During November I exhibited some work as part of the exhibition Concrete Nature which coincided with the New Networks for Nature conference in Stamford. The theme of the show was focussed on nature in the urban environment.
I am surprised at how easy it is to live in the city whilst also being an artist focussed on the natural world. I am aware that most artists who work with similar subject matter live rurally; yet I have chosen to live in the heart of Edinburgh and occupy a shared studio with seventy others in an old warehouse near Leith docks.
At the New Networks for Nature Conference (which comes highly recommended) there seemed to be a lot of conversations about people who had bought and re-wilded their own small patch of land. Germaine Greer opened the conference and spoke about her book White Beech, which documents her experience buying a patch of rainforest in Australia: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/02/white-beech-rainforest-years-germaine-greer-review
Greer spoke well about the experience of learning how to go about re-wilding and was hugely knowledgeable about the native plant and animal species she was hoping to support through her endeavours. What particularly struck me were her comments about human and animal relationships – our need to learn to ‘be’ with animals, not invading their space or controlling their instincts, but living alongside them. I’ve not read White Beech but it is on my list!
I will admit to dreams of owning my own land, where I could have space to think undisturbed by other humans. However, I have come to realise that what I am able to do, in the city, is just as rich and fulfilling. I have access to a huge amount of spaces, filled with flora and fauna, many of which I inhabit regularly and am able to feel a sense of shared ownership over.
I have watched bullfinches from the window of my third floor flat, flitting about the back yard in the handful of small trees which doggedly grow through the concrete and discarded mattresses. A flock of redwings feeding among neatly laid out rows of purple and yellow crocuses in a city park. A winter wagtail roost at the side of a busy roundabout – a couple of hundred birds wheeling around before settling in an unassuming urban shrub. Hundreds of knot fly high over the city and out to sea as I watched them from a harbour wall.
These are all momentary events which still stimulate my imagination when I think of them and remind me of a need to spend time watching the world, whatever environment I happen to be in.
Even on my regular drawing trips along the coasts of the Forth estuary, I am often within sight of the incredible Edinburgh skyline or the Forth road and rail bridges. I enjoy finding places to draw where nature and people are both in evidence. I don’t want the natural world to be something I go and see, but something I am part of and whose world I share.
The pieces I exhibited for Concrete Nature all originated within two miles of my flat. A crow overseeing the eastern stretch of the city from Holyrood Park;
a goosander from a flock wintering on a small patch of the Water of Leith near my studio;
and finally a pair of blackbirds in the undergrowth of a forgotten corner of a park:
I suspect I will have more to say on the subject of how nature lives in cities but I will finish this post with a quote from Richard Mabey from his excellent book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’:
‘Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to ‘belong’ in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots…Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature.’