Where Art Meets Nature
By Anna Souter
Originally published by Rucksack Magazine
In recent years, female artists have begun to reclaim the process of walking in nature as a means of connection and communication. Anna Souter examines how the exploration of landscape has affected a diverse range of artistic practices.
“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”
Nan (Anna) Shepherd, The Living Mountain
Nan Shepherd’s glorious text The Living Mountain, written in the last years of the Second World War and unpublished until 1977, is currently seeing a deserved resurgence of interest. At a mere 30,000 words, it’s a work that defies categorisation: neither essay, nor prose-poem nor philosophy, and yet all these and more. For Shepherd, walking constitutes a form of meditation in which the divide between the bodily self and the landscape is broken down. One becomes “essential body”, and yet that body also becomes a manifestation of the landscape on which it treads.
This is a notion of walking and being in landscape as a form of bodily and spiritual communion with the world, with other people, and particularly with nature. And this idea, put so beautifully into words by Nan Shepherd half a century ago in secret, is also something that informs the work of a new generation of female artists working today.
There is a strong tradition of walking as artistic performance, starting most obviously with the Romantic poets, for whom walking represented a throwing-off of responsibility, of the demands of the home and of society – and perhaps significantly, of the demands of women. Later, there was Richard Long, whose Line Made by Walking (1967) is one of the most important early works of conceptual art. But, for all its beauty, there is something aggressive about Long’s Minimalist mark-making, something masculine about the imprint of foot on earth, about leaving a mark on nature. The documentation of his performances acknowledges the change his presence has wrought on the landscape, but rarely allows for the change the landscape has wrought on him.
Today, however, stepping in Long’s theoretical footsteps, a few younger female artists are beginning to offer alternative models for walking and being in nature. There is already a strong tradition of women walking within the city, reclaiming the pavements in defiance of the traditional formulation of the urban woman as “streetwalker”; think of Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting (1927) or Mona Hatoum’s Roadworks (1985). But, until recently, the paths and byways of the countryside have generally remained untrodden by the performative feet of female artists (or at least by those working in the public eye).
In recent years, academics and artists have started to come together to express their dismay that women using walking in their art have gone unnoticed for so long. In 2010, Dr Deidre Heddon gave a lecture on the subject at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 2016 artists Amy Sharrocks and Clare Qualmann initiated the Walking Women project, intended to place women artists within the walking art canon. Slowly but surely, like a foot-sore rambler, these diverse practices are gaining an art historical context.
Beatrice Searle is currently somewhere in Norway, dragging a 35kg stone harnessed to her body through challenging terrain. The stone is a rough-edged, 390-million-year-old siltstone from the shores of Orkney, and she has carved two footprints into it. It takes inspiration from a similar ancient Orkney stone known locally as St Magnus’ Boat; according to one legend, the foot marks gouged into this rock come from St Magnus himself who, unable to find a boat to ferry him across the Pentland Firth, stood upon a rock that miraculously carried him across the water. But historical examination (that great destroyer and creator of myths) tells us that the stone had been used by the Picts long before St Magnus crossed the firth.
For the ancient Pictish people of Orkney, the stone was a symbol of kingship and social order. A new king would stand in the carved footprints in order to signify his connection with the land he ruled and to reinforce his intention to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. Searle points out that “subjects too, when the time came to choose a new King or chieftain, would stand in the stone to proclaim their votes before their peers, signifying, through the steadfastness of the stone, that the action was strong and would be lasting.” This is a world in which social order is closely aligned with the landscape; connecting with nature and anchoring in the land are the basis of good citizenship.
Beatrice Searle’s own sculpture and performative journey also touch on these issues. The stone that she drags embodies a paradoxical sense of simultaneous motion and stability. The impetus of her journey keeps her moving onwards while all the time the stone is slowing her down. It links her to the earth and forces her to be aware of every bump, slope and tree root in her path, heightening the senses of her feet. In addition to this, her walk will be punctuated by “standings”, moments of stillness when the artist and others will stand, barefoot, in the carved grooves of the stone, as a mark of community, of connection, and of anchoring oneself to the landscape.
Searle’s relationship with the landscape is reciprocal; there is both give and take in her actions. The self is placed not in opposition to nature and to others, but in communion with them, with a sense of shared experience that contrasts sharply with the Romantic notion of the solitary walking man.
For French photographer Chrystel Lebas, travelling through nature is a similarly reciprocal and shared act. For her, the landscape offers unique challenges – terrain, topography – but she is also ready to challenge the landscape in return, attempting to capture its secrets during the “blue hour”, an extended moment of twilight when the day has nearly faded.
In a recently completed project, Lebas (re)visited a series of wild locations in Scotland and Norfolk, following in the footsteps of botanist and ecologist Sir Edward James Salisbury (1886 -1978). Around a century ago, Salisbury used photography to make a scientific record of the flora and fauna in these remote places, meticulously documenting trees, flowers and leaves. Lebas has trodden the same routes twice over: once through the archives of the National History Museum, where Salisbury’s photographs were recently unearthed, and once through the physical landscapes of the British Isles.
Her photographs, collected in the book Field Studies: Walking Through Landscapes and Archives, match up with Salisbury’s; she either finds the exact spot, or finds an example of the same plant type, titling each photograph with a precise GPS location. They have a feeling of otherworldly magic to them. Leaves on a tree stump catch the eye, vividly bright against the moss. Moonlight falls on a ghostly lake while in the foreground the rough bark of a pine tree is visible even in the darkness.
In addition to their haunting beauty, these works are also ecologically accurate, and provide a record of the environmental changes that have taken place in the century since Salisbury traipsed through Britain with his bulky camera. It’s a record that is both useful and relevant, and will be used to help monitor the environment and to protect it where necessary, through Lebas’ collaboration with botanists and scientists.
For Searle and Lebas, as it was for Nan Shepherd and as it is for a number of other female artists working today, walking in nature offers a means of connection and communication with the world. Even when walking alone, it is not done in the Wordsworthian sense of clouds and daffodils and “that inward eye / That is the bliss of solitude”, but as part of a process that simultaneously looks both outwards and inwards.
For Shepherd, to walk through the mountains was to “walk the flesh transparent”; to come to a state where the body and the landscape are indivisible because of a bond of deep connection and understanding. And it is maybe this sense of connection that continues to grow as women (and men) continue to head out amongst the paths and the moorlands, the roadways and coasts – perhaps with only a camera for company, perhaps hand-in-hand with a friend, or perhaps with a sense of openness towards the strangers they might meet along the way.
Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.