresistible to humankind’s imagination since prehistoric times. Occupying a singular place in literature, religion and philosophy, islands exert an insistent grip on the human psyche.

Small islands are at the crossroads of human development.  For example, It was a small uninhabited island in the  English Lake District that inspired the very foundation of the National Trust to protect Britain’s historic heritage: its sale to a private owner frustrated a Lake District admirer so much he vowed never to let it happen again.  This tiny island in Lake Grasmere was the focus for the idea that outstanding landscapes and buildings should be protected from commercial development for the benefit of future generations

Artificial islands have a long history in many parts of the world. They date back to the crannogs of prehistoric Britain and Ireland, the ceremonial centres of Nan Madol in Micronesia, and the still extant floating islands of Lake Titicaca. The city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec predecessor of Mexico City, which was home to 250,000 people when the Spaniards arrived.  It stood on a small natural island in Lake Texcoco that was surrounded by countless artificial chinamitl islands.  These utilized the shallow lagoon’s surface for plant cultivation. They were built on a structure of willow tree reeds whose root systems strengthened the border of the bed. Products included corn, beans, amaranth, squash, chili, tomatoes and aromatic flowers.

Many artificial islands have been built in urban harbours to provide either a site deliberately isolated from the city or just to ease development in a crowded metropolis. An example of the first type of construction is Dejima (or Deshima), built in the bay of Nagasaki during Japan’s Edo period, as a containment centre for European merchants.

The importance of islands in revealing evolutionary processes has been recognized since Darwin’s work on the Galapagos and Wallace’s research in the Malay Archipelago. Since, then, island biogeography has provided many elegant examples of the evolutionary mechanisms involved in generating biodiversity, including geological processes, plant and animal colonization and species isolation. Archipelagos such as Hawaii and the Galapagos provide examples where cycles of evolutionary radiation have produced replicated patterns of endemic, often bizarre, forms. Yet, the extreme isolation of such islands reduces the interplay between islands and continents—interchange is one-way (islands can be sinks) and limited to rare chance dispersal events. The West Indies and island chains in the Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Mascarenes) are remarkable as they are sufficiently old and isolated to have generated endemic forms, but close enough continents to sustain a dynamic two-way interaction with diverse continental landmasses.  Size is important in biogeography because small islands have limited land area which restricts the number of habitats.

Small islands have limited land area and are prone to natural hazards which make them highly susceptible to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and extreme events. Their vulnerability is further aggravated by their low adaptive capacity; and the cost of adapting to the changing climate is high as compared to the GDP.  Along with climate related drivers, small urbanised islands are also subjected to important local change agents, such as demographic pressure and urbanization, which increases the demand on the local resource base, thereby making them more vulnerable to the changing climate.

Wildlife islands are a special case.  Charles Darwin called the Galápagos Islands “a little world within itself.”  He was acknowledging that the islands were the outcomes of a sequence of volcanic eruptions, which were occupied by a random oceanic drift of plants and animals.  They had only been settled by people over the past three centuries. In fact the uninhabited Galapagos were discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama. In the millennia between their formation and the arrival of humankind the islands had been a hive of natural selection that had resulted in the evolution of several unique species.

Then it must be remembered that an ecological island is not necessarily an island surrounded by water, but is an area of land, separated by a barrier from the surrounding land, where a natural micro-habitat exists amidst a larger, different ecosystem. Thus, an urban park or garden is an ecological island where the concept of ‘islandness’ applies.  Islandness is an heightened awareness that one is living at a slower pace than those on the other side of a barrier.    David Platt addressed the question of why islandness is a heightened perception felt by outsiders but rarely by islanders themselves,  He concluded that ‘slandness’ is a construct of the mind, a singular way of looking at the world. In particular. he articulated this perspective as perhaps being more important to outsiders.  Outsiders for some reason associate themselves with islands more than do islanders themselves.  Islanders who understand the concept of islandness instinctively may never feel called-upon to express it in words, except for distinguishing between being ‘on island’ or ‘off-island”.  Another way of describing islandness is to define them as thin places.  Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,”, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.  This ancient magic may be said to have began to transform humanity when the first peoples migrated out of Africa.

This blog is about identifying a positive need for off-islanders to have a personal island experience by seeking out a small island upon which to meditate about ecological and cultural beginnings in relation to things of the heart,  One such place out of many is Skomer Island, a 700 acre national nature reserve off the coast of South West Wales.  It can be said to have entered mainstream knowledge about semi wild islands in 1946  In that year it was uninhabited and became home to a continuous succession of amateur naturalists who were members of the island’s first field survey party.   Like the seabirds themselves, they came to Skomer in April, resided there until October, and then withdrew, leaving the island to its wild inhabitants.  The party of explorers aspired to being no more than observers; spectators curious to discover and record the full detail of nature’s way in the isolated compartment of one solitary suboceanic volcanic island.

In earlier earlier times Skomer had been visited in the winter by commercial hunters of rabbits.  In the summer sheep and cattle were pastured and seabird eggs collected. Even earlier, prehistoric people had settled for a while and farmed the island leaving their mark with hut circles, and stone walls..  There was an abortive attempt at intensive farming in the 19th century.  After this, the island gradually became deserted, and its wildlife reverted to a state in which it may have been before the first people ever settled there.  

Like the Galapagos. Skomer has its own experiment in evolution.  Five species of small mammals exist there: the rabbit, a bank-vole, the wood-mouse, the common shrew and the pygmy shrew. Of these, the vole is unique, occurring nowhere else in the world.  This is the Skomer Vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis) a subspecies of the mainland bank vole.  There are approximately 20,000 voles on the island; probably modified descendents of ordinary bank voles introduced by human settlers. The Skomer vole is a typical vole in appearance, having a short blunt head, small eyes and ears, a tail about half the length of its head and body and a characteristically reddish tinge to the rich fur along its back. It differs from the common mainland bank-vole (Clethrionomys glareolus) in its larger size, its more massive skull, which has certain structural peculiarities, and in its brighter and lighter furry back.  The difference that strikes one immediately is its essential tameness.   

Cultural ecology is an appropriate starting point to explore mainland/island and island/island relations, and islandness is an appropriate conceptual tool in such labours. Owe Ronström has categorised the following 10 features of islandness of which the first 6 apply to Skomer in its present state as a nature reserve and tourist attraction.   

  • Boundedness, that raises and emphasizes borders and thresholds between islands and some mainland or continent. Godfrey Baldacchino notes, “as prototypical ethno-scapes, islands spearhead the study of the production of locality.”
  • Locality is an expression of cultural ecology
  • An agricultural past, and still dependant upon agriculture and…
  • Tourism, a large number of visitors coming to appreciate the lure of the island.. This creates a pressure that ties islanders together, activates a number of border maintaining mechanisms, separates islanders from “people from away”, and pushes some islanders, especially the younger generations, away from the island.
  • Weak economy, that promotes certain cultural practices, such as versatility and reciprocity as survival strategies.
  • Many expressive specialists, artists, intellectuals. While other marginalized places tend to become emptied of such people, islands seem to exert a special attraction on expressive specialists and survivors, which raises the cultural complexity on the island
  • Reciprocity is an important cultural norm; many transactions are done without money.
  • Versatility. Islanders tend to become versatile, polymaths. The available competence is generally broad, but there are often only a few specialists in each area.
  • Overlap is a characteristic feature of island life – islanders meet and get acquainted in many different arenas, which leads to transparency or
  • Surveyability. Since thresholds within the island are generally low, locating and activating resources and competences is fairly easy, especially if you are an islander anchored in the important genealogical family networks in the island.

Therefore, in terms of its unique volcanic origins, wildlife, and the archeological stories of human settlement, Skomer has many conceptualised windows into the study of islandness.  Indeed, it is well placed historically, biologically and geographically to make an essential contribution to grounding the urban and globalised civilisation of our time.

Skomer Island Mind Map

Thin places

Island biogeography

Curriculum of the Heart

Islands of the Mind

The Island: in imagination and experience

Islands and cultural production

Dream Islands

Ways of knowing: or Islands for Thoreauvians

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Skomer: Flagstaff outcrop

“I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased Life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.” (Frederick Franck, 1973)

1  Need for transcendental values

2 The Thoreauvians

3  Curricula of the heart

4  The Skomer Statement on Environmental Education

5  Epilogue

1  Need for transcendental values

Our present ecological crisis is the greatest man-made disaster this planet has ever faced. The truth is that humankind has created and continues to endorse an all-consuming industrial system which is effectively unstoppable and will run on until it runs out. A central but rarely addressed aspect of this crisis is our forgetfulness of the transcendental view of creation and how this affects our caring relationship to the environment. Transcendentalism describes a very simple idea. People have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that “transcends” or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel.  This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination not through logic or the senses. People can trust themselves to be their own authority on what is right for humans to thrive.   A transcendentalist is a person who accepts these free thinking ideas not as religious beliefs but as a way of understanding human relationships with other creatures and the material world as a central feature of self education.  

There is a pressing need to articulate a transcendental response to the ecological crisis. This is vital and necessary if we are to treat the world as a living whole.  It calls for responses to environmental issues that include spiritual awareness and/or practice. The principles of spiritual ecology are simple.  In order to resolve such environmental issues as depletion of species, global warming, and over-consumption of natural resources, humanity must examine and reassess its underlying attitudes and beliefs about the earth.  We have spiritual as well as physical responsibilities toward the planet to share its resources evenly between ourselves and other creatures that we value. Thus, ecological renewal and sustainability necessarily depends upon spiritual awareness to generate an attitude of responsibility.  We need a form of transcendental ecology in education that blends the language of science with the language of poetry.  The aim should be to transform natural events, objects, and process into vital, significant, and beautiful outcomes that bring together humanity, Earth and the cosmos in a magnificent holistic view. Cultures which foster great achievement need transcendental values, such as truth, beauty and virtue, to be a live presence in the culture; such that great artists and scientific thinkers compete to come closer to the ideal.  Modern transcendentalism is a complex 19th century response to the democratisation of American life, to the rise of science and the technology, of the new industrialism. It was a literary and political movement in the that flourished from the mid-1830s to the late 1850s in eastern Massachusetts.   It redefined the relation of humankind to nature and to each other. What the transcendentalists were opposed to was the rational, scientific approaches to nature which encouraged the objectification and unthinking exploitation of the natural world. The transcendentalists saw nature as something to be enjoyed first and to studied second. They revered nature in a divine sense. It was not subordinate to them, but instead nature was the other part of a symbiotic relationship that takes the bigness of self and dissolves it,.

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ in 1836 is often taken to be the moment when transcendentalism became a major cultural movement.  The transcendentalists urged individuals to find their relation to the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two of the most well-known transcendentalists, sought this relation in solitude amidst nature and in their writing.

2 The Thoreauvians

Thoreau was the ecological evangelist in the transcendental movement, which promoted meditation on connections between nature and humanity.  Though best known as a literary figure, Henry Thoreau showed a lasting interest in science. He read widely in the scientific literature of his day and published one of the first scholarly discussions on the process of forest succession. In fact, some historians rate Thoreau as one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. At the same time, Thoreau often lamented science’s tendency to kill poetry. Scientific writings coupled with his own careful observations often revealed life to him, but in other ways rendered nature lifeless. Modern-day Thoreauvians are also aware that science has largely become a tool for increased unthinking consumption, rather than for the appreciation and protection of wild nature, particular regarding the vital ecosystem services it provides for humanity.  Thoreau was aware of the cost to nature.  “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run”.

Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism was spread by his writings and it first signalled its presence in Wales through two books.  In order of publication these were ‘Dream Island; a record of  the simple life’ published in 1930 by Ronald Lockley and ‘Island of Skomer’, edited by Lockley and his brother in law, John Buxton, published in 1950.

Lockley acknowledged his deep debt to Thoreau in ‘Dream Island, which is an account of how in 1927, together with his wife Doris, Lockley moved onto the tiny Welsh island of Skokholm, off the south west tip of Pembrokeshire.  He says he read Thoreau very thoroughly and was so impressed that his thoughts and actions were for many years influenced by his example of living a domestic life integrated with nature.  Just one mile long, the island had been occupied  intermittently by a mainland tenant, who Lockley replaced as the long term leaseholder.   

These are the opening paragraphs of Dream Island’.

“To dwell alone with birds and flowers in some remote place where they were plentiful and undisturbed was an ambition early cherished in school days: as soon as I began to look at, and watch, and so finally to love nature.

This desire became my daily dream as I grew up.  In turn I envied the Swiss Family Robinson, the Coral Islanders and Robinson Crusoe.  I wished intensely to become a Crusoe.  My day-dreams led me on wondrous expeditions alone in an open boat, and landed me on isolated bird-islands, where I dwell my hermit-life in complete happiness.  I built my little hut, kept my goats and my garden, and spent my days in watching and taming birds”.

The magnetism of islands took hold of Lockley in his boyhood and his first Thoreauvian project as a young man was to make a lake with a small island to attract birds and other wildlife.  It is interesting to compare this sentiment with the following ‘island entry’ in Thoreau’s Journal of 1851.

“One afternoon in the fall Nov 21st 1 saw Fair Pond with its island & meadow between the island & the shore, a strip of perfectly smooth water in the lee of the island & two hawks sailing over it—(and something more I saw which cannot easily be described which made me say to myself that it the landscape could not be improved.) I did not see how it could be improved. Yet I do not know what these things can be; (for) I begin to see such objects only when I leave off understanding them—and afterwards remember that I did not appreciate them before. But I get no further than this. How adapted these forms & colors to our eyes, a meadow & its islands. What are these things? Yet the hawks & the ducks keep so aloof, & nature is so reserved! We are made to love the river & the meadow as the wind (is made) to ripple the water”.

An earlier poetical response to Thoreau had been made in 1888 by William Butler Yeats.   Yeat’s poem, ”The Lake Isle of Innisfree, ” is based directly on Thoreau’s writing. When Yeats was a child, his father read Thoreau’s book ‘Walden; or Life in the Woods’ to him.  This book was an account of Thoreau’s withdrawal from society in 1845.  He spent more than two years  building a simple cabin at Walden Pond seeking  a deep and true relation to life.:  

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.

Thoreau studied the natural world as well as the effects it has upon the human’s state of mind. He discovered that simplicity in the physical aspects of life brings depth to our mind, carries our soul to its fullest potential, and causes our imagination to be uplifted in such a way as to change our lives. Like his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau recognized that, in nature, mean egotism vanishes and primitive needs do not arise. In his chapter on economics he reveals the first premise of his philosophy: that economic life has to be reduced to its bare essentials. He saw in the simplicity of life a major condition of the achievement of a natural relation between man and nature:

“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots are”.

Thoreau claimed that when man aligned his life with material possession, he wasted his time with unnecessary activities which would impede him from maintaining a deep relation to nature. Like Emerson, therefore, he saw in nature a mystical as well as indispensable significance for the individual’s life. Hence, he propagated a close observation of the natural world and, in particular, of the various interrelations between animals, plants and birds. Thoreau himself filled numerous pages with the most detailed observation of the natural phenomena and processes which were displayed in front of his eyes during his stay in the woods. He illustrates the cyclical course of the seasons, giving each observation his personal note of impression. The most abundant and delightful portrayal is devoted to the spring. Here his rejoicing in the majesty of nature as well as in the harmony of renewal is most evident.

“At length the sun’s rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snowbanks, and the sun, dispersing the mist, smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveller picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off”.

For Thoreau, being wholly involved in nature, perceiving it with all his senses is a state of generous interchange which can only be experienced through intuition. In order to partake in nature this way we must let go of our thoughts because they tend to separate us from nature: “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. […] We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it To establish an intimate relation to nature, the human needs to detach himself from his observant position and surrender himself to the respect due to the very source of his being. In this state of mind the individual is able to achieve a balanced and thoughtful happiness.

Yeats was so attracted to Thoreau’s transcendental ideas that he decided to try to imitate him him by crossing the Irish Lough Gill at night and visiting an uninhabited island known as Innisfree.  He would observe the wildlife and birds.  To him, this was a paradise which never left his imagination.  The tranquil, hypnotic hexameters of the poem recreate the rhythmic pulse of the tide. The simple imagery of the quiet life the speaker longs to lead, as he enumerates each of its qualities, lulls the reader into his idyllic fantasy.  The penultimate line jolts the speaker—and the reader—back into the reality of his drab urban existence: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.” The final line—“I hear it in the deep heart’s core”—is a crucial statement for Yeats, not only in this poem but also in his career as a whole. The implication that the truths of the “deep heart’s core” are essential to life is one that would preoccupy Yeats for the rest of his career as a poet; the struggle to remain true to the deep heart’s core may be thought of as Yeats’s primary undertaking as a poet.

Lockley’s book, ‘Island of Skomer’, was the eventual outcome of a meeting of the West Wales Field Society in 1945, immediately after the end of the 2nd World War.  The Society was Lockley’s brain child established to manage all wild and uninhabited islands in West Wales, to protect them and to make use of them for field studies. Now the owner of Skomer had offered to allow the Society to make a field survey and the Society made two momentous decisions, not only to mount and fund such a survey but also to re-establish the Bird Observatory on Skokholm. Thus it was that the two islands became Welsh outposts for Thoreauvians in April 1946, and they have continued to serve this purpose to the present day.

Winifred Bowman an amateur artist who agreed to join the Skomer field party as the volunteer cook/ housekeeper, wrote the following account of her short stay on the island

`…. the lovely things are the easiest to remember. Masses of daffodils and narcissi blew about in the sunlight before the door, and the cliffs were washed with pink and white of thrift and campion, and primroses waited shyly beneath the curling bracken. I remember the liquid cry of the curlew, the lovely blue of the sea, and the fantastic colours of the distant cliffs, the heavenly hour or two in the afternoon when I could creep away from food and people and relax in a sunny corner out of the wind, doing nothing, thinking of nothing. And who could forget the evenings when we all gathered round the table in the lamplight, the enchanting calling of the roll of all the birds seen or likely to be seen on the island, the occasional flare-ups between expert and amateur, the excitement of a new discovery, and after-wards the slow and accurate talk round the driftwood fire, when these monosyllabic, shy bird-watchers spoke of other islands, set in other seas, of far-off countries, and the familiar stretches of the English countryside?

`One could extend the catalogue of beauties indefinitely, the truth of the matter was that Skomer was our University where skill marched with endeavour, and beauty flowered by the way. Not only did we master our own individual unfamiliar duties but we acquired and shared a knowledge of birds, beasts and flowers (of fish too, for I must not forget the marine biologists) and above all of human beings, distinguishing in a new and unique milieu the old characteristics of strength and eccentricity, meanness and generosity, stupidity and humour, the whole wisdom and folly of mankind. `It was a grand three weeks, and all the weeks that followed must have been grand too, except that they perhaps lacked the fine frenzy of our initial endeavour, and, as it turned out, the brilliant sunlight that shone over Skomer in April 1946?

3  Curricula of the heart

Winifred Bowman, in finding non material answers to why she was so attracted to Skomer, was seeing Skomer with her heart, just as Yeats saw, subconsciously, the attractions of the Isle of Innisfree and Thoreau his Walden.  It is no accident that these responses to environment involved contact with islands.

For Thoreau,  ‘An island always pleases my imagination; even the smallest, as a small continent and integral part of the globe’.  

Islands are good for transcendental Thoreauvian thinking because they are ‘small continents’, manageable totalities in themselves.They are ‘integral parts of the globe’ yet cut off with their own individuality in relation to origins and the diverse ways they play variations on the same themes of humankind’s impact.  In these respects, both Skomer and Skokholm are dominated by rocks, rabbits and seabirds and offer contact with wildness in an outdoor classroom.  They lead a self teaching visitor through Thoreau’s extended mystical mind set in an attempt to discover how to live with the guidance and observance of Nature, cherishing Nature and its elements.  Thoreau’s ways of knowing begin with a heartfelt feeling for objects, which may or may not then be subject to scientific investigation.  His scientific endeavours supplement the need to understand his fellow creatures.  He valued acquaintance with plants, animals and their topography, whether or not he had scientific knowledge about them.

He says  

“I…   wanted to know my neighbors, if possible, — to get a little nearer to them. I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day. I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened, beside attending to a great many others in different directions.

The main topographical element on Skokholm is Old Red Sandstone about 400 million years old. It is a fragment of a common mainland geological system.  It makes the island photogenically colourful but not mysterious with respect to its origin.  Skomer, in contrast, is  composed almost entirely of volcanic and related rocks with exposures, arranged in jagged parallel  lines, remnants of the youngest major volcanic episode in the southern part of the Britain. The entire volcanic area stretches east-west for about 43 Km with Skomer forming only part of this major unique geological field.  Once it was magma squeezed out onto the seabed during the early Silurian period (443- 416 million years ago).   A  small number of the lava beds were once pyroclastic in nature, formed by fluidized masses of rock fragments and gases flung out violently at great speed.  In more recent Ice Age times isolated rocks originating in the northern mainland have been dropped onto the surface by glacial flows. Compared with Skokholm, Skomer is a darker place but physically more diverse. Across the island, remains of boulder-built boundaries, neat stone walls and the footings of round houses can be seen showing how the island was extensively farmed by small communities in Iron Age and Romano-British times between 2,000-2,500 years ago. A prominent standing stone and other possible megaliths, suggest far earlier human occupation dating back to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Rabbits have adapted to life on both islands since the Norman conquerors of  Pembrokeshire decided to use them as rabbit farms. Rabbits now dominate the surface appearance of both islands due to their intensive burrowing and dominance of the few botanical species they do not eat.  In this respect, the rabbits are gardeners; digging, scraping and manuring the soil, endlessly recycling botanical nutrients.  

The first recorded use of Skomer for Thoreauvian thinking was in 1890s when the island was visited by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.  To these urban visitors the sights and sounds of the island were as exotic as the Galapagos.  The party gave it the nickname Golgotha because of the large number of rabbit and bird skulls that littered the island. The topics covered in their report of the visit  ranged from the first thoughts about the local vole being a new undescribed species to farm labourers sleeping squalidly three to a bed.  

The first true Thoreauvians to live on Skomer were the ‘Two Rays’ who set up a temporary home in ‘the rabbit catcher’s hut’ sited in the old stack yard of the farm.  Ray Howard Jones was a painter poet and her partner, Ray Moore, a photographer.  True to Thoreau they made their furniture from driftwood, burned peat for fuel and recorded their feelings in heartfelt art works in a complex blending with their surroundings of  land, sea and sky.  A collection of Ray Howard Jones’ poems, entitled ‘Heart of the Rock’ was published in 1993, three years before her death.  She believed Skomer’s rocky outcrops and sea cliffs were a wake-up call to the spirit.  By touching these ancient lava beds one was short circuiting planetary history via an imaginary portal  to the deep well of cosmic energy before life began. This is an example of the geological rhetoric familiar to Thoreau’s time. Rock outcrops were  “relics” of nature’s past “pages” in the archives of the planet, texts that could relate wondrous histories from deep time.  Thoreau often thought about ancient poems and wisdom texts as “fossil truths”.  In this respect, Thoreau was heavily influenced by Indian spiritual thought.  Most readers think of Thoreau’s Oriental themes as incidental, whereas actually they are at the heart of his life and writings.

Year by year Skomer is a repetitive scenic experience; an unchanging rocky treeless habit.  But careful observation reveals subtle microcosmic shifts in the pattern of bare soil, dead grass and plant succession related in very complex ways to the upsurge and decline in rabbit numbers and changes in local weather and climate.  The long chequered history of Skomer is written in the outcropping rocks poking through a thin cover of low commonplace vegetation, home to densely packed burrowing rabbits and seabirds.  This landscape is now being explored by high resolution aerial survey and satellite technology which opens up the whole island as a unified geological and ecological system with a surface expressing millennia of human low input occupations.  

Google satellite image of the west end of Skomer showing parallel outcrops running east to west

4  The Skomer Statement on Environmental Education

In 1959 Skomer was declared a national nature reserve.  The first move to develop the island as an educational resource were  made in the 1970s by Prof. Denis Bellamy, head of the zoology department at Cardiff University, then a college of the University of Wales. By arrangement with the Nature Conservancy Council small groups of second year students were allocated personal projects on the island to fill gaps in knowledge about the island’s ecology and its management issues.  The projects were carried out on the island during a two week stay.  Similar courses were arranged on Skokholm.  The Skomer courses were initially based in the ‘Rabbit Catchers Hut’ at the farm.  It was during the first of these courses that the issue of the place of environmental studies in the university’s science degree system were raised.  

There is no doubt that students locked onto the island, driven on a personal self learning journey released for the first time in their educational experience.   From their group discussions the students composed the following Skomer Declaration on Environmental Education”

“Environmental education should be adopted by the university as a cross-curricular subject centred on managing natural resources to ensure equal shares of renewable resources are available for future generations.  This should be attained through wise management to make improvements in the quality of life and assistance to ensure the transfer of conservation know how to the developing world.  The acronym S.K.O.M.E.R has been adopted  to summarise the students’ understanding of Thoreau’s educational  philosophy as ‘sustainability knowledge organised to manage the environment responsibly”.

Environmentalism was in the air and in 1972 the principles of the UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment were published.  Five years later, the categories of environmental education objectives from the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), the outcome of the world’s first intergovernmental conference on environmental education, were adopted as guidelines for the Skomer work.

Awareness—to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.

Knowledge—to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.

Attitudes—to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment, and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.

Skills—to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems.

Participation—to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.

The students’ Skomer Declaration was the basis for developing the subject called Environmental Studies by the Science Faculty of the University at Cardiff.  The subject was offered as half of a two subject BSc general honours degree,   All departments of the faculty, from archeology  to zoology, committed to the introduction of environmental studies as an interdepartmental subject,   

In the early 1980s it had became the model for the creation of the subject called natural economy launched by the Cambridge University Local Examination Syndicate as part of its international GCSE.  

The Skomer declaration continued to be developed in Cardiff with funds from the educational directorate of the European Union,  It is currently available as a cross curricular framework called cultural ecology developed and promoted by International Conservation On Line.  Hundreds of people register for the cultural ecology blog each week and the home site and its satellites receive one to two million unique hits per year.

Environmental Studies, natural economy and cultural ecology  are cross curricular science based customisable knowledge frameworks that also allow a ‘sense of heart’ to enter ecology.  The latter is the most obvious evidence of a commitment to holistic education.  It primarily implies the importance of a holistic approach to include life governed by the subconscious,  

The subconscious which is let loose on Skomer is that part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings   It fronts a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace and beauty. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning.  ‘Heart’ encompasses feeling, knowing, loving, and is our access to one another. It is also the deep well of our full human meaning to be educated in the practice of self-knowledge. It also presents an understanding of the requirements of participation and the necessity for that possibility to be realised through democratic association. For the transcendentalists a curriculum of  the heart is shorthand for an education that encourages deep personal and societal change.  The medium of change is to be enclosed in a semi wild landscape that encourages self inspired learning which produces a change in personal values from liking things to loving things.

Cultural ecology is an educational framework to build a personal body of knowledge which chimes with UNESCO’s four types of education.  These were set out in a report by the ‘International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century’ chaired by Jacques Delors in 1996. The pillars underline the very breadth and depth of Thoreau’s vision of education within and beyond schooling.  

They are:

  • learning to know,
  • learning to do,
  • learning to live together,
  • and learning to be.  

Although they can be defined separately, the pillars form an integrated whole and should ideally be present in all pedagogical encounters and the curriculum as a unified entity. The Four Pillars are programmatic and can be summed up as follows:

‘Learning to know’ lays the foundations of learning throughout life. This pillar refers to the basic knowledge that we need to be able to understand our environment and to live in dignity. It is also about arousing curiosity, allowing us to experience the pleasures of research and discovery. It faces us with the challenge of combining a sufficiently broad education with the in-depth investigation of selected subjects. Learning to know implies learning how to learn by developing one’s concentration, memory skills and ability to think.

‘Learning to do’ refers to the acquisition of practical skills, but also to an aptitude for teamwork and initiative, and a readiness to take risks. As such, this pillar is about the competence of putting what we have learned into practice so as to act creatively on our environment. A variety of situations, often unforeseeable, is bound to arise. Learning to do enables us to turn our knowledge into effective innovations

‘Learning to live together is the pillar that the UNESCO Commission emphasises more than any other. It refers first of all to developing an understanding of others through dialogue leading to empathy, respect, and appreciation. Yet if we are to understand others, we must first know ourselves. ‘Learning to live together’ is also about recognizing our growing interdependence,  experiencing shared purposes, and about implementing common projects and a joint future. Only then will it be possible to manage the inevitable conflicts in a peaceful way.

‘Learning to be’ is founded on the fundamental principle that education needs to contribute to the all-round development of each individual. This pillar deals with the broadening of care for each aspect of the personality. It deals with giving us the freedom of thought, feeling, and imagination that we need to act more independently, with more insight, more critically, and more responsibly. The end of education is to discover and open the talents which are hidden like a treasure within every person. As a means of personality training, education should be a highly individualized process and at the same time an interactive social experience. By speaking of learning to know rather than of knowing, UNESCO indicates that this is a never-ending process that is both personal and shared. Education is not only about know-what, but also about know-why, know-how and know-what for.

Learners are not called to merely become experts in their field, but also co-workers in knowledge production processes and managers of meaningful, responsible and sustainable development.

These ideas and themes on holistic education may be elaborated through a chronological examination of Thoreau’s works. For example, a study by Clair Hockley in 2013 envisioned a Thoreauvian education presented in the words and the voice Thoreau himself may have used. The picture that she presents;

…. is a school that strives to equip its students for life. Perhaps at the heart of the matter is the realization that each student has a life that only he or she can live. Others may walk alongside for a time but each person must learn to live his or her own life. It is in this sense that each life is in essence a life of solitude. A Thoreauvian school would encourage living that life to the fullest, in the pursuit of one’s own dreams and passions. A Thoreauvian school would endeavour to equip the student for such a life”.

Thoreauvian ways of knowing about the existence and value of knowledge are not to delve deeper into anatomy, but to enjoy a plant or animal in its proper place. Not to dissect their flowers, but to go to see when they flower, allowing them to show themselves at their best.  Here,  is revealed an ambiguity in the word ‘to know.’ It can mean personal acquaintance with something or someone. Or it can mean possessing a correct picture of the structure and true information of the history of a physical thing. This more rigorous knowledge can be pursued ever more deeply to know more and more about less and less.  Yet anyone can.engage in a meeting of things in their careful observations of the surroundings.  Thoreau asserts there are two ways of knowing.  There is the existence and value of particular detailed knowledge; and the existence and value of acquaintance, irrespective of knowledge.  This distinction is exemplified by the following extract from ‘Island of Skomer’ in which the reader makes acquaintance with its ‘cliff gardens’

The rock-walls were covered with lichens, especially Usnea sp. whose greenish-grey beard-like strands quite disguise the true colour of the basalt. These delightful cliff-gardens of Skomer were the frequent resort of observers who sought to escape for a while from the blustering south-westerly gales; the ornithologist who wandered there in the spring found himself looking up at the grey rock face where gull, raven, chough, peregrine falcon and fulmar petrel patrolled; and below him the sheer cliffs were filled with the cries and flighting of nesting kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills. The spongy turf itself contained the burrows of puffin and shearwater, although the entrances to these underground nests were partly or wholly concealed by the vigorous growth of the plant community. These ledges, too, had been discovered by the cattle which in 1946 were pastured on Skomer; and their owner had great difficulty in preventing the descent of the beasts to this shelter and rich grazing. He had experienced several losses due to the heavy animals slipping or jostling each other when turning on the unfenced edges of the precipice. The effect of the trampling and dunging by the cattle was plain in the virile growth of the vegetation; the nitrogen content had been increased in a soil already well supplied with seabird guano, and with the moisture and humus provided by layers of decaying vegetation laid down each winter. Another cliff plant association is to be found between the extremes.

5  Epilogue

What has become of the Bellamy vision of Skomer as a place for operating a residential Thoreauvian curriculum.  The last groups of Cardiff students passed through the islands over 30 years ago and Skomer is now mass marketed as part of the local tourist industry. There is a regular boat service for up to 250 visitors per day and accommodation for an assortment of full time staff,  self-catering visitors,  weekly volunteers and research workers.  Once the last day visitor has left the island you could be socialising with more than twenty people who remain.  Inevitably, Skomer has become a money earning institution and the mainland education system is still assiduously imparting detailed knowledge from within out of date subject silos.

Five decades ago the Thoreauvian population of Skomer was seldom more than ten.  The boat service was unreliable and communication with the mainland was by a radio telephone, but only in an emergency!  You went to Skomer for the long run, anticipating being marooned for days beyond the time of your booking.

There is a growing mood of pessimism regarding the failure of environmental education to grip the syllabus to significantly change human behaviour towards one-planet living. Yet, the future of humankind and other life forms is grim. The ultimate Thoreauvian environment is the Galapagos archipelago as Darwin first saw it. At the latest count it has lost twelve of its thirteen coral reefs to climate change.  The endemic giant ‘daisy tree’ is on the verge of extinction.  Its habitat, which is some of the most fertile soils across the Islands, has been turned into agricultural land to meet the needs of a population that has grown three times faster than on the Ecuadorian mainland..  

A vigorous  promoter of this attitude of disenchantment with the lack of applications of environmental education to live sustainably is Paul Kingsnorth.  Faced with lack of progress towards sustainable lifestyles we kick the issue into the long grass.   

We might tell ourselves that The People are ignorant of the Facts and if we enlighten them they will Act.  We might believe that the right treaty has yet to be signed, or the right technology has yet to be found, or that the problem is not too much growth and science and progress but too little of it.  Or we might choose believe that a Movement is needed to expose the lies being told to the People by the Bad Men in Power who are preventing The People from doing the rising up they will all want to do when they learn The Truth”.

The truth is that Thoreauvians have to accept that self-sufficiency comes packaged with literary romance, which supports sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people feel is their right.  

We can leave the last words to Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor.  He warns against forgetting that we “share the cause”  of nature by being overly preoccupied with the institutions we have made,  Of this obsession, Emerson writes he is “ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions”. Nonetheless, Emerson recognizes that we must live in the world that we have created, and he advises that we “keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude,” which is found in nature, even while “in the midst of the crowd”.  We, continue to dream that wind farms, tidal turbines and other renewable technologies will allow them/us to carry on with two percent economic growth as usual, for ever

Skomer: Outcrop portals into the subconscious

6  Internet references

Towards a transcendental ecology

Learning patterns and landscapes

Visions of the American Transcendentalists

Curricula of the heart



Science and system

Thoreau and knowing

Transcendental thinking

Cultural ecology

Skomer: mindmap

Skomer: campfire mediation

Placemaking: the human ecological niche

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

“How strange it is that a bird, under the form of a woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created to dive and feed on sub-aquatic insects; and that a petrel should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or grebe! and so on in endless other cases. But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated”.

Charles Darwin (1859), ‘On the Origin of Species’


1  The ecological niche

Ecology as a body of knowledge had no firm beginnings. It evolved from the natural history of the ancient Greeks to describe system thinking about the interrelationships between organisms and between organisms and their nonliving environment. The word ecology was coined by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel to define “the relation of the animal both to its organic as well as its inorganic environment.”   In 1870 Haeckel wrote, “Ecology is the scientific study of all those complex interactions referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence”.  The word ecology comes from the Greek  meaning “household,” “home,” or “place to live.”

Serious systems thinking about ecology began In the mid-1900s when two groups of botanists, one in Europe and the other in the United States, studied plant communities from two different points of view. The European botanists concerned themselves with the study of the composition, structure, and patterned  distribution of plant communities. The American botanists studied the development of plant communities, a process in time described as succession, which emphasised the interrelation of both plant and animal communities as a living process.  From 1905, Frederick Edward Clements merged these two streams of research to promote an holistic view of communities as organisms and of the plant formations as superorganisms, progressing towards a climax steady state.

At the time of these international debates about communities and their similarities to organisms, the British biologist, Arthur George Tansley, recognised the need for a non-community-based descriptor of nature. While agreeing that  ‘mature well-integrated plant communities … had enough of the characters of organisms to be considered as quasi-organisms’, he wished to introduce a broad term to comprehend not only the organisms but also the complex interactions between living and physical factors.  In this connection, Tansley had asked Arthur Clapham (then a young man in the Department of Botany at Oxford) if he could think of a suitable word to encompass the dynamic  physical and biological components of environment as a unit.  Clapham came up with the term ‘ecosystem’, which Tansley first used in 1935 .

Around this time the concept of ‘niche’ emerged to describe the place or function of a given organism in nature.  A niche refers to the way in which an organism fits into an ecosystem. Through the process of natural selection a niche is the evolutionary result of the physical structure of a species and the physiological and behavioural adaptations to its surroundings. A habitat is the actual location in the environment where an organism lives and consists of all the physical and biological resources available to a species. The collection of all the habitat areas of a species constitutes its geographic range.

Among the first to use the niche concept was Joseph Grinnell in 1917. He viewed the niche as the functional role and position of an organism in its community. Grinnell considered the niche essentially a behavioural unit, although he also emphasised it as the ultimate distributional unit of all life forms, thereby including spatial features of the physical environment.   Charles Elton in 1927, defined an animal’s niche as “its place in the biotic environment, its relations to food and enemies” and as “the status of an organism in its community.”  Further, he said that “the niche of an animal can be defined to a large extent by its size and its feeding behaviour,  Thus, ecology deals with the organism as a population and as individuals with respect to all their interactions with environment. In particular it includes the ways in which individuals modify their surroundings to produce a living space that is safe and productive,  The Eltonian niche emphasises the functional attributes of animals and their corresponding position in food chains.

The concept of the ecological  niche now pervades all of ecology.  Were it not for the fact that the ecological niche has been used in so many different ways, ecology might be defined as the study of niches. For example, the Ouse Washes, a large area of unimproved winter wetland in the UK,  holds important niches for ducks, coots and moorhens.  There is clear niche partition of this habitat between species.   In an area of about 500 ha, dabbling ducks nest on higher drier ground, whilst coot nests are surrounded by water: moorhen nests were intermediate in their positions. Gadwall, tufted duck and pochard nest within 10 m of water whilst other duck species nested between 10-60m from water. The preferred duck nest sites are in tussocky grasses, especially of Deschampsia caespitosa, whilst coot prefer the non-tussocky Glyceria maxima. The height of vegetation at the nest is greater than around the nest for all species. Mallard and gadwall and tufted duck prefer to nest in unused or lightly grazed fields. whilst shoveler and pintail preferr the more heavily grazed fields (> 90 cow days/acre). Coot and moorhen show no such preferences. Ditches and permanent pools hold most of the waterfowl broods, whilst the temporary pools hold most of the adults not involved in rearing young. Where different species are found together the habitat is partitioned through differences in feeding behaviour.  In this connection, a fundamental niche can be defined as the range of environmental conditions in which each of the species survives. The realized niche can be termed as the range of environmental conditions in which a species is really found.   For example on the rocky coast of Scotland the fundamental niche of the barnacle Chthamalus includes both shallow and deeper zones, but its realised niche is much narrower because Chthamalus is outcompeted by Semibalanus in the upper part of its fundamental niche (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Fundamental and realised niches of barnacles on a rocky shore


2 Human Ecological Niche

The ecological niche has been defined in terms of the distribution of species, the functions they perform and the resources they consume.   Over the years this niche concept has been used by anthropologists  in a number of ways as a specialised part of human society, as being synonymous with culture, and as a segment of the habitat. Odum, thinking in a broad biological context, compared the niche to the profession or way of life of the organism while noting that the habitat is equivalent to its ‘address’. The way of life is more precisely specified by Hutchinson as the total requirements of survival for the organism.  Consequently, the human niche comprises all those conditions necessary for humanity to exist. In a local context it can be a living space, with a distinctive way of life, such as a self contained tribal settlement, a fishing village or a coal mining community with marketing links to the outside world.   It was Donald Hardesty in 1972 who took up this “multi-dimensional” concept and applied it to discussions of the human ecological niche, believing it renders the niche concept of greater value to studies of all human activities, emphasising that we are part of nature in everything we do to occupy our time.

Adler says that to define the main categories under which the activities that fill most of our life’s time can be classified, it is necessary to answer four questions, as follows:

First, is the activity compulsory or optional? Here we must consider two subordinate questions. If compulsory, is its necessity absolute (unconditional) or relative (conditional)? If optional, is it also morally obligatory for the purpose of leading a good life or living well, even though it is not biologically necessary for the preservation of life and health, and not economically necessary for earning a livelihood — the means of subsistence? If optional and not morally obligatory, is it nevertheless morally permissible because it does not frustrate our efforts to lead a decent human life?

Second, what purpose does the activity serve? Why do we engage in it? What goods or values do we achieve by doing it, either for ourselves or for the society in which we live?

Third, how is the result we achieve by the activity related to the activity by which we achieve the result, and also how is it related to the agent performing the activity? On the one hand, the result — the good or value aimed at by the activity — may be extrinsic to the activity. It may be a consequence of the activity, one that follows from it and lies beyond it. On the other hand, it may be inherent in or intrinsic to the activity itself. When the activity has no consequences as part of its purpose or aim, it is strictly nonutilitarian. When it is utilitarian, it may, on the one hand, result in some perfection or improvement of the agent performing the activity; on the other hand, it may improve something other than the performing agent. The result may also be only a good or value for the individual performing the activity, or it may also be a good or value for the society in which the performing agent lives.

Fourth, what sort of activity is it? Is the activity physical, mental, or both in different measures: more or less physical, more or less mental?

These activities, Jerry Coyne explains, are what Pinker sees as the “cognitive niche” (a term invented by John Tooby and Irv DeVore) as a description of the human lifestyle where both thought and social cooperation blend to manipulate the environment in which we move and reproduce.  This involves, for example, using tools, extracting poisons from plants,  and all the stratagems of cooperative hunting: planning, communicating, making traps, and so forth.  Pinker sees several “preadaptations” that facilitated our entry into the cognitive niche.  By “preadaptation,” he means features that evolved for one purpose but  could subsequently be co opted for a different one.  One such feature is our prehensile hands, perhaps themselves a byproduct of bipedality. Another is our diet, which includes meat: as Pinker notes, meat is “not only a concentrated source of nutrients for a hungry brain but may have been selected in turn for greater intelligence because it requires more cleverness to outwit an animal than to outwit fruits or leaves.” A third preadaptation is for group living.

A group is a collection of individuals who have relations to one another that make them interdependent to a significant degree.  As so defined, the term group refers to a class of social entities having in common the property of interdependence among their constituent members.  The hominin niche became increasingly structured for group living in a mutually interdependent world, where individual relationships shape socially shared meanings, while these simultaneously inform the individuals’ understandings of their actions. This culture was defined as the ecology of the mind by anthropologist Gregory Bateson.  For example, it began with hunter gathering and the sophisticated coordination of collective meat procurement, a willingness to provide others with resources, the occasional, but critical reliance on resources produced by others, and procedures for the fair sharing of meat and collective duties. The availability of lethal weapons in early hominin society helped to stabilize this system because it undermined the tendencies of dominants to exploit others in society. Thus two successful sociopolitical structures for group living in a hominin cognitive niche arose to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of social cooperation.. The first was the reverse dominance hierarchy, which replaced social dominance based on physical power with a political system in which success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and motivate others. The second was cooperative breeding and hunting, which provided a strong psychological predisposition towards prosociality and favoured internalized norms of fairness. This survival system seems to have persisted as a major feature of the human ecological niche until cultural changes in the Holocene fostered material wealth accumulation.  Through wealth it became once again possible to sustain a social dominance hierarchy based on coercion. This broad view of cultural ecology has important implications for political theory and social policy, for it suggests that human groups are predisposed to seek dominance when this is not excessively costly, but also to form coalitions to depose pretenders to power. Moreover, humans are much more capable of forming powerful and sustainable coalitions than other primates, due to enhanced cooperative psychological propensities.  Where such groups are organised around the exploitation of a local natural resource the community is called an ecumene.

Ecumene is derived from the Greek root oixos meaning inhabited and nenon meaning space.  It generally refers to land where people have made their permanent home, and to all work areas that are considered occupied and used for agricultural or any other economic purpose. Thus, there can be various types of ecumenes, each having its own unique characteristics (fishing ecumene, agricultural ecumene, industrial ecumene, etc.).

Staithes, on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, was an ecumene of some standing that was based on inshore fishing.  It landed sufficient cod, mackerel and haddock for the North Eastern railway to run three or four special fish trains a week. Lining was one of the methods by which the fish were caught. The lines of hooks were baited with mussels, or sometimes limpets (Fig 2).   It was the role of women to bait the hooks and carry them down to their menfolk on the beach  The women wore homemade traditional utilitarian bonnets, which were padded at the top to help carry the coiled lines in head baskets.  They were also flared at the sides to stop the coils of hooks and lines becoming entangled in their hair. Each bonnet required a yard of material, and was double-plaited at the front and tied at the back with a bow. The bonnets were incorporated as social signals into village life.  They were white in colour but when a woman was widowed the colour of the material was changed to black, which was worn for a considerable time after the bereavement. This bonnet, in turn, was then exchanged for one of a mauve coloured material.  Although bonnets were characteristic of many fishing villages along the East Coast, those produced by Staithes families were the most significant markers of the village ecumene.

Fig 2  Fisherwomen of the Staithes ecumene baiting lines for their menfolk (staged for the camera, date unknown)

Every ecumene is a band with strong bonds to its territory defined by characteristic social hardware and software, that enables its people to occupy a distinctive spatially disjunct niche with persistence of social practices favouring sustainable resource use.   Social hardware refers to the forces and relations of production, namely the technological infrastructure and the property systems, e.g.commons, family communal corporate or state owned.  Social software refers to the belief system eg. religion, tradition or science which legitimises and validates human interactions with nature via its political and natural economy.

In an anthropological context political economy has come to mean the organisation of people for production. It runs alongside natural economy which is defined as the organisation of resources for production. These economies devoted to managing the use of resources are the two sides of the coin of world development and together they provide an educational framework for organising cultural ecology as a distinct body of knowledge.

This implies that many forms of sociopolitical organisation for group living, from tribes to nations, are compatible with the particular human amalgam of hierarchical and anti-hierarchical predispositions. In particular, there is no inevitable triumph of liberal democratic over despotic political hierarchies. An open society will always be threatened by the forces of despotism, and a technology could easily arise that irremediably places democracy on the defensive. The future of politics in our species, in the absence of concerted emancipatory collective action, could well be something akin to George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Humans appear constitutionally indisposed to accept a social dominance hierarchy based on coercion unless the coercive mechanism and its associated social processes can be culturally legitimated. It is somewhat encouraging that such legitimation is difficult except in a few well-known ways, based on patriarchy, popular religion, or liberal democracy.  Thus, every place is a blend of cultural, spiritual, political, social, and emotional notions.

In her book ‘Whose India?’ Teresa Hubel introduces a notion that place is a property of the imagination .  She presented the idea that whoever speaks to and for India’s people, and whoever imagines India’s past or destiny with the hope of determining its future, can be said to be a part owner of the notion.  Going a step further along this line of thinking, Hubel’s notion is actually multi-layered.  It is applicable globally and extends down to the level of the smallest place where people gather.  Place belongs to whichever individuals or groups are able to constitute its formation in discourse.  Kipling and Rushdie are two ethnically distinct individuals who both stake their legitimate claim to the ownership of India by the very act of writing about it. A group or individual who simulates a virtual presence in a place in the real world thereby establishes ownership of that place: thereby place comes to have a personalised psychological existence and a sector within a person’s ecological niche.

Ecumenes are the outcome of managing specialised behaviours governing settlement to exploit a  local natural resource.  Regarding the bulk of the European  population, at the start of the eighteenth century it lived off the land, but one-third of this rural population gained their living by means other than farming.  Much of the non-agricultural workforce comprised carpenters and blacksmiths, carters and shopkeepers, tailors and shoemakers. All were essential to the rural economy.  The niches of these craftsmen-retailers can be assessed through their listings  in numerous trade directories that were published at this time.  Such analysis highlights the limited capitalisation of their craft activities and their close involvement with agricultural pursuits, including the ownership of livestock and husbandry ware. It also reveals the close social ties which they enjoyed with their rural communities.  Friends and family were primarily rural, as were their customer and credit networks.  The tribal history of the areas occupied by villages and market towns, defined by land divisions such as parishes and hundreds, are evidence of the ancient settlements of families which ensured a fair allocation of ecosystem services within a village niche.


3  Ecosystem services and the spatial niche

 The human ecological niche can be thought of as a focus for group living sustained by the management of ecosystem services for rural and urban settlement: a management system which now connects people to all parts of the globe.  In this context, four categories of ecosystem services are provided by nature.  Territory is conceptualised as that which links people and their environment. It is a unique, socially and materially constructed, or produced ‘ecological niche’ and at the same time the ‘social space’ of a group of people, defined by their spatial identity. Territory is a structure that is embodied in reality and that ‘lives’ in people’s minds as well as in their practices. It has an underlying infrastructure of common rules or codes and of network of material and informational flows.  Material flows are now defined as services produced by nature; the so-called ecosystem services.

When people are asked to identify a service provided by nature, most think of food.  Fruits, vegetables, trees, fish and livestock are available to us as direct products of ecosystems.  A provisioning service is any type of benefit to people that can be extracted from nature.

Along with food, other types of provisioning services include:  

  • Drinking water
  • Timber
  • Wood fuel, natural gas and oils
  • Plants that can be made into clothes and other materials
  • Medicinal benefits

Ecosystems provide many of the basic services that make life possible for people.  Plants clean air and filter water, bacteria decompose wastes, bees pollinate flowers and tree roots hold soil in place to prevent erosion.  All these processes work together to make ecosystems clean, sustainable, functional and resilient to change.  A regulating service is the benefit provided by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena.

Regulating services include:

  • Pollination
  • Decomposition
  • Water purification
  • Erosion and flood control
  • Carbon storage and climate regulation

As we interact and alter nature, the natural world has in turn altered us.  It  has guided our cultural, intellectual and social development by being a constant force present in our lives. The importance of ecosystems to the human mind can be traced back to the beginning of mankind with ancient civilizations drawing pictures of animals, plants and weather patterns on cave walls.

A cultural service is a non-material benefit that contributes to the development and cultural advancement of people including,

  • How ecosystems play a role in local, national and global cultures
  • The building of knowledge and the spreading of ideas
  • Creativity born from interactions with nature (music, art, architecture)
  • Recreation

The natural world provides so many services that sometimes we overlook the most fundamental.  Ecosystems themselves could not be sustained without the consistency of underlying natural processes, such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, the creation of soils and the water cycle.  These processes allow the Earth to sustain basic life forms, let alone whole ecosystems and people.  Without supporting services, provisional, regulating and cultural services would not exist..   

In their book on the history of the cultural ecology of India, ‘The Fissured Land’, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha point out that we can distil four distinct modes of resource use:

  • gathering (including shifting cultivation);
  • nomadic pastoralism;
  • settled cultivation;
  • And industry.

The distinctive characteristics of each mode across different axes include:

  • aspects of technology, such as sources of energy, materials used, and the knowledge base relating to resource use
  • aspects of economy, such as the spatial scale of resource flows and the modes of resource acquisition
  • aspects of social organization, such as the size of social group, the division of labour, and mechanisms of control over access to resources
  • aspects of ideology, including broad perceptions of the man-nature relationship, as well as specific practices promoting resource conservation or destruction
  • the nature of the ecological impact itself


4  Cultural ecology flow models

The origins of the ideas in ‘This Fissured Land’ is in the 1990s thoughts of Gadgil and Thapar who defined the history of cultural ecology with reference to the flows of resources within four models of Indian society..

In productive stable environments, hunter gatherers and shifting cultivators maintain well defined territories.  Cycles of materials in such environments are largely closed within their spatial scales of territories with flows of materials across territorial boundaries being much less significant. (Fig 3)

Fig 3  Material flows in territories maintained by hunter-gatherers.

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.

Settled agriculture makes possible generation of surplus grain and livestock production which can support concentration of non agricultural populations in towns and cities.  This material export from cultivated lands has to be made good by flows from surrounding non cultivated lands.  Material cycles thus become much more open in comparison with the hunter gatherer shifting cultivator stage.  Settlements adjacent to cultivated land represent villages, the larger habitation in the centre, towns. (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Flows of materials in an agrarian society

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.

When settled agricultural populations are newly colonising river valley plains they would tend to use the cultivable lands exhaustively without making good the losses induced by outflows of materials.  As cultivated lands lose fertility people would move on to settle new areas.  Settlements adjacent to cultivated land represent villages, the larger habitation in the centre, towns (Fig 3).

Modern societies tap not only surpluses of agricultural production but also a great deal of the produce of non cultivated lands to meet the requirements of the urban industrial sector  The material cycles thus become totally open with large outflows from rural hinterlands.  These are partially compensated for by the  organisation of flows of materials such as fertilisers from the urban industrial sector to the cultivated lands.  The large central human habitation represents an Indian city such as Bombay.   The habitation in the upper right hand corner represents the industrialised countries.  (Fig 5).

.Fig 5  Flows of material and people accompanying agricultural colonisation

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.

A modern society taps not only surpluses of agricultural production  but also a great deal of the products of non cultivated lands to meet the requirements of the urban-industrial sector.  The material cycles thus become totally open with large outflows from rural hinterlands.  These are partially compensated for by the organisation of flows of materials such as fertilisers from the urban-industrial sector to the cultivated lands.  The large central human habitation represents an Indian city such as Mumbai: the habitation in the upper right hand corner  represents the industrial countries (Fig 6).

Fig 6   Material flow characterising modern Indian society

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.


4  Internet references

This Fissured Land

Human Ecology in India

Integrating Humans into Ecology

Ecosystem services in urban areas

Cultural ecology

Cultural ecology and niche

Visualising the human ecological niche

Human cognative niche

The Evolutionary Roots of Human Socio political Systems

Uniqueness of human cognition

Pinker 1, the human cognitive niche

Pinker 2

Whose India

The Human Ecological NIche

The Human Niche: an Overview

The Ecosystem Concept Viewed Historically

Hardisty: the Human Ecological Niche

Piggots 1844 Directory Brynmawr

Waterfowl at the Ouse Washes

The Ecological Nihe

Niche Habitat Ecotyype

Blything: A Tribal Territory
Crafsmen-retailers in 17th Century Britain

Thinking with islands

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Quite remarkable things happen when itinerant people set foot on small islands.   Small is beautiful but small is also vulnerable so resilience and adaptability have to be the order of the day,

1  Skomer: a timeline

Skomer is a small cliff girt, treeless, island situated about a mile off the coast of South West Wales.   In terms of its function as a human natural resource its history goes back to the migrations of the first  prehistoric farmers. From this time to the present there has been a varying human presence in a long story in many episodes lasting thousands of years or just a few hours.  Evidence for long term social dynamics rests with the development of field boundaries, where denuded plough lynchets and remains of stone walled fields show clear phasing among overlapping farming systems, all indicative of a complex cultural past.

Fig 1 Shearwater and Skomer

Ray Howard Jones, 1954

Present day visitors are taken on a tour of the roofless round houses and their associated field systems which have been dated to the Iron Age. The evidence comes from excavations at a prehistoric mound of burnt and fire-cracked stones once used to boil water for cooking.  This has produced calibrated radiocarbon dates of between 751-408 BC,  A cattle tooth deposited in the cooking mound was dated to around 85 BC.

Speculations about an even earlier culture have focused on a barrow associated with a considerable number of cairns. There is also evidence for possible megalithic structures.  This would date the first human settlement to the of Neolithic or early Bronze Age. It is claimed that among these remains are at least three standing stone pairs which raises the possibility that they represent a small ritual site.  This idea chimes with the latest ideas of the migration of Neolithic henge builders who spread from Orkney to Salisbury Plain, taking a route south along the western coastline of Britain.  The bluestones, which mark an early conceptual stage of Stonehenge, were quarried a relatively short distance from Skomer and this positions the island within the epicentre of a ‘standing stone’ culture which transferred key cultural elements from Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain.

The first documents on Skomer appear in the mid 14th century when the island was established as a large rabbit warren.  A set of accounts recording this operation was compiled by the Norman administration of Haverford West, where the island was an extension of the castle’s community of St Martins.

It seems that the island was uninhabited during the medieval period except for the seasonal visits of warreners and cattle farmers.

The ruined farmhouse, and surrounding large rectangular fields that now dominate the centre of the island were erected in the 1840s by the mainland owner as an investment for the rental market.  The returns from agriculture were probably marginal and over the years the island came to be valued more for its exceptional wildlife.  This phase culminated in Skomer being declared a national nature reserve in 1959.  It is now staffed by a manager and volunteers of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Old farm buildings have been converted as visitor accommodation and there is a daily boat service most of the year.  There is a house for the manager to which is attached a small laboratory with accommodation for field workers.  However, my first visit to Skomer predated these comforts.   The boat was unpredictable, boarding was either direct from the beach or a convenient rock face and the accommodation was primitive.

2 Coming to Islands

My first view of Skomer was in the autumn of 1969, a decade after it had been declared a national nature reserve.   Looking to the west from the mainland across a misty, rainy, Jack Sound from the shelter of the coastguard hut at the top of the Deer Park, I was fascinated by a group of several hundred diving gannets, a reinforcement of the feeling of being immersed  in a powerful local wildness.   Looking to the south west I could see the island of Skokholm, a small smudge on the grey horizon.  Skomer’s  nearness is deceptive, although only just over a mile as the crow flies from Martin’s Haven, it could take two men rowing up to three quarters of an hour to reach Welsh Way, which was the southern point of access until North Haven was made accessible by the Victorians and their dynamite.  This day, on a rare borderline between humankind and nature, began a mindful intellectual link with Skomer, which has lasted to the present day.

Islands occupy a significant space in the human mind because they are good places with with which to think.   They are more than scenic locations.  Their natural boundaries help shape and contain narratives. In my case they are places where poetry and contemplation happen, and I was in search of somewhere to link these powerful social expressions of human wellbeing by making connections between ecology and culture.  Up to that time my scientific career had been based on reductive concepts that came from the biochemical laboratory.  I was in search of the bigger outdoor picture of evolution.  This shift in outlook began during the mid 1960s in Sheffield, where I was Reader in Endocrinology and Metabolism. The change in mindset emerged during the co-supervision of a PhD project into how freshwater shrimps could survive in the tidal estuary of the River Esk at Whitby.  My new scientific outlook came into a much sharper focus when I was offered a place on an international team studying the physiological survival strategies of animals living at the boundary between the River Amazon and its largest tributary the River Negro.  Our base was the spot where, a century before, a pair of British naturalists and explorers, Henry Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, had located their expedition.  When Bates arrived home in 1859 after a full eleven years, he had sent back 14,712 species, mostly insects, of which 8,000 were new to science.  From these findings Bates gave the first scientific account of mimicry in animals. The scientific continuity embedded in this small spot on planet Earth was sometimes overwhelming.  

Bates and Wallace had begun to explore the Rio Negro or “Black River,” and noticed that the water seemed darkly stained, like tea or coffee. Similar, smaller rivers can be found across the northern Amazon basin. Such rivers are usually deep, slow-moving, and wind through peaty forests or swamps. Where the blackwater of the Rio Negro meets the silt-laden, “whitewater” of the western Amazon Basin, the transition is sharp and visible from space.  Our research soon revealed this was an amazing juxtaposition of two entirely different outcomes of evolution expressed in food chains and survival mechanisms  This distinct river ecologies also determined diverse cultures of the rivers’ native settlements, which set seeds of cultural ecology in my mind.

The new mindset that was emerging from contact with the diverse tropical rainforest was a response to the fact that educationalists generally do not face “nature” as a whole as an objective and invariant reality, but only in its parts. The reality I had been taught to perceive always implied an isolated subjective and variable component.  In truth, the operational reality of the  living world can only be systematically and gradually perceived by enlarging its systems and differentiating their elements and relationships. Systems thinking with mind maps is therefore a necessary tool for human progress on an overcrowded planet.  It implies both analytical and synthetical processes and thus is sometimes called a “holistic approach” to nature.   Education is not something to keep in closed conceptual boxes, even when the box is classroom-shaped. The habit of learning, an urge to find out more, is developed when we feel inspired. The world outside the lecture room is richly inspiring, constantly re-energising what takes place within. It is the source of all our learning: about our history, about our culture, about our place in the natural world and our relationships with each other. This two-way flow can be embedded in every child’s education, entirely at ease within any age group and any teacher’s ethos.  Sadly an out of date European education system devised to establish and exploit empires gets in the way.

Sheltering from the weather on the edge of the world, watching the primeval interaction of predator and prey, I needed poetical inspiration to express the wild reality in front of me, which could describe and transmits ecstasy while retaining a practical awareness of the world as a system that goes on relentlessly driven by interlocking food chains.  It was not until 1992, the year of the world summit to launch a strategy to save the planet, that the American poet Mary Oliver captured my mood of 23 years ago, when I vowed to bring students to this place where they could determine for themselves their place in nature.  

I am watching the white gannets

blaze down into the water

with the power of blunt spears

and a stunning accuracy–

even though the sea is riled and boiling

and gray with fog

and the fish

are nowhere to be seen,

they fall, they explode into the water

like white gloves,

then they vanish,

then they climb out again,

from the cliff of the wave,

like white flowers–

and still I think

that nothing in this world moves

but as a positive power–

even the fish, finning down into the current

or collapsing

in the red purse of the beak,

are only interrupted from their own pursuit

of whatever it is

that fills their bellies–

and I say:

life is real,

and pain is real,

but death is an imposter,

and if I could be what once I was,

like the wolf or the bear

standing on the cold shore,

I would still see it–

how the fish simply escape, this time,

or how they slide down into a black fire

for a moment,

then rise from the water inseparable

from the gannets’ wings.

The depiction of Skomer in its wildness was the aim of the Welsh painter, Rosemary Howard Jones.  Rosemary, known as “Ray”, grew up near Cardiff and on a visit to Pembrokeshire as a child fell in love with the coastline that was to hold and sustain her throughout her life. In the 1950s she spend long periods on Skomer living in the ‘Rabbit Catcher’s Hut’, with her long-term partner, photographer Ray Moore.  The  hut had basic furniture the pair had made from driftwood.  I remember discussions with her about the merits of the interwar poets in her silver caravan permanently parked just within the gate to the Deer Park when she was regarded a rather eccentric recluse, Another image is of her sitting gross legged in the prow of the boat going to Skokholm, drenched with spray, anorak turned up, sketching the waves breaking around her (Figs 1 & 2)

Fig 2  Sunset on Skomer

Ray Howard Jones (circa 1950s)

3  Skokholm: a scientific outpost

It was in fact the island of Skokholm, not Skomer, that had first attracted me to Pembrokeshire, with the objective of organising a research project on its colony of house mice.  Mice live freely all over Skokholm in a population that had then been in existence for more than 70 years.   The ecological genetics of these animals had been studied intensively from 1960 to 1969 by the geneticist Sam Berry, who had set up a small field laboratory on the island for this purpose.  At that time I was co-director of the Nuffield Gerontology Laboratory at Hull University  and had just been appointed head of the department of zoology in the University of Wales at Cardiff.  The aim of my research on Skokholm was to investigate to what extent studies on laboratory animals could be extended to animals in the wild. Put simply the question is, do mice in the wild age in the same way as mice bred in the laboratory?

The other important historical feature of Skokholm that had brought me to this part of South Wales, was the significant position of the island in the the development of the science of ecology. The key local figure was Ronald Lockley, a farmer and naturalist, who took a lease on the island and began from 1928  to study migratory birds using the ‘new’ technique of ‘ringing’.  He established the first British bird observatory on Skokholm in 1933,  One of its early pieces of research was Lockley’s work in 1936-7 with David Lack on the homing behaviour of the Manx Shearwater.  Their ringing experiments showed that this bird, which nests in large numbers on Skokholm, can successfully return to the island from great distances.  This involved taking birds to Venice!. The farthest distance of Skokholm from Venice, is about 930 miles direct, while if this bird travelled the whole way back by sea it must have covered at least 3,700 miles.

The other important biological principle that arose out of discussions among the many ornithologists who visited the bird observatory in its early days, led to David Lack’s ruminations on the fact that islands demonstrate that, the smaller and more remote the island, the more impoverished the bird fauna compared with the mainland.  This is possibly the most general pattern found in ecology, and many explanations have been proposed.  The relationship between island area and number of species is now well known: larger islands contain more species than smaller islands.  Furthermore, “Islands” can be used to refer not only to pieces of land surrounded by water, but to habitat islands as well, such as lakes, forest fragments, etc.

Regarding my work on the ageing of Skokholm’s wild mice, which was carried out in the early 1970s, individuals were allotted to eight age-classes on the basis of tooth wear, such that the oldest group were over a year old and had survived the previous winter, while the others had all been born in the current breeding season.  This gave a maximum life span of a year.  In the laboratory, these mice lived, as do laboratory mice, for a maximum of around  three years.

Molecular markers showed that natural selection was operating on the wild Skokholm mice, so that the age groups were not genetically homogeneous. Animals living a few metres apart were different genotypes.  A number of characters were shown to be age-correlated, and their importance varied in mice from different habitats; no one trait could adequately describe the observed changes with age.  The conclusion is that ageing studies carried out on ‘standardized’ laboratory animals in a necessarily over-simplified experimental environment may give results misleading to gerontologists.  Human ageing does not occur in the wild because individuals die of disease or predation before they can experience it.

Rabbits are the other small mammal living wild on Skokholm, and Lockley, in his capacity of  farmer, engaged with them as a pest that was frustrating his efforts to make the island pay as a commercial enterprise.  In this connection he adopted every new pest control system that was developed to exterminate them.  So it was that Sir Charles Martin brought the virulent strain of the virus known as Myxomatosis cuniculi to the island.  In his choice of Skokholm Sir Charles had decided that the possibility of the virus being carried from Skokholm to wild rabbits elsewhere was too remote to constitute a public danger.  He made three separate attempts to induce myxomatosis in Skokholm rabbits in 1936, 1937 and 1938. Although in each attempt the rabbits inoculated with the virus appeared to have died within the usual period of less than fourteen days, there was little or no spread to uninoculated rabbits. The result of the Skokholm experiment was to dismiss any use of the virus as a rabbit control measure.

However, in October 1953 myxomatosis’ was introduced into south-eastern England by unknown means and was first notified in October 1953. Attempts were at first made to eradicate it, but it spread and was established at twelve places in the south-eastern counties by the spring of 1954. It was recorded from Wales in May and from Scotland in July, its spread in these cases having undoubtedly been helped by the transfer of diseased rabbits to uninfected areas. Most of England and Wales south of a line from the Wash to the Wirral peninsula was affected by the end of 1954, and every county in northern England had some infection. Deliberate spreading of the disease by transfer of infected rabbits was made an offence in November. Virulence remained high, generally with a mortality of about. 99 per cent., through 1955, and the disease was present in most parishes in Great Britain by the end of the year. After an epidemic, which killed up to 99% of mainland animals, sporadic cases continued to occur among the depleted population to the present day.

4  Skomer: rabbits and vegetation

A broad scientific framework for understanding the natural history of Skomer was established in a report of a seven month long expedition to survey the island, organised by the West Wales Field Society in 1946. At that time Skomer was emerging from a period during the war when rabbits had been culled in a semi-agricultural system and   the central fields had been lightly grazed by a few cattle and sheep .  Short rabbit nibbled floriferous pastures dominated the landscape, which were described as being springy and pleasant to walk over.

The principal vector of myxomatosis in Britain in 1954 and 1955 was the rabbit flea, Spilopsyllus cuniculi. Rabbits remained numerous on the island of Skokholm where they were free from fleas, but nearly all were destroyed on Skomer.  When I first set foot on Skomer in 1971, the rabbit population was subject to a year on year cyclic rise and fall as myxomatosis had begun to equilibrate with its rabbits and their fleas. From an  island that in 1957 had been lush with grass it was returning to a more patchy landscape dominated by common rabbit resistant plants .  In the late 1960s the springy turf had been reduced to a very thin covering, with many mossy patches and bare ground. The turf was  no longer thick enough to feel pleasant underfoot. Because rabbits live at a such a high density, up to 40 per acre on Skomer, every part of the island, apart from the cliff ledges inaccessible to them, was affected by their burrowing, trampling, scraping, defecation and grazing. There were fears of soil erosion, particularly on the western cliff tops, where nesting burrows of shearwaters and puffins were at risk..  Also, there were several large expanding gull colonies in the centre of the island feeding on household food waste available on mainland rubbish dumps.

As a result of discussions with the staff of the Nature Conservancy Council who were managing the island, it was agreed that I should evaluate the idea of an imminent erosion threat.  This would involve undergraduates from my department spending two weeks on Skomer in long term group work on the impact of rabbits and gulls, but they would also have their individual self motivated projects that would throw light on the ecological dynamics of other species and give them a taste of what real scientific thinking was about. For the first few years of this work the Cardiff student group was based in the ‘Rabbit Catcher’s Hut’ at the farm..

Long term effort was required because everyone recognised that ecological processes occur and interact at various spatial and temporal scales that require long periods of surveillance to detect and evaluate. In contrast, most ecological research occurs over short periods of time and is limited in its spatial extent, restricting our understanding of longer-term and broader-scale processes. The resulting gaps in our ecological knowledge are sometimes labelled the “invisible present”  and the “invisible place”. Without baseline data to provide a reference it is difficult to infer what long-term changes may be occurring and whether short-term local studies are representative or merely anecdotal. Although top-down effects of particular herbivores and carnivores at the landscape level are now well-recognized, these have generally been demonstrated to occur locally and over short periods of time. Importantly, we now have ample evidence that herbivores such as rabbits and deer can dramatically affect plant communities derived from fenced exclosure studies, island studies, and direct observation. Nevertheless, doubts and uncertainty persist concerning whether such long term impacts are serious or pervasive and how long they persist.

It turned out that Skomer’s gull problem was a temporary one and by 1985 the number of breeding pairs had dropped to about 10% of the 1960s peak.  Regarding rabbits, looking back three decades we can now see that the catastrophic effect of myxomatosis on Skomer had set in motion long term ecological forces expressed in repeated cycles of plant succession.  This produces a fairly predictable surface mosaic related to the rise and fall in the rabbit population, punctuated by rare winter inundations of the island by gale-born salt spray. Regarding weather, the log of the 1946 expedition to Skomer recorded a severe September gale that snapped bracken stems about a foot from the ground, withering vegetation well into the centre of the island.

Looking back, these relatively short lived grassland microcosms characteristically appear and disappear in cycles of plant succession, occupying decades and take place alongside population trends in longer lived colonies of bracken and heath.  At any time the botanical patchiness of Skomer is revealed as a dynamic mosaic of microcosms, with long and short periods.  The longer trends, particularly in heathland, are possibly the outcome of local climate change.

The above conclusions have come from a few sampling sites representative of unenclosed  cliff tops and the large central fields.  However, the island has been compartmented by generations of prehistoric farmers eking out a living from a relatively small space.  Aerial surveys have shown that this has resulted in a complex pattern of small enclosures now only visible at ground level, which extend below the much larger Victorian enclosures.  This raises the question as to what extent this prehistoric field pattern is influencing the current pattern of vegetation.  Phosphorus is unique among the elements in being a sensitive and persistent indicator of human activity. It has long been of interest to archaeologists because of its potential to inform them about the presence of past human occupation and to offer clues regarding the type and intensity of human activity.  In particular several properties of phosphates lead to long-lasting residual ecological effects of phosphate used for crop fertilization. Phosphorus occurs in the soil in several different chemical forms, most of which are relatively insoluble in water, sensitive to pH changes, and immobile. Soil phosphate can also be grouped into inorganic and organic forms.  On Skomer the use of phosphate fertilizer, from manure, is evident in the distribution of stinging nettles   Availability of phosphate is the chief factor affecting their distribution and they may be taken as indicators of the effects of prehistoric agriculture.  For example, in a small prehistoric rectangular enclosure the vegetation inside can be quite different from that outside.  In particular, nettles are found inside but not outside.

5 Skomer: aerial drone surveys

Vegetation is more of a continuum than a set of distinct units. Holistic knowledge on vegetation heterogeneity, scenic patterns and species dynamics is therefore an indispensable prerequisite for identifying and understanding ecological processes and hence, providing subsequent insight for managing ecosystems .  Geographic Information Systems (GIS) represent a considerable change in environmental data management, as they connect territorial information to different databases, allowing for the “integration” of the territory, adding and producing new information. The use of remote sensing tools, permits the gathering of many kinds of territorial information and the investigation of aspects that are difficult to monitor.

The ability to estimate plant distributions over large areas (i.e., several hectares) using traditional approaches (transect or quadrat methods) is generally limited because of the time and expense required. Intensive plant surveys may also result in unacceptable levels of disturbance to sensitive ecosystems due to soil compaction, disruption of soil organic layers, trampling, and vegetation damage. This is an important issue on Skomer where there is a high density of relatively shallow nesting burrows.  Remote sensing via satellites provides information on landforms and the general distribution of vegetation types over large areas.  However,  it is unlikely to provide adequate spatial or temporal resolution for determining the distributions of individual species or fine-scale differentiation among surface landscape features and vegetation types. Moreover, available satellite images may not represent optimal phenological stages for the identification of different species and vegetation types. Manned aircraft and large drone surveys can have increased resolution, but are prohibitively expensive for most investigations.   Generally, they do not provide a high enough resolution to assess the distributions and compositions of plant communities. On the other hand, utilization of micro–unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, unmanned aerial systems [UAS], small aerial drones) do provide adequate levels of image detail to estimate the distribution of individual plant species or vegetation types over several hectares at a relatively low cost. Therefore, in 2017, to get the holistic picture of Skomer’s vegetation, drone technology will be applied to make a digital surface model.   The goal is to define the advantages and limitations of small aerial drone surveys covering the whole of the island for estimating the distributions of individual plant species and vegetation types making up the surface landscape at fine spatial scales.  In particular, the aim is to plot the impact of rabbit behaviour.  Hopefully this will be a fifty year old dream come true.

6 Web appendices

Skomer mind map

Dream islands

A campfire meditation
7  Web references,_Judie.pdf

Networking in common

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Networking in common

(To get information on each figure click on the numbered URLs)

“Public space is a place of social interaction as well as key for the identity and landscape of the city. As a common good, it belongs to all inhabitants and it has a systemic relation with other common goods such as culture or education”.

Culture 21


1  Open commons

Fig 1 URL1

In 2016 the international art competition Artes Mundi selected ‘Seed Journey’, produced by the collective known as Futurefarmers, for inclusion in the short list of six art works, which were displayed in the National Museum of Wales (Fig 1).

Futurefarmers is interested in using art as a vehicle to encourage preserving ‘the commons’ which are globally defined as land use, biological matter and the sharing of knowledge. The ‘Global Commons’ refers to resource domains or areas that lie outside the political reach of any one nation State.  Seed Journey connects up these commons through the voyage of the seed carrying vessel Christiania.  Its mission is to return historically important packages of rediscovered cereal seeds from Europe to the Middle East, where they  were first selected and handed on from farmer to farmer so initiating the neolithic revolution.  This retro-voyage touching on all three commons has become a “laboratory” where the collective continues its research into accessing the global commons.  In this context, the Artes Mundi installation of Futurefarmers became an interactive “base camp” and visitors were invited to become part of the journey and to consider the possibility of working in common to promote local social change and different futures.  Therefore, Seed Journey can be seen as a gesture towards the relatively recent cultural departure of humanity from self-sufficiency and the ecological loss of local genetic controls on plant breeding.  However, in a wider scheme of cultural ecology ‘Seed Journey’ can be viewed as an experiment in the development of ‘open commons’ for living sustainably in the context of free trade and consumer capitalism spreading the rule of law, the enhanced use of critical reason, the expansion of individual freedom and the tolerance of diversity. The big question  is how to turn the progressivist rhetoric about decent housing, efficient healthcare systems and better schools into cosmopolitan unity through intensified commerce and free access to digital media and computer networking.

Open commons is a term that is unique throughout Europe. It encompasses all types and aspects of digital common property.  Urban development in the context of open commons can inspire more participatory governance through the creation of digital cultures that provide knowledge about our existence as inhabitants of cities and as citizens of the world. We all need to learn about the past of our living space, so that we can “own” it and propel this identity and local knowledge into the future. In particular local digital cultures based on open commons allow citizens to gain ownership of the urban environment, and to meet and learn from one another.  In short, a culture of open commons in the context of placemaking is a means through which citizens feel they have an interactive niche in the humanised urban ecosystem. This kind of culturally sensitive approach to IT can counter tribalism and empower marginalized individuals and communities to participate in social and political life. In other words,  organizations and movements built on digital media and led by citizens strengthen and leverage capacities for collective empowerment and action that can shape politics, not just policy.

However, social media users who can claim to have hundreds of friends in their network, sometimes find it difficult to name half a dozen people that they have actually met in their local neighbourhood. While social networks have helped people to meet like-minded contacts online, they have had a more limited role in developing face-to-face place bonding in communities.  But gradually, social networks are beginning to have a bigger role in building community connectedness on the ground and catalysing neighbourhood co-operation and social action.


2  Meeting places

Connectedness has to be the key to living a full and rounded life. The concept is much larger than family. Modern physics recognizes the whole universe as a web of dynamic relationships of which humans are but a tiny outcome. It is within this grand cosmic perspective that a capacity to signal out special places to make connections was crucial to launch the primal social order of indigenous peoples. In a practical sense, choosing meeting places to make connections with nature and others is part and parcel of healing the fundamental disease of our time – the fragmentation of the world and knowledge about it into isolated parts. Piecemeal knowledge is not useful at a time when the real task is to understand and redress the extensive destruction of the life systems of planet Earth brought about by human single- mindedness.

By putting ourselves in the perspective of the rest of reality, human self- consciousness enables us to discover the humiliating truth that the entire world does not revolve around us as human beings, and never has. The moment of recognition comes when we realize that for almost all of geological history, humankind has not existed and has thus been irrelevant to the rest of the universe. If in addition we begin to see ourselves, not just as other people see us, but as all the other species of the natural world view us, as just another animal relative, we suddenly find ourselves in a very broad biological perspective. From a religious viewpoint, this recognition of our real place in a big scheme of things, where our uniqueness is only that we make stuff and accumulate it provides a dramatic moment of humility and of possible conversion to a way of thinking about ourselves as part of the body of the universe, showing reverence to all life. Above all, we belong to places and places do not belong to us (Fig 2).

Fig 2  URL2

This blog addresses the three vital ties to place that give our days meaning.  They focus on places in the present where we can make connections with our ancestors and fit these people in the wider context of global history and the cosmos.  For example there are:-

Places of landing.

We are by nature a migrant species, and we should mark and celebrate our places of arrival and departure.

Places of settlement.

There are some places in every country that have a particular significance for particular groups of people, because their ancestors have built kinship networks.

Places of interaction between peoples

So many of our places of historical encounter are hidden in the landscape, with little more than a sign to point to them, if that. Many of these are places of conflict, telling stories that we need to know to understand grievances that have been handed down from generation to generation, but there are others that symbolize cooperation, productivity and friendship

.Places of sacred significance

Sacred or holy places are found in different cultures, past and present, all over the world. Such places are frequently marked or embellished by architectural structures and art. In most cases, it can be shown that the sacredness of a place is linked in some way to natural objects and features such as trees, stones, water, mountains, caves, and forms in the landscape. It can further be shown that these natural objects and forms lie at the root of the forms and shapes employed to mark or embellish a sacred site.  In this context, my religious standpoint in all this is that the development of modern science has made incredible much of the content of traditional belief of religions, based on a supernatural god.  Sacredness and spiritualism without God means that the quest for transcendent living is satisfied in nothing else but genetic demand for inner and outer order that evolved the concepts of ‘intelligence’, ‘love’ and ‘free being’. Silence and contemplation are not just for monks and nuns, they are natural functions of human biology.

Then there are the ‘third places’:

The idea of a public, social place outside of home and work has been around for centuries, but it didn’t enter the lexicon as a “third place” until the phenomenon was thoroughly explored by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, “The Great Good Place.” .

The concept of third places is frequently cited in professional discussions of topics ranging from community and social connections to the importance of place. Separate from first place (home) and second place (work), third places have taken on a new lustre in recent years as companies discover the value of third places inside the office: cafés and casual spaces where employees can sip coffee, tea or even a beer, and connect with colleagues in a relaxed, informal environment.

Third places are face-to-face phenomena. The idea that electronic communication permits a virtual third place is misleading. “Virtual” means that something is like something else in both essence and effect, and that’s not true in this instance. When you go to a third place you essentially open yourself up to whoever is there. And they may be very different from you. If you don’t know your neighbours, you will be suspicious. And if you are suspicious, you will act accordingly. You don’t get neighbourly on that basis. If you spend time with people you’re not going to hate them, it’s just that simple.

Nevertheless, social media users can harness the interactivity and connectivity of social networking sites to create a sense of place in a digital environment.   There are people who argue that regularly scheduled Twitter chats can function as digital third places, sites of online sociality that both mirror and deviate from physical gathering sites, such as bars or clubs. Using Oldenburg’s eight characteristics of (built) third places, apply to people who collectively identify with others and collaborate in digital gathering sites supporting the idea that social networking sites offer the potential for continued thinking about the role of third places in developing connectivity online. Moreover, further opportunities for the study of space—both physical and digital—and the study of time as integral components of digitally mediated interpersonal connection.


3  The memory method of ‘location’

Geographical places and their physical features are sites of memory where landscape operates as a storehouse for collective memory (Fig 3). The bonds between place and identity influence our pastimes, our policies and our politics. Bonding memory with place involves the association of emotionally striking memory images within visualized locations.  Persons desiring to train this faculty of memory must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in places of the mind.  The aim is that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves. Metaphorically, places and the images are employed respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written upon it.

Fig3   UR3

The ‘method of location’ is a general designation for remembrance techniques that rely upon memorising spatial relationships to establish, spatial order and aid recall.   In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or a video game, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci.  When desiring to remember such a set of items the subject takes a mental ‘walk’ through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus.  Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items.  

Improving one’s memory by using imagery is an ancient technique of memorization by an inner writing. Those who know the letters of the alphabet can write down what is dictated to them and read out what they have written. Likewise, learning memory devices, called mnemonics, helps learners recall larger pieces of information.   People can then transpose what they have heard as  lists, like characteristics, steps, stages, parts, phases, etc. to places and deliver them from memory.  In this context, places are very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like the letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like the script, and the delivery is like the reading.’

Recalling a memory inevitably involves the consideration of time passing.  In the everyday places of the countryside and city, we may discern texts embedded in scenery that are capable of revealing important truths about society and culture, present and past. Views singled out from a wide topographic context contain subtle clues about the history of the place. Smaller pictures from the original image focus on particular objects, unfolding a story, as if it were written on the land. Old stumps, derelict walls, field undulations and the form of walls and trees, take on new meaning. For example, in a woodland, the age and cause of tree scars and the size of rocks in stone walls tell of past land use, while the variety of tree species and sizes links the site to changing systems of agriculture and industry. Then there is the form and iconography of buildings. Science, storytelling and history come together in a picture using the themes of time, memory and place comparing ‘then’ with ‘now’.


4  Then’ and ‘now’

” Visual thinking is integral; it’s our habit -it’s not just what we do, it’s how we do, it’s how we do everything’  Sophie Smiles, Scriberia

In 2013 Ferris Jabr produced a paper for ‘Scientific American’ entitled ‘The Reading Brain in the Digital Age’ in which he highlighted the fact that most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. In particular he pointed out that a reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. As an analogy, he invited the reader to imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country.

Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead, except by bringing up a replacement screen.  An understanding of what came before is held in the reader’s memory; an understanding of what comes next requires a map

A map is not just a peek at the future but is a method of gathering, ordering and recording knowledge.  In this connection, all maps are to some extent the products of imagination. No map is ever the truly objective description of a place that it purports to be. Every map is shaped – and coloured – by political, cultural and social conditions, and by the personal experience or imaginative projections of its maker. Maps are works of art that can be enhanced by imaginative embellishments, they can show imaginary places, and artists can adapt map iconography to express their ideas and experiences of place.  We can truly say that the digital age has promoted the use of mapping tools in their many expressions as amazing tools to record, organise, recall and comment on visual thinking.

In human evolution visual thinking came long before language.  An early imperative for all visual beings must have been to compare one place with another in order to select elements of the environment that aided survival.  In this process, the memory capacity of hominids probably evolved to compare ‘then’ with ‘now’ as part of keeping records to cope with the need to coperate in large society, increase pro-sociality and reduce defection even among strangers  (Fig 4).

Fig 4  UR4

Record keeping, at first by refinement of visual memory, then by transcribing memory in writing, helps to solve the problem of cooperation in ethnically diverse, ultrasocial polities by transcending the limitations of human cognition. Memory systems of reciprocal exchange facilitate the tracking of heterogeneous interactions and storing the information to guide future reciprocal behaviour. They facilitate reputation formation and maintenance in large group living by providing a record of people’s past behaviour and reputational status. Third, they promote the construction, transmission, and maintenance of social norms and associated moral punishments in large groups. Finally, they expedite the creation of increasingly large and salient group identities by standardising, storing, and transmitting identities across previously distinct social groups.  An example of this is the Suffolk community wiki which identifies villages, now an homogenised collection of county postcodes, as ancient settlements within an Anglo Saxon tribal area where they were known collectively as ‘ the people of the River Blyth’.  In days before maps village and tribal boundaries were seared in the memories of the inhabitants. They now exist in virtual reality .


5  Open commons: Linz

New digital imaginations of the urban environment  can transform citizens’ sense of place and sense of self.  For example, since 2009, the Open Commons Linz  initiative has made available a wide variety of “free” data: geo-data and statistical information having to do with city life, local government, recreation and tourism..

Open commons refers to digital common property that’s freely available to all citizens, who are permitted to use it under certain predefined conditions and without major impediments. The mission of the Open Commons Linz platform is to responsibly provide the general public with access to such digital content—i.e. digitized music, pictures, photographs, videos, data, literature, radio plays and software. The core module is the Linz Open Data  initiative that coordinates the process of preparing and making available data produced by government agencies, whereby these data can then be reused free of charge. More than 50 applications of these data have already been developed.

Free WLAN is already available at more than 200 locations in Linz and in all public transport throughout the city. This is designed to facilitate participation in the digital domain and mobile working. Expanding availability is now focusing on squares and parks, community centres, libraries, recreational facilities, swimming pools and other municipal institutions and cultural complexes. Few municipalities in the world provide inhabitants with infrastructure that delivers such comprehensive coverage free of charge. A map and a list of all available hotspots are online at .

To enable citizens of Linz to not only consume content but to create and share it the Public Space Server makes 5 GB of Web space available free of charge to all locals—thus, a practical commons of cloud-based data storage. This server also provides free access to applications such as a webmail programme and a convenient way for users to create their own website and participate in open forums.


6  Virtual landmarking

European cities and towns exhibit rising levels of social exclusion and the concept of ‘social innovation’ in urban development, focuses in particular on the processes aimed at countering it.  The term ‘social innovation’ has  three core dimensions: the satisfaction of human needs (content dimension); changes in social relations especially with regard to governance (process dimension); and an increase in the socio-political capability and access to resources (empowerment dimension).   At a grass roots level, the Internet allows social innovation as an interactive form of communication, where any citizen can use social media to communicate with the world in realtime and can actually receive a response, can have a dialogue and have a chat room as a public space to organise a response.  A good example is the local history forum about the town of Grimsby and its surroundings, established by a private individual, born and bred in Grimsby, who described himself and his site thus:

Photography is something of a passion although I wish I spent as much time creatively photographing people as I do angling !  Also, art and all things artistic is a great draw and I derive a great deal of pleasure visiting as many galleries and exhibitions in Lincolnshire as possible

Used to work in engineering after serving an apprenticeship.  Then became a full-time book dealer selling rare & collectable books.  Got involved in building websites, affiliate search engine marketing and contextual ads.  Called it a day and went all but retired at the age of 39.  Which sees me where I am today – living life simply and only for my own pleasure really.  This means I shouldn’t complain – but frequently do on this site.

The site mixes, hopefully, both humour and, dare I say it, some depth.  Historical based stuff is clearly more serious though not too ‘dry’ I hope.  Other articles are done somewhat tongue in cheek, there’s a lot of irony, some obvious some more subtle – generally it’s self-deprecating, the joke’s on me even if sometimes, superficially, it may not appear so.  The site has grown and grown over the years and last year it averaged 1.8 million hits a month!  At our height we were experiencing 3million hits a month but it was unsustainable so I deleted a lot of ’stuff’ and steered the site in another direction.  It takes quite a bit of managing at times.

If you see me out-and-about or at an event then please do say hello.  It’s always a pleasure to meet anybody who visits the site.  Do leave a comment and take part, it’s a friendly place and you don’t need to be an expert . . .Which is just as well because I’m not!

Wellow Abbey is an example of one of the site’s topics, which between 2010-15 elicited 129 comments.  Its deliberations can still be seen, using the following link.  (Fig 5 ).

Fig 5  URL5

The Abbey probably had an important role in the economy of medieval Grimsby.  But, there is very little archival material available about its local impact, which no doubt adds to the allure of the topic to amateur historians.  Although  the geographical site of the abbey, close to the town centre  is well known, it is now occupied by a small housing estate built over it in the late 1960s.  Indeed, the town has had several makeovers that have been unsympathetic to the town’s built heritage.   Through people accessing a local digital commons, Wellow Abbey and its monks live on in a virtual place visualised in the minds of the few on line visitors who have added their comments to the forum and a much larger number of Internet users who have searched the web or stumbled across the forum whilst surfing. New imaginings have been set in motion giving the web participants and viewers a sense of place without depending on a pictorial archive and where there is nothing to see on the ground. The digital arena of the abbey has been expanded by some contributors to the forum to include personal reminiscences of their real life experiences which were associated with the abbey.  I can add one of my own, which took place during the Second World War, when a bomb hit 5 Abbey Drive West on the night of 19th August 1940 killing Frederick North aged 55.   Visiting the devastation the next day my Aunt Millie Bellamy, who resided in Abbey Road, a few metres away, saw an angel hovering above the crater.  So it is that digital memories of place become embedded in virtual reality.

Grimsby, like so many post industrial towns is topographically placeless.  For its inhabitants any sense of place comes from within their consciousness.  Perhaps we should call this kind of mental visualisation a spirit of place because it is the combination of characteristics that gives some locations a special ‘feel’ or personality.  There is a spirit of mystery in a name, like Wellow Abbey emanating from a locus in the built environment.  In this situation, environment is not external and the feeling is internal.

As Cooley Windsor says about the flatbread meditations of Futurefarmers:

“Environment sounds external to us, but it is not. ….. There is no space outside of space….Location is based on one thing’s relationship to something else  There is no external grid “.

Albert Einstein was the first person to realize that empty space is not nothing.  It is now thought that the material universe is embedded in dark matter through which we live and move as part of Earth’s solar system.  In this model our place in the universe is but one structural element embedded in a solid cosmos of dark matter.  It is our mental processing that positions us in the cosmos.


7  Summary

In the context of the use of IT in Linz, Grimsby and Blything as aids to placemaking, social media is an inherently conversational tool. Its strength lies in its ability set up places in the minds of individuals and to forge new paths of communication and collaboration between them, and between organisations, individuals and nature. Successful use of social media to establish a sense of place therefore depends on the extent to which individuals adopt a dialogical model that recognizes the participatory, collaborative and networked possibilities social media can offer. Social media can be used simply as a new tool for showing pictures sending and receiving email, announcing events and providing information about who you are.  But it also contains the potential to move beyond these activities towards new forms of knowledge co-production, cooperation and collective action to establish interactive connections between people and things in the universe.


8  Internet extension references

Art of memory

Time memory place

Culture 21

Strategies for an inclusive city

Social media and heritage in Uganda

Social networks and ecological knowledge

Clee township

Paper versus sceens

What is sense of place?


Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley Grow

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017


1  Artes Mundi 7: Storytelling

In 2016 the shortlist for ‘Artes Mundi 7’ brought together, competitively, six international contemporary artists who directly engage with everyday life through their practice and who explore contemporary social issues across the globe.  They presented their messages through the agency of installation artworks in the Welsh National Museum in Cardiff, which hosted the Artes Mundi 7 competition.

Fig 1  Seed Journey: Artes Mundi 7 (2016)

Each artist brought their own unique perspective to present stories that explore what it means to be human in contemporary society (Fig 1). Whether introspective and deeply personal or engaged with broader social and cultural issues, each artist demonstrated the importance of art and culture in our everyday lives.  Their stories challenged our preconceptions of the meanings of culture and ecology, to open up new ways of engaging with the future survival of a globalised society with seriously failing ecosystem services.

Storytelling was once the most ambitious mission of Western painting.  Renaissance artists told the life of Christ and the saints using sequential panels on the walls of churches. Michelangelo presented the sweeping drama of the Old and New Testaments across the vast expanse of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Closer to our own era, Diego Rivera celebrated the struggles of the Mexican people.   However, with the rise of abstract modernism, the storytelling impulse among artists seemed to disappear, dismissed as exhausted, irrelevant, or embarrassingly academic.  But the drive toward narrative, and an art audience’s fascination with stories, have resurfaced in recent years, often in video, but more evocatively in installations, which invite comparisons with developments in contemporary fiction—shuffled chapters, meandering plot lines, mash-ups of genres, and elusive or unreliable narrators.  

Installation art is a story telling practice and a catch-all term that describes any arrangement of objects in an exhibition space. This could vary from a room full of sculptures to a space filled with video monitors. What sets an art installation apart from sculpture or other traditional art forms, is its emphasis on a total, unified experience, created by an individual or a group rather than a display of separate, artworks of individuals.  Art installations also tend to veer towards the experimental, aiming to shock or unsettle the viewer.

The term installation first came into use in the 1960s to describe the way in which an exhibition was laid out, hence there is an emphasis on the artist as curator. The artist curated exhibition was particularly popular with Minimalist artists who were acutely aware of space and the ways in which their work related to it. Their work was often sensitively selected, arranged, or installed, to create a dialogue with its surroundings in order that viewers could take in both their work and its environment as one overall, immersive story. Documentation of this work was often referred to as an ‘installation shot.’  and the art work is archived as a series of photographs.

Artes Mundi 7 showed clearly that artists working today continue to explore the possibilities of installation art and blur the boundaries between arrangements of art objects, the display of museum artifacts and their inclusion in installations.  Also, the challenge for the installation artist, as opposed to the filmmaker or writer, is that he or she is free to choose from so many mediums to realize a completed project.  These range from text, video, sound, ready-made props, photography, conventional approaches like drawing and sculpture, to occupying the great outdoors. No longer do works of art exist solely for the sake of our experience of them.  Artists are creating a discourse; critiquing society and culture through their art.  Installation art takes the aesthetic experience away from formal unity.  The viewer has to tackle a new kind of disjointedness created by the juxtaposition of diverse multimedia elements.

What is expected of the viewer of  an installation often goes beyond the demands of more traditional art forms. The experience can be either an exhilarating mental trip or an exercise in frustration because the meanings of the objects and their contribution to the overarching story are not always obvious.  Inevitably the baffled visitor seeks a written description of the artist’s message or finds a gallery attendant who is in the know.

As an aid to creativity, many artists who make installations start with a two dimensional mind map of their story.  The narrative is then told graphically by making connections between facts or concepts, which are expressed as objects, created, or selected, for presentation as a three dimensional display.   The goal of the mind map is to make the items all cohere in a gallery or museum setting, and in the viewer’s mind.

Definitions of an installation and a mind map are interchangeable. Both arrange words, ideas, tasks, or other items around a central key word or idea, and are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas.   The common aim is to aid the study and organisation of information, communicating it to solve problems and pointing out ways of taking action to improve a social condition.

Artes Mundi 7 brought together six social themes reflecting on ‘the human condition’.  This document is the response of a visitor who selected one of these works , ‘Seed Journey’, to build a personal mind map out of the experience, and curating it on line to extend the story as an internet webquest.  As an exercise in cultural ecology it can be taken as an educational legacy of Artes Mundi.

Curating is often seen as a mediation between artist, work, and audience, with the curator firmly at the centre. Artists working with installations are increasingly realising the importance of providing detailed information to the gallery to ensure that aspects such as size, placement, and technical specifications of the installation art are understood. This provides parameters within which artist and gallery maintain a consistency to the installation each time it is shown.  The artist can therefore be described as the primary curator.  The central role of artist as the curator in charge of the process of selection and placement has thereby been further emphasized, because he or she has to work directly with the institutional and physical limitations of museum or gallery spaces.  Because the viewer can enter a three dimensional space created by the artist, an installation can be visualised as a microcosm of the human ecological niche.


2  Seed Journey: The Story

Of the six social themes presented as Artes Mundi 7 installations ‘Seed Journey’ is the one that connects directly with the future survival of Homo sapiens.  It  taps into a  vital thread of human history that began with the origins of agriculture in the Near East, where the process of domestication can be attributed to multiple centres, with the eastern Fertile Crescent playing a key role.

‘Seed Journey’ was produced by Futurefarmers.  Futurefarmers is a multi-disciplinary collective headed by Californian artist Amy Franceschini. The collective was founded in 1995 as, a group of art and farming practitioners  A consistent line through Franceschini’s work reveals sustained questioning about how “nature” and “culture” are perceived.

Franceschini  gives the following reasoning for her works:

“Through farming, I saw the connection of politics and power. I saw how the politics of marketing and trade and commodities all tied in. But I also started to see about the environment. I saw how the chemical water that went into the creeks started making the frogs become deformed and Silent Spring [a book by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, that warned of the dangers of pesticides to the environment] was written, which was a big eye-opener to a lot of people. It’s kind of simple: I want to be alive and I want to breathe.”

“By working collaboratively,” we are told, Franceschini and Futurefarmers “visualise and understand the way systems interact and control our everyday lives and begin to question and deconstruct social systems such as food policies, public transportation and rural farming networks.”

Since 2013 Futurefarmers have been leading the Flatbread Society, a project centred on the creation of communal spaces in which people from diverse cultures gather to make flatbread. ‘Seed Journey’ focuses on the very seeds of grain used to make bread that were brought to Europe from the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago. The seeds have been “rescued”, grown and distributed by the collective since 2013 from a range of sources, such as seeds saved during the Siege of Leningrad and those discovered by archaeologists in an abandoned sauna in Hamar, Norway. As part of Artes Mundi 7, in an act of reverse migration, Futurefarmers are taking these seeds by sailing boat from Oslo to the Middle East. They will stop along the way to meet like-minded farmers, artisan bread makers, and organisations, and to collect more seeds; Wales is one of these ports of call.

Regarding the historical objective of the voyage, the prehistoric settlement of Chogha Golan on the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent is a key archaeological site dating to the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,700 years ago. In horizon II of the Chogha Golan dig, dating to 9.800 years ago, domesticated emmer wheat appears.  Over a period of two millennia the economy of the settlement shifted toward the domesticated species that formed the economic basis for the rise of village life and subsequent civilizations in the Near East. Plants including multiple forms of wheat, barley and lentils together with domestic animals later accompanied farmers as they spread across western Eurasia, gradually replacing the indigenous hunter-gatherer societies. Many of the plants that were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent form the economic basis for the day to day survival of world population today.

Since at least the time of the Roman Empire the human population of Europe has eaten mass produced grain, some of which was stored to guard against bad harvests. Over the centuries supply has risen with human demand but the storage margin has always been relatively small.  For example, during the 1980s and early 1990s global grain reserves averaged about 100 days of consumption. The peak of 130 days was reached in the mid 1980s. Since then, grain reserves have declined, when measured by consumption, through the first decade of the 21st century. More recently global grain reserves have averaged only about 70 days.  The world has eaten the grain surplus of history and now eats crop-to-crop regardless of the size of the U.S. corn crop, which supplies between 40-50% of the world demand.

Alongside this trend there has been a decline from state-owned strategic grain reserves, in favour of a more market-oriented approach that is dominated by a handful of powerful multinational corporations who maintain sophisticated supply chains. Because data on the amount of food these corporations hold in storage are proprietary secrets, it is really impossible to assess how resilient or vulnerable this makes the global food system.

This is brief account of the geopolitical background to the Seed Voyage installation.

Futurefarmers arrived in Cardiff on the first leg of their journey from Scandinavia to the Middle East with a big story of about what cultures share, and how they develop. Their cargo of seeds in the restored sailing boat Christiania, which were once “weeds”, represent the food grains that have been domesticated over tens of thousands of years.  Grain farmers were change-agents, cultivating crops by hand and exchanging seeds and know how through a complex hand- to-hand network.  Seed Journey refers to this process as ‘hand to mouth’:

“We don’t need a museum to preserve varieties. What we want is to plant them in the soil.”

This can be taken as a critique of the massive technological investments in seed banks, because the associated concepts of living sustainability are really maintained and developed through living networks.

The seed carrying vessel Christiania has become a “laboratory” where the collective continues its research.  The Seed Journey installation is therefore an interactive “base camp” and visitors are invited to become part of the journey and to consider the possibility of social change and different futures.  In this context, Futurefarmers are interested in preserving ‘the commons’ as it relates to land use, biological matter and the sharing of knowledge. Therefore, Seed Journey can be seen as a gesture towards the relatively recent cultural departure of humanity from self-sufficiency and the ecological loss of local genetic controls on plant breeding in relation to the impossibility of the human condition returning to a Neolithic way of life.  Seeds are now a vital element of Earth’s natural capital.


3  Seed Journey: Mind Mapping

Starting from the first view of an artwork, the brain begins to work backwards seeking to touch the mind of the artist who created it.   The viewer attempts to trace its origins in the mental processes of the maker, thereby acquiescing to the brain’s natural preference to scan a visual space in a non-linear fashion. The viewer transcribes what comes into the mind as a two-dimensional tree-like diagram. This mind map enables him or her to more easily sort through different details and recognize relationships among these details. Mind mapping is a natural expression of what the brain does to allow a person to organize and understand information faster and better.  It is an expression of radiant thinking, which helps unlock the mental potential of the brain to interact fully with the complexities of the environment .

It is argued that there are important alternative spaces of meaning to be developed through the creation and placement of an installation between object and audience.  The archiving of an installation like Seed Journey, as a mind map, gives the creative act more permanence than an ‘installation shot’.  Digital curating, in particular, allows for greater audience participation, both by expanding the potential audience and by allowing visitors to navigate through virtual galleries under their own direction. By facilitating visitors’ creation of their own visual arguments, a new level of audience participation in visual analysis appears and a fundamental intellectual and intuitive aspect of curating is made possible.

The transcribing of Seed Journey as a mind map web quest is actually a research activity.  The objective is to explore how digital resources can be used for storytelling at its most basic core as an art practice using computer-based tools to create interactive mind maps encompassing digital documentaries, computer-based narratives, digital essays, electronic memoirs, interactive storytelling, etc.  In general, all these creative acts revolve around the idea of combining the art of telling stories with a variety of multimedia, including graphics, audio, video, and Web publishing.

At a first glance Seed Journey can be seen as an art installation that juxtaposes five concepts:

  • The seeds
  • The boat
  • The shared eating of flat bread
  • Smoke signals from a bread oven
  • The voyage and its records

See a mind map at


4  Seed Journey: Narratives of Change

“Experience of a place can act to transform the local landscape, imbuing it with personal meaning and significance through life experiences. The local landscape becomes a symbolic extension of the self, acting dialectically to create a relationship between people and place.  In this way, the identity of members of a community can be reaffirmed and reproduced in regular activities, rituals, stories and the meanings of a landscape that give rise to a sense of belonging and familiarity.”

This meditation on Seed Journey deals, in general, with the dependent relationships existing between different parts of the environment and the human beings who inhabit it.  The environment has the ability to affect the individuals and groups living in its midst. In particular, it asks what role is given to environmental agents, such as domesticated wildlife and political events, that people attribute to the forces of the world that surrounds, invades or abandons them?

Whether an agent is an object or an event, it is defined as something with the ability to initiate or influence human lives in its close surroundings. A cereal seed is one such agent of change that produces an aesthetic type of satisfaction from contemplating its role in everyday life.  Probably this is  why the spread of domesticated seeds was promoted as an aesthetic experience by Futurefarmers.

A narrative of change demonstrates how a feeling of community emerges through experiencing a shared aesthetic of the human ecological niche.  The human niche is the ‘space’ that humans as a species utilize and transform to survive and reproduce.  It is largely sociocultural, constructed and enacted within, across, and by social groups and societies.

John Dewey’s major writing ‘Art as Experience (1934)’  has had a great influence on contemporary work in everyday aesthetics. Dewey suggested that the experiences of aesthetic exaltation associated with art can be traced back to processes that pre-date art and that both humans and other animals partake in. Aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, is on a continuum with the deep feelings of fulfillment that arise from interacting with the commonplace environment i.e. the human ecological niche, to satisfy one’s needs. He says an aesthetic experience can belong even to simple experiences like that of lifting a stone, as long as it is done with sufficient attention.  Dewey’s view  is thus highly amenable to the application of aesthetic concepts throughout everyday life where they build feelings of well being into a sense of place .  Art valued for its beauty does not enter into Dewey’s world.

Dewey held that the sources of aesthetic experience are to found in sub-human animal life.

“Animals often attain a unity of experience that we lose in our fragmented work-lives. The live animal is fully present with all its senses active, especially when it is graceful. It synthesizes past and future in the present. Similarly, tribal man is most alive when most observant and filled with energy. He does not separate observation, action, and foresight. His senses are not mere pathways for storage. Rather, they prepare him for thought and action. Experience signifies heightened life and active engagement with the world. In its highest form it involves an identification of self and world. Such experience is the beginning of art”

Sense of place is a behavioural expression of the  modern human ecological niche which reflects the structure and functioning of human societies and the long term transformation of local environments. Here, aesthetics is an essential  part of the social processes by which communities are formed and value their environment through associating knowledge, reflexivity, and communication.  In this sense, it is a matter of seeing which types of aesthetic, or ethical, challenges are at work in making and contemplating community environments. These are the physically existing environments in which characters live and move.  We may call them “settings,” but this intuitive notion of setting needs to be further refined.

In the theatre, we can distinguish the stage on which events are shown from the broader world that is the setting alluded to by the characters.  In a written/visual narrative we can distinguish the individual locations where narratively significant events have taken place from the total space implied by the sum total of these events.  It is the individual locations and the wider behavioural setting that constitute the human ecological niche within which people  gain sustenance and other necessities,  It comprises complex social relationships among unrelated and unknown individuals.   Thus, a narrative of change is the product of evolution by natural selection acting on individuals and groups via modes of sociocultural niche construction.  Perception of cultural heritage has a big part in developing a sense of place.

To exemplify this aspect of a narrative of change, which may be used as a blueprint to produce a sense of place in an otherwise placeless population, a small obscure area of the UK county of Lincolnshire is being investigated as a case history.  This comprises 16 modern communities on a former prehistoric area of estuarine fenland at the southeast margin of the River Humber. To the west it is bounded by the geological division between fenland and the chalk upland of the Lincolnshire Wolds.  This boundary is now marked by the railway line between Cleethorpes and New Holland.  Agents of change are varied and include, for instance, decisions to build the railway in the 19th century, the award of lands and their feudal communities to one of King William’s henchmen for services rendered in the Norman Conquest and the discovery of a 4,000 year old wooden Bronze Age track across tribal hunter-gatherer  wetlands

The communities included in this area, designated the Cleethorpes-New Holland Niche Lands (CNNL Fig 2), are as follows;

New Holland



East Halton

North Killingholme  

South Killingholme







Great Coats




Fig 2  Topographical map of the CNNL

A mind map of the CNNL is being developed at:


5  Seed Journey: Equilibrating with Natural Capital

It has already been pointed out that Amy Franceschini’s work consistently reveals sustained questioning about how “nature” and “culture” are perceived.  Her contribution to Artes Mundi 7 uses the domestication of seeds to illustrate the need to value and conserve global natural capital and so equlibrate culture with the productivity of ecosystems.  Natural Capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of humanity’s natural assets, which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things.  It is from this Natural Capital that humans derive a wide range of cultural services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible. The most obvious ecosystem services include the food we eat, the water we drink and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicine (Fig 3 ). There are also many less visible ecosystem services such as climate regulation and natural flood defences provided by forests, the billions of tonnes of carbon stored by peatlands, or the pollination of crops by insects. Even less visible are aesthetic ecosystem services such as the experiences of joy and wonderment we take from wildlife and the natural landscapes.

In their Artes Mundi installation Futurefarmers and the Flatbread Society point out that seeds contribute to the aesthetic experiences we get from encountering the elements of global capital that underpin conservation, food security, healthcare and natural regeneration in the wild.  In particular, seeds are time capsules of life connecting the ‘now’ with the ‘future’ because of their ability to survive dormant in a dry state. Therefore, there are many reasons why individuals may prefer to protect a natural capital asset such as seeds, some are related to an individual’s’ own self-interest while others relate to the implications for other individuals, now or in the future. These motivations may be organised into a simple typology of Total Economic Value:

  • Use values – direct and indirect uses people make of a natural capital asset now and may do in the future; and
  • Non-use value – preferences to protect a natural capital asset for the benefit of others who are using it now (altruistic value), for future generations (bequest value) and for its own sake (existence value).

Economic analysis does not make a judgement about which motivation is more ‘valuable’  Rather, in an aesthetic encounter with an environmental agent it enables relative values to be measured by looking at what individuals are willing to give up for the thing they value – the more they are willing to give up, the more valuable the thing is. Where what’s given up is money,  expressing value in a monetary economic context has the advantage of comparing like with like within the framework of financial and other costs and benefits aimed at maintaining natural capital assets (Fig 3).

Therefore, the seed-bearing vessel Christiania is freighted with much more of value than cereal seeds.  She carries the educational seeds of an interdisciplinary knowledge system for overcoming the barriers to living sustainably.  Effectively, overcoming such barriers requires commitment by society as a whole to sustainable development. Such commitment would involve all of society’s stakeholders to work collaboratively and in partnership, to develop policies and processes which integrate social, economic, cultural, political and conservation goals. To advance such goals, a curriculum reoriented towards sustainability would place the notion of citizenship among its primary objectives. It has to be recognized that many of the world’s problems, including environmental problems, are related to our ways of living, and that solutions imply transforming the social conditions of human life as well as changes in individual lifestyles. This draws attention to the economic and political structures which cause poverty and other forms of social injustice and foster unsustainable practices. It draws attention to the need for people to learn the many processes for solving these problems through a broad and comprehensive education related not only to mastery of different subject matters, but equally to discovering real world problems of their society and the requirements for changing them.  This kind of orientation would require, inter alia, increased attention to the humanities and social sciences in a curriculum for living sustainable.

Fig 3  Natural capital and its benefits

The natural sciences provide important abstract knowledge of the world but, of themselves, do not contribute to the values and attitudes that must be the foundation of sustainable development. Even increased study of ecology is not sufficient to reorient education towards sustainability. Even though ecology has been described by some as the foundation discipline of environmental education, studies of the biophysical and geophysical concepts are a necessary – but not sufficient – prerequisite to understanding sustainability. The traditional primacy of nature study, and the often apolitical contexts in which is taught, need to be balanced with the study of social sciences and humanities. Learning about the interactions of ecological processes would then be associated with market forces, cultural values, equitable decision-making, government action and the environmental impacts of human activities in a holistic interdependent manner.

A reaffirmation of the contribution of education to society means that the central goals of education must include helping people learn how to identify elements of unsustainable development that concern them and how to address them. We all need to learn how to reflect critically on our place in the world and to consider what sustainability means to us and our communities. People need to practice envisioning alternative ways of development and living, evaluating alternative visions, learning how to negotiate and justify choices between visions, and making plans for achieving desired ones, and participating in community life to bring such visions into effect. These are the skills and abilities which underlie good citizenship, and make education for sustainability part of a lifelong  process of building an informed, concerned and active populace. In this way, education for sustainability contributes to education for democracy and peace.


A Participatory Virtual Museum About the Cultural Ecology of Ceramics

Friday, November 25th, 2016

A Production of the Hyperbox Club

“But beyond leisure and entertainment, our perception of a museum, and its moral value, still has to do with our desire for sacred space, even if we are reluctant to put it that way. Museums exist to offer us something that we can’t find anywhere else: an encounter, whether with an object or idea (or even with something on the Internet if we consider virtual museums) — an encounter we deem true and authentic in a place respectful of this private transaction. Otherwise, museums are just fancy storage facilities and gift stores?’ (Kimmelman 2001)

1 Affiliations with social objects

Fig 1 Welsh dresser: Carmarthenshire County Museum

The industrial revolution marked a major turning point in Earth’s ecology and humankind’s relationship with the environment.   There was cultural transition from a society primarily dependent on hand tools produced by individual craftsmen to one with machine and power tools driving large-scale mass production. In Western society this began to occur during the last half of the 18th century. It resulted in increased individual wealth, progressive urbanisation, and globalisation of the economy. One indicator of this great cultural change was the mass production in Britain of blue and white patterned pottery. The most famous style is the ‘willow pattern’, which was designed by Thomas Minton of Stoke-on-Trent in about 1790. The most popular pattern features a willow tree, a bridge with three figures crossing, a boat, a pagoda or two, a garden and a fence. Mass production of pottery featuring this pictorial pattern made items more affordable to middle and working class households, and established a demand for furniture to mount decorative crockery displays in homes. The Welsh dresser, which had basically originated as a 17th century upper class kitchen unit for preparing food, was adapted for this purpose (Fig 1).

The upsurge in the market for affordable domestic pottery required the juxtaposition of technical, chemical and social innovations. However, the understanding of how it all happened followed the dominant method of scientific inquiry into an organised system, which was to reduce it into separate elements, and to study each element individually. Underlying this reductionist approach was the notion that the whole is no more than the total sum of its parts. However, during the 1930s and 1940s, it was gradually realised that a complete understanding of a such a system not only required holistic study of the individual constituents of the system but also their inter- linkages and the relationships with the wider system. Underlying this systemic approach is the idea that additional characteristics emanate from the whole which are not attributable to any particular part of the system; in other words, the system is more than just the total sum of its parts. Systems thinking then is ‘the scientific exploration of “wholes” and “wholeness” which, not so long ago, were considered metaphysical notions transcending the boundaries of science. The truth is we can only meaningfully understand ourselves by contemplating the whole of which we are an integral part.’

Fig 2 Part of a mind map of that explains origins of affordable domestic pottery


This kind of systems thinking is behind the development of cultural ecology as an educational framework for humanity to learn to live, year on year, within the limits of Earth’s ecological productivity. In particular, the educational framework supports the cross curricular delineation of resource flows starting from any point in an industrial production system. Such an approach was first demonstrated in the 1980s by students and teachers working with the Natural Economy Research Unit in the National Museum of Wales, where they modelled the system of porcelain production brought to Wales at the start of the industrial revolution by William Billingsley (Fig 2).

It was In 1813 that William Billingsley with his two daughters and a son-in-law, Samuel Walker, leased an isolated cottage and outbuildings by the side of the Glamorganshire Canal at Nantgarw in the heart of the South Wales Coalfield. The canal had been completed two decades earlier to carry coal and ironware from Merthyr Tydfil to the port of Cardiff for global distribution. Nantgarw and the canal presented Billilngsley with opportunities to import the raw materials for making ceramics and export the finished products to the wider world. His aim was to start his own pottery business from scratch and make beautiful porcelain that would stand comparison with the best then being made in Europe and China. William Billingsley’s story is significant in that it is a landmark in the history of the early entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution and the increased domestic wealth that allowed ordinary people to purchase beautiful, affordable manufactured items as social objects to furnish their homes. They became points of interest to display a family’s wealth and hold conversations about the collection of goods and materials in excess of their basic needs.

The term “social objects” and the related phrase “object-centred sociality” were used by Jiry Engeström in 2005 to address the distinct role of objects in online social networks He argued that discrete objects, not general content or interpersonal relationships, form the basis for the most successful social networks. For example, on the picture-sharing site, Flickr, you don’t socialise generally about photography or pictures, as you might on a photography-focused website. Instead, you socialise around specific shared images, discussing discrete photographic objects. Each photo is a node in the social network that triangulates the users who create, critique, and consume it. Just as the website ‘LibraryThing’ connects people via books instead of reading, ‘Flickr’ connects people via photos instead of art-making.

The objects don’t have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities. Engeström explained object-centred participatory learning networks in this way:

Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.

Imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation. Imagine a space that is wholly participatory, one that uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for responding to the experience of collecting and seeing a social object;

  • where visitors and experts share their personal interests and skills with each other;
  • where each person’s actions are networked with those of others into cumulative and shifting content for display, sharing, and remix;
  • where people discuss the objects on display with friends and strangers, sharing diverse stories and interpretations;
  • where people are invited on an ongoing basis to contribute, to collaborate, to co-create, and to co-opt the experiences and content in a designed, intention environment.
  • where communities and experts measure impact together;
  • where a place gets better the more people use it.

Fig 3 A domestic cabinet of curiosities

The understanding and control of nature was the goal of the early collecting practice that led to the birth of museology.   This is an important consideration in that it makes clear the fact that the collections resulting from this process were founded on an organizational principle, which, although foreign to the modern collector, was dependent on philosophical considerations relevant at the time. In line with this principle, collectors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries devised strategies which included the systematic categorization of the objects in their possession. In most cases, these objects were recorded and displayed privately in an organized manner in what were called ‘cabinets of curiosities’. The criteria for organization were at times subjective; differing slightly from one collection to the next. No matter what the criteria, the purpose of each exhibit was explained verbally to the viewer within the context of a social intercourse with the owner (Fig 3). These items were social objects with which to think. The cabinet remained consistent in its role as a site of collection and display. It was an item of interior decoration where the whole of nature could be brought together in microcosm for the benefit of closer and more detailed analysis. Within the structural parameters of the cabinet space, the collector set out to comprehend nature through the control of its various parts. The collecting hobby is a modern descendant of the “cabinet of curiosities” and every collector builds a personal body of knowledge to guide the assembly of his/her personal collection.

2 China clay: an ecosystem service

In the 1740s, William Cookworthy, a Plymouth apothecary, happened to read a description of Chinese porcelain manufacture written by a Jesuit missionary.  This accidental find aroused his curiosity, which was further enhanced when he was visited by businessmen from Virginia with samples of potting clay in 1745. The Virginians wanted him to import their clay and make porcelain in England. Cookworthy decided to look for these minerals locally, and he found them at Tregonning Hill in Cornwall in 1746. However, it took him until 1768 to file a patent specification for “Making porcelain from Moorstone, Growan and Growan clay.”

Tregonning Hill stands some 6km West of Helston, and rises to 194 metres, overlooking Mounts Bay to the SW.   The hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the biological importance of the site is the occurrence of an extremely rare liverwort, Western Rustwort (Marsupella profunda), which is found growing on bare outcrops of weathered granite within and around the old china clay workings. Tregonning Hill is the only known British location for this liverwort and it is restricted to this site in Cornwall and a few locations in Portugal and Madeira.   The Hill is part of an extensive granite landscape. Granite is exposed as moorstone and rocky tors and where it has decayed the granite forms pockets of china clay which can be mined at the surface (Fig 4)

Fig 4 Mining of china clay at Hensbarrow, Cornwall.

Humans have always depended on nature for environmental assets like clean water, nutrient cycling and soil formation. These natural resources have been called by different names through human history, but are presently gaining global attention as ‘ecosystem services‘. The concept of ecosystem services has been instrumental in establishing humankind as part of nature in all that we do. Ecosystem services may be defined as the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and their species, sustain and fulfil human life. The clay provided by Tregonning Hill for porcelain production is therefore part of a much broader mind map that integrates the whole of nature, including biodiversity, into society.   Making ceramics is an example of cultural ecology, relating raw materials and technologies available for potters to the functions of the products that are fashioned.

The use of clay by societies to make ceramics has taken many forms. ‘Earthenware’ is glazed or unglazed, non vitreous pottery, which has normally been fired below 1200°C. ‘Stoneware’ is generally defined by how it differs from earthenware and porcelain. Stoneware is more vitreous than earthenware, but less than porcelain. Stoneware is a very heavy duty ceramic that is named because of the stone-like appearance after firing. Stoneware, which, though dense, impermeable and hard enough to resist scratching by a steel point, differs from porcelain because it is more opaque, and normally only partially vitrified. Historically, across the world, stoneware has usually been developed after earthenware and before porcelain, and has often been used for high-quality as well as utilitarian wares.

Porcelain is made with kaolin clay. Kaolin is white clay that retains its white colour when fired. It is fired at temperatures in excess of 1300 C and is more fully vitrified than stoneware. It is usually covered with a clear glaze, which allows the white body to show. The fired colour tends to be more of a “cool” white as opposed to China ware that is usually a warmer white colour. Porcelain becomes vitrified during the second firing of a two fire process. The second firing of porcelain typically is hotter than that used for China ware. This finish tends to be harder, but more brittle. This higher firing, hard surface can make decorating more difficult that stoneware or china. The composition of the porcelain clays is usually more malleable than the clays used for china ware. This allows for forming of more intricate and detailed shapes.

China ware differs from porcelain not only in color shade, but also in the way it is fired. Where Porcelain becomes vitrified during the second firing (second firing is hotter than first firing), china ware is vitrified during a single firing. With the china, there is only a single firing. Generally, the temperature of this firing of china is a little less that that used for porcelain. the resulting finish is more warm in colour than porcelain. This lower firing temperature finish may make china slightly more easy to decorate than porcelain. China ware can be decorated using Under-Glaze, On-Glaze, or In-Glaze techniques. Under-Glaze decorating is most commonly the preferred method of decoration used for china.

Bone China is made using a translucent white ceramic clay containing at least 25% bone ash. In England, the percentage of bone ash must be at least 50% for a piece to be considered Bone China. Bone China tends to be slightly translucent in nature and is often used in thin display pieces, exhibiting a delicate, refined look. Billingsley’s formula for required the addition of bone which was ground at a nearby flour mill.

3 Democratization of Luxury and Beauty

In the late eighteen-sixties and early ‘seventies a new style of interior decoration arrived which tapped into taxophila of the newly rich. It was within the Aesthetic Movement and was given the name `art’ to indicate that its exponents were opposed to the crude commercial colours and vulgar display of High Victorian decoration. Starting with the expression of this new aesthetic for the upper class buyer (Fig 5) the conception filtered down the socio-economic scale and was applied to all forms of household equipment. As far as can be judged from the surviving evidence and from first-hand descriptions ‘art furnishing’ by the prosperous in the first part of Queen Victoria’s reign continued until the end of the century in many middle-class homes. Manufacturers in the latter part of the nineteenth century began to compete in selling ornamental domestic paraphernalia of all kinds to the humbler householders whose early Victorian forebears had only rudimentary furniture and had eaten from wooden trenchers or pewter plates.The term ‘art’ furniture seems traceable to C. L. Eastlake’s ‘Hints on Household Taste’ first published in England in 1867. For different reasons both the furnishing trade and the buying public were conservative in their tastes and understandably preoccupied with increasing domestic comfort. With regards the former, furniture designed primarily for the display of ceramics as furnishings was a conservative feature which continues to the present day (Fig 6).

Fig 5 The dining room at 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington (1874)

Fig 6 Modern marketing ‘‘Ways with Plates’ (2016)

The most notorious promoter of this new aesthetic in the 1880s was Oscar Wilde, who became in his early twenties the butt of most of the fun poked at aesthetes and he was lampooned as one of the central figures in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera ’Patience’. This notoriety was remarkable in that Wilde was not the originator of any of the ideas then current; though he did claim some responsibility for initiating an artistic movement. He designed nothing and painted no pictures. His involvement with interior decoration as art began in his Oxford undergraduate rooms where he displayed a collection of blue and white porcelain.On this basis he became an effective apostle of aestheticism, writing and lecturing on all aspects of the decorative arts and on dress reform..

The Art or Aesthetic Movement of the eighteen-seventies and ‘eighties was an age when it could be said that ‘there has assuredly never been since the world began an age in which people thought, talked, wrote and spent such inordinate sums of money and hours of time in cultivating and indulging their tastes’. The movement, beginning with the work of a few architects and designers in the ‘sixties, gathered force until, in the ‘eighties, it embraced every art form from the greetings card to domestic architecture. It introduced Japanese art to children’s story books and red brick Queen Anne architecture to the streets of London; it led to changes in fashionable dress, to the first garden suburb and to the vogue for painted dark green or Venetian red front doors and railings which lasted for half a century in England. By the mid ‘seventies the London Trades Directory lists ‘Art Furniture Manufacturers’ quite separately from ordinary cabinet-makers and furnishers. The tone of the whole movement is recorded in a conversation which William Morris had with a lady who said, ‘You know I wouldn’t mind a lad being a cabinet-maker if he only made Art Furniture’. In terms of architecture and the applied arts the movement was confined to the British Isles and the United States.

William Billingsley’s arrival in Nantgarw marked the beginning of the democratisation of porcelain to become an important element of ‘Art Furnishing’ through its mass production in the factory system.

4 The search for perfection

Billingsley had several years experience managing English porcelain factories and had at least one abortive attempt to set up a business on his own account. He had started his working life as as an outstanding apprentice flower painter at the Derby pottery. His latest venture before moving to Wales had been an association with the Worcester factory, where his son-in-law had installed the latest type of enamelling furnace. Over several years the family had accumulated sufficient skills and know how to run a pottery: from using state of the art kilns to the formulation of the ingredients necessary to make high quality hard paste porcelain and decorate the final product to a very high standard.

Fig 7 Nantgarw Pottery and Canal circa 1900

Once he had built the kilns at Nantgarw (Fig 7) the major limiting factor of production was matching the composition of the clay body to the firing process. This was a general issue across the industry because British porcelain production was still an empirical process, and there was much secrecy regarding formulating the clay and operating the kilns. Large losses during firing could make or break a small scale enterprise. Indeed break rather than make seems to have happened at Nantgarw, where up to 90% of the ceramics could be lost in a single firing.

The small amount of family capital with which Billingsley and Walker had established their Nantgarw enterprise ran out in a few months but they managed to persuade a local entrepreneur William Weston Young, who was associated with the Cambrian Pottery at Swansea, to provide the necessary financial backing to continue the Nantgarw operation. However, Walker’s injection of finance proved inadequate to compensate for the continuing large losses during firing. A year later, in 1814-15, in an effort to make a fresh start and eliminate firing problems, Billingsley and Walker entered into a partnership with L W Dillwyn then owner of the Cambrian Works. He financed them to begin making porcelain at Swansea.

The Cambrian Pottery was founded in 1764 by William Coles. In 1790, John Coles, son of the founder, went into partnership with George Haynes, who introduced new business strategies based on the ideas of Josiah Wedgwood. The company employed Thomas Rothwell to engrave copper plates for transfer printing, George Bentley as a modeller, and Thomas Pardoe, who painted landscapes, birds and animals. William Weston Young was a part time painter at Swansea.

Billingsley and Walker constructed two new kilns at the Cambrian site. However, production problems continued to plague profitability and in this respect the Swansea operations were regarded as being experiments to improve the stability of the clay body. In 1817 Billingsley and Walker were back at Nantgarw with new investors.

During this time, much of the plain white stock that survived firing at Nantgarw was sent to London for decorating and sold to the top end of the market while the rest was decorated in Wales by Billingsley himself, as well as William Weston Young and Thomas Pardoe.

Despite making beautiful products (Fig 8)), “superior to anything of the kind ever made before or since”, the Nantgarw factory was still unprofitable and the money provided by the new investors eventually ran out. In 1822 the works and its stock was put up for sale, an event that marked the end of large-scale porcelain production in Wales.

The next investors to take up a lease at Nantgarw began making clay pipes for smoking tobacco, which had once again became fashionable. The population of smokers was increasing with a decrease in the price of tobacco. This was but one example of the spread of former luxurious behaviours from the rich to a steadily increasing wage-earning population engaged in industrial mass production. The middle income sector of this population was itself driving a demand for beautiful home furnishings: an increased market for cheap mass produced ceramics was an example. The invention of the Welsh dresser is a marker of this remarkable upsurge in the purchase of ceramics for domestic display.

The dresser defines the home as a personalised feature of the human ecological niche. Along with the purchase of mass produced porcelain came the need for a glass-fronted cabinet to display it. These collections reigned supreme in the parlour or front room, the social spaces reserved for special family gatherings.

Fig 8 Swansea cabinet cup and saucer, attributed to William Billingsley
Swansea Museum Collection

This brings up a focus on human ecology to highlight the bridge between the impact of the industrial revolution on the home and the wider environment, emphasising that we are part of nature in everything we do. For example Gaston Bachelard in ‘The Poetics of Space’ calls the home ‘our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word’.

‘Home, Akiko Busch writes in ‘Geography of Home’, comprises a host of ‘interior systems’ – a ‘network’ of ‘habits, beliefs, and values.’. To Mary Douglas, ‘The Idea of a Home,’ characterises the home as a moral economy designed to ensure the perpetuation of the family. Similarly Daniel Miller argues in ‘The Comfort of Things’, that home is in fact a ‘little cosmology,’ an ‘order of things, values and relationships’ expressed by the household material culture.

Such statements define the cultural ecology of the home as an ethical system, a moral economy, and a miniature world. These ideas about the home as a small world consider objects and spaces of a domestic interior as the core of the human ecological niche. In particular, the decorative arts within the home are to be seen as part of an integrated environment of people, things, and spaces linked together by social objects and processes binding people to place. Furnishing the home is thus defined as an evolved pattern of human behaviour. A good Welsh example of domestic decoration as raw settlement behaviour is the way Irish immigrant families who settled at the Blaenavon ironworks in East Wales sought comfort in an alien land by papering the bare walls of their cramped cottages with copies of the Irish Times.

Fig 9 The Spode factory Stoke-upon-Trent (1820-35)
Harold Holdway, from an earthenware model in the Spode Museum

It is ironic that when Nantgarw bowed out of porcelain production the Staffordshire potteries were gearing up to supply the worldwide demand for cheap porcelain to decorate homes in Britain and its Empire (Fig 9). The aim of porcelain mass producers was to make affordable, thin-walled shiny colourful items that were mass produced facsimiles of hand-crafted 18th century originals. This reflects the value system of the 19th century European middle class

Today it is interesting that in China, the centre for production of cheap facsimiles of Western luxury goods, demand for luxury items has now to be satisfied by the purchase of originals. In Mainland China, one may see a person carrying an authentic Louis Vuitton bag while riding a crowded, public bus somewhere in the rural countryside. Luxury goods are consumed on a mass level, and are not confined to a select few.

The cause for an increased Chinese consumption of luxury products results from the country’s socialist value system. During the transitional period from a pure planned system to a market-driven economy, consumers inherently retained the idea of equality. Socialist government authorities also try to maintain and communicate that equality in Mainland China because it is crucial to national identity. Based on steady economic development and a newfound consumer confidence towards the future, mainland Chinese consumers believe that they are, in essence, the same as each other. Even if they cannot afford a luxury brand item today, they will save up several months of savings to eventually have it. The cultural ecology of the home is always in complex state of equilibrium with the political economy.


5 Collecting behaviours: the bigger picture

School children can often be heard complaining about the vast quantities of seemingly useless information they are forced to memorise as part of their education. Had they been the children of Stone Age hunters, they would have learned their lessons first hand, where the practical value in everyday life would have been obvious. Prehistoric people had to become masters of observation, with an acute knowledge of every plant and animal shape, colour, pattern, movement, sound and smell in so far as knowledge of these aspects of their environment enabled them to survive in a hostile world. This urge to find memorable pattern and harmony in the environment is called taxophilia. The human prehistoric taxophilic imperative was so important that it evolved to become as basic and distinct as the need to feed, mate or sleep. Originally our ancestors may have classified berries or antelopes as part of their food-finding activities. In the abstract world of the modern classroom, botany can seem remote, geology boring, and entomology meaningless. Yet despite these complaints, the taxophilic instinct remains as an urge to voluntarily commit to memory huge assemblages of facts on topics that will hardly ever encounter a need in the future. Information is not just simply accumulated; it is classified, particularly where there is a current social context, such as the latest football statistics, scores and titles of pop music, and the makes and dates of manufacture of motorcars. Taxophila is the driver of what we call the collecting instinct.

In a pre-human world the top systematic collector has to be the Bower Bird. The following account records an encounter between a male Bower Bird and the Rev.J.G. Wood rambling through the Australian Outback in the 1860s. (Fig 10).

“……. I saw a very glossy bird, of a deep purple hue, running about, and occasionally uttering the sound which had attracted me. Soon, it was evident that this was a Bower Bird engaged in building the assembly-room, and after a little while he became reconciled to my presence, and went on with his work. He went about it in a leisurely and reflective manner, taking plenty of time over his work, and disdaining to hurry himself. First he would go off to the further end of the compartment, and there inspect a quantity of twigs which had been put there for his use. After contemplating them for some time, he would take up a twig and then drop it as if it were too hot to hold. Perhaps he would repeat this process six or seven times with the same twig, and then suddenly pounce on another, weigh it once or twice in his beak, and then carry it off. When he reached the bower he still kept up his leisurely character, for he would perambulate the floor for some minutes, with the twig still in his beak avid then perhaps would lay it down, turn in another direction, and look as if he had forgotten about it. Sooner or later, however, the twig was fixed, and then he would run through the bower several times, utter his loud cry, and start off for another twig. Why these birds should trouble themselves to make this bower is a problem as yet unsolved. Had the structure served in any way as a protection from the weather, there would have been a self-evident reason for its existence, but the arching twigs are put together so loosely that they cannot protect the birds from wind or rain. Whatever may be the object of the bower, the birds are so fond of it that they resort to it during many hours of the day, and a good bower is seldom left without a temporary occupant.

Fig 10 A bower bird with its bower

Ornament is also employed by the Bower Bird, both entrances of the bower being decorated with bright and shining objects. The bird is not in the least fastidious about the articles with which it decorates its bower, provided only that they shine and are conspicuous. Scraps of coloured ribbon, shells, bits of paper, teeth, bones, broken glass and china, feathers, and similar articles, are in great request, and such objects as a lady’s thimble, a tobacco-pipe, and a tomahawk have been found near one of their bowers. Indeed, whenever the natives lose any small and tolerably portable object, they always search the bowers of the neighbourhood and frequently find that the missing article is doing duty as decoration to the edifice”.

We now believe the decorated bower is an essential device to attract a mate, but we appreciate the bird’s keen sense of balancing mass against variety of shape and colour. The outcomes chime with our instinctive attention to placement that we associate with our own artistic creativity, particularly when we position plates on a dresser and stand back, being fond of the achievement.

The human brain functions as a magnificent classifying machine, and every time we walk through a landscape it is busy feeding in new experiences and comparing them with the old. The brain classifies everything we see, and the survival value of this procedure is obvious. It is also the case with other mammals. A monkey, for instance, has to know many different kinds of trees and bushes in its forest home, and needs to be able to tell which one has ripening fruit at any particular season, which is poisonous, and which is thorny. If it is to survive, a monkey has to become a good botanist. In the same way a lion has to become a first-rate zoologist, able to tell at a glance, which prey species it is, how fast it can run, and which escape pattern it is likely to use.

Taxophilia is the basic behaviour of scientists. In biology it is dignified by the subject of taxonomy. Taxonomists have outstanding skills in observation and depiction to describe and communicate anatomical features that are of significance in placing individuals and their body parts in unambiguous categories. Their illustrations often have pleasing aesthetic qualities, and it is ironic that their early engravings of assemblages are now collected as works of art

As an aspect of human social evolution the pathway may be defined by processual analysis which begins with its legacy of social objects. Processual means relating to or involving the study of processes rather than discrete events. Most of the processual studies related to systems theory, particularly those focused on archaeological remains can be broadly included in a theoretical trend known as ‘Ceramic Ecology’. Processual analysis in ceramics starts with the overall shape of a pot, together with the character of component parts such as rims and handles, and also the technique and style of decoration. This can indicate when and how a pot was made and used, as well as serving to define cultural affinities. The term originated in archeology where the aim is to understand the progress of technology, methods and patterns of distribution, modes of consumption and processes of deposition. Those conclusions will go on to inform an understanding of the people who occupied an archaeological site, including their social, economic and cultural circumstances and the ways in which they interacted with material culture, as well as the chronology of the activities represented by the surviving evidence.

The term ‘processual’ means relating to or involving the study of processes rather than discrete events. Most of the processual studies are concerned with to the application of systems theory to archaeological collections (Fig 11), but processional analysis can be applied to any research project where the aim is to speculate on the way individual artifacts or events can be assembled theoretically to become part of a process. For example, the universal biochemical process by which energy is produced in living organisms emerged as a cyclic process by Hans Krebs who connecting up eight individual chemical reactions to make a cycle. Two molecules of carbon dioxide derived from dietary glucose are released at each turn of the cycle (Fig 12).

Fig 11 Archaeological finds in and around Williamsburg, Virginia

Fig 12 The citric acid cycle or Kreb’s Cycle

6 Postscript

The following statement was made in 2016 by Tristram Hunt M.P. to the House of Commons regarding the economic state of the ceramics industry in his constituency, Stoke-on-Trent Central. He was acknowledging the Government’s financial support of the potteries and it sums up a story of the British ceramics industry as cultural process, which had stalled in the beginning of the 21st century.

“The history of pottery in Stoke-on-Trent is long, stretching back a good 500 years. Out of the brown and yellow north Staffordshire clay came butter pots and flower pots. In the sun kilns of Bagnall and Penkhull, local artisans started to glaze their wares and develop a reputation for craftsmanship. But Europe’s ceramicists remained in the shadow of China, which had long mastered the magic of porcelain, the famous white ceramic formed by kaolin, named after the hill just outside Jingdezhen. Only in 1768 did the Plymouth apothecary William Cookworthy crack the recipe. With the help of Cornish clay, Britain joined Meissen and Sèvres in porcelain production. China—Britain’s new word for pottery and porcelain—became the eighteenth century rage. No one exploited the new era of industrial production, design and innovation more than Josiah Wedgwood. From his Etruria factory, he unleashed a volley of fashionable new designs that caught the attention of Queen Charlotte and Britain’s expanding middle class. His trademark jasper and basalt production followed.

In 1934, J.B. Priestley visited Stoke-on-Trent on his celebrated English journey. He, too, fell for the elemental, timeless attraction of ceramics. He celebrated the fettlers, the mould-makers, the dippers and the master potters for:
“doing something that they can do better than anybody else…Here is the supreme triumph of man’s creative thumb.”

Priestley caught the industry at its peak. The decline of the British ceramics industry arguably began with the Clean Air Act 1956 and the dismantling of some 2,000 coal-fired bottle kilns. For all the benefits of open skies and modernised plant, the law imposed sudden and significant costs on the manufacturing process. In an attempt to offset those costs, the industry embarked on a round of mergers and acquisitions, resulting in an over-concentrated ceramics sector. The high interest rates and exchange rates of the 1980s hammered exports. The rise of takeaways and the end of wedding lists undermined demand. Most damaging of all was the growing threat of the far east. Labour and energy costs in China put British production at a marked disadvantage.
Wedgwood went bust and Spode went into receivership, and between the early 1980s and 2010, some 40,000 jobs were lost in the ceramics industry. With them went Stoke’s cityscape and parts of its culture. The Minton factory, where Pugin’s tiles were fired for the Houses of Parliament, was turned into a Sainsbury’s. Then the final insult: in 2010, the entire collection of the Wedgwood Museum was threatened with disposal.

Six years on, the Wedgwood Museum has been saved and the industry is making profits, creating jobs, finding export markets and coming up with new designs. There is excitement and enthusiasm about British ceramic design. There is a new competitiveness in great companies such as Steelite, Churchill and Portmeirion. There is a new culture of partnership”.

7 Internet references

Ceramic ecology
Processual archeology
Nature of American Archaeology
Cultural anthropology terms
Material resonance and site specificity
Hyperbox Club: Porcelain WebQuest

WebQuest: Cultural Ecology

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

1 Cultural ecology

In the late 1980s the head of the zoology department in the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff, Peter Morgan, decided that the old way of presenting animals to people visiting the zoology gallery should change and that visitors should interact with exhibits through the new medium of touch-screen computers (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Exhibiting mammals in the age of taxidermy:National Museum Cardiff


This idea coincided with the development of the concept of ‘natural economy’ by Prof Denis Bellamy in Cardiff University, as a cross-curricular learning framework for world development education. The work was funded by the educational directorate of the European Commission and was launched internationally as a cross-curricular GCSE subject by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. Natural Economy deals with the technical organisation of resources for human well being. It complements Political Economy which deals with the political organisation of people for human well being. This novel conjunction established the Natural Economy Research Unit (NERU) in the museum’s zoology department to explore the use of computers as tools for engaging learners in reflective, critical thinking about the ideas they are studying. In particular, it addressed the question, How can learners analyze and organize what they know, or what they are learning, to make their own personal body of knowledge?. One of the best known semantic organization tools is concept mapping.

Concept mapping requires an ideational framework and natural economy serves this purpose. As a subset of the much bigger concept of cultural ecology it deals with the social relationships between people and the management of their natural resources. To be effective the framework must accommodate people, going beyond the narrow circle of “authorized personnel” to follow their own cognitive process of building a personal body of knowledge.

A highlight of these pioneering days was the networking of natural economy across Europe as a Welsh contribution to the Schools Olympus Satellite Programme, which was uploaded from Gwynedd County Council ‘s North Wales terminal at Llangefni.

Cultural ecology is best approached through landscapes which have been moulded by humans wresting a living from local rocks, soils and ecosystems. Learning about the limits of this effort to boost human wellbeing begins with a specific landscape and its various elements as a heritage menu. A landscape’s component biological and physical elements are cross-curricular historical markers of past cultures. These are the artefacts presented to learners of all ages in museums. In fact every element on a museum’s public gallery is the tip of an information iceberg in the ‘sea’ of cultural ecology and the starting point of concept mapping as a quest for knowledge.

NERU was funded by the EU to explore the use of computer assisted learning as part of the process of mind mapping gallery artefacts upon which visitors could build their own story. The phrase electronic gallery guides (EGGs) was coined to describe the connections, available with touch screen computers, that placed an artifact in an augmented reality. This form of cross curricular mindmapping offers great opportunities for establishing individual learning routes, which are best described as personal quests, each starting with a cultural element. As the world-wide web developed, NERU worked with Welsh and English schools and their communities to produce a series of mind maps, called bioscopes, as quests outlining routes from the past and present to living sustainably in the future. These were created with the Apple Macintosh Hypercard system and MindJet’s MindManager. These learning routes are called epistemic games. Their focus is on helping learners to think like professionals, such as engineers or journalists. Epistemic games are anchored in an apprenticeship learning model in which students are confronted with a real-world issues that require creative solutions. The purpose is not necessarily to steer them towards a certain profession but rather to have them learn to think innovatively and understand the complexities of solving meaningful problems in the modern world. Although these games are not designed to train students for specific professions, they do provide an opportunity to explore a potential job. This is a valuable approach to enriching transition planning for students with disabilities and students in schools where actual internships are impractical or unavailable.

Although the visitor experience in museums is often the result of passing through subject barriers at high speed to make the most of a day out, this passage offers opportunities to increase levels of scientific understanding in the context of a particular object’s wider cultural significance. For example, the Cardiff art galleries are rich in 18th century landscape paintings and EGGs were produced linking ‘ecological exhibits’ in the arts and zoology galleries through the topic of conservation management, where environmental aesthetics and mindfulness in the presence of Nature made the bridge (Fig 2)

Fig 2 River at Penegoes c 1750, National Museum Cardiff: depiction of ancient oak woodland


This connection to a neighborhood through a mindful approach is one of the pillars of a community ecomuseum. In the 1980s the idea of ecomuseums emerged as a local focus on landscape elements that define the identity of a place. An ecomuseum is assembled with volunteer participation, and has the objective of enhancing the welfare and development of local communities. These community museums originated in France, the concept being promoted by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine, who coined the term ‘ecomusée’ in 1971. The term “éco” is a shortened form for “écologie”, but it refers especially to a new idea of holistic interpretation of cultural heritage as a landscape quest. It may be contrasted with the focus on specific items and objects defined by expert curators of traditional museums. An ecomuseum, coupled with epistemic games is a community ‘big history’ for generating a local pride of place and action plans for environmental improvements..

Examples of digital ecomuseums produced by NERU in partnership with local communities are;

Denbigh Area


Nine Parishes




Community Landscapes: North Wales^7-3.2eh510

2 WebQuests

Fig 3 WebQuest:’Teeth’


Nowadays the ideas behind the NERU EGG have been developed as the on line WebQuest (Fig 3). The first WebQuest used simply paper and pencil, when San Diego State University’s Bernie Dodge was working on a lesson for second-semester student teachers concerning an educational software package. But Dodge didn’t have access to the software, so instead he accumulated as much information on paper as he could about the product: evaluations, printouts of Web sites devoted to the topic, and even a transcript of a Web chat with one of the developers. He organized this material into thematic sections, and then handed them over to the students. Their job was to internalize the information, then collaboratively develop a working plan for determining whether or not the software was viable for the school where they were teaching (Fig 4).

Fig 4 A paper WebQuest in the classroom


Dodge told Education World magazine that he knew from the beginning that he had stumbled onto something special: “It was great! Having done my part ahead of time by organizing the resources, I had to speak very little during the two hours they worked on it. I enjoyed walking around and helping where necessary and listening to the buzz of conversations as students pooled their notes and tried to come to a decision. The things they were talking about were much deeper and more multifaceted than I had ever heard from them. That evening I realized that this was a different way to teach —and that I loved it!”

In 1995, Dodge and Tom March developed a type of lesson plan, which they termed a “WebQuest’ that incorporated links to, from, and along the newly born World Wide Web. Students were presented with a scenario and a task, usually a problem to solve or a project to complete. The students were given Internet resources and asked to analyze and synthesize the information and come up with their own creative solutions. Over the next three years, teachers wrote their own WebQuests, and instructors began to teach WebQuests in their workshops and classes. Fortunately, this proliferation of curricular materials convinced many teachers that it was all right to publish their own WebQuests on line for others. Most teachers have included their e-mail addresses, which allow a WebQuest user to contact the teacher and discuss quest results. Additionally, WebQuest sites have sprung up and continue to grow on the Internet.

Dodge defines a WebQuest as an activity that pulls together the most effective instructional practices into one integrated learner activity. These Web-based projects use World Wide Web sites to help students develop problem-solving and decision-making skills, on their own or collaborative groups..

An effective WebQuest develops critical thinking skills and often includes a cooperative learning component. Students learn as they search for information using the Web, following a prescribed format that focuses on problem solving and authentic assessment. A well-written WebQuest requires students to go beyond simple fact finding. It asks them to analyze a variety of resources and use their creativity and critical-thinking skills to solve a problem. WebQuests help students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. The ultimate learning experience is for a student to produce a WebQuest to teach other students what they have learned.

A Cardiff EGG and a Dodge WebQuest are both classified as epistemic learning games; an inquiry-oriented lesson format, in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the Web. These can be created using various programmes, including a simple word processing document that includes links to websites. The following programmes are examples of software tools for making WebQuests.

The following quests were made with the Zunal and Spiderscribe software systems.

Rescue Mission Planet Earth
Equal Rights
Envisage the Future
The Porcelain Project

3 Resource-guided learning pathways

A WebQuest is distinguished by two outstanding characteristics of inquiry-led education.

First, it emphasizes higher-order thinking (such as analysis, creativity, or criticism) rather than just acquiring information. Second, the author preselects the resources, emphasizing smart information use rather than information gathering. Thereby a webquest goes beyond data and information accumulation and the resources are used as a guide toward the generation of useful and applicable knowledge, a process supported by inquiry learning.

Questing is more relevant today than ever. In the past, the UK’s success depended on the education of narrow subject specialists to tap the country’s natural resources. Today, it depends upon a generalist workforce that “works smarter.”

Through the process of resource-guided learning individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds. Inquiry implies a “need or want to know” premise. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer, because often there is none, but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues. For educators, inquiry implies emphasis on the development of inquiry skills and the nurturing of inquiring attitudes or habits of mind that will enable individuals to continue the quest for knowledge throughout life.

At the centre of a WebQuest is Bloom’s cognitive system with the educational outcomes structured in a hierarchical order (Fig 5 ).

Fig 5 The cognative system according to Bloom


A lesson objective based upon the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is presented for each of the six levels of BLOOM’s Cognitive Process. Remember: Describe where Goldilocks lived. Understand: Summarize what the Goldilocks story was about. Apply: Construct a theory as to why Goldilocks went into the house. Analyze: Differentiate between how Goldilocks reacted and how you would react in each story event. Evaluate: Assess whether or not you think this really happened to Goldilocks. Create: Compose a song, skit, poem, or rap to convey the Goldilocks story in a new form.

At the lowest level students are required to know, memorize, repeat and list information. At the higher levels students are required to judge, criticize, resolve, invent, and make recommendations. Each of the levels builds in complexity from the previous level. Carefully selected verbs are used to involve students in thinking differently at each level. A WebQuest is therefore a resource guided learning pathway.

A WebQuest is different from a “scavenger hunt,” a much simpler approach that is as old as the Web itself. In a typical scavenger hunt, students are given a list of items they must find answers to questions, for example, or instances of data and are set loose on the Web. WebQuests are much more structured and focus heavily on an ideational framework with links to websites researched by a teacher.

Fig 6 A Zunal WebQuest about making conservation management plans


It is recommended that every WebQuest has six basic components (Fig 6).

(i) Introduction.
This is an overview of what is to come; it describes the rationale of the course, its vocabulary and learning context.

(ii) Task
This section details the course objectives in the form of packages of resources that must be accessed in sequence to complete the Quest.

(iii) Process.
It is here that students use the resources in each package to develop a personal compilation of ideas and information, often working in groups, to meet the objectives. This may involve role-playing and other off-line methods.

Learning resources are texts, videos, software, concepts and definitions that teachers have selected to assist students to meet the expectations for learning. Links to resources are added to each page of the on-line presentation..

The Process section spells out step by step what learners will do, how they will interact with, each other, and with information. The teacher may want to have everyone reading one set of pages, and then break them into groups with separate roles, each with a different set of links to look at.

After the students have examined the information they need to transform it in some way. Here is where they play with ideas, make decisions, and so on.

Finally, learners actually produce something that reflects the thinking they did. They may be writing a position paper, preparing a debate, creating a model or applying their learning to solve a practical problem. The teacher might want to provide some writing prompts or other forms of guidance to help them act more skilled than they presently are.

Every step should be clearly stated. Activities should be clearly related and designed from basic knowledge to higher level thinking. Different roles are assigned to help students understand different perspectives and/or share responsibility in accomplishing the task

(iv) Evaluation.
The evaluation of a student’s progress centres on a “rubric,” a carefully designed chart listing goals for the quest and the standards by which performance will be measured. This can be thought of as a great widening of the typical letter grade usually given to classroom assignments. Rubrics are highly annotated “grades” with extensive annotation detailing many aspects of the project. There can be an evaluation of the Quest by students which is similarly structured.

(v) Conclusions
This is a brief summary, usually congratulatory in tone, that wraps up the project.

(vi) Teacher Page.
Instructors are provided with their own subsection of the WebQuest site, with instructions for each of the above sections. Teachers who develop WebQuests often fill this section with information to help other educators adapt the quest to their own class.

6 Why bother?

Ultimately, the WebQuest idea is about more than simply using the Web for research. It is a structured process for introducing concepts, problems, building methodical approaches to solving those problems, and then getting students to tackle them.

From this perspective using WebQuests can help build a solid foundation that prepares students for an adult world.

Why should a teacher take the time to create a WebQuest? The best reason is that, like any carefully planned lesson, a good WebQuest makes learning interesting for students. Beyond that, however, several other factors make WebQuests powerful learning tools. First, a good WebQuest puts the power of the web behind a topic. A teacher can show students – or let them discover for themselves, not just tell them. Web sites can take students anywhere in the world. WebQuests are a way to let students work at their own pace, either individually or in teams. A WebQuest lets students explore selected areas in more depth, but within limits that you have selected. This makes WebQuests ideal for classes which combine students with different ability levels. WebQuests offer a different, more dynamic approach to teaching the value of research. WebQuests can also increase the “comfort level” of students using the Internet for learning activities. While students are probably already computer literate, a properly designed WebQuest can help them become creative researchers rather than simply “surfing” from one site to another.

WebQuests are based on the ideas of inquiry and constructivism. WebQuests also incorporate cooperative and collaborative learning, since students can work on projects in groups. These concepts can play a role in teaching with WebQuests. WebQuests can also help students meet standards focused on critical-thinking and analysis skills. Alternative kinds of assessment can be used to judge the results of WebQuest projects. And, obviously, WebQuests are one way to use the Internet in education. WebQuests are tools, not educational theories, so they can be used in virtually any classroom with appropriate computer access. However, above all a WebQuest releases the teacher and students from the intellectual tyranny of national curricula based on old subject boundaries. It is unfortunate that most schools lack the freedom to use them in mainstream teaching. In addition, a recent survey has revealed teacher-perceived drawbacks of the use of the Internet , viz. students’ cheating, unreliable information, technical problems, and students’ extracurricular activities during lessons.