SEED BED BLOG BY FIONN DUFFY
Artist Fionn Duffy took up the Seed Bed residency at Black Isle Permaculture & Arts (BIPA) in April 2022; supported by Creative Scotland. Fionn spent 3 weeks in an off-grid eco cabin sited in BIPA’s organic permaculture garden; exploring the question “how does a permaculture approach to land and integration with the arts give an alternative understanding of how we might relate to our surroundings? And why is this important now?”. This blog post includes diary extracts and reflections on her research during the residency.
(All images courtesy of Fionn Duffy)
There’s been a little creeping. Of one into another. In small gulps. A little sideways over-under. A little “shh but..”. a little “dyou mind ifI…?” one year a little yellow-er, a little pink-er. A little longer, shorter, stronger? A little “interference” slowly. Until. One day you’re still a little you but you’re a little me too. And I’m a little me, but a little you too. And maybe that makes us something else altogether.
(says the yellow primrose to the red, perhaps)
I’ll start with some words:
I read somewhere that the word GARDEN in English has been used since the 13th century. But it wasn’t verbed (to garden -> to cultivate and lay out) until the 16th century. This verbal emergence: TO GARDEN happened after the noun: A GARDEN, and it’s usage became more popular as distinctions between humans and nature became more widespread. As the human/nature binary surfaced in popular consciousness, and the use of GARDEN as a verb coincides with the escalation of extractive capitalism and the first Enclosure Acts which gradually ate away at land held in common and shared by communities in favour of private ownership.
Moving over walls, around fences, opening gates (and closing them behind me). Wading through ditches of opulent green and brown slurry to avoid barbed wire. This landscape isn’t used to wandering. But there are pockets. The disused railway line is now an edge that connects, rather than a connection with edges. Stepping off B-road tarmac to let cars pass. Walking the green line between the ploughed earth of a field and the wire that bounds it. We’ve built a lot of places not for people.
The estate is separated from the road by high walls. From the outside ivy and ferns and brambles peek and pour (leaky) over the top hinting at a cacophony of growth on the other side. I peer over another (wall – I’m wandering about inside now) and get a face full of bees. Lost in a corner of the grounds by the cages for breeding birds (with cctv at each corner) I finally find one (another wall) that I might just pull my body over. I get low and small to edge myself around another fence (in front of the wall, there’s a fair amount of doubling around here) then long – pulling first with my arms then pushing with my legs and crushing ferns as I tumble back onto the road. Outside. From one outside to another. I can see further than I have all day, and meet two herons flying across the firth.
Interestingly GARDENER was used as a surname as far back as the 12th century, before the GARDEN itself was named. If you go even further back the Old English word for a gardener was WYRTWEARD. Translated literally: WYRT “plant or herb, especially as used for food or medicine”; WEARD - "in the direction of, toward". Someone in the direction of plants.
I stand on the sidelines. We all do, forming a ring around the kitchen garden. Alice reads O Noblissima Viriditas in Latin, a language none of us understands, and I am reminded of Hildegard’s own unknown language: Lingua Ignota. I forget the names of the plants in the bed, but I forgive myself since they’ve likely been renamed countless times and whichever names I’ve forgotten (Chickweed? Borage?) they are certainly not the names the plants use to call on each other.
I thought I’d start with names, nouns and verbs and the supposed origins of those words and definitions because in the act of defining something we begin to make it what we think it should be according to our own tastes, our inherited worlds. Colloquial names for plants have often pointed towards specific medical uses or how the plant looked: think feverwort or ragweed. Linneaus’ binomial nomenclature began to classify plants as belonging to families, and his system opened up a whole new realm of naming, naming plants after European men. Most of these men were completely unrelated to the plant itself, in fact many would never have seen, smelled or touched their namesakes. A good example is Reverend Adam Buddle (Buddle -> Buddleia) who studied mosses, which I think we can all agree are quite different to a butterfly bush, and died before the plant we call Buddleia (called Qulli in Quechuan and 密蒙花 / mì Méng huā in Chinese) was ever transported from Chile or China to Europe. As Jamaica Kincaid says in My Garden (1999):
“they emptied worlds of their names; they emptied worlds of things animal, vegetable and mineral of their names and replaced these names with names pleasing to them; these names are pleasing to them because they are reasonable; reason is a pleasure to them.”
The garden would not be a garden we would recognise now without boundaries (an inside and an outside), or a ward (a gardener to make it so). The chronology of the English words gardener -> garden (n.) -> garden (v.) confuses dominant narratives surrounding the role of anglophone humans and our plant directions. The way we learn seems to start with nouns, and so the logic of our learning has been to define first the place that is enclosed, then what is done in that enclosed space and finally who might do what is done. (garden (n.) -> garden (v.) -> gardener). We begin with property and end with relationships, whereas the etymology suggests a different order.
I am rolling my water tank back from the tap to my cabin and I notice Clive and Julie standing and staring at the flood break that curves behind the path separating the marshy ground from drier woodland. It is a porous basket of a wall made from an accumulation of branches that have fallen, or been dropped by ambitious rooks, and that have been piled haphazardly between the trees by human hands over time.
I drop the tank where I am, and walk down the path to join them. Together we watch as a hedgehog shuffles its way around and between the twigs and dead leaves, following its own winding path over the dyke and into a perfect round hole none of us had noticed before. As it crosses the threshold, other circular entrances emerge from the chaos of sticks, that had not been there a moment before. The hedgehog had given us permission to attend to the wall as a home, as a kitchen, an accumulation of passages. Not separating one place from another, or defining one land from it’s neighbour, but a living space, inhabited.
If a gardener arrived in the English lexicon before the place that was enclosed and labelled ‘garden’ then this implies there was a lack of garden boundaries there before. Humans turned towards plants before there were gardens to be tended (seems like common sense to me). So did the gardener enclose the garden, or were they enclosed within it?
I am walking up the single track road that leads from the old quarry back to the A832. A farmer has spread great red metal wings and is spraying the field, slowly churning tracks in a logical fashion back and forth across the soil. A hare emerges from the brambles at my ankles, pausing briefly before bounding ahead of my two legs on four as if leading me up the hill. I pause and look back at the machine that chased the hare to the road, and watch two kites circle above as it stirs up tasty morsels from their places in the field, and they, avoiding preying eyes, rush to the safety of the edges.
The ethics of permaculture are rooted in the symbiotic relationships and empathetic behaviours that exist between two-legged, many-legged, winged and rooted beings in a landscape. Listening to what is already there, and guiding only what’s necessary to keep as many inhabitants happy as possible. I found that I quite like it, a response towards place with the knowledge that most things are quite adept at taking care of themselves.
21.04.22 Note: spirals of abundance
The flowers are showing their colour now, and I think about the other kind of blooms and make a quick walk to the stream with my paper. The chemotrophic bacteria derive energy by oxidising dissolved ferrous iron. I understand it as a kind of photosynthesis using iron and not sunlight, I might be wrong. Here another community grows, a microbial gathering of glossy red-brown goop where the water meets oxygen for the first time in a while.
I began my time in the permaculture garden with a poem by the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell. (By his time gardener, the garden and to garden were all in common use). I was especially drawn to this poem (which you can read here) because it exposes a critical view of the colonial and aesthetic mechanisms of control behind the making of gardens at that time. Breeding flowers to double the number of their petals, importing especially colourful or “unusual” species from colonies overseas to display wealth and status.
A material gets its colour from part of it’s molecular structure called ‘chromophores’. They absorb photons of visible light at different wavelengths. Any photons that are not absorbed bounce back, and the wavelength of these photons determines the colour we see.
Over time, exposure to high-energy photons in sunlight damages the structure of the material’s chromophores, affecting their ability to throw the colours back to us. So the colour doesn’t go anywhere when it fades, we just can’t see it.
I’ve been thinking about ghosts. The wash of celandine or ground elder from an anthotype is still on the page, it just doesn’t look green or brown anymore after time in the sun. There are a lot of things we think are gone, just because we no longer see them.
It’s very easy to look at the past as if it were a mono-culture, as if everyone agreed with emergent ideologies that took root “back then” and have shaped the environments we live in “now”. There’s something quite comforting about reading a damning satirical critique that still rings true 400 years later. Following ways in which folk have resisted hegemonic structures in the past or diverged from historic norms brings with it a quiet kind of optimism. Josie George put it nicely in her Garden Report from March last year:
“The overgrown viburnum spreads like an umbrella over dirty, long-ignored bird feeders. And all I can think is, 'I could, you know.' I could paint the walls and fix the gate, buy a new bit of trellis HERE and replace THAT. Fresh stones on the patio, a sweeping here, a throw-out here, just a little at a time. And a smile comes, a shy one: 'I could make you beautiful again, I think, if you like.' ”
- Fionn Duffy, May 2022