Thursday, 2 October 2014

Natural forms

What is natural form?

This is one of the questions I’m trying to think about in my PhD. As ever though, I learn as much at Anglesey as I do in the library. Here is the Green Team’s answer…

1. The Green Team 

The Green Team are a group of learning disability adults who work on creative projects in and about the environment. They are part of LEAP Centre, which is based at Huntingdonshire Regional College, and their concern is that society as a whole has lost touch with the intricate tapestry of connections which bind us to the natural world. Given this, the process of production is as important to the Green Team as the artwork they produce. In making the art, the group is also always engaged in learning creatively about the environment. We learn, they argue, not only by passively observing but also by doing; through working with natural processes and materials, we become more aware and more respectful of their magnificent complexity. Volunteering with the Green Team has been deeply humbling. I have learned too much to list about the welter of details that lie beneath the surface of the grounds of Anglesey Abbey.

2. Leaf sculptures in space

Over the past three months the Green Team has made a series of leaf sculptures to contribute to the National Trust’s Autumn Colour Festival. The leaf structure is significant. Just as all the veins of the leaf come together in the stem that connects it to the tree, bringing to it the carbon energy it has absorbed from the atmosphere, so the materials that make up the sculptures have been carefully gathered by the team from the surrounding area. The frames are made from willow, which the green team harvested from Cow-hollow wood near Waterbeach (a process which was helpful to the forestry commission that manages the site). The leather used to bind the sculptures was collected by them from a nearby factory, and would otherwise be thrown away. The plants and berries used to make the natural dyes (mulberries, willow bark, beach nuts, mushrooms, plumbs, blackberries, elderberries, nettles, iris root, walnut skins and more) were gathered from the grounds of Anglesey Abbey. Natural forms then, like leaf structures, bring together and organise materials from all sorts of different places.

3. Leaf sculptures in time

How often do I think about all the places my ingredients have come from when I make a cake? What is even less likely though, is that I think about the time that has gone into making the things I use. I may get as far as noticing that the flour has been imported from Italy, but I don’t ever get on to thinking about the seasonal conditions that made it possible for it to grow. Working with willow, the details of the growing season become important. The properties of the willow, its flexibility for example, are intricately connected to the weather patterns over its growing season. Even though it’s easy to forget about the time patterns of weather and season, this is an essential factor in autumn colour. The colours we see around us in autumn are intimately related to the growing histories of the trees themselves. What is more, natural colour is innately transient. Unlike the pixel data with which we photograph it, the autumn colours will fade. So too will the leaf sculptures the Green Team have constructed. Traditional methods of fixing natural dyes involve the use of toxic metallic compounds which the team didn’t want to introduce to the grounds of Anglesey Abbey.

Finally, natural forms, like natural colours, are characterised by their transience. When the leaf sculptures are finished with, they will entirely bio-degrade. Their compounds will be recycled by nature into the next generation of autumn trees.

Maddie Geddes-Barton
Community Volunteer and National Trust Student Ambassador

Photography © Maddie Geddes-Barton; Sophie Atkinson

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