April 20, 2014

Spontaneous landscape interventions

We went for a walk in the New Forest yesterday, and spotted this rather wonderful glove with ivy garland on a footpath sign:

Footpath sign, New Forest
It's a great example of what I am for the moment rather clumsily calling 'spontaneous landscape interventions' – the strange things many of us find ourselves doing, out in the countryside, to interact with our environment. Once you start looking, you'll find them everywhere: coins pushed into trees, pebbles piled into stacks, feathers tucked like talismans into barbed wire.

Fencepost, Hampshire

I wonder if we know why we do it; I suspect not. It's a strange, inarticulate compulsion, a need to change something, to leave a mark. Gypsies used to create coded signs from sticks and leaves called 'patteran' for others to read, but those had a practical reason: to show which direction they had travelled in, or indicate a good non-Roma house at which to call; similarly, throwing coins into fountains is, in an admittedly obscure way, 'for luck'. But what are we doing when we tie a young, pliant twig into a knot, or every day add the sticker from our apple to a metal post?

Apple post, Tooting Common
I blogged recently about graffiti on trees, how it has a character all of its own – and I find myself asking whether graffiti is part of the same phenomenon: just another way in which we leave our mark. A spray-painted tag, a set of initials carved in tree bark – do these things all spring from the same, arcane impulse? And if so, where does 'vandalism' end and the kind of art I am describing (naive and half-accidental as it is) begin?

Offerings, Hampshire
Den, Wales
Graffiti, Tooting Common
Coin tree, Cumbria
Hanging fruit, Streatham
Hanging fruit, Streatham

Graffiti, Tooting Common

I don't know what the answer is. I believe that to seek meaning is a deep, human need, and I know that we have spent many more millennia at one with our environment than separate from it, as we now believe ourselves to be. I wonder if these little interventions are wordless messages to one another – a sort of subconscious patteran – or offerings to a world we deeply need, but know we have betrayed?