Bogs and Fens: Artists-in-residence

10 April – 16 May 2015

Satoshi Fujinuma, Annee Miron and Sally Blake.

seed series Journey sheoak, paint , lacquer 2015 Image courtesy of the artist

What word is that? Bogs, fens and how we understand them by Rosanna Stevens

Aurally, 'bog' isn't a particularly pleasant word. Its squat and round at the front, monosyllabic, and the end of the word gets stuck in your throat – 'bog'. Perhaps I take this view because in modern Australia, the term connotes too many things that are not specifically the ecology and state of a 'wet, muddy ground too soft to support a heavy body'. 'Bog' has always existed in my vernacular as either a figurative or slang term. In fact, I can't recall a time where I sat in a classroom and was taught the gorgeous factual intricacies of what a bog truly is, and how it functions. Similarly a 'fen' is a monosyllabic term that for too long escaped me: soft, verdant and feathery in sound, the word never immediately summoned marsh or wetland, because it summoned nothing at all: it's not a term we are encouraged to use in passing conversation, unless perhaps we visited one recently on one of those marshland holidays the tourism industry so commonly capitalises on.

Recently, leading British nature writer Robert MacFarlane delved into this change in awareness of environmental language in The Guardian. In drawing to the public attention the loss of words that connote or describe our natural environment, he discussed the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which has removed a list of nature-related terms – from acorn to willow – and replaced them with a technological lexicon. What does this loss mean? Are we forgetting how to see and describe the very thing that builds us and gives us life?

For bogs and fens, while their exact meanings slowly eek from the Austral vernacular, their rich watery bodies lie patiently, still there, but increasingly threatened by exactly that which the Oxford Junior Dictionary has almost too poetically decided to replace environmental worlds with: human stuff. Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens – those bogs and fens which specifically populate the ACT region, as well as outcrops in areas of southern New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania – are complex ecosystems which act as significant habitats for a number of endemic plant species and threatened animals. Yet, due to their sporadic and small geographic distribution, these ecological communities are easily threatened due to exotic weeds, clearing of land for pasture work or residential development, sphagnum moss-industry (yes, really), erosion from livestock tread and grazing, wildfires, and domestic human waste such as discarded rubbish. I recently discovered that to see a 'before' and 'after' shot of a bog and fen system trampled by hard hoofed herds is – once you've appreciated the life-cradling role of the bog and fen – more unnerving for me than remembering when my phone gave a final, personal-information-eclipsing wink last year. I see this as a hopeful sign.

To resurrect and reconnect the environment to the human conscience, MacFarlane, in his article, called for English language speakers to 're-wild' our vernaculars. He asked readers to consider the beauty and environmental detail of old English, Welsh and Irish words. The most stunning example MacFarlane gave, of a word tied to a complex and old environmental meaning was the Gaelic, 'èit', which refers very exactly to "the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn".

Here in Australia, I'm not particularly comfortable with the idea of 'wilding' or 'wildernessing' anything, because in a colonial context, wilderness has been a tool for separating ourselves from what humans supposedly cannot tame. In othering ourselves from the landscape we dismiss our responsibility to the land. We also dismiss the first languages that describe the country we now live in custodianship of, with such ancient intimacy: languages that are as much about describing a bog or a fen as they are describing the human relationships and responsibilities to them.

Craft ACT Artist in Residence Annee Miron, beautifully advocated for this connectedness we all have to the environment, and reminded me of the ways our language so easily unfurls to complement and draw close to our understanding of an environmental idea. She observed:

'Adrian Brown, a Ngunnawal man, told me that in Ngunnawal country the alpine bogs and fens "are the beginning of everything." These acid-etched cataracts in the mountain bushland each hold and slowly release vast volumes of water. At ground level they are plain looking and undramatic, though burst into diversity, colour and life when explored up close and over time and with the knowledge shared by others: traditional owners, rangers, scientists and archaeologists.'

Her portrait is sharp and visceral, an homage to the time spent learning in and around Namadgi National Park, that her residency afforded her. And it is in her experience and reflection that we can begin to consider how, in modern Australia, we can re-nature our vocabularies to grow more environmentally capable and aware. Craft ACT's Artist in Residence program offers us this most enjoyable and engaging message: that we must give one another and ourselves opportunities to talk, make, and live with our environments more often than we already allow ourselves to.

Through Craft ACT's Artist in Residence program, held in partnership with the Australian National Botanic Gardens and ACT Parks and Conservation Service three artists – Annee Miron, Sally Blake and Satoshi Fujinuma – were invited to spend a sustained period of time in Namadgi National Park, and after some research, interpret the theme of 'the environmental protection of bogs and fens' in their making. What these artists produced was a renaturing their creative and expressive vernaculars. They have produced work that incorporates Indigenous, traditional European, personal, cultural and contemporary interpretations of these marshy ecosystems. Through their artistic languages of reflection and creation, we are offered detailed and diverse meanings for and incarnations of 'bog' and 'fen'. These artists have made beautiful definitions of nativeness and modern suffering, of fragility and interconnectedness articulated through spindling cardboard, and the robust life-giving mechanisms presented in the form of seed-pods thick with colour. Miron, Blake and Fujinuma have formed their own illustrative ecosystems of meaning that connect, strengthen, and interplay with one another on the exhibition floor. They have given us a modern dictionary from which to graft our own understanding of bogs and fens.

Moreover, their work reminds us that definitions are, by nature (and in nature), multiplicit. Each piece celebrates the diversity of human that is welcomed by country: to relate to and interpret it, so long as that environment or landscape remains the creative message or priority. It is through this lens of environmental understanding that Artist in Residence Sally Blake continually looks to, 'develop a deeper understanding of the interconnections between nature's pattern and processes, and humans place in the whole.' It is also through the language of environment that Japanese Artist in Residence Satoshi Fujinuma can still draw on his passion for finding an usual element of the landscape that prompts him to ask, 'how does that work, and why?' and through environmental questioning can draw an environmentally-reflective answer and aesthetic.

In forming this creative bond to the environmental experience – whether as a maker or an exhibition patron – we are reminded that each of us has a responsibility to country. Each of us has our own connection to the inescapable ecosystems that make our place exactly what it is. We host our own ability to talk and think about what we see, or feel, or smell – both in the exhibition space and outside, with the grass crunching beneath our feet. It's easy to forget this, or forgo that responsibility, but in the exhibition environment, we are offered an encounter with nature, and willingly, we step in. We meet ecology face-to-face. By engaging in the 2014 Artist in Residence program, we are invited to renature our vernaculars in a wholly international, yet very personal way. We are invited to orient ourselves by reading a dictionary of meanings about bogs and fens and by engaging with these aesthetics, each of us might develop a deeper understanding of the environment so immediately influenced by and near to us.

Despite this, to the eye, a bog remains perhaps a little unflattering. The sound of the word might take on deeper meanings with the guidance of these three fine makers, but just as an immediate glance at the word warrants a slightly distorted face, it takes time and immersion to appreciate the word's beauty. Talking about the bog and fen system, Satoshi Fujinuma admitted with the most subtle humour and graceful reflection:

'The bogs and fen appeared very little, and it was only scenery of a boring wetland. However, a precious thing is hidden there.'

Rosanna Stevens is a PhD Scholar at the Australian National University. She is a nationally-awarded speaker and writer. In 2012 she founded literary collective Scissors Paper Pen, and has served on The Childers Group advocacy assembly.