The artists’ response to the Mosses and Marshes International Panel Discussion
In early November 2021, an international panel was convened to discuss the entangled in alternative ways of thinking about, understanding and valuing special environments. The goal was to determine if we needed to consider different ways to inform and shape the future of the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses and Macquarie Marshes, and environments like them.
The online event was organised in partnership with Dubbo Regional Council in New South Wales, Australia (part of the Macquarie catchment), and facilitated by their Cultural Development Coordinator, Jessica Moore.
The panel consisted of natural resource managers, scientists, academics, and cultural consultants from Australia and the UK with a wealth of experience in land and natural resource management issues. They were Tim Hosking (AU), Kate Mildner (AU), Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan (AU), Dave Pritchard (UK), Dr Tim Acott (UK) and Robert Duff (UK). There were also six provocateurs from both countries raising issues that were then addressed by the panel, in front of an audience on Zoom.
As organisers of the event and co-leads of the Mosses and Marshes project, Kim V. Goldsmith and Andrew Howe see it as just the start of many more conversations to come, online and offline in their respective communities as well as globally.
These are their thoughts following the event.
KIM: I remember when the conversation started between us about the possibility of an international panel event, I was putting together a grant application over the summer of 20/21 to include public programming around the project from my end. I think was looking for a way to pull our two wetlands together in both my mind and the mind of the public — to show that while there are differences and we’re separated by huge distances, we have so much in common. My thinking took shape around what that might look like off the back of an email sent to you from the Ramsar Culture Network’s Dave Pritchard in July 2020, where he wrote: I’d be keen on anything that expands perspectives on intangible values (such as aesthetics, creative inspiration, sense of place, re-framed understandings of environmental change etc), explored through ecological or socially-engaged arts-based enquiry, as part of the rubric of “cultural ecosystem services” in the Ramsar Sites context. That definitely had me thinking!
Andrew, what were you thinking about how this event might fit into the project and its objectives, before the event?
ANDREW: Objectives I had in mind for the project included using art to build stronger connections with the natural environment, to transform how we think about a place and a changing environment, and to imagine how interdependence between humans, land and ecosystems might build sustainability. I thought the panel could contribute to each of these objectives, and particularly the last of them. Considering interdependence requires an understanding of multiple perspectives and I saw the event offering great potential to bring many voices together from two geographies that could not be further apart.
You and I both have backgrounds linked to environmental science and the arts, and we have tried to maintain multiple lines of enquiry during the project and in our dialogue. During our global collaboration, we have both communicated with many different people connected with the wetlands from scientists, land managers, other artists, writers and members of the local communities. But all of these conversations must ultimately be filtered or mediated by the two of us in steering the art project. So, I saw the panel event as a means of expanding the debate in an entirely different way. Bringing those different disciplines/areas of interest and different cultures directly into contact might just make sparks fly to raise issues we could not have brought to the fore ourselves. And yes, like you, I hoped that despite the differences between the Mosses and the Marshes, we might find there are more issues in common than perhaps we imagined.
KIM: Fast forward several months to a successful grant application and the signing of a partnership agreement with Dubbo Regional Council to facilitate the event, we brought together six panelists and six provocateurs (from the UK and Australia) in front of a live, international audience on Zoom, on 11 November, to consider and discuss alternative ways of thinking about, understanding and possibly valuing special environments like the Mosses and Marshes, to help inform and shape their future. It felt like a big moment. There’d been a lot of planning and preparation to get to this point and at times I had to keep reminding myself that it was us, as artists, who had managed to make this happen.
What did you think we might achieve once that Zoom session was underway?
ANDREW: It was something of a leap of faith because you and I were not participating directly in the debate nor were we the facilitator. We had curated the event by selecting the panelists and provocateurs with some guidance to them around the topic, but from there on everything was dependent on what people actually said on the day. I just hoped that we could achieve a sufficiently comprehensive, informed and robust coverage of relevant issues with responses from all the participants so that it would be possible to identify where there was consensus (or at least recognition of similar views), points of contention and areas of uncertainty. The discussion might spur some of the participants into taking actions to follow up or respond to some of the issues. As we have found, the discussion has been extremely fruitful in yielding a range of issues for us to highlight and make further provocations for action.
Kim, there were a few variables to pin down in deciding on the format for the event, what did you find to be the main decision factor?
KIM: Having run a few online talk events over the year leading up to the panel discussion, I had started to work out what worked and what didn’t. I’ve always been a fan of ABC TV’s Q&A TV program format, and couldn’t see why something similar wouldn’t work on Zoom.
I know we spent some time considering the topic and whether to explore intangible values alone or be more provocative by suggesting alternatives. I think Dave Pritchard set the record straight at the start of the panel discussion, saying it’s more about being clever with allowing a plurality of multiple values operate together, inviting challenge and reframing the questions to find new solutions to some of the issues we’ve been exploring…and that’s where artists can play a role. He also mentioned the need for a more holistic approach to understanding what makes a place. I think this is where the stories shared with Fleur and Locky Magick Dennis from Milan Dhiiyaan became so powerful in this discussion. These experiences and perspectives are not often shared with an international audience, or as we found out, even within our own regions.
ANDREW: It was important to hear Fleur and Locky speaking so powerfully with an emotional depth that could only come from an intimate, authentic connection with the land and its people. Their references to the missing sounds in the landscape, the urgent need for resources to gather legitimate community representation and a fundamental lack of access to Country made for uncomfortable, but necessary, listening. What they had to say aligned with other indigenous cultures across the globe around honouring what the Earth provides, taking only what is needed and acknowledging that we are all custodians and not owners of the land.
These basic sustainable principles are in direct opposition to prevailing systems for exploiting land and resources in most parts of the world. It feels like an impossible seismic shift is needed to change attitudes towards these basic principles in a river system with so many competing interests like the Marshes. What signs of hope do you see?
KIM: It does seem like an impossible seismic shift is required, and not just in the Marshes. Maybe in the interim, it’s about accepting that scientific and evidence-based languages aren’t the only way of knowing and doing, particularly if we accept that language often shapes behaviours. The acceptance of Indigenous knowledge bases seems to be long overdue, and I think that came through in the discussion.
ANDREW: So Kim, what do you think were the key themes emerging from the discussion?
KIM: Plurality of perspectives and values, along with a more holistic approach and access (including safety or feelings of safety) were distinct themes throughout the discussion. I do think the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the panelists and provocateurs that came together for this event underscored the need we have for diverse knowledge bases and perspectives, and ways of understanding how wetlands are meaningful and important to people, to use Tim Acott’s words.
ANDREW: There is a trend towards recognising “softer” or intangible values associated with wetlands and other natural landscapes in decision-making alongside the measurable social, environmental and economic values. Natural capital is commonly referred to in projects and methodologies are becoming more established for taking this into account. But other cultural values, like memories, stories and sense of place, are some way off from finding a means of being accounted for in a balanced, holistic decision-making framework.
KIM: I agree. It’s a bit too far to the left of those scientific or evidence-based values. Perhaps the adoption of Indigenous knowledge though might make room for some of those other ‘softer’ cultural values. We’ve started that process in a small way by collecting audio stories and providing room for the community to contribute to the conversation.
A few times in the panel discussion, the need to broaden our timeframes was raised, particularly on a policy level – which as we know is so often determined by political cycles. Was this something you were thinking about at all when we started this project? I’m not sure I was thinking of this as an ongoing project when we first started talking in 2019, but it seems inevitable now that there’s a need for it to be ongoing. Don’t you think that too is a short timeframe compared to how we need to be thinking about the future of the wetlands?
ANDREW: History in the landscape is always something that interests me, and as I came to know the Mosses, I realised that it had a story going back 10,000 years to at least the last Ice Age. And so that was one comparison I was interested to make with the ancient landscape of the Marshes. However, I wasn’t necessarily thinking very far into the future. The climate and biodiversity crises are upon us and demanding short term action. When Robert Duff talks about the restoration of the peatbog taking many centuries to recover, that is a timescale that I was certainly not thinking about when we started on the project. It has certainly registered in my thinking now, and I feel challenged to explore notions of cyclic time, parallel timelines and other alternatives to linear timelines.
I was open-minded about how long the project might continue. I knew if I invested time, energy and creative thought into a place, I would inevitably become attached. I have no ancestral roots in Shropshire, although I have lived here for 24 years, but having got to know the landscape and some of the people associated with the Mosses, and having learnt more about the Marshes, I feel a commitment to “seeing things through”. As long as the project offers interesting challenges for my artist practice then I’ll be keen to keep the project going.
KIM: A couple of the key things that came from the event that I want to follow up on are first, the issue of bringing more voices to the table (including future generations), and secondly, access to the land itself for those here now. The Values. Voices. Action. consultation as the follow-up to the panel event is just the start of this for me. I think more might happen even within some of the government departments that had representatives at the event. It’s going to be important to listen to those here and now about what we’re doing today (regular self-reflection required) – even if we don’t agree with them, as a provocateur, Anna Martin of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust put to us. Where do you see it going for you at this stage in the project? After all, you did say at the end of the panel event that this was possibly the end of the beginning!
ANDREW: This aspect of the debate brought to mind that my namesake, Sophie Howe, was the world’s first and so far, only Future Generations Commissioner, a role she has held for the Welsh Government since 2016. She has led high profile interventions around transport planning, education reform and climate change. This is the kind of future planning cutting through the short-termism of typical political cycles that must continue to be adopted elsewhere.
I think there is a discussion to be had with those involved in planning and managing wetlands or associated restoration projects to see whether creative approaches led by artists, like the Community Voice Method described by Tim Acott, could work alongside other engagement approaches to help support decision making with a view to developing new frameworks that take account of intangible values.
In terms of other voices to bring to the table, I am reminded of Dave Pritchard’s points about “listening to the river” or the voice of the wetlands itself, and I need to further investigate what this really means because it is not just about making more sophisticated sound recordings and field research.
KIM: I love that idea of a Future Generations Commissioner! And the Community Voice Method struck a chord with me too, as it’s a process I’ve used over the years, without thinking of it as a tool as such. I’m also interested in the Kitchen Table Conversation method (currently being used as a community consultation tool by independent political candidates), as a way of making people feel more comfortable about engaging on difficult issues. These are all things I need to pay more attention to in terms of why I’ve used them in my work.
One of the things I’ll remember for a long time after this discussion picks up the issue of being holistic that Dave Pritchard summarises so well, and Kate Mildner made it clear in terms of what the guiding principles are around what values are put on different parts of the landscape. So often, Governments determine what those values are when prioritising resources, that top-down approach — something Terry Korn alluded to in his provocation. But as Locky Magick Dennis said, “If you’re a family and you’re walking in the bush and some of the family can’t make the walk and it’s up to you to look after those individuals, what are you going to do? Are you going to leave them behind to suffer, to starve, to die of thirst? That’s exactly what will happen to our river systems and the ecosystems around our wetlands. If we don’t look after those, they’ll be gone forever.” His point was that the parts form a whole – a family. Like a functional family or community, we’re all needed in the decision-making.
ANDREW: It’s a powerful analogy. Possibly the point goes a little further in that all the related wetlands and ecosystems are inextricably linked and interdependent, sometimes in ways that might not be easily apparent. A case might be made for losing one wetland because there are insufficient resources to sustain it, and maybe it might be argued there are adequate habitats available in other wetlands. However, these ecosystems are so complex, loss of habitat for any one species could place further pressure on the species populations in similar habitats elsewhere, with direct and indirect weakening and then loss of that species and other dependent species. The whole system will likely suffer ongoing decline and possible collapse.
KIM: There’s so much more to think about and discuss from this event, but I guess the other thing that shocked and surprised me somewhat was the idea of these landscapes being threatening, which was discussed after artist, Sue Challis’ provocation and confirmed by Fleur Magick Dennis as being something very real for Indigenous people wanting to access Country. I feel safer in these places than I do in the suburbs. That’s obviously a privileged position. How are people ever going to want to have access to or feel connected to these special places if they can’t feel safe in them?
ANDREW: These were valid points that do need to be addressed. As Sue suggested, this is an issue for society in general and not just wetlands, but there is something about the remoteness of wetlands that I totally understand could create a feeling of risk, even if this is more perceived than real. Both Dave Pritchard and Tim Acott suggested that there is an ongoing transformation happening with public perception of wetlands from that of wasteland to a rich resource of huge environmental and social benefit. The language used and tone of discussion in both education and media have key roles to play in continuing to change public perceptions.
The access to Country issue raised by Fleur is similarly concerning and somewhat different to the risk Sue referred to. I started out on this project looking at the human impact on the Mosses peatbog ecosystem but as time has gone on, land ownership and access has taken on greater prominence, as I think it has for your work Kim?
The Mosses are in public ownership under the stewardship of Natural England and its partners, but it was not always the case, nor is it the case for many other peatbogs and other wetlands across the UK which remain in private ownership with limited or no access. The systems of power originating in land ownership dating back centuries were reinforced by land grabs and exclusion through the Land Enclosures in England and Wales, and the Clearances in Scotland. This same mindset was in play during the colonisation of lands beyond the UK’s shores. Obviously, this is a huge and complex issue, which is beginning to be acknowledged more openly. We can only play a small part in keeping attention on it.
KIM: A small part, perhaps Andrew, but I think art has the power to cut through on some of the difficult issues and transcend the politics. When art, science and community come together though, that’s when magic can happen!
To join the conversation go to the Values. Voices. Action page. You can watch the international panel event and respond via the form on the page. For updates on the project and how you can be involved in 2022, subscribe to the ecoPULSE monthly e-news.