Mosslands: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bog

Aneurin Merrill-Glover, a second-year PhD student at the University of Manchester, introduces his research on the peat mosses of early modern Lancashire. Aneurin’s research is funded by the ESRC North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership. You can follow him on twitter @AMerrillGlover

My PhD focusses on the mossland landscapes of early modern Lancashire; in particular on the mossland Complex around Chat Moss, to the west of Manchester. I’m supervised by Prof. Sasha Handley of the University of Manchester, Dr John Morgan of the University of Bristol, and Mike Longden of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust.

Cadishead Moss. Photo: Aneurin Merrill-Glover

A mossland, or moss, is the name given to a peat bog in the north of England, so named for the distinctive Sphagum genus of mosses which populate the mossland surface. These landscapes underwent transformative change through drainage and ‘improvement’ at the end of the eighteenth century. Approximately two percent of the lowland raised peat bogs of historic Lancashire survive in a salvageable condition. This was devastating for the plant and animal life which inhabited the mosslands, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust are dedicated to rehabilitating the mosslands and their wildlife. The most recent example of this was the Manchester Argus (large heath) butterfly, locally extinct for one hundred and fifty years, which was reintroduced in May of 2020. Such tales of ecological calamity are common sights in the histories of English wetlands. The significantly larger East Anglian Fens and Somerset Levels underwent comparable transformations; and have engendered significantly more scholarly attention. This study thus provides timely regional reservations to narratives of national environmental change. Although the mosslands have been characterised as ‘wasteland’, my thesis is demonstrating that they were productive landscapes for those that lived on them. For instance, the peat which makes up the substance of a bog has been used for millenia as a source of fuel.

The unique wetland landscape fostered unique management practices in the communities which lived on them. A manor court was a local court which resolved small-scale agricultural disputes, and their records are central to my understanding of the historical mossland. Like much of the ‘wasteland’ in early modern England, the mosslands were held in common by the locals. This meant that though they were nominally owned by the Lord of the Manor, the locals retained certain use rights. These rights included the digging of peat, and the pasturing of animals on the mosses, and were regulated by the manor courts. The courts also appointed specialised officers to ensure that the mossland landscape was being properly maintained, known as ‘moss reeves’. The large amount of standing water on the mosslands acted as a spur to cooperative action, and much of the moss reeves’ time was spent ensuring that peat diggings were filled back in, and drainage ditches were maintained. The majority of literature on historical commons has been preoccupied with their role in gating access to a resource, or determining the level of that access. This finding thus demonstrates the power of adding an environmental dimension to historical inquiry.

Lancashire Archives, Lancashire County Council, DDTr/Box 91 Barton-upon-Irwell Court Book, 15 January 1718

These manorial court records make up the main body of my source base for this doctorate, and they provide a useful insight into the lowest level of legal dispute resolution in early modern England. Occasionally, they even offer slightly amusing narratives of flagrant illegality. A William Cheetham found himself before a Worsley court in 1688 for unlicensed construction of a shippon [cattle shed] on an area of common land. This was a crime in and of itself, however a family member, Richard Cheetham was also presented in front of that court. Richard’s crime was ‘pulinge downe a shippon & Selling the wood onto William Cheetham & haveing noe License or Leave soe to doe’. This family scheme to steal an entire shed would be appalling were it not so deliciously ambitious. Protecting the integrity of common land from unauthorised encroachments was a key component of the court’s role, and symptomatic of its role in ensuring that the collective interest was prioritised over the individual.

A bog is an anathema to our classificatory order ‘predicated on a […] distinction between land and sea’

My PhD is the fruit of a partnership between the University of Manchester and the modern-day custodians of the mosslands, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. As the modern-day custodians of the mosslands, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust want to use the historical dimension to engage local communities with the importance and fragility of the mossland landscape. The LWT face vandalism on many of their sites, for instance through destruction of fencing, illegal off-roading, illicit agriculture, and arson. Putting these issues into historical context may help to ameliorate these strained relationships. Further, in order to reintroduce a species to the mosslands, the LWT are often required to provide evidence that the species inhabited the landscape historically. An environmental history of the mossland landscape is uniquely positioned to assist with this. The partnership also gives me unique opportunities to go out and work on the mosses myself. This gave me access to the extensive knowledge and experience of the LWT staff and volunteers, which has been invaluable in developing my understandings of the historical mossland. Finally, first-hand experience of the mosses has also helped me to develop my understanding of the unintuitive mechanics of a wetland. A bog is an anathema to our classificatory order ‘predicated on a […] distinction between land and sea’, in Rod Giblett’s irresistible phrase.[i] Being out on the mosses helped me to begin to subvert this dichotomy, which is a key step in imagining any wetland, historical or otherwise.

[i] Rod Giblett, Postmodern wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), p. 4.

“Between the Insect Hordes and Ourselves”: Imaginaries of Insect Declines from the 1960s Onwards

Eline D. Tabak, PhD researcher in English (Bristol) and Environmental Humanities (BSU), introduces her SWW DTP-funded project.

‘According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.’ You might recognise these words as the opening from the animated film Bee Movie (2007). The film is as known for its memes as its compulsive heteronormativity. If you are unaware: not only are there many happy nuclear bee families, the star of the film, Barry, is a male worker bee. On top of that, the human woman with whom Barry takes on the honey industry and fights for equal bee rights appears to develop some warm feelings for him. Needless to say, Bee Movie is fun but not a cinematographic masterpiece.

A still from Bee Movie (2007), directed by Simon J. Smith and Steven Hickner

Jokes aside, the 2007 film is a good indicator of an influx of documentaries, memoirs, novels, and poetry collections starring the Western or European honeybee. Perhaps I’m being too critical here. This influx does excite me in a way, as it shows that insect life and decline has become part of a broader conversation. But, with this awareness of insect decline in our cultural imagination comes a sting in the tale. In this case, the sting is an almost obsessive focus on the European honeybee in an age of overall insect decline and what Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) popularised as the sixth extinction. There are thousands of known species of bees all over the world—not to mention other bugs—and yet a select group of people continue to talk, write, film, draw and campaign for the European honeybee. (Are you familiar with the concept of bee-washing?)

In response to these stories, I started thinking about the following: why is there so much creative work on the honeybee? Insects make up the most biodiverse and largest class of described (and estimated) species in the animal kingdom. And while many of these—not all—are indeed facing decline or even extinction, the European honeybee is not one of them.

What started out as a general interest, quickly evolved—metamorphosed!—into my doctoral project on insect decline. Inspired by Ursula Heise’s (2016) work on the cultural side of extinction, I started asking the following: what kind of narratives do people create when talking about insect decline, and how do they tie in with other and older insect stories, our broader cultural memory? Is there an explanation to be found for this honeybee hyperfocus when it comes to narratives of insect decline? Thinking about these questions, I kept returning to Donna Haraway, who wrote that ‘it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with … It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’ (12) Haraway’s keen (if not overcited) observation also applies to the case of insect decline. When looking at creative storytelling—of which there is a lot—we’re not just considering entertainment or aesthetics. Even with something as seemingly banal as Bee Movie, it does matter what stories we tell to tell the story of insect decline. So why do people contribute to this, for lack of a better word, honeybee extravaganza?

An assortment of contemporary honeybee stories

My project become more than a chance to get deep into the problem with honeybees and other charismatic microfauna. Thinking about tiny critters (instead of charismatic megafauna) created the opportunity to engage with and tease out some of the broader questions in the fields of critical animal and extinction studies. Between all the reading and writing and talking and plotting out of the work that needs to be done, theories and ideas and random shower thoughts keep falling into place, and I have a red thread or two running through the different chapters of my thesis. Watch this space.

For now, I do want to say that one of the more rewarding elements of my research so far has been the deep dive into care ethics. My understanding of the concept has both expanded and gained new focus, and my deep dive into care and conservation has opened my eyes to the possibility of care as a violent practice (Salazar Parreñas 2018). One of my current challenges is to see how care, understood as ‘a vital affective state, an ethical obligation and a practical labour’ (Puig de la Bellacasa), is reflected in the poetics of insect decline. What does a poetics of care look like when we let ourselves become subject to, as Haraway (2008) phrased it, the ‘unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning’ (36). What happens when we allow ourselves to pay careful attention to the other-than-human life around us and start to care?

Assorted Coleoptera in the University of Texas Insect Collection

Another thread is that of the different (temporal and spatial) scales of extinction and the limits of our empathy for other-than-human animals. As Ursula Heise (2016) and Dolly Jørgensen (2019) so effectively argue in their monographs on the topic, extinctions come to matter once they reflect upon our own (human) pasts, presents, and futures and we can emotionally engage with them. And like these different pasts, presents, and futures, extinction isn’t singular. It is easy—and to a certain extent even useful—to put it all under the label of the sixth extinction. Still, I am increasingly convinced that such labels obscure the differences and intricacies people need to be aware of in the face of the sixth extinction—or rather, extinctions.

There are local extinctions, global extinctions, extinctions completely missed or forgotten (by human eyes), even desired extinctions. Communities respond to and engage with different species and local and global extinctions in different ways. Especially when something tricky like shifting baseline syndrome ensures that some communities aren’t aware of local extinctions or declines in the first place, while passionate campaigns for charismatic megafauna put certain species on the global agenda and in the public eye. I’m not saying this is always a bad thing (I’m just as passionate about the survival of the Malayan and Sumatran tiger as the next person).

I am, however, saying that it is worth researching how attention and care are directed and, ideally, can be redirected in times of need. And insects—in all their creeping and crawling diversity, with important ecosystem functions such as pollination, prey, and waste disposal—have turned out to be an excellent group to consider these questions.

You can follow Eline on twitter @elinetabak and see more of her writing and work at


Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

—. When Species Meet. U of Minneapolis P, 2008.

Heise, Ursula K. Imagining Extinctions: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. U of Chicago P, 2016.

Jørgensen, Dolly. Recovering Lost Species in the Modern Age: Histories of Longing and Belonging. MIT Press, 2019.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. U of Minnesota P, 2017. Salazar Parreñas, Juno. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Duke UP, 2018

Embodied Experience and the Landscape of South-West England, 1800-1914

Lena Ferriday introduces her PhD research on landscape and embodied experience in the south west of England. Her research is funded through the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.

Despite its material and ecological origins, environmental history has been profoundly influenced by the cultural turn, with scholars emphasising the importance of considering the cultural contexts in which natural spaces are embedded. My PhD project seeks to blend the cultural and material approaches with a focus on the human body and its corporeal sensations. Over the next four years, I intend to explore the implications of embodied experience on the cultural demarcations of certain landscapes, and thus demonstrate the value of this material-cultural approach for examining the historical development of human-landscape relationships.

Using the urban and rural landscapes of South-West England as a case study, my project will interrogate the embodied experiences of tourists across the long nineteenth century. Extending from a central research question which asks how visitors corporeally experienced the South West in this period, I will then consider the implications of these experiences on wider national conceptions for how landscapes should and should not be engaged with in this period. Scholarship of outdoor leisure movements has often positioned the expansion of ramblers’ clubs in the 1920s as a milestone for the fostering of a new corporeal relationship with British landscapes, the point at which experience diverged from those of Victorian elite gazing upon landscapes from a distance.

South West Coast Path, Lyton. Image by Annie Spratt via unsplash

I will begin by analysing guidebooks to the South West, in order to consider the expectations and norms regarding tourists’ physical navigation through these landscapes in this period. These sources will then be combined with accounts of tourists, which will elucidate where these expectations were observed and contravened, allowing for greater comprehension of the extent to which Victorian tourists regarded landscapes to be visceral, multi-sensory spaces of engagement.

Focusing on the environments within which sensory stimuli are produced, this project proposes a new methodological framework for sensory history. Mark Smith has set an influential agenda for sensory history which asserts the importance of considering the consumption of senses, as opposed to their production. By focusing on the physical components of sounds and smells, he argues, much sensory history has attempted to discursively ‘reproduce’ the sensory stimuli of an historical moment, rather than consider their consumption as historically and culturally contingent. Therefore, it is sensory consumption that scholars should examine, in order to situate sensual experience in its historical and cultural context.

By combining sensory and environmental history, this project, however, emphasises the importance of both the production and consumption of sensory stimuli. Sensual experiences are fundamentally entangled with the environmental contexts which produce them. Drawing together the landscapes from which sounds, smells and embodied experiences manifest, and their cultural reception by the tourists that moved through them, will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of landscape engagement in this period. In so doing, I will advocate for the importance of assimilating sensory and environmental histories. 

Across the project, I endeavour to engage with practice-based methodologies that are slightly unconventional for scholarship within the humanities. Inspired by the recent autoethnographic phenomenological studies of Tim Ingold and John Wylie exploring the corporeal experiences of rural walking, the resources of the DTP will support a number of trips to conduct walking as a research method. Spending time in the South West tracing the routes taken in the life-writings I am studying, will allow me to engage more deeply with the embodied experiences that these landscapes provide.

I hope that gaining experience with and finding value in such practice-based methodologies will allow for these trips to evolve into a public engagement program in my final year. Here, I intend to produce a series of curated walks across the South West, to engage the local public in the area’s mobile and sensual histories. With the success of writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Simon Armitage, I hope that drawing on the popular appeal of reflective walking will provide a valuable and unique opportunity to engage the wider community in my research.

Sit down and wake up! On Buddhist theory and planetary crisis

Courtenay Crawford introduces her new MSc and PhD project, funded by an ESRC 1+3 grant through the South West Doctoral Training Partnership.

Mention Buddhism and you’ll often get a response shaped by its recent commodification into a self-care trend. Mindfulness apps, cheerful Buddha incense holders and the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up have led many to assume that Buddhism, like deep breathing and scented candles is primarily a technique for managing stress. Do I even need to tell you that these assumptions are wide off the mark? Probably not, yet even those who are aware ‘Buddhism’ goes deeper than these stereotypes may be surprised to hear it paired in the same sentence with ‘post-humanism’ ‘decoloniality’ ‘deconstruction’ and even ‘anarchism’.

Yet I’m about to embark on research linking just these streams of thought. This October I’ll be studying for the MSc Society & Space with plans to continue to PhD study through the ESRC 3+1 route in 2021. My research will ask how Buddhism can help us reconceive the politics of the more-than-human world in an age of planetary crisis. Buddhist thought has a unique contribution to make here, yet it’s frequently overlooked as a source of theory for approaching these questions (and other social science questions more generally).

A statue of Jizo (Kṣitigarbha) or the Earth-Womb boddhisattva glimpsed through a doorway at the Koya-san temple complex in Kansai region, Japan.

Just like other non-Western philosophies, perceptions of Buddhism have been framed through the colonial encounter. Whilst nineteenth century explorers to Tibet, China, India and Japan, did much to inspire fascination with ‘Oriental religions’, early translations of Buddhist texts often understood Buddhism through a Christian lens, equating the Buddha with Jesus. This, and the general imperial refusal to take other ways of thought and life seriously have ensured that Buddhism is yet to receive much serious academic attention outside of religious studies and history departments.

For this reason alone, Buddhist perspectives can and should be mobilised as a source of decolonising critique. But it’s not just valuable as a perspective from which to criticise.  Contemporary Buddhisms brought to the West by Tibetan refugees and modern Japanese scholars such as D.T. Suzuki from the 1950s onwards have demonstrated the breadth, diversity and originality of Buddhist scholarship and practice. And more recently, excellent work has been carried out demonstrating historical Buddhism’s clear pertinence to contemporary philosophical and political concerns more broadly.

In fact many of most disruptive (and productive) concepts shaping contemporary humanities study today were anticipated by Buddhist thought by literally thousands of years. Put it this way – if names like Derrida, Deleuze, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers are more familiar to social scientists today than Nagarjuna, Dogen, and Candrakirti this is not because the latter have nothing relevant to say on topics such as deconstruction, non-representational theory, subjectivity and self, embodiment, the symbolic order or the production of knowledge (although of course the way they mobilise and describe these concepts is completely different.)

Post-human concepts of relational networks and assemblages, which have so radically re-shaped geographical approaches to understanding human/environment relations, find close resonance in pratitya samutpada, or the doctrine of mutual causality, an ontology of radical relation. Pratitya samutpada sees reality as process – patterns of self-organising physical and psychological events which have no fixed structure or semiotics. This interdependence logically implies an ethic of care and kind-heartedness (towards all sentient beings), a cornerstone of Buddhist practice common to all traditions.

A moment of contemplation at the D.T. Suzuki centre in Kanazawa, Japan.

In an age of climate crisis the ethical imperative to try to relieve suffering is being interpreted increasingly to include ecological care for the more-than-human world (including heterogenous and complex ‘sentient beings’ such as watersheds, bio-regions and radioactive waste) and the resulting politics of this ‘Eco-dharma’ have many similarities to activisms inspired by deep ecology, indigenous, ecofeminist and anarchist philosophies. This global wave of ecologically-informed Buddhist practice is the starting point for my research, but I’m hoping to use it as a springboard for bringing Buddhist critique into geography more generally – applying Buddhist ideas to questions of political ecology, inter-species relationships, care-giving, and environmental governance.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to disrupt some assumptions along the way – including the idea that Zen is primarily concerned with minimalist interior design and esoteric catchphrases. For me, it offers something much more radical and ultimately subversive – a philosophical commitment to experiment with risky ideas and relentlessly question the foundations of your knowledge (as well as a strong suggestion to not take yourself too seriously, and to always be prepared for absurdity and impossibility!) I hope that these will be useful qualities for a new postgraduate researcher to bring into their academic practice and I’m sure that both Deleuze and Dogen would agree.

And of course, Buddhist psychology and meditative practice do offer highly effective methods for understanding the mind, cultivating equanimity and un-learning habitual patterns of thought. It’s exactly this refusal to sit neatly in disciplinary boxes that makes Buddhism such a fascinating area of study – a philosophy of the mind and world which is simultaneously theory and practice. Buddhism asks us to move beyond dualisms of self/world, human/non-human and thought/reality which is exactly why its perspectives are essential to understanding our entangled, inter-dependent and precarious life in the age of the Anthropocene. It offers us an injunction to both sit down (learn to change your mind through meditation) and wake up (liberate yourself through taking ethical action), demonstrating beautifully Marx’s dictum that the true purpose of philosophy is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.

Mourning Auks: Creative Expressions of Extinction in an Era of Ecological Loss

Milo Newman, PhD candidate in human geography, introduces his project on creativity and extinction. Milo’s research is funded through the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.

Looking at your hearts, suspended in their jar, I try and imagine the two of you still alive. I know that if you were anything like your closest living kin, you would have bonded for life. You lived a long time, and it would have been a relationship that had gathered and deepened over years. By the time you came together this final time, the congregations that were so important to your kind were already a thing of the past. Perhaps you were aware of how empty your world had become. Although you were alone on that low rock, it could be that you were accompanied by the memory of the multitude that had once been. By this point it was already too late. There were too few of you to recover what had been lost. Even so, maybe you would have nodded to each other and tried to make the best of it. Maybe you would have started showing off, just as those before you had always done; turning your heads from side to side so the bright white around your eye would have caught the light. Maybe then, with an exuberance tinged with grief, you would have thrown your heads back and let out an ecstatic cry; the vivid yellow inside your mouths shining like a beacon, mimicking the sun.

Catastrophic anthropogenically-driven biodiversity loss is a defining problem of our time, with hundreds of extinctions observed every year, and many more occurring unnoticed. Reacting to the scale of this issue, extinction studies researchers have called for new interdisciplinary responses interrogating what extinction means, why it matters, and how it is narrated.

‘Mourning Auks’ is an innovative practice-led project examining how artful geographic methods and outcomes can contribute to these vital questions. Over the next four years I plan to explore what novel and affective modes of engaging with anthropogenically-driven species loss can be generated through creative articulations of the emotional dimensions of extinction, and how these can be communicated in public artistic and museum contexts.

In extinction studies, extinction is understood not as a singular, generic concept, but as something that exists through multiple specificities relatable to the diversity of lifeworlds being lost. This is generally explored via case studies, which employ critically-driven creative-academic storytelling to express the biological, cultural and temporal particularities of species, their unique phenomenal worlds, and the significance of extinction within multispecies entanglements. This narrative-based approach provides a form of witnessing that is attentive to others in the face of irreparable loss, that counters human exceptionalism, and creates new ethical and cultural modes that help to resist the destructive legacies of anthropogenically-driven extinction more broadly.

Unexplored potential exists for artistic methods to undertake and communicate these extinction-orientated case studies. Through a case study on the now extinct great auk, my practice-led project will explore and analyse ways of engaging broader audiences with this field. It aims to expand the affective reach of these essential attempts to re-articulate contemporary species loss, and its ethical and socio-cultural imperative.

Fig. 1 Alca Impennis by John Gould, from The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). John Gould/Public Domain

The great auk was a flightless seabird that was once found in the cold coastal waters of the North Atlantic. These birds nested in huge social colonies on isolated islands, which they returned to every year. These remote skerries provided protection from terrestrial predators. However, they became increasingly vulnerable after technological advances in ocean-going vessels brought European sailors into close proximity to these breeding colonies, which they ruthlessly exploited for food on trans-Atlantic voyages.

My research will begin with analysis of the ‘Garefowl books’, a substantial, underexploited resource held in the Cambridge University Library collections. These manuscript diaries, kept by the Victorian ornithologist and egg collector John Wolley, record interviews with witnesses who were amongst the last to see the auks alive, and who took part in the final hunting parties to their breeding places. Close reading of this material will inform studio-based experimentation utilising artistic methods drawn from archival impulses in contemporary art (see the works of John Akomfrah and Tacita Dean, amongst many others). Following on from Brian Massumi’s 2014 book What Animals Teach us About Politics such ‘playful’ creative practices can be seen as animal in origin, and provide a continuum with animal life (see Merle Patchett’s Archiving). In this context, these textual encounters with the auk’s disappearance offer the means of both interrogating the socio-cultural practices that drove their extinction, and of generating sympathetic multispecies re-alignments.

I also plan to draw the narratives surrounding the auks’ disappearance into emotional geographic frames. These examine spatialisations of emotion in relation to landscape, including those relating to death, such as mourning and grief. Study here is mostly restricted to human contexts, and my project aims to develop this to explore the affective geographies of sites of extinction-driven absence.

Fig. 2 An eighteenth-century sketch of Geirfuglasker by Guðni Sigurðsson. Geirfuglasker, a now submerged volcanic island off the south coast of Iceland, was one of the great auk’s breeding colonies. National Museum of Iceland/Public Domain

In recent re-interpretations, avian philopatry has been re-conceptualised as other-than-human ‘storying-of-place’ (see Thom van Dooren’s excellent book Flight Ways). Hypothesising this for great auks gives their breeding sites potency as places, not just because they were invested with history and meaning for the auks, but because these became the traumatic sites of their extinction. In this context, I plan to undertake fieldwork at some of the auks’ historical breeding colonies, and at those of their closest living relatives. Here, imaginative curiosity towards these species’ remote, liminal, and aquatic geographies will inform a creative enlivening of the great auks’ historical lifeworld, providing the basis for further artistic experimentation centred on site-specific place-making exercises. These will attend to how landscapes are matters ‘of [other-than-human] biographies, attachments and exiles’ in which ‘absence, loss and haunting’ abound (Wylie, 2007: 10), and will survey the more-than-representational emotional aspects of extinction.

You can follow Milo on twitter @_milonewman and see more of his work at