Layers of the Landscape: Perception and Shared Experience on a trip to the Brecon Beacons

Dr Richard Stone, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History (University of Bristol), reflects on the recent CEH field trip to the Brecon Beacons.

If there was one thing the Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip to the Brecon Beacons in July 2022 brought home to me, it’s how each of us perceives the landscape in a different way, and how in turn our perception is shaped by interaction with each other. 

The Dipper which flew up the river alongside the Blaen y Glyn waterfall trail is a perfect example of this.  After 25 years of birdwatching, I took one look at the river valley and was expecting to see dippers there.  It was a perfect habitat, with clean fast running water and not too much disturbance.  I heard the call before I saw the bird, and was able to turn and point it out to others in the party before the portly little dart flashed round the bend and out of sight.  The shape, sound, and behaviour of Dippers are all logged in my mind, so this brief glimpse was enough for me to know what I was looking at, to be aware of this aspect of the landscape.  To me, this was a Dipper valley. 

Photograph (C) Richard Stone

Perhaps most who walk that way, however, would not encounter the Dipper.  Their ears might register its call, and eyes observe a bird shape fly past, but it would not break the surface of their consciousness.  It was my knowledge of the Dipper and its behaviour, and the fact that I am always scanning the landscape for birds that bought it to the attention of the rest of the group, and meant that they too saw a Dipper and learned a little of its story. 

Each of us views a landscape in a different way, and in turn draws out different features.  Many of our group were wild swimmers, assessing the river not for its potential birdlife, but for pools which might be deep, clear, and accessible enough to bathe.  While they did not pull me into the water and fully into their world, through sharing a walk with them I too learned to view the landscape through a different lens, and to see a layer of its nature which would normally pass me by.  To me, this was now also a swimmers’ river. 

Photograph (C) Richard Stone

I learned most about the way a landscape can be read, however, from our guide Paul as we walked from the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre.  The way he recognised and understood the plants of the bogs and moor was perhaps similar to the way I was seeing their birds.  But it was the way he could point to a parcel of land or a clump of trees and tell its story that really hit me, explaining what had shaped it from deep geological time up to what he himself had witnessed over the last twenty years.  He knew why that patch of trees was there, and how it would dry out the bog over the next 500 or so years.  And he knew that the patch of lighter green at the edge of the wet ground was where the peat cutters had turned their carts in the nineteenth century.  Clearly some of this was knowledge and training as an environmental scientist, but there was something else there too.  This was the kind of seeing, the kind of knowing, which can only be obtained by spending decades observing, shaping, and living with a single place.  It was a privilege to be granted a glimpse of Paul’s Brecon Beacons. 

Follow Richard on twitter @Dr_RGStone

LVL Symposium: (Re)imagined Landscapes

(Re)Imagined Landscapes Symposium, 9th–10th June 2021

Sign up via Eventbrite here [link].

Wednesday 9th June

All timings are UK time/UTC+1.

10.30–10.45: Welcome (Lena & Eline)

10.45–12.00: Keynote

  • Sally Bushell (Lancaster University) – New Ways of Reading, Visualising and Experiencing Literary Landscapes in a Digital Age

12.00–13.00: Lunch break

13.00–14.30: Inhabiting (chair: Alice Would)

  • Lydia Halcrow (Bath Spa University) – Tread Lightly on the Earth Beneath

14.30–15.00: Break

15.00–16.30: Making (chair: Austin Read)

Thursday 10th June

All timings are UK time/UTC+1.

10:30–12.00: Documentary viewing

  • Michal Krawczyk (Griffith University) – Commoning

12.00–13.00: Lunch break

13.00–14.30: Representing (chair: Lizzie Gourd)

  • Meike Robaard (Groningen University) – Crashes to Ashes, Rust to Dust: Industrial Decay, Affective Capitalism, and Regeneration in Phillip Meyer’s American Rust (2009)

14.30–15.00: Break

15.00–16.30: Visualising (chair: Milo Newman)

Sign up via Eventbrite here [link].


  • Timothy Cooper (Exeter University) — Fear of Falling? Navigating Cornwall’s Post-Extractivist Landscape

By the late nineteenth century, mid-Cornwall’s long history as a centre of metalliferous mining was ending. For centuries, Cornwall’s mines had been the pulsing heart of an economy and an identity built on extraction: mineral and biological. By the twentieth century, this historic centre of industrial innovations was experiencing a second dramatic environmental transformation, as the burnt and browned land of the central Duchy, dotted with smokestacks and spoil heaps, was quickly covered by brambles, rhododendra and gorse. This re -greening was, however, treacherous. As Cornwall’s land was transformed into an imagined place of pleasant rambles and holiday walks, a new danger arose: the forgotten mineshaft. Hundreds of poorly covered shafts dotted the countryside posing a significant threat to both humans and animals trying to traverse the Duchy’s pitted surface. This paper explores stories of encounters with these forgotten shafts, and the dangers they presented. It points to the ways in which, long after the landowners and mineral lords had departed with their profits, the Cornish people continued to pay the price of an extractive history with the threat of injury and death.

  • Lydia Halcrow (BSU) — Tread Lightly on the Earth Beneath

The paper will examine artworks that emerged through a practice-based PhD exploring the entangled complexities of place through the case study of the Taw Estuary in North Devon. The artwork was created through a series of embodied processes fostering slow walking as a disruptive methodology. Central to the project are notions of the entangled nature of our bodies in this and every place, our increasingly troubled human relationships with our landscapes, and forming other ways of knowing, being and recording place that prioritises the haptic over sight. The project has taken up Tim Ingold’s invitation to ‘follow the materials’ (2010), in response to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘matter-flow’. So that these material encounters with the vibrant matter of the Taw, (Bennett, 2010), have formed collaborative and non-hierarchical modes of being and working with the estuary. I position the artwork in relation to Springgay and Truman’s Counter Cartographies (2018), offering alternative haptic maps of this place that record the traces of human debris encountered in the everyday, at a point of rising seas and looming climactic tipping points. Working collaboratively with the estuary’s vibrant matter, the artwork offers other ways of being, knowing and recording, through slow, embodied processes, as methods of attunement.

  • Alice Helps, Dave Meckin, Joseph Fairweather Hole, Keir Williams, and Rhiannon Evans (LiveDigitalDesign Collective) — Thinking In, With, Over and Through the Landscape 

This presentation describes our work as an art collective in the landscapes of Arctic Norway, and Avonmouth over the past five years. In this talk we will consider the ‘emotional landscapes’ that we inhabited and performed within during our ongoing, longitudinal project. Here we follow Doreen Massey’s description of landscape as dynamic spaces that “…cut through the myriad stories in which we are all living at any moment. Space and time become intimately connected.” Massey, D. (2005) As a collective we were initially commissioned by the Nordland Akademi of Art and Science to ‘think’ and reflect on the shifting landscapes of the Arctic north. As artists we decided to think through making. In our work we worked with local refugees’ groups, fishing historians, young people as a means of researching and articulating points in the landscapes we inhabited. We will discuss our collectives’ successes and limitations in our approach to co-production in Norway and Bristol. We will then provide an account of the physical and emotional landscapes we worked within in the Arctic, how these landscapes were integrated into the series of work in Melbu, Norway and conclude with the ‘tidal’ distribution of the project across the Gulf Stream from Norway to Bristol. In order to highlight the role of collective ritual processes as integral to a forming a shared landscape we will discuss the role of the social and creative rituals of making we conducted and took part in. Our presentation concludes with a brief discussion of our approach as a collective and how this could be used to inform other arts-led research project about and within Landscapes.

  • Tom August (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) — Using Computer Games and VR to Imagine Future Farming Landscapes

The agricultural landscape is going to change over the coming decades as we adopt farming practices that safeguard our biodiversity and are resilient to a changing climate. These changes will impact all of us. Children will grow up in new landscapes, consumers will make purchases based on environmental impact, and farmers will increasingly become custodians of nature. As a research institute, UKCEH frequently predicts land use change into the future, presenting findings as 2D maps for a technical audience. However we recognise that engagement in our research must extend beyond these traditional groups, out to farmers, children and land managers. We have developed two VR systems that procedurally generated real-world landscapes using datasets derived from satellites. We then visualise predicted land use change in these environments to inspire discussion and debate about future farming practises. We will introduce our Minecraft VR experience that creates environments in the popular children’s computer game. This has been used at public events to engage with young children and their families. Second we will introduce E-Viewer, an analogous system built in the Unity gaming engine which provides greater realism and finer scale control over visual representations, well suited for engaging with adult audiences.

  • Kadri Tüür (Tallinn University) and Maris Magi (Estonian Sports & Olympic Museum) — Creating Virtual Palimpsest: Local Lore in Industrial Suburbia

The presentation stems from the project Rae rajad (Rae trails), a set of hiking trails in the vicinity of Estonian capital, Tallinn, created onto the platform of smartphone app NaviCup by a team of Estonian literary scholars and folklorists last year. The area that currently is a major suburban logistics and industry hub, has a thick layer of cultural history that is practically not visible in the actual landscape any more. With no intervention into the physical landscape, virtual itineraries actualising the cultural meaning of the area were created. When the map is opened in one’s smartphone, little cultural history stories are activated and presented to the app user as s/he walks along the trails. In the presentation, we will discuss the effect of creating such „virtual palimpsest“ in landscape mainly from a geocritical perspective. By bringing some local lore virtually back to the places where it has been created, actualises historical layers of landscape, provides different points of view (including those of other species), facilitates engagement of different senses, and – last, but not least, explicates intertextual connections between folklore, literature, and natural history. It helps to activate the perception of the landscape in different seasons, during different eras, from the point of view of different species, etc. On the other hand, presenting written texts by means of advanced technological solutions inevitably creates a specifically human layer of meanings onto otherwise dynamic and multi-species’ natural environments. By putting our practical work into theoretical perspective helps to assess the meaning and impact of virtual landscapes on the physical ones.

  • Richard Carter (Roehampton University) — Land/Code/Text: Digital Writing and Speculative Environmental Sensing

This paper will discuss the critical origins and implications of the author’s developing art project “Landform”, which processes aerial views of terrestrial landscapes using a software algorithm that transforms the visual scenes into lexical poetry—harnessing a vocabulary derived from geographical dictionaries and the prose of writers such as Jacquetta Hawkes. The system operates by parsing the digital source imagery as a form of computer code, providing instructions for the generative composition of the final poem. The critical goal of this esoteric process—treating landscapes as executable structures, yielding speculative textual outputs rather than exacting numerical measurements—is to model the ‘alternative’ environmental computational practices theorised by scholars such as Jennifer Gabrys. The aim here is to unsettle the privileged data-driven episteme that characterises a deteriorating global environment through the pretensions of totality, quantification, and abstraction. Gabrys contends that such depictions reduce the potentials for how we might perceive and respond to the changes taking place, in failing to attend to their incommensurate, uncertain, and affective dimensions. In “Landform”, the goal is to enact a generative vision of how digital sense-making might also express a world not of latent facts and measurements, which suggest fixed modes of response, but of new possibilities for techno-ecological praxis that centre the speculative, the exploratory, and the creative as critical vectors of investigation, experimentation, and adaptation.

  • MichalKrawczyk (Griffith University) — Commoning

In the bioregion of Wombat Forest on Dja Dja Wurrung Country (Victoria, Australia), Meg Ulman and Patrick Jones from the collective ‘Artist as Family’, in walking for food and fuel through the commons, in turning towards multispecies and elemental communities over the changing seasons and conditions of the weather-world, were becoming-with the biome’s worlding. Wombat Forest: a complex ecology of natives and non-natives, where the dichotomy good/bad is not helpful at all and where non-native species of gorse (Ulex), broom (Genisteae) and blackberries (Rubus) thrive in a fire prone forest of gum trees (Eucalyptus) in part at the expenses of the natives. In their attempt to common well on the public land, grouped with the human others in the ‘Goathand coop’ through a community-led restoration of their forest commons, they decided to introduce goats (Capra aegagrus hircus). Goathand coop: a multispecies commoning performance between the animal and the human, mortal critters making oddkin in this blasted landscape.

  • Aneurin Merrill-Glover (Manchester University) — Crossing Land: Representing a Reclaimed Landscape

This paper uses artistic visual representations of Chat Moss from the nineteenth century to understand the mechanisms which signified environmental transformation on a wetland. Chat Moss was a huge tract of peat bog west of Manchester. Many of the peat mosses in Lancashire witnessed attempts at wholesale drainage and ‘reclamation’ at the turn of the nineteenth century. The storied efforts to drain Chat Moss began in 1796. The impact of the era of parliamentary enclosure on English landscape painting is a commonplace in English art history. While comprehensive drainage projects were less ubiquitous than Enclosure Acts, their impacts were intensely transformative, but have received comparatively little attention. Close reading of recorded encounters with Chat Moss will structure the interrogation of these images. These accounts portray the undrained bog as an aberration; in part for its assumed agricultural unproductivity, but also because the bog resists an assumed dichotomy of land and water. This resistance came from the bog’s structural ambiguity; in some cases bearing a person’s weight, and in others not. This paper argues that representing the bog’s post-drainage structural, and thus, conceptual, stability was a key component of its rehabilitation as a newly dry landscape, ripe for agricultural exploitation.

  • Olusegun Stephen Titus and Oluwabunmi Tope Bernard (Obafemi Awolowo University) — Sounding the Space and Place of Olúmọ Rock and Valley Landscapes in Egbaland Southwestern Nigeria

Scholarship on Nigeria oral literature like indigenous music has tended toward cultural life and relationship in the community, yet little attention is directed at the connection of sounds and music on rocks and valleys landscapes. This paper focuses on the musical narratives of Olúmọ rock and the trajectories of its place and space in Nigeria. Historically, Olúmọ rock is a spiritual rock of refuge for the Ẹ̀gbá (a Yorùbá sub-ethnic group) during the 15th and 16th century’s inter-ethnic wars in Yorubaland.  The spiritual significance of the rock as a source of refuge during the war has featured prominently in many folk songs. Within the context of ecomusicology theory, and the use of cultural history, ethnography, musical and textual analysis, we argued that these songs became a vehicle for navigating landscapes, geographical and imaginary spaces and places.

  • Meike Robaard (Groningen University) — Crashes to Ashes, Rust to Dust: Industrial Decay, Affective Capitalism, and Regeneration in Phillip Meyer’s American Rust (2009)

“In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place,” (141) remarks Lee English, one of the protagonists of Philipp Meyer’s American Rust: A Novel (2009), set in the fictional town Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, in the early 2000s. Though once “the center of steel production” (7), Buell was now a quintessential “Rust Belt” town. Since 1987, in the deceivingly victorious aftermath of the oil shocks of the 1970s, crisis in the form of deindustrialization, unemployment, and general withdrawal of capital only began to take shape in these increasingly deserted working landscapes. In its narration of an arguably silent/silenced crisis, the novel draws our attention not just to a commonly forgotten region haunted by spectres of the industrial past, but also to how it is within these supposedly dying spaces, with “[e]ntire lives visible in the landscape” (Lee, 143) that people nevertheless continue to survive and generate meaning. As such, what on the surface seems to be a tragic portrayal, this paper argues, actually emerges as a story of hope and perseverance found in unexpected places. It is especially through, elaborate descriptions of ecologically flourishing, deindustrialized landscapes and an existential philosophy of cosmic recycling that American Rust illustrates a continuous reinvention of agency in times of despair.

  • Sam Wilkins (BSU) — Landscape/Composite

The Pastoral has been explored in literary and art theory but has not been explored as rigorously in new media studies or visual effects moving-image making. This paper will present the video series ‘Landscape/Composite’ and addresses the theme of imaginary landscapes and changing uses of landscapes. Landscape/Composite is a series of video works that uses visual effects compositing techniques to examine intertextual representations of British idylls and the Pastoral. In terms of process, ‘Landscape/Composite’ applies visual effects techniques to remediate and animate landscape paintings to create ultra high-definition tableaux vivant video works presented on large-scale video screens. It uses Terry Gifford’s (1999) Post Pastoral idiom as the contextual frame for the remediation and use the original paintings of Benjamin William Leader (1831-1923) and John Constable (1776-1837), which have had green screen and 3D generated content added on top to interrupt their idyllic settings with contemporary symbols and narratives. Exhibited at Centrespace Gallery Bristol (2020) and research events including ‘Elastic Spaces’ (2017), ‘Imagined Faraway Lands’ (2019) and Bath Spa’s ‘We Make Stuff’ (2017), ‘Landscape/Composite’ altogether reveals new insights about the role of digital media practice in understanding new modes of intermediality, pushing forward interdisciplinary relationships between painting and film. The work also enables its audiences to question aspects of idyllic projection and ownership, land management, leisure uses and environmental issues, through the use of images.   

  • Melina Campos Ortiz (Concordia University) — Representing, Inquiring and Imagining the Anthropocene

In this presentation, I investigate how photographers can approach the Anthropocene and engage in the debates surrounding the naming of this human-made geological epoch. Particularly, following Robbins ́ definition of political ecology, I explore the extent to which the representation of the conditions of people, places and spaces in this new epoch are “power laden rather than politically inert” (2012, p.13). I argue that the representation of the Anthropocene by acclaimed environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky (2018) using its “industrial sublime formula” (Schuster, 2013) contributes to the depoliticization of the naming of the new geological epoch, as its images are characterized by political ambiguity, ignoring the Anthropocene’s colonial roots. Following from this, through the analysis of the photographic projects Tree People by Kovalainen and Seppo (2014) and Petrochemical America by Misrach and Orff (2014), I suggest two alternatives for environmental photography to engage with this new geological epoch: enquiring and imagining. These alternatives emerge from a decolonial understanding of the Anthropocene and the speculative and prefigurative endeavour that scholars such as Haraway (2016) and Gibson-Graham (Bird Rose et al., 2015) have undertaken to address it. Finally, following Dilnot´s definition of possibility (2015, quoted by Escobar, 2018) I propose that environmental photography can be used as a tool not to represent the Anthropocene but to negotiate with it, paving the way for a visual assessment and imagining of “other ways of being, doing and knowing” (Escobar, 2018) in the world.

  • Niamh Fahy (UWE) — (De)constructing the Anthropocene

The purpose of this paper is to examine the methodologies of deep mapping and printmaking to investigate the changing land use of the Slieve Aughty Mountains in the West of Ireland. Within this paper, I present a body of work situated in practice-based research that attempts to map and deconstruct a landscape that contains an accumulation of histories and temporalities, complex and intersectional, inhabited by multiple voices and narratives. Interpretation through multidisciplinary printmaking can present an alternative “kind of witnessing”(Nixon, 2013, p.15)in that printed narratives can imagine the unseen and imperceptible (Horn, 2019, p.3) as well as bearing witness to traces of change. The haptic nature of the printed surface is an avenue to make visible the interruptive force of slow violence and displacement in landscapes. This paper argues that the intentional gaze of the artist can activate (Ahrens, 2017, p. 28) landscapes of Anthropogenic significance and narratives of displacement through a considered aesthetic that integrates analogue and digital modes of practice.

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