Marsh

Marsh, mire, fen, bog, slough, morass and wetland. These are liminal landscapes. Places of making and unmaking where water cedes to land and land to water. The world here is never topographically still. Waterlands are ‘fungible’ and ‘highly motile spaces’ (Leyshon, pp.155-156). And this terrain is not to be trusted. It demands caution, respect and propitiation. Among the sedge, reed and rush, we hear the trickster’s laugh; for the ground underfoot is literally (and materially) ‘shifty’.

IMG_0968In the wetlands, nothing is what it seems. While investigating the Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr Watson comments that Dartmoor’s Grimpen Mire looks a rare place for a gallop. It takes the minatory Stapleton to caution that ‘a false step yonder means death to man or beast’ (Conan Doyle, p.82). For this is not a passive land. This bog is alive, infused with agency and vengeful will – it possesses a ‘tenacious grip’ wielded by a ‘malignant hand’ (p. 179). This potency is recognised by Daisy Johnson in the short story Starver where the eels caught on the draining of the fens refuse to eat: ‘it was a calling down of something upon the draining’ and some said they ‘heard words coming from the ground as the water was pumped away’ (Johnson, loc 39).

IMG_0039.jpegFolklore too recognises the spiteful malevolence of the wetlands. Those of the marsh tell stories of Will o’ the Wisp, Jack o’ Lantern, Spunkie, Pinket or Ignis Fatuus. This dangerous fairy takes delight in making unwary travellers lose their way – or their lives. Shifting its shape to promise beauty or riches, it tempts the foolish and gullible to flounder in the hungry, sucking bog.

The marsh is a ‘thin place’ between the natural and the supernatural. Here votive offerings are made and chthonic gods placated. Shield, sword, helmet and torc are relinquished to water. These are the links that solder the living to the dead. And darker gifts are also tendered. In Denmark, more than 500 bog bodies have been found – sacrificial victims that are remarkably intact, preserved by the peat in which they were interred. In the liminal, ritual space of the wetlands, time too is not what it seems. These bodies slip their temporal constraints. Mummified flesh and bone make the Iron Age contemporary. Feature and expression vivid, startling – as if disturbed from yesterday’s sleep. And the past inhabits the present in other ways. In a series of poems inspired by the bog people, Seamus Heaney draws connections between ‘sacrifices to the Mother Goddess of Earth and the violent history of Northern Ireland’ (Morrison, p.47).

Out there in Jutland

In the old man killing parishes

I will feel lost,

Unhappy and at home

The Tollund Man

Fluxed between the material and immaterial, the past and the present, marsh, mire and estuary are border territories. And these ‘borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them’ (Macfarlane, p.78). Caught in this betwixt and between world, it is easy to lose your sense of what is and is not. The Broomway which, like Grimpen Mire, is only navigable by remembering ‘certain complex landmarks’, heads out to sea for three miles from the Essex coast before making landfall at Foulness Island. Swept ‘clean of the trace of passage twice daily’, this is a path that is no path (Macfarlane, p.61). In walking it, Robert Macfarlane experiences a ‘strange disorder of perception’: scale and distance twist and weld as ‘sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand, and the air duplicated the textures of both’ (Macfarlane, p.75).

IMG_1564In this ‘unbiddable and ‘unmappable’ physical terrain’ (Roberts, p.42), the expertise of one ‘whose knowledge is ambulatory’ (Andrews and Roberts, p.9) is required. Traversing the ambiguous and potentially dangerous Broomway, Macfarlane is aided by a guide; just as those crossing the ‘uncertain and treacherous topography of Morecombe Bay’ (Andrews and Roberts, p.7) seek the help of the Sand Pilot. Like initiates in a rite of passage, they ‘put their trust in an elder or master of ceremonies who ‘can ensure safe navigation and transit(ion)’ (p.8).

And the consequences of unaided passage are severe. In 2004, twenty-three Chinese migrant workers were drowned while harvesting cockles on the sand and mud-flats of Morecombe Bay. This is the liminal compounded in on itself. For, as Roberts soberly observes, migrant workers are themselves liminal, occupying a ghostly ‘zone on the social and geographic margins of the nation; caught in the interstices of transnational space’ (Roberts, p.41).

The wetlands attract those, less innocent than the cockle pickers, but caught too in the shadows of the edgelands and margins. It is in the ‘dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates’ that Pip first encounters the escaped convict, Magwitch in Great Expectations (Dickens, p.35). Magwitch bears corporeal witness to the agency of this bleak marsh: he is ‘soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars’ (p.36). This is land that always exacts payment.

Magwitch’s crimes alert us that that this is also a place for transgression. Not far from where I write, you will find (although it may prove harder than you think) The Locks Inn in Geldeston. Marooned in the Waveney marshlands that separate Suffolk from Norfolk, this was (formerly) a site of cross-country smuggling and illegal prize-fighting.

The wetlands, like other liminal spaces, ‘fall outside of the geographic grid’ (Iedema et al). As Roberts note, the cultural and literary imaginaries of marsh, mire and estuary hold these as marginal and socially ‘empty’ spaces (Roberts, p.216). They feature the featureless which is why, in representations of the Norfolk Broads, the drainage mill and wherry have played such an important role ‘in the symbolic construction of place in a landscape otherwise characterised in terms of its flatness and lack of prominent (natural) topographic features’ (Roberts, p.217). These are the visual and cognitive equivalents of the firm sand, grass or moss that ensure confident navigation through quicksand and bog.

These spaces are also ‘empty’ in a utilitarian sense. They are ‘denuded of a rationalised function’ (Roberts, p.217). What are the wetlands for? And we see echoes of this in our own liminal, organisational spaces – the corporate shadows of marsh, mire and estuaries. In their study of how a bulge in a hospital corridor became a site of instruction and knowledge exchange, Iedema et al note that it ‘lacked functional definition’; it did not ‘embody strong indications to staff about what is to take place’ there (Iedema et al, p.53). Corridors, toilets, store-rooms, lifts, stairwells, kitchens, photocopier rooms – these are all spaces that do ‘not seem to serve a productive function’ from a rational, calculative perspective (Warnes, p.46). They embody, in a sense, ‘space out of space’ (Van Marrewijk and Yanow, p.10). Yet, like the wetlands they metaphorically reflect, these too are spaces of potency and energy – spaces for story, creativity, interaction, learning and transformation. Spaces too where we can lose ourselves but, unlike Grimpen Mire, always guarantee a safe return.

Andrews, H. and Robert, L. (2012) ‘Re-mapping liminality’, in Andrews, H. and Robert, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experiences and spaces in between. Routledge.

Conan Doyle, A. (1902), The hound of the Baskervilles. Pan.

Dickens, C. (1861), Great expectations. Penguin.

Heaney, S. (1980), ‘The Tollund Man’, in Selected poems: 1965-1975. Faber.

Iedema, R, Long, D and Carroll, K. (2010) ‘Corridor communication, spatial design and patient safety: enacting and managing complexities’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organisational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Leyshon, C. (2018), ‘Finding the coast: environmental governance and the characterisation of land and sea’, Area, 50(2), pp. 150-158.

Macfarlane, R. (2012), The old ways: a journey on foot. Hamish Hamilton.

Morrison, B. (1982), Seamus Heaney. Metheun.

Roberts, L. (2018), Spatial anthropology: excursions in liminal space. Rowman & Littlefield.

Van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (2010) ‘Introduction: the spatial turn in organizational studies’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces; rematerializing the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Warnes, S. (2015) Exploring the lived dimension of organizational space: an ethonographic study of an English Cathedral. PhD thesis, University of Essex, UK.

 

 

 

 

edgeland

They are there; but we rarely see them. Or, rather, we see them but they fail to take root in mind, memory or heart. A soft flicker on the retina while our thoughts are held by other concerns. Yet glance through the windscreen or out of the elevated train window and, chances are, at some stage on our journey we will encounter them. But it is an encounter we are unlikely to recall.

Edgeland_PylonThese edge lands – where ‘urban and rural negotiate their borders’ (Farley and Roberts, loc 183) – seem no more than ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, p.75).  Gasometers, electricity sub-stations, security lit business parks, car pounds, sewage works, pylons, razor-tipped fencing and marshalling yards. They circle our towns and cities: uneasy crossing places haunted by ‘the neglected, the disposed of, and the repressed’ (Edensor, p.833). But, if we look carefully and without prejudice, we can recast these ‘unobserved parts of our share landscape as places of possibility, mystery, beauty’ (Farley and Roberts loc 198).

Edgeland_wallFor look beyond the abandoned pallets and rusty JCBs, and vitality, energy and creativity emerge. What more could we expect in the marginal and liminal? Marion Shoard argues how edgelands are rich in plant and wildlife diversity: protected, forgotten and free of monoculture, pesticides and our compulsion to trim and prune. Similarly, Richard Mabey tells how rosebay willow herb and other ‘weed tenantry – ‘green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife’ – proliferated in the bombed out City warehouses and offices of the Blitz (Mabey, p.216). Glimpses of these ruderal fireweeds can still be found. By the ruins of St Alban’s church in Aldersgate, the broken walls of Roman fort and merchants’ houses shelter over 80 different plants with bee-hives too (maintained, fittingly enough, by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers). Not just ruins, these are ancient edgelands for the original London Wall lies just yards away.

These are also places of ludic potential where ‘dereliction stimulates the imagination’ (Shoard, p.84). In Melanie Manchot’s stunning video installation Tracer (2013), parcour runners move through a series of shifting Gateshead edgelands. De-populated, framed at sunset and snowfall, these spaces of pylon, allotment, bridge, underpass, factory and escalator attract not the passivity of the flaneur nor the shielded gaze of the passer-by but a vivacity of movement and possibility that transforms the marginal to the magical.

Yet these edgelands with their invitation to subversion and transgression also conceal admonitory stories. I come from a generation who may recall – often with a shudder – a series of terrifying Public Information Films that frequently revealed the edgelands as a dangerous zone where injury, disfigurement and death were a mere moment of inattention away.  In The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ‘the unwary, the show off and the fool’ drown in waters fringed by rubbish dump and quarry while the figure of Death watches gleefully on.  The bleached colour gives the quality of a sun-faded instamatic print and this queasy nostalgia has been referenced by musicians such as The Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly. With samples of PIFs, library music and forgotten segments of tv Programmes for Schools they create their own eerie sonic edgelands.

These films are fairy stories for a modern age. But for our 1970s Hansel and Gretel, it is not the forest they should be wary of but the gravel pit, the pylon (‘please don’t fly your kite there, Hansel’) and the train track.  And here the foe of witch and ogre take more elemental form: water, energy, power. These truly are fairy stories as written by Futurists.

But perhaps the liminality of the edgelands exerts its influence in other ways. We focus on the victims – but what of those left behind? For them, this is surely a rite of passage albeit one that is undesired. Scarred by what they have witnessed, these edgelands are spaces where innocence turns to experience. They carry both the curse and gift of knowledge.

And our places of work have their edgelands too. Hirst and Humphrey describe how a local authority consigned its paper storage unit to the edgelands of a business park: both an operational and physical marginality. This is becoming commonplace. Finance, IT, shared services are increasingly relocated to the edgelands of a town, country or continent. But, in doing this, we should heed Shoard’s warning. She hints that we place our ‘mundane’ activities in the edgelands because we do not esteem them but we:

might all be better off if we both understood better and respected more the apparently mundane yet vital activities which make our society work

Such respect should accord to every function and operation of the organisations of which we are part. We may forget our edgelands; but they will rarely forget – or forgive – us.

Edgeland_DissEven in one building though, we can locate edgelands. Think of lifts, basements, the maintenance workshop or, indeed, the humble photocopier room. Utilitarian in design and decor, it seldom provides a home to the artwork that decorates other walls or offers panoramic views of tower and sky. But, as wasteland attracts the detritus we casually discard there – fridges, tyres, thieved and ransacked slot machines – so here we find the box of Christmas decorations and a rag-tag of superseded office equipment. And, as we know from apocryphal tales of office parties, these humble backwaters generate their own transgressive stories.

Other stories surface too. In my first job, I worked in a university library. Delivering a trolley of books across the campus, I was forced to use an open, trellised goods lift. As we pulled at the stiff and unyielding doors, my experienced colleague told me of a student who, using the lift one October evening when everyone else in the building had gone home, became trapped in the metalwork and bled to death between floors. His ghost, my colleague solemnly confided, was occasionally sensed, especially ‘when the evenings draw in’.

We might read this story in various ways. Perhaps it served as a rite of passage – an initiation to the community. If I accepted the tale with amused equanimity, the test had been passed. Or, perhaps, it served as my own Public Information Film. An admonitory narrative that provided both a warning against inattention and insight to the culture of the university: health and safety is treated seriously here and transgression carries sanctions. It also, perhaps, hints at the ambiguity that infuses all edgelands. For this is an environment where both the rational and the irrational co-exist.

And, as I sense this is a question you might well ask: even today, when faced by one of those old, open, trellised lifts, I prefer to take the stairs. Especially in October, ‘when the evenings draw in’.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering Memory in Excessive Space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Farley, P. and Roberts, M.S. (2011), Edgelands. Jonathan Cape

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting Power in its Place: The Centrality of Edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Mabey, R. (2010), Weeds: the story of outlaw plants. Profile Books

Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2(August), pp. 74–93.

 

 

Ruin

Ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living and the four dead, four young nobles, hunting with hawk and hound, are confronted by four cadavers. Their hoarse and emphysemic breath utters the warning ‘As you are, so once were we…as we are now, so you will be’. Ruins provide a mirror on our own decay while hinting at their own survival: a ‘fragment with a future’ (p.11) which will outlive us.

SmithfieldBut these suggestive, liminal ruins are betwixt and between in other ways. Their journey of transition is constant as agents such as wind, rain, lichen, moss, birds and insects recast their identities and ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477). This is not necessarily a cruel or pitiless destruction.  Looking into a marble fountain,there is ‘intimacy in the contact’ between stone and water that ‘here produces a gleaming surface veined with unsuspected colours, here magnifies fossil or granular structure’ (Stokes, p.26). Ruination can be gentle, caressive, revelatory.

A place for ruins is also a site for the uncanny – Das Unheimlich – where ‘the familiar and homely suddenly become strange’ (Edensor, 2005, p.835). Let us, for example, walk through the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary in Norfolk. As we stand in the open nave with the sky above and incomplete walls around us, we sense a familiar space. We orientate ourselves around the chancel and mound where a tower once stood; the piscina full of dust a recognisable feature. Yet the customary is subverted. The floor is surreally experienced as a meadow – for grass grows where flagstone and marble are expected. The flint and mortar that line the nave are not cool to the touch but warmed by the sun high above us. Our perceptions and senses are tilted.

St MarysFor this is a place where the visual is less privileged and where, unlike the usual tourist spaces, ‘the tactile, auditory and aromatic qualities of materiality’ are enhanced (Edensor, 2007, p.219). We are keen to the sound of the strimmer in the overgrown churchyard; the smell of the cut grass in the porch; the feel of the twig that bends underfoot as we navigate around fallen gravestones.  This is Lefebvre’s perceived space – the ‘phenomenologically experienced spaces, that may be taken for granted through the habits of the body’ (Dale and Burrell, p.8). Note how we stoop past the shrub overhanging the south door – an automatic, reflex action.

And, as we might expect, this is also a site for stories. The official narrative – how the church was destroyed by a sonic boom in 1949 following years of neglect and increasing dereliction – can be found on a noticeboard by the entrance.  Such histories ‘seamlessly banish ambiguity and the multiplicity of the past’ (Edensor, 2005, p.831) but ruins ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471).  Like ghosts, ‘involuntary memories come upon us, rekindling the past through unexpected confrontations with sounds, ‘atmospheres’, and particularly smells’ (Edensor, 2005, p.837). And one such story springs to mind, prompted by the sound (and fresh wheat aroma) of harvesting on a neighbouring field. A story of how a farmer, ploughing late on a winter’s evening, saw something in the churchyard illuminated in the sweep of his tractor’s lights as it rounded the headland.  Whatever it was (he never said), it was enough to make him flee, the tractor engine found still running the next morning.  This reminds us too that liminal spaces are sites of transgression – albeit often more ludic than demonic: children playing on the fallen houses of the Blitz or, strangely, beachcombers seeking illicit liaisons with a a statue…(Andrews, p.163)!

Ruins infiltrate our organisations too. Some are physical: our own spatial edgelands or dark terrains.  In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of spatial redesign in a local authority, they contrast the new central office –  ‘a very large, bright space, with light flooding through the glass roof and walls and reflecting off the pale, polished limestone floor’ (p.1513) – with the paper storage unit located in an out-of-town business park. Placed close to wasteland, a sewage works and a derelict railway, the conditions of this unit are ‘austere, with several discomforts, such as artificial light, dust and cold.’ (p.1518). I am sure we know similar ruins – the less privileged parts of our buildings where transient teams seek shelter: the desks scuffed, the IT antiquated and the chairs threadbare.

But, if we look carefully, other more ethereal ruins emerge: the rubbled remains of past initiatives, projects, ways of working.  Some were, like half-finished tower blocks, prematurely suspended, victims to changes in strategy, new technology or structural re-organisation. Others were completed but lie superseded by new priorities. Sometimes such ruins are manifested through physical traces: the forgotten folder of past business plans or the office directory with faded photographs from years past.  Like any ‘bare, ruin’d choir’ these are stimuli for involuntary memory and story – ‘Goodness, there’s a photo of X – do you remember that occasion when…’. But often such archaeology is virtual: excavating document management systems for spreadsheets and emails (where the recipients, once so urgently cc’d, are now often ghosts – long departed, absent, forgotten).

And like St Mary’s destruction by the sonic boom, such ruins carry official narratives to explain their failure or demise. Promulgated via the established channels, these stories serve as our guidebook and exhibit caption. Yet, as we know, ruins carry ghosts that are hard to exorcise. Unofficial stories – traded in corridors, cafes and the other liminal spaces we inhabit – are the mischeivous revenants that playfully subvert grand narratives.  However, are stories but ruins themselves?  Like the marble fountain, they are sculpted and worn – not by water but through memory, caprice and intent. For the stories we tell are not necessarily the same as the stories we hear. So, maybe, in the sharp (artificial) light of day, ghosts are not to be believed in after all.

Andrews, H. (2012) ‘Another place or just another space? Liminality and Crosby Beach’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of space: power, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dillon, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: a short history of decay’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Edensor, T. (2007) ‘Sensing the ruin’, The Senses and Society, 2(2), pp. 217–232.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Stokes, A. (2011) ‘The pleasures of limestone’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.