Ways of knowing: or Islands for Thoreauvians

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

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

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




















Networking in common

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 http://hotspot.linz.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

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 https://www.mindmeister.com/812854749/seed-journey-amy-franceschini-futurefarmers


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

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

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

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.

Landscape, Mind and Meaning

September 19th, 2016

Electric encounters’ with cultural heritage

“Landscape and identity are inherent components of our culture, one informing the other … access to, and freedom to enjoy the landscape as well as respect for spiritual and symbolic meanings people ascribe to their landscape, are some of the components that will support dignity and well being of communities”.

‘The Right to Landscape: Contesting Landscape and Human Rights’ – Cambridge (2008).  Workshop, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1  An expression of cultural ecology

Academic definitions of landscape invariably encompass an area of land containing a mosaic of scenic patches.  These patches are landscape elements that are discerned by eye, singly or in groups.   We enter the countryside with a predisposed sense of attentiveness to make mental connections to these elements and their patterns.  The discernment of visual heterogeneity is the initial response and in 1986 Forman and Godron defined landscape as a heterogeneous land area composed of a cluster of interacting ecosystems that is repeated in similar form throughout. Again stressing the importance of heterogeneity against a uniform background, Turner et al, in 2002 defined landscape as an area that is spatially heterogeneous in at least one factor of interest. To understand a landscape meaningfully  therefore involves focusing on the management of factors, past or present, that produced the landscape elements. No landscape is pristine so in responding to the pictorial elements in this way we go back in human history.   We pass through a sequence of historical periods each representative of the local human ecological niche at a time when the place provided an important ecosystem service for the people who had integrated their culture with its ecology.

In this broad cross-subject context it is desirable to widen the old ideas of nature, with its expressions of ‘awe’, ‘absolute’ and ‘distant from human capacities’, to a more complex and dynamic view of the reality of environment as a collection of natural processes to which are assigned human values and aesthetics.  Landscape then becomes nature. Its elements are groups of ecosystems, including the human ecosystem, but there are interactions among them, which again places a cultural focus on spatial heterogeneity and the processes maintaining it, then and now.

To summarise, landscape is a universal pictorial facet of the human ecological niche linking culture with ecology, because there is now no place on Earth that humankind has not incorporated into the cultural traits of societies; their behaviours, beliefs, and symbols.  In this respect, landscape has permeated the management of cultural heritage, leading in 1992 to UNESCO recognising the following three categories of cultural landscapes of outstanding universal value for world heritage listing.

(i) Landscape designed and created intentionally by man. This embraces garden and parkland landscapes constructed for aesthetic reasons which are often (but not always) associated with religious or other monumental buildings and ensembles.

Fig 1 Duffryn Gardens: home of the Cory ‘coal owning’ family


(ii) Organically evolved landscape. This results from an initial social, economic, administrative, and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect that process of evolution in their form and component features. They fall into two sub-categories:

– a relict (or fossil) landscape is one in which an evolutionary process came to an end at some time in the past, either abruptly or over a period. Its significant distinguishing features are, however, still visible in material form.

– a continuing landscape (Fig 2) is one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time.

Fig 2 Griffith St, Maerdy, Rhondda Fach

grifith street maerdy

(iii) Associative cultural landscape. This is defined by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent (Fig 3).

This three part categorisation was predicated on the understanding that landscapes are the outcome of social processes at the interface of culture and nature, tangible and intangible heritage, biological and cultural diversity.  In this respect  they represent a closely woven net of relationships expressing the essence of culture and people’s identity.

Fig 3 St Mary’s Well, Penrhys, Rhondda Fach


  The UNESCO world heritage listing inevitably devalues all landscape that are not so listed.  Also the selection process is biased towards rural landscapes, which devalues the urban places where most people now live.  In fact, landscapes, beautiful or ugly, urban or rural, all reflect a collective past and determine the future quality of life of the people who live there. Landscapes are about contemporary people and places.  Wherever we live, they are fundamental to our health and well-being, and are an important part of our identity. It is critically important that the value of landscape is recognised in decision making locally as well as internationally.

Intimately connected with landscapes are people’s stories and the things of which memories are made.  These stories make up the cultural richness that promotes a sense of local distinctiveness.   Locals and visitors alike can be given a sense of participation with the past through presentation of appropriate interpretative material.  Thereby people’s surroundings can be appreciated as a human right in terms of access to encourage personal fulfillment through states of mindfulness and meaningfulness.

2 Attentiveness to heritage

“I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond.- Richard Llewellyn. How Green Was My Valley 

The past has always been with us, but heritage is a recent invention. The word “heritage” in its present English usage carries a complex of cultural, economic and political associations. These associations articulate social drives such as the need for a sense of connection with the past, the desire for the reassurance of identity and a sense of place which includes humankind’s dependence on nature.  Richard Llewellyn took up the latter theme in his novel  How Green Was My Valley;

‘The quiet troubling of the river, and the clean, washed stones, and the green all about, and the trees trying to drown their shadows, and the mountain going up and up behind, there is beautiful it was.’    

Llewellyn gathered material for his novel in the 1930s  from conversations with local valley mining families in Gilfach Goch, which he contrasted with an imagined pastoralism of the preindustrial wooded valleys of South Wales.

The possessive passion is universal. ‘It’s our land’, say the tenant farmers in  John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath. ‘We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours — being born on it, working it, dying on it.’  Set in the US during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought and economic hardship.   

We cannot help but make contact with heritage through landscape because no matter how academics define it, our local environment is our heritage,  Even when we enter a stretch of countryside for the first time in a recreational mode we define it pictorially as a scene  that opens up a discourse about nature through images.  The discourse starts with the visual cropping of one’s surroundings as if taking a snapshot.  This isolates areas that we feel make satisfactory pictorial entities. Invariably, these pictorial entities are also cultural ones upon which we inevitably have to cogitate.

Random mental connections with landscape elements may be made through a sense of wonderment:  e.g. an unexpected rainbow, a flock of birds.  Usually these elements are described as beautiful expressions of nature. These have been described as ‘electric encounters’.   The other reaction is a response to having prior information for interpreting the landscape and its elements that draws a person to visit it, either to reinforce personal knowledge or to amplify it.   

An unexpected surprising encounter may or may not trigger a desire for information. It is akin to a state of mindfulness.  The visible and invisible come together as a spiritual experience.  Often, the latter response results in, or augments, a sense of meaningfulness. This characteristic relates to an individual’s sense of who they are and how they navigate their way through life.  This is directly related to the answers a person has to what are traditionally thought of as life’s ultimate questions:

        Who am I?

        Why am I?

        What is the meaning of life?

        What is the meaning of my life?

These are the questions that humankind has pondered since it became self-aware and developed the capacity for critical reflection.

In chance encounters with landscape elements there seems to be a general fear of not understanding what one sees and this search for meaning often tips people away from cultivating and holding on to a sense of mindfulness.  Mindfulness in this context involves accepting that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we are sensing in the present moment rather than rehearsing the past or imagining the future.  For there to be a shift from mindfulness to meaningfulness there has to be a quest for information about the past and future.

Although a state of mindfulness may be triggered by a natural phenomenon it can be induced by a man-made object that is an element of the landscape whose purpose is unknown.  For example, “applied art” refers to the application (and resulting product) of artistic design to utilitarian objects in everyday use. Whereas works of fine art have no function other than providing aesthetic or intellectual stimulation to the viewer, works of applied art are usually functional objects which have been “prettified” or creatively designed with both aesthetics and function in mind. Applied art embraces a huge range of products and items, from a teapot or chair, to the walls and roof of a railway station or concert hall, a fountain pen or computer mouse. For the sake of simplicity, works of applied art comprise two different types: standard machine-made products, which have had a particular design applied to them to make them more attractive and easy-to-use; and individual, aesthetically pleasing but mostly functional, craft products made by artisans or skilled workers.  Applied art is a feature of landscape heritage,which is often exemplified by  a piece of left-behind applied art that is slowly decaying  (Fig 4) . In this connection architecture, too, is best viewed as an applied art.  

Fig 4 A piece of unlabelled mining machinery:  Rhondda Heritage Centre, Trehafod


3  Access and interpretation

“How can there be fury felt for things that are gone to dust.”

-Richard Llewellyn, ‘How Green Was My Valley’

As people increasingly seek out meaningful activities in the outdoors, heritage conservation seeks an every increasing grip on scarce public finances.  Questions are being asked about the purpose of heritage sites.  A central question is how can people use heritage sites to seek and maintain meaningful lives. This has been taken up by the Dutch nature conservation organisation Staatsbosbeheer (National Forestry Service) which discovered that its constituents are increasingly seeking out meaningful activities in nature.  However, the focus is not on the ultimate meaning of human life but rather on what are the conditions in which a person experiences that his or her life is meaningful?   In other words, there is a process of self searching about how he or she feels that life is fulfilled by meaning.  The search for meaning in life or for meaningful nature experience, requires some kind of meaningful activity as a prerequisite. But what is actually considered a meaningful activity in nature? What do people consider to be meaningful and how are these questions to be addressed by organisations involved with heritage conservation?

Opening up access and the interpretation of what there is to see are integral parts of an overall landscape management plan. Virtually every management decision has a direct or indirect impact on these two goals. Interpretation of the site must include its social and historical significance: which social groups built the site? What were their links with the surrounding countryside? What materials, know-how and  techniques did they use?  In what historical conditions was it built?  What were the economic, aesthetic or strategic purposes of the site? What problems were encountered when it was being built? etc. These are some of the questions interpretation must answer, and which the management of the site must be designed to elicit.

Access and interpretation of any aspect of landscape as heritage should motivate the visitor to assist in conserving it. This is expressed in the U.S. National Park Service formulation of visitor interaction as a linear process. “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection”.

Regarding the benefits of heritage conservation, which also includes nature conservation, the following quotations about interpretation from UK conservation management  exemplify the positive approach which is needed on the ground.

Firstly from Michael Hughes: “For many years Oxwich National Nature Reserve was perceived as a fragile site in need of a tightly controlled access policy.  In the early eighties however, we recognised the inherent robustness of the reserve and much of the dunes, woodlands and marshes became open access”

Secondly, from Dan Hillier, on wildlife tourism: “The long term aim should be to make watching wildlife a small element of as many people’s holidays as possible”.

Finally two quotes from Richard Sharland, on the approach of the UK Wildlife Trusts:

(1) “Discovering the importance of the wider public has meant creating more access to sites of wildlife importance, so that people can realise the significance of their heritage through direct experience”.

(2) “The awareness generated by interpretation is also recognised as having importance in its own right. If people know more about their local wildlife, their quality of life is enhanced, they will make better citizens, they will have a better understanding of the world and their responsibilities within it”.  These comments refer to wildlife conservation but they can also be applied to all kinds of landscape elements.

4  Benefits as management outcomes

Before public access can be properly assessed and desirable outcomes turned into measurable management objectives, heritage landscapes must first be recognized as indispensable to our own well being.  People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several 100 years—from Thoreau to John Muir  and many other writers. Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.

The fundamental aim of a landscape management plan is to develop connections between the visitor/observer and then obtain feedback on the way the landscape was valued and utilised mentally and physically, once a connection was made.  In their study of the psychological rewards from nature connectedness Miles Richardson and Jenny Hallam related values and functions of biophilia to the psychological rewards of engaging with the natural world. The rewards cover aspects such as restoration, personal growth, creativity and inspiration. For example, there are reports of the amazing feelings of happiness and inner calm of being close to nature. Similarly, self-reports of nature connectedness, which included a wide range of descriptions, including calmness, wholeness, wonder and peacefulness. These responses are included in Kellert’s nine values of biophilia (Table 1).

Table 1  Kellert’s nine values of biophilia

values of lanscape

However, this research relates to interaction with ecosystems and the value of relating to human heritage artifacts was not examined.

Nevertheless it has a bearing on the move by some educationalists to replace the traditional goals of knowledge and understanding with personal and social objectives concerned with enhancing and developing confidence and self-esteem in learners.  In this connection, Terry Hyland believes that the concept of ‘mindfulness’ can be an immensely powerful and valuable notion.  This is because it is integrally connected with the centrally transformative and developmental nature of learning and educational activity at all levels.  For example, Wordsworth was in a state of mindfulness when he wrote the following poetic lines, the outcome of contemplating the landscape of the dramatic limestone gorge of the River Wye above Tintern Abbey.

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of thought,

And rolls through all things.

In a mood of secular spiritualism, Wordsworth looks beyond surface appearance to gain insight into a deeper level of existence. which fuses mind and nature in a living whole.

5  The Rhondda Fach model

Rhondda, or the Rhondda Valley, is a former coal mining valley in South Wales consisting of sixteen pit-head communities that settled along the course of the River Rhondda during the 19th century. The area is, in fact, made up of two valleys: those of the larger Rhondda Fawr valley (Welch: mawr = large) and the smaller Rhondda Fach valley to the East (Welch: bach = small).  The latter valley has been selected for modelling people’s interactions with landscape heritage because of its relatively small size and because it represents a semi rural cultural landscape densely packed with scenic heritage, from prehistoric times to the post industrial period. A skeleton management plan targeting mindfulness is structured according to the following logic.


Residents and visitors as individuals and groups interacting with the visual elements of landscape heritage using maps and interpretation material, cogitating on what they discover.  Then uploading pictures with comments describing their feelings, relating the experience to their place in a grand scheme of things.


The objective is to involve residents and visitors in highlighting their personal selection of landscape heritage elements, with their reasons for selecting them, online.


Informed by community heritage values, the rationale of the plan is to encourage the uptake of William Wordsworth’s view of landscape beyond its surface appearance. Thus, residents seek important landscape elements that are representative of their identity. Visitors investigate heritage pertaining to the character of local communities through which they pass.  The elements and commentaries will have beneficial outcomes for residents and visitors alike.  They will help people utilise landscape as an ecosystem service to to interpret outdoor experiences, probe identities, interrogate cultural/urban assumptions and understand historical, social, economic and political contexts.  In these respects these outcomes will become an important stakeholder input to local plans for conserving landscape heritage as a facet of sustainable development..


The methodology will show how landscape elements can be selected for online display and viewer interaction that have contemporary historic/cultural significance in the minds of residents and visitors.  A freely accessible community IT system for interaction and display will be used.


The outcome is the inculcation of environmental awareness down to the deepest levels of mindfulness and meaningfulness that can be displayed online through personal creativity with pictures, poetry, fable, myth and story.  

The planning procedure is based on the following sequence of actions:

1 Map an inventory of heritage landscapes.

2 Define access routes

3 Provide interpretive material.

4 Define the barriers preventing the establishment of 1-3.

5 Scedule work has to be done to overcome the barriers.

6 Monitor progress 1-5 with performance indicators.

7 Monitor the outcomes using site statistics to assess the level of meaningfulness..

Fig 5  Installation (2016) commemorating Tylorstown Pits 8 (Cynllwyn-Du) and 9.


Fig 6  Pits 8 and 9 (early 20th century) and the Tylorstown community that served them.

pits 8 and 9


This Rhondda Fach model is being developed further at:



5  References




Emrys Pride, Rhondda My Valley Brave  (Stirling Press,

1975)  942.972 PRI

E D Lewis, The Rhondda Valleys (Phoenix House 1959)

942.972 LEW

John and Norah Morgans, Journey of a LIfetime (John and Norah Morgans 2008)



Life by Numbers

Celebrating the Deaths of Heroes


1 Foreword

One of 2 tributaries of the Rhondda River.

No.1 colliery of the Ferndale group,

Alias Blaenllechau Farm,

First of 9 pits in the Ferndale cluster

2 The Heroes

Here in the slowly regreening valley of the Little Rhondda,

Contemplating an artistic tram brimming with coal,

We focus costing the black gold

And the wealth promised by a grocer,

David Davis of Blaengwawr,

Sinker of Ferndale Pit No 1 in 1857.

Penetrating with scientificl hope

Deep into the unprofitable wildness

Of pastoral bracken

With its own money-making plant lore

For farmers:

Under gorse – copper.

Under brambles – silver.

Under fern – gold.

Day 6 of the week dated 8-11-1867.

2 consecutive explosions.

With Christian hope

It took a month of long days to recover

The unidentifiable remains of 178 men,

And an unknown number of dead horses.


Subheading 1

An unmeasurable accumulation of gas,

Due to the neglect of the manager,

And inaction

Of an unrecorded number of colliery officers.


Subheading 2  

Gas fired by 1 or more of the colliers

Carelessly taking off the tops of their lamps

To work with naked lights.


17 months later 10-6-1869

No 9 colliery of the Ferndale group

Companion to Ferndale  No 8

Alias Cynllwyn-Du, in a pastoral past.

Another killing recorded as 53 men and boys.


Subheading 1

Managers ignored  recommendations after 1867.


Subheading 2

Failure of the pit’s fresh air ventilation system.

3  A Final reckoning

Pit No 8 provided 77 years of employment

Pit No 9 provided 53 years of employment

1913: Peak coal output from South Wales;

56 million tons.

Or, to put it another way,

127.000 tons were won per miner killed

That year.

Coal is long dead,

Hope is now a political commodity.

4  Postscript

No 5 pit 13-2-1908,

Here is

55-year-old former Private

Thomas Chester,

An uncrossed hero,

Who 29 years earlier,

Helped forge an Empire.

At Rorke’s Drift

Where rifles enriched by Rhondda coal,

Killed Zulu  warriors,

Thrusting spears and leather shields,

Thomas is working in the washery,

Trimming coal,

He allows two wagons to pass,

Then steps onto the  tracks

Leading to No.1 pit screens,

To break up a lump of coal,

Fallen by chance onto the empty


He is crushed to death by a wagon,

Being lowered towards the screens,

Unaware that other wagons were to follow.

Elsewhere is Everywhere: cultures of mental ecology

July 7th, 2016


Marketing to the emotions: UKIP’s leader with his ‘battle bus

“Mental models are personal, internal representations of external reality that people use to interact with the world around them. They are constructed by individuals based on their unique life experiences, perceptions, and understandings of the world. Mental models are used to reason and make decisions and can be the basis of individual behaviors.

Natalie A Jones, Helen Ross , Timothy Lynam , Pascal Perez  and Anne Leitch (2011)


1  Mental cultural ecologies

Two weeks before the 2016 British European Union referendum, Helen Pridd, North of England editor of the Guardian newspaper, interviewed young men among 1,000 apprentices employed by Nissan in their Sunderland car plant.  About 8000 local people are directly employed in the vast manufacturing complex, with 32,000 more jobs in the supply chain. More than 70% of the half a million cars produced in Sunderland each year are exported to Europe, mostly to EU members.

She writes:

“Taking a cigarette break outside the enormous Nissan factory in Sunderland last week, Martin Winyard was adamant he would be voting to leave the European Union.  Never mind that his bosses at the car plant had made it clear they would much rather see Britain stay in the EU.

The 19-year-old apprentice wanted out.

“We’re being taken over by foreigners,” he said. “People from Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria; they all end up living here.”

A colleague, Mark Willshire, pointed out that none of those countries were actually in the EU.

But Winyard’s mind was made up: “My great grandad fought for British independence. We shouldn’t let foreigners take over now.”

Helen Pridd continues,

“Sunderland is a city ranked as among the most Eurosceptic in Britain. Despite the north-east of England receiving large amounts of European funding and its buoyant car industry exporting most of its vehicles to the EU, widespread Europhobia is causing the remain campaign serious jitters two weeks before the referendum.

Kevin Guthry, 59, who is on the Nissan apprenticeship scheme as a condition of collecting jobseeker’s allowance, said he too would be voting to leave.

“Look at all these lads,” he said, gesturing with his lit cigarette, “these lads are here because they can’t get real jobs because of all the immigrants.”

Guthry is a life-time Labour voter, but not any more. “I don’t like the new leader. It’ll be Ukip for me next time.

The actual result of the Sunderland referendum was  82,394 for Leave to 51,930 for Remain – a majority of 61% on a 64% turnout.  What we don’t know is how many off Nissan’s work force voted to leave the EU. Nor do we know how many of NIssan’s workers actually live in Sunderland.

The facts are that migrant asylum seekers in Sunderland and its surrounding communities are in their hundreds within an indigenous population of thousands (Fig 1  ).

Fig 1 Presenting the facts


At about the same time that Helen Pridd was interviewing Nissan’s apprentices in Sunderland, the ‘New Scientist’ predicted that uncertainty over the future and contradictory political information will mean voters in the UK’s EU referendum would be swung even more than usual by emotional feelings and biases in data presentation.  In their article ‘Brexitology: What science says about the UK’s EU referendum’, Michael Bond, Jacob Aron and Hal Hodson stated that the EU referendum could be the most irrational yet. They said that uncertainty over consequences, and contradictory economic and political information, mean that voters will be swung even more than usual by feelings and biases that have nothing to do with the issues at stake.  They quoted John McCormick an American expert on EU politics: “Polls show that knowledge about the EU in Britain is low.  To a large extent it’s going to be a domestic protest vote”. He predicted that instead of EU considerations, many voters will be guided by their entrenched views on immigration, the Conservative government and political figures such as David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

Post referendum surveys show that McCormick turned out to be right on all counts.  Furthermore, only 22% of voters understood the implications of what they were voting on.  Referendums are not elections, but because of their rarity, parties campaign as if they were, elevating personalities and emphasising differences.  Voters in referenda like to see parties and experts from credible civil society organisations working together, offering insights and sharing analysis, and calling a lie a lie, rather than bickering or one-upping each other by meeting  facts with unsubstantiated assertions in sound bites.

2  An illusion of shrinkage

During the past 30 years, it has become a cliché to declare that ‘the world has become a smaller place.  Climates have changed, water levels have risen and mass tourism, for some, continues to expand and proliferate. This has had an effect on popular perceptions of time and space which, fanned by the effects of the digital revolution, the speed of the internet and the pervasive influence of social media, have created an illusion of shrinkage.  Vast shifts of capital and production, from West to East, from North to South, have changed the world’s economic map and their ultimate political, economic and cultural effects are far from clear.  However, one thing is certain, inequalities have not been eliminated  It is estimated that 17% of the world’s total population is living in extreme poverty. Furthermore,  extreme poverty is only a fraction of a much larger cycle of deprivation in which the gap between the majority and the super-rich is becoming ever larger.   Its impact is already clear and growing. As  environmental and political instability spreads across the globe there is little doubt that it will continue to feed into social and political conflict.

According to recent figures, just under half of Sunderland was ranked as being among the 20% most deprived areas in England, and more than a fifth of Sunderland ranked in the bottom 10%. Many of Sunderland’s children grow up in income deprived homes. Unemployment in the North-east of England is the highest in the UK, and the number of long-term unemployed in Sunderland continues to rise.  Yet in terms of the UK well-being survey Sunderland is not exceptional, returning unremarkable lifestyle statistics on  anxiety  3/10, happiness  7.3/10, a worthwhile life 7.7/10, satisfaction with life 7.4/10.  There is not one general reason for people voting to leave the EC!  The referendum required only a tick against ‘stay’ or ‘leave’, whereas people had a variety of reasons for wanting to stay or leave.  These different reasons are now emerging through surveys of why people voted the way they did. However we will never know, for example, how many people voted against immigration, or, for that matter, any of the freedoms the EU guarantees for members of what it calls its community.

Most historians think of community as formed mainly within a bounded area in which virtually everybody knew each other, to which people felt that they belonged, and which commonly had administrative functions.  Now, more than ever, people are subjected to misinformation, disinformation and propaganda every single day. Many of the decisions individuals make will be based on that person’s misperceptions of life and the way they see it, either because of misinformation or the absence of information.  Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change. Basically it happens when reality does not match up with our behaviours.

It would be amusing if it weren’t for the destructiveness that wrong perceptions of people and situations can cause. What is amusing is that, like the Nissan apprentices, we are all convinced of the truth of our perceptions and act on them accordingly, despite the inaccurate and incomplete way the brain works to give us these perceptions. The sad reality is that most of our perceptions of other people and situations are very distorted.  Even if we do not move our body, our thoughts and consciousness are constantly moving away to find a life elsewhere. Yet we now have location-free ‘imagined’, ‘communication’, ‘simulated’, or ‘virtual’ communities and there are some theorists who believe that these are communitarian improvements on, and better substitutes for, the past. So many people now live outside territory and community as defined by local space, at least for part of their time. Indeed, to be local is thought by many to be a sign of social deficiency and degradation, of marginalisation and constraint. Measures of ‘the quality of life’ even stigmatise localism and a failure to be mobile as ‘deprivation’, and seriously formalise that judgement in the form of quantitative indicators.

In response to mental irrationality, barriers between individuals and groups have been torn down, while others of different kinds have been erected. Differences between past and present in respect of ‘belonging’ are now so great for many people, as ‘organic’ communities and forms of local territorial thought and practice disintegrate worldwide before waves of cultural contact, rapid transport, economic extension and financial speculation. In particular, the 2016 UK referendum has revealed the existence of local diversity between communities, where a common factor is fear of strangers

3  The working community

Fig 2 The beginning and end of Sunderland’s heritage


There is widely accepted belief that having a strong cultural heritage is necessary for local well-being.  The Royal Society of Arts think tank, in collaboration with the UK Heritage Lottery Fund has produced a Heritage Index that reveals which areas enjoy the most physical heritage assets; how actively residents and visitors in those areas are involved with local heritage; and,  by comparing the two,  the indices show where there is potential to make more of heritage.  When comparing the combined ‘overall’ heritage scores of all 325 English districts against the national Index of Multiple Deprivation, the RSA found there to be no correlation. Several places were found to be rich in local heritage and involvement despite being relatively poor communities with low self esteem.  Sunderland’s Heritage Index falls into the bottom 30%.  A few miles down the coast, the area around the fishing port of Scarborough,  which also includes Whitby, has an Index falling in the top 1%.  Yet in 2015 Scarborough’s Index of Multiple Deprivation indicated that it was the most deprived district in North Yorkshire. Three areas in Scarborough town are within the most deprived 1% in England (parts of Woodlands, Eastfield and Castle wards).

There can be no doubt that Sunderland’s cultural heritage has a very rich narrative, from Bede to Nissan (Fig 2).  Sunderland was once known as ‘asunder-land, that is land cut asunder, separated or put to one side. This is probably a reference to the fact that the community developed from Saxon migrants taking up opposite positions on the north and south banks of the River Wear where it enters the North Sea.  Although there is continued dispute over whether Sunderland is a city of Roman origins, we do know that by the early medieval period there were three small settlements along the River Wear: South Wearmouth (opposite the Saxon monastery, which later became Sunderland fishing village), Bishopwearmouth (probably a Saxon village) and Monkwearmouth Village on the north bank, based around the monastery founded by Benedict Biscop in 674.  In 1835 the three settlements were officially merged to become the Parliamentary Borough of Sunderland, now the City of Sunderland.

Biscop’s monastery was the first to be built of stone and is one of the oldest ecclesiastical buildings still being used in England. While at the monastery he employed glaziers from France and in doing so he re-established the skills of glass making in Britain, which were lost with the end of the Roman occupation. In 686 the monastic community came under the rule of Ceolfrid,an Anglo-Saxon Christian abbot and saint. He is best known as the guardian of the most accomplished monk of Saxon times, St Bede. Ceolfrid was the guardian of the young Bede from the age of seven until his death in 716.

Fig 3 Communities fishing the North Sea East cost


By that time Wearmouth had become a major centre of learning and knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England with an exceptional library of around 300 volumes  The Codex Amianatus, that has been described as the ‘finest book in the world’,was created at the monastery and was likely worked on by Bede.  Bede himself completed the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) in 731, a feat which earned him the title ‘The father of English history’.  

Sunderland is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.  By 1100 there was a fishing village at the mouth of the Wear, one of several small communities, dotted along the north east coast of the North Sea centred on families subsisting on inshore fishing (Fig 3 ).

The early 19th century saw development of Sunderland with new technology to sink deep shafts into the Durham Coalfields and Stephenson’s pioneer Hetton Colliery Railway carried coal to the Hetton Drops staithes at the mouth of the Wear. By the mid-C19th Sunderland was the biggest shipbuilding port in the world, with 65 shipyards in operation.

One of the industries which once thrived on South Tyneside, was glass-making.  This was a lucrative trade, dating  back to the 17th century, which was established by French Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution. In 1762 the Malying pottery was founded in Sunderland also by Huguenots (Fig 4 ).

Fig 4 Plan of Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth 1785-1790 showing the bottle and window- glass factory and shipbuilding yards

glassmaking sunderland

 In remembrance of this glass making heritage Sunderland houses the National Glass Centre, an adjunct to Sunderland University.

The concept of a ‘working community’ of fisherfolk and its reciprocal networks, as historians sense it, is a mental construct. The French call it ‘an ecomene’. On the north east coast it is focussed in the mind through the pioneer photography of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in Whitby, and the fiction of Leo Walmsley, who based his novels in Robin Hood’s Bay just south of Whitby.  Thus, Sunderland and its neighbouring coastal communities provided the place models of strangeness, which arose from visits of 19th century  photographers, artists and authors to the coastal fishing communities of the north east. At the turn of the 19th century, the artist Laura Knight described her mental attachment to the otherness of the fishing community of Staithes, a small village to the south of Sunderland:

“The life and place were what I had yearned for- the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wildness.  I loved it passionately, overwhelmingly   I loved the cold and the northerly storms when no covering would protect   you.  I loved the strange race of people who lived there, whose stern almost forbidding exterior formed such contrast to the warmth and richness of their natures…. It bordered on the theatrical”.

The inward looking Victorian ecomene described by Knight  has now ceased to exist. Indeed, most of those visiting such places were themselves documenting the decline of the unified working community. However, the concept of ‘working community’ still exists as a desirable mental ecology in the minds of those who have seen pictures and read some of the novels. It stands in the words of Knight as a counterweight to the urban lives most people are immersed in yet are seeking something better,  They are pondering questions of what kind of real living should replace this mental localism and  how viable for human needs the engineered replacements will be.


Mental localism

“All good people agree,

And all good people say,

All nice people like Us, are We

And everyone else is They;

But if you cross over the sea,

Instead of over the way,

You may end by (think of it!)

Looking on We

As only a sort of They.”.

— Rudyard Kipling, The fifth and last verse of “We and They,” 1926.

Geographically, the East Coast settlements of Staithes, Runswick, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough, and Filey, comply with the principal constraint of ‘them’ as models of mental localism.  They are discrete settlements linearly arranged along the cliff-girt coast wherever there is a break in the cliff face to access a beach suitable for launching small family owned sailing boats.  They are but a few of the links in a much longer chain of coastal settlements which stretched from Brixham in Devon to John o’Groats in Scotland. Migration is restricted on one side by the sea, and on the other by the North Yorkshire moors. However, it was by sea that migrants arrived.  They were families moving up from the English Channel fishing grounds, with their innovations in engine powered boats and more effective fishing tackle.  It was at this point of social interaction of the old with the new that Leo Walmsley set his novels ‘Three Fevers’ and ‘Sally Lunn’ that describe the rivalry between backward looking fishing families and the southern migrants with their new ways.  A process of mental localism was also at work when Frank Sutcliffe pointed his camera at places and people to produce images set in Staithes, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay.  He was a leading award winning naturalistic photographer in Victorian England. Working during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, he operated a portrait studio in Whitby, but was better known for his sensitive images of its port and everyday people. Sutcliffe also photographed abbeys and castles throughout Yorkshire for the country’s leading commercial firm, Francis Frith and Company. Because of the low sensitivity of the camera a plates of the time he posed his human subjects in carefully designed positions they had to hold for minutes at a time (Fig 5 )

Fig 5  Whitby fishermen (circa 1890) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

suttcliffe fishermen

Pictures of grouped figures such as Sutcliffe’s Whitby fishermen are not only attractive because of the way they have been composed, interlocked in their gazes indicative of a decisive moment and a time of heightened social tension, but also because of their strangeness in dress and surroundings. As a general rule, “difference” is associated with “strangeness”  and can lead to the dread of foreigners as a group, whether defined legally, as immigrants, or by their strangeness as a visible group which the observer cannot join.

Social tension that can be read into photographs projecting the strangeness of grouped figures, is the basis of Mohamed Bourouissa’s art works (b.1978, Blida, Algeria).  He is a contemporary artist whose practice explores social tensions within European migrant society.  After moving to France from his native Algeria, he grew up in ‘les banlieues’, the suburbs of Paris that have become a byword for the ghettoisation of migrant communities. This experience shaped Bourouissa’s approach to image making, which is primarily concerned with representations of the contemporary urban environment and, in particular, geographic and social spaces prone to negative stereotyping.

‘Peripherique’ (2005-08), Bourouissa’s best known photographic series, directly addresses many of these preoccupations (Fig 6 ). Utilising a documentary photography aesthetic, Bourouissa defies the notion of a ‘decisive moment’ by carefully constructing scenes that use the residents and high-rise housing of the banlieues respectively as his protagonists.  Like Sutcliffe’s compositions they are carefully arranged with people as set pieces.  Bourouissa was influenced by the works of French romantic painters, such as Delacroix and Gericault (Fig 7),  retaining what he describes as ’emotional geometry’ to display the natural interaction of his subjects to reveal moments of heightened tension. Sutcliffe and Bourouissa both deal with the interplay of truth and fiction acting as a provocation, creating a sense of apprehension and threat. The title of Bourouissa’s series refers both to the ring road encircling Paris and to those who are marginalised, physically and socially. The works of both  photographers can be used as societal lenses to explore issues of exclusion, isolation, immigration and class.

Fig 6 ‘The Bite’: (photographic series 2005-8) Mohamed Bourouissa

Fig 7 The Murderers Carry The Body Of Fualdes: (1818) Theodore Gericault


5  Mental ecology and hatred

A survey of values and attitudes supports the common view that economic deprivation and its attendant social problems seem to promote anti-foreigner feeling.  In the light of such surveys it is important to ask what critical perspectives might nurture the ability and the desire to live with difference on an increasingly divided, but also convergent planet?  We need to know what sorts of insight and reflection might actually help increasingly differentiated societies and anxious individuals to cope successfully with the challenges involved in dwelling comfortably in proximity to the unfamiliar without becoming fearful and hostile.

In his book, ‘The heritage crusade and the spoils of history’, David Lowenthal argues that academics evaluate heritage using the same criteria they use to judge “good” history, such as verifiable observation. Yet because heritage and history are distinct ways of knowing the past, he believes that such assessments of heritage are baseless. “History explores and explains pasts that have grown more obscure over time; ‘heritage’ clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes”.  By confusing these different routes to reclaim the past, he says, critics forget that heritage, no less than history, is a way of understanding our humanized worlds and that, as such, it provides individuals and groups with a sense of identity as well as the opportunity to forge common stewardship of a cosmopolitan heritage.

Lowenthal’s writings have focused on the paradoxical nature of attitudes and representations of the past. Although cultural expressions of heritage are produced to console groups and individuals with the presence of tradition, the production of heritage can also result in xenophobic hatred and chauvinistic nationalisms. Clarifying such problems and potentials of heritage is his main goal. Another more implicit goal is to criticize academics for their negative and cynical appraisals of the cult of heritage. Lowenthal suggests that the heritage industry in and of itself is not “bad”; rather, the actions that individuals perform in the name of heritage can promote tolerance as well as genocidal hatred of other peoples.

Despite its widespread usage, xenophobia is an ambiguous and contested term in popular, policy and scholarly debates. The interchangeable or complementary use of similar terms such as nativism, autochthony, ethnocentrism, xeno-racism, ethno-exclusionism, anti-immigrant prejudice and immigration-phobia further demonstrates this conceptual vagueness. Some scholars consider it to be intense dislike, hatred or fear of others, others only recognise it when it manifests itself as a visible hostility towards strangers or that which is deemed foreign. There are also ongoing debates on whether xenophobia emanates at the individual or collective level. While these approaches are unified by a generalised acceptance that xenophobia is a set of attitudes and/or practices surrounding people’s origins, the specific locus of debate and work is highly contextualised and often generally incomparable. Xenophobia for one analyst may be only tangentially tied to the xenophobia discussed by another.

Xenophobia becomes part of cultural ecology as the fear or hatred of foreigners and strangers; it is embodied in discriminatory attitudes and behaviour, and often culminates in violence, abuses of all types, and exhibitions of hatred. Studies on xenophobia have attributed such hatred of foreigners to a number of causes: the fear of loss of social status and identity; a threat, perceived or real, to citizens’ economic success; a way of reassuring the national self and its boundaries in times of national crisis; a feeling of superiority; and poor intercultural information.  According to the latter argument, xenophobes are possessed by the past and presumably do not have adequate information about the people they hate and, since they do not know how to deal with such people. They see them as a threat.  Xenophobia basically derives from the sense that non-citizens pose some sort of a threat to the recipient’s’ identity or their individual rights. It is also closely connected with the concept of nationalism: the sense in each individual of membership in the political nation as an essential ingredient in his or her sense of identity. To this end,  notions of citizenship and political control can lead to xenophobia when it becomes apparent that the government does not guarantee protection of individual rights. This is all the more apparent where poverty and unemployment are rampant.

Whilst xenophobia has been described as something of a worldwide phenomenon, closely associated with the process of globalization, it has been noted that it is particularly prevalent in countries undergoing transition. This is thought to be because xenophobia is a problem of post-coloniality, one which is associated with the politics of the dominant groups in the period following independence. It is to do with a feeling of superiority, but is also, perhaps, part of a ‘scapegoating’ process, where unfulfilled expectations of a new democracy result in the foreigner coming to embody unemployment, poverty and deprivation. Theoretically, the best, and only, solution is to remove enemy images; however, it is debatable whether this can be done. Enemy images may have their origin in a variety of genuine or perceived conflicts of interest, in racial prejudices, in traditional antagonisms between neighbouring competing tribes or groups, in imagined irreconcilable religious differences and so on.

With respect to human social diversity, xenophobia is seen as a biological imperative in our hominid ancestors, ensuring the greatest degree of altruistic co-operation within social groups developing in isolation. Shunning outsiders would lead to the evolution of different languages and traditions which tend to stabilize tribes and ethnic groups. War, as the extreme outcome of xenophobia, sparks values of solidarity, egalitarianism and self sacrifice into tribal life.

Detaching the UK from the EU then comes down to how we can manage the behavioural mechanisms by which we humans define and protect our ecological niche.  We see protection rests on mental differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which depend, paradoxically, on the social  power of strangeness to fascinate us.  However, there is a world of difference in the outcome of hanging one of Sutcliffe’s photographs of Whitby fishermen on the wall and abusing someone in the street.  In the coming years, political effort will be devoted to negotiating a deal with the EU to opt out of the free movement of labour.  The government’s intention is to release extra funding to tackle hate crime, to boost reporting of offences and to provide security at potentially vulnerable institutions.  It is impossible to see how this will dampen division and fear that has surfaced by some in the “Leave” campaign who have stoked xenophobia and racism within the UK’s mental ecological niche.

6  Internet references














World development: a process led by consumerism

June 26th, 2016

Fig 1 Queuing for ‘the sales’ at Howells department store in Cardiff.



“In the 1860s, twenty-year-old Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers, recent orphans, emigrated from a provincial French village to Paris, to live with their uncle.  Arriving at daybreak after a sleepless night on the hard benches of a third-class railway car, they set out in search of their uncle’s fabric store. The unfamiliar streets opened onto a tumultuous square where they halted abruptly, awestruck by the sight of a building more impressive than any they had ever seen: a department store. “Look,” Denise murmured to her brothers. “Now there is a store!” This monument was immeasurably grander than her village’s quiet variety shop, in which she had worked. She felt her heart rise within her and forgot her fatigue, her fright, everything except this vision. Directly in front of her, over the central doorway, two allegorical figures of laughing women flaunted a sign proclaiming the store’s name, “Au Bon-heur des Dames” (“To the Happiness of the Ladies”). Through the door could be seen a landslide of gloves, scarves, and hats tumbling from racks and counters, while in the distance display windows unrolled along the street”.

From ‘Dream Worlds’ by Rosalind H Williams (1982)

1 Beginnings

The advent of mass consumption in South Wales represents a pivotal historical moment. Once people enjoy discretionary income and choice of products, once they glimpse the vision of commodities in profusion, they do not easily return to traditional modes of consumption. Having gazed upon the delights of a department store, Denise would never again be satisfied with the plain, unadorned virtues of Uncle Baudu’s shop. The hackneyed plot of the young innocent in the big city receives a specifically modern twist, for now the seduction is commercial. We who have tasted the fruits of the consumer revolution have lost our innocence.

In the domain of economics “consumerism” refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption.  In an abstract sense, it is the consideration that the free choice of consumers, as dreamers of better things to come, should strongly orient the choice by manufacturers of what is produced and how, and therefore orient the economic organization of a society.  In this sense, consumerism expresses the idea not of “one person, one voice”, but of “one dollar, one voice”.  The outcome may or may not reflect the contribution of people to a sustainable society.

For many in the 19th century, it was the South Wales Coalfield that was the dream world for satisfying pent up desires to become a consumer.  The expansion of the coal industry in the second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge increase in the population of the South Wales Valleys. Inequalities were greatest at the turn of the 18th century.  For example, in 1760,  Merthyr Tydfil, at the heads of the valleys, consisted of only 40 houses amidst a few farms of 30 to 35 acres worked by a single pair of horses with a basic set of cultivation equipment.  This was considered sufficient to support a man and his wife without the need for a supplementary income. A large family, on the other hand, could hardly be sustained on a holding of this size unless some members took up by-employment and/or resorted to seasonal migration to the harvest fields of the English border counties.  But four decades later, several thousand people had settled in Merthyr earning their living in the newly constructed mines and foundries.  

According to a report on the town published in 1841, some 1,500 people lived in poorly constructed stone huts, often built on top of waste heaps of industrial waste.  There were no toilets; the streets were open sewers; people were infested with lice and in such overcrowded conditions infections and diseases such as typhus, dysentery and cholera spread at terrifying speed.  The cholera outbreak of 1848/49 killed 3,000 people in the county of Glamorgan. In Cardiff there was a total of at least 350 deaths.   Merthyr Tydfil was the worst affected town, suffering a total of 1,389 deaths from cholera.  The dead were quickly buried with little fuss, but public prayer meetings were constantly held.

Within the town, two thirds of the deaths occurred in Upper Merthyr, which had the highest levels of poverty and overcrowding: 160 died here in 1832; nearly 1700 in 1849, and 400 more in 1854.  Even this understates the magnitude of the crisis in the town. Between 1851 and 1865, there was only one year (1860) when there was no epidemic.

Cholera was only one problem, coexisting as it did with typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever and measles. In the dreadful years of 1864 and 1865, all four of these diseases hit together; in 1866, cholera returned. The appalling sanitary conditions naturally contributed to high death rates. The Welsh rate was 20.2 per thousand in 1841, 22 in 1848, 25.8 during the cholera year of 1849. Not until the 1890s did the figure fall below 20.

Infant mortality, told a similar story of inequalities.  It ran at 125 per thousand live births in 1839, and improvement was slow. The figure was at or over 120 until the 1880s, and fell below 100 only after 1910. The situation was also much worse in particular locations. In Cardiff, the death rate between 1842 and 1848 was 30 per thousand; and within such high-risk towns, there were still more unhealthy pockets, such as the Irish sections of Stanley Street and Love Lane. Merthyr recorded an overall rate of 30.2 per thousand in 1853, but this was far exceeded in neighbourhoods like ‘China’ or Tydfil’s Well.

For children dying before their first birthday, infant mortality in Merthyr was rarely below 190 per thousand in the 1820s or 1830s. However, the first five years of life were an exceedingly dangerous period. In the very worst years, such as 1823, burials of children under five were 713 for every thousand baptisms, 40 per cent above the normally dreadful rates.

But still the migrants came and things began to improve,  Between 1851 and 1911, it is estimated that some 366,000 people moved into the Coalfield. The peak of this migration occurred between 1901 and 1911 when 129,000 people moved into the area.  At this time South Wales absorbed immigrants at a faster rate than anywhere in the world except the United States of America. The goal of urban life was betterment of person and family, powered towards purchasing goals set by surplus income chasing the visions projected by mass advertising.

Up until the 1890s, many of the people who moved into the Coalfield were from other counties in Wales, such as the the totally rural areas of Cardiganshire, Montgomeryshire and Merioneth. After the 1890s, many more immigrants came from Somerset, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. People also came from further afield, such as Ireland, Scotland and even Australia. In Dowlais and Abercrave, there were communities of Spaniards. In Merthyr, there were small communities of Russians, Poles and French and in many of the Valley towns, Italians opened cafes to serve these newly forming valley communities with time on their hands.

Two statistics tell the story: in 1801 the population of Glamorgan was 70,879;  in 1901 it was 1,130,668.   In 1851, the population of the Rhondda coal community was 1,998 ; in 1911 it was 152,781.

Initially, for these settlers there was only the local pithead store stocked by the coalowner, who also rented them his newly built, tightly packed terrace houses. There was no choice but to take what was available on the owner’s terms. Freedom of choice came with the arrival of specialised shopkeepers; such as the butcher, the baker, the shoemaker and the milliner. The huge variety of jobs in the local economy at that time is evident from the numerous community trade directories that were published annually.

The next stage in economic freedom was  the coming of the market hall in the nearest town and the stores of the national Cooperative Movement in smaller communities. These developments were evidence of a thriving consumer culture and an increasing demand for non-essentials that are purchased by choice rather than need.

Around this time the shopping arcade and the department store were French inventions.  In Paris they were associated with the first appearance of poster advertising, with subtle hints that connected pleasure with a product to be purchased (Fig 2).  Necessities and luxuries of all kinds were available in endless variety under one roof.  These ultimate palaces of consumerism, finally reached Wales in the form of the massive Cardiff department stores of two local self-made retail entrepreneurs, James Howell and David Morgan.  Shopping in a glamorous department store had become the goal of the newly arrived urban middle classes.

Fig 2 Advert for ‘Job’ cigarette papers Alphonse Mucha (1898)

much job cigarette papers

2 Legacies

Then came the decline of the coal industry.  Peak output of coal In South Wales occurred just before the First World War.  During the period 1919 to 1939  there was mass unemployment. As a result, almost 500,000 people left the valley communities during the inter-war years seeking work elsewhere. The Rhondda, for example, lost around 36% of its population between 1921 and 1951. Many people went to towns in England such as Wolverhampton and Slough, where new manufacturing industries were developing. Others went further afield to the United States of America, Canada and Australia.

Now there are no deep mines but there is a legacy of pockets of neighbourhood deprivation, many of which are occupied by the descendants of those families that did not move away.  These areas are defined by the Welsh Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD).  This is the official measure of deprivation within small geographical areas, where it is a relative measure of concentrations of deprivation.

Deprivation is a wider concept than poverty. Poverty means a lack of money. Deprivation refers to wider problems caused by a lack of resources and opportunities. Therefore, WIMD is constructed from eight different types of deprivation. These are:

  • income
  • housing
  • employment
  • access to services
  • education
  • health
  • community safety
  • physical environment.

Wales is divided into 1,909 Lower-Layer Super Output Areas (LSOA) each having about 1,600 people (Fig 3).  Super output areas are a geography for the collection and publication of small area statistics. They are used on the official Neighbourhood Statistics site and across National Statistics.  Deprivation ranks have been worked out for each area: the most deprived LSOA is ranked 1, and the least deprived 1,909. One area has a higher deprivation rank than another if the proportion of people living there who are classed as deprived is higher.

An area itself is not deprived: it is the circumstances and lifestyles of the people living there that affect its deprivation rank.   Not everyone living in a deprived area is deprived and not all deprived people live in deprived areas.

Fig 3 Distribution of deprived areas in Wales (2014)

communities first

Red = most deprived areas; Blue = least deprived areas

As the industrial legacy of South Wales began fading rapidly from sight and living memory there appeared a landscape of industrial despoliation and dereliction.  Since the 1960s  the growth of industrial archeology has rapidly transmuted spoil heaps, old mineral lines and pitheads into a post-industrial landscape envisioned as an environmental service for recreation and tourism.

As far as the global legacy of Welsh mining is concerned, in the wake of life with coal  we now see that our burning of fossil fuel has released and continues to release enormous quantities of ancient carbon into the atmosphere.  This has taken place with a relative suddenness, causing local, regional and global ecosystem harm and threatening abrupt and irreversible shifts in the state of the planetary ecosystem as critical ecological thresholds are approached. South Wales coal is the ancient remains of plants and animals alive in the Carboniferous Era, which was sequestered over millions of years underground under enormous pressure, over such long periods that the carbon comprising their structures was made into coal, oil, or natural gas   During the heyday of the coalfield’s prosperity South Wales pointed the world towards fossil fuels as the dominant ecosystem service for boosting wellbeing.  Exported through the port of Cardiff, Welsh coal supplied Homo sapiens world wide with energy to support its expanding culture of mass production with increased wealth to stimulate the purchase of its goods and services from afar.

By the 1850s, the people of South Wales was already consuming more natural resources than the valley’s could produce.  Today we express this in terms of our ecological footprint being stamped on distant environments.  Here is written a deeper message from the rise and fall of ‘King Coal’.  It is a simple basic spiritual affirmation that we are all members of humanity and share a collective destiny beyond individual life. The morale of the solidarity of humankind echoes the ancient cross-cultural religious imperative to love one another.  Within this cosmopolitan perspective, great possibilities for technological, social, and moral invention lie before us. But these are only possibilities, not predictabilities. The real is explicable and capable of change only in connection with the immensity of the possible. As we survey that immensity, we can allow ourselves hope but not optimism.

3  The Future

People of the Welsh valleys now face a global economy that is increasingly competitive.  Key baseline indicators are new product innovation, broadband penetration, and educational attainment among younger generations.  A competitive edge and a creative edge go hand-in-hand to support economic prosperity in today’s globalised economy.  Business location decisions are influenced by factors such as the ready availability of a creative workforce and the quality of life available to employees. In this working environment  a district’s arts and cultural resources can be assets that set a desirable context for economic development. The arts and heritage industries provide jobs, attract investments, and stimulate local economies through tourism, consumer purchases, and tax revenue. Perhaps more significantly, they also prepare workers to participate in the contemporary workforce, create communities with high appeal to residents, businesses, and tourists, and contribute to the economic success of other sectors. Creative economies depend in a variety of ways on the composition and character of businesses, nonprofit organisations, individuals, and venues that exist in any given area.

The creative economy may include human, organizational, and physical assets. It also includes many types of cultural institutions, artistic disciplines, and business pursuits. Industries that comprise the arts and culture sector may include advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, design, fashion, film, digital media, television, radio, music, software and computer games, the performing arts, publishing, graphic arts, and cultural tourism.  This is the present postindustrial multi-skilled condition for generating prosperity and wellbeing.  It rests on what is called the ‘Foundational Economy’. This is the sheltered sector of the economy that supplies mundane but essential goods and services such as: infrastructures; utilities; food processing, retailing and distribution; and health, education and welfare. The foundational economy is unglamorous but important because is used by everyone regardless of income or social status, and practically is a major determinant of material welfare . The UK foundational economy employs around 35% of the working population; whereas current industrial policy focuses on manufacturing which employs just 8 per cent, of which the steel industry consists of only 1 per cent.

Most foundational activities involve branches and networks with some degree of natural monopoly reinforced by implicit or explicit state guarantees.   The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change suggests that the state should use this leverage to treat such activities as ‘social franchises’ and thereby increase the local benefits for the communities whose purchasing power sustains foundational activities.   Under social franchises, large public and private foundational organisations would be obliged to offer social returns such as: supporting local communities and firms; living wages; sustainable supply chains; import substitution; and/or energy and resource sustainability.

However, the present could just as well open out upon a future of increasing instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals and frustration, of the breakdown of solidarity rather than its strengthening, of more ennui and envy and guilt rather than less. The growing awareness of scarcity may not lead to a more equitable distribution of resources but to an even more unjust one.  This seems to be the situation in Wales which is languishing on the threshold of a new economy for life after coal..

Future history of consumerism is still being shaped, and all we know for certain is that the history of the consumer is entering a new phase. As explorers destined to set sail on uncharted seas of thought and action we should muster the courage to move in an unfamiliar direction reappraising values stemming from the foundation economy. Until now we moderns have assumed that the promised land of global social harmony lies in the direction of an ever-increasing standard of material well-being. Now we should try to sail toward the future on the opposite tack, in quest of a creative, shared austerity that will emphasize equity among humankind and harmony with nature. If we change our course and brave the unknown, we too may arrive on the banks of a new world where our demands on ecosystem services match the rate at which they can be produced without resort to fossil fuels, such as coal..

Mongolia, meanwhile, is advertising itself as “the Saudi Arabia of coal”. International mining companies have just started ripping off the tops of mountains to get at the world’s largest deposits of coking coal, most of which will go to feed the steel mills of China. What is happening in Mongolia dwarfs the cultural transformation of the South Wales valleys in its historical rush for coal.  The profits from Mongolia’s superabundance of coal will propel a country of nomadic herders towards the living standards of the global middle class, tripling the size of its economy within a few years (Fig 4). The environmental effects are equally great.  Huge opencast mines in the Gobi desert will increase water scarcity in an already arid zone; grasslands will parch under the clouds of dust thrown up by columns of lorries moving coal to the railheads; ancient ways of life will be lost. But, from a Mongolian perspective, these are minor consequences to live with when set against boosting the process of consumerism for the benefit of 2.6 million people.

Fig 4 The State department store: Ulaanbaatar



4 Internet extension materials