I see them from the train, at least I did, pre-pandemic, when trains were still part of my life. Pinkish heaps of spoil, made fond by their associations with the English artist John Latham.
One gift of art is to allow us access to ideas and emotions, creating a sense of shared meanings. These can be embedded in a particular landscape. My dear friend Hans Waanders dedicated his art to kingfishers as a way to reckon with mortality. Now any friend who walks by a river remembers Hans and experiences the frisson of a flash of blue that might just streak by. Art is not only concerned with physical objects: it is a machine we use to produce memories, and these can populate our future as much as our past. They may even predict the healing of a person, or a landscape.
Limit is part of life
To see things anew, from an unfamiliar perspective, at a distance, through the frame of strangeness – limit, or what we know as disability, alters experiences of place. Landscapes become remote or inaccessible.
Chronic illness changes the map, is also requires as to construct a new cartography, recalibrated to our limits. This image is by Christina Christine Goldschmidt, an artist and creative map maker with Long COVID, representing her experience of illness as a terrain to be negotiated. She is one of 2.3 million people in these islands whose life has been drastically altered by the virus. The community has given a new urgency to Day of Access.
I invited an old friend, Rob Bushby, to guide this event.
Rob and I have always enjoyed sharing creative approaches to wild landscapes – he as an outdoorsy guy, expert in the fields of nature and ecological remediation, me as an artist with a disability, devising poetic forms to enhance access.
It didn't matter that, in those days, he could do ultra-marathons and, in those days, I had to limit my walks to under a mile. Long Covid has brought a new closeness to our friendship as now we both know limit in a severe way. As well as aspens and rewilding, our conversations are scattered with pacing chat, and reports on the latest minor activity that's buggered us for days.
This blog post is preparatory to our Day of Access event at Greendykes shale bing, by Faucheldean. You can read about the event and see some of the responses below.
There is access onto the bing for the fit-ish walker, via Broxburn and Winchburgh, revisiting John Latham’s artwork, 'Niddrie Woman'.
Day of Access aspires to explore what happens “when vulnerable bodies encounter vulnerable ecologies”. Even if it is frequently shunned, vulnerability contains forms of wisdom and shards of knowledge which are illuminating. Ask anyone with constrained walking and they will tell you that, with the frustrations limit brings, there are also new perspectives, especially in terms of the landscapes that are now harder, or impossible, to reach. Viewing the landscape, whether in memory or from the roadside, assumes new significance.
For this event, the second in our pilot series, the idea is still to create a healing experience of wild nature, but in this case we have shifted radically, setting aside hills and mountains, to enter a man-made landscape: the shale bings of West Lothian.
As I conceived the project, Day of Access would help people with chronic illness, fatigue, or pain – symptoms which constrain walking – to be, once again, in wild places. In their strangeness, the shale bings suggested a different locus of human experience and so, for this event, our participants have all experienced vulnerabilities associated with mental health.
Our new partner, Friends of the Award Edinburgh & Lothians, supports young people with mental health issues, helping them towards being able to participate in Duke of Edinburgh projects. This involves volunteer leaders sharing field knowledge and mentoring young people, to help them gain the particular kinds of self-awareness and confidence that accessing wild places requires. They may go on to work on ecological remediation projects.
All Day of Access events share a concern with how people can feel they belong in nature. Our sense of belonging is, well, akin to a sense. It inflects our life in the most subtle ways and can be enhanced, or constrained, by painful or illuminating experiences. Culture can bring healing to those who have lost their sense of belonging.
The primary route of the walk is from Broxburn, heading onto the plateau of the largest bing, Greendykes, walking around a landscape of spoil that John Latham, renamed “Niddrie Woman”. The walk, which I was once able to do, offers remarkable views of central Scotland.
A walk on the moon
Several paths lead onto the bing and, in my original conception, if more than one group participates, I suggested that the 1-1 parties access Greendykes at different points, so they would see one another in the distance. You can try this and imagine you've met another astronaut on the moon. (There's a second route is to walk in from the north, at Winchburgh).
The final artwork recording this event is a report, published below, accompanied by aerial photos and current satellite images, which reveal the growth of flora across the site. Alongside this the participants made a ‘sole map’ of the plateau.
Each participant used their sole map to note down words or names referring to whatever they see or feel as they walk. If you want to try this them remember that locations that can be viewed from the plateau can be added outwith the outline of the sole. This form was devised to represent the life experiences of immigrants to Scotland. The here / there of the feet offers a sense of shifts in time and place. The associations between the bings and the body suggested adopting the sole map: using it in this way is a useful way to creatively confuse cartography and memory. Would the participants be notating places, feelings, or both?
One intention of this Day of Access event is to enjoy the rare flora that flourish on this SSSI site. The greening of the bings is an image of natural healing achieved over decades. Faucheldean Bing is the most fully greened and its shrubbery and trees anticipates the eventual recovery of the larger bings.
I’m interested in how the participants will respond to this bare landscape of spoil, once defined as derelict and now recognised as ecologically significant.
The participants will enjoy an exceptional panorama, or ‘conspectus’, of central Scotland. When I visited, in 2018, I found the views unexpectedly liberating, given the region is dominated by container culture and arterial roads, I hadn’t anticipated the rich variety of landscape that would be visible, including views of Jupiter Artland as well as other shale bings.
As I mentioned, the site is associated with an important conceptual artwork created by Latham in 1975-76, during an artist in residence at the Scottish Office – one of the first such residencies, embedding an artist in an organisation or place. Latham came across aerial photos of the region, and these allowed him to reimagine the bings as anthropomorphic forms – Greendykes and its neighbours became a giant earthwork representing an earth goddess. This is Craig Richardson’s description of the artwork:
“In this first, mediated introduction to the landscape, Latham determined that the largest shale bing known as Greendykes and its adjoining bings known as Niddry, Faucheldean and Albyn constituted historic documents that ‘unconsciously’ lent themselves to ‘a modern variant of Celtic Legend, namely NIDDRIE WOMAN’ (Latham’s underlining). Using the aerial perspective afforded by a single surveillance photograph Latham anthropomorphised Greendykes as the ‘Torso’, Faucheldean as the ‘Limb’, Niddry as the ‘Heart’ and Albyn as the ‘Head’, comprising the torn figure of a woman whose disembodied ‘Heart’ is too large to fit inside her approximately-scaled body. The Feasibility Study also mentions a visual comparison with the prehistoric carving The Venus of Willendorf (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna). This surrealist and perverse homage was less of an imposition than it might at first seem: the terrain of England is populated with ancient images cut into chalk hillsides, such as the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire and the Cerne Giant in Dorset. As an experienced traveller across England and Scotland, Latham may have sought to make the bings a comparably emblematic feature of the Scottish landscape.”
Arguably, the artist's discussions with planners and councillors, helped preserve the bings so that, over decades, the landscape could undergo a gradual greening. In 1995 Greendykes was officially declared an ancient monument. Latham claimed these massive monuments to the extractive industries were as important as Stonehenge and the Pyramids, “being classical sculpture but in a mode that has not otherwise come to be recognised ( – one might call the mode Process Sculpture) – … the largest site is seen as the dismembered body of a primal Woman’.
Latham made what I think was an ill-conceived proposal, to install gigantic book sculptures on the bings. If this had been realised then he suggested the shale must maintained in its distinctive reddish colouration, removing any vegetation – which would have been an enormous and counter-productive task. It was the naming of the bings that helped preserve them, until ecological healing gave his imagined goddess a glimmer of reality.
In the 1970s no-one conceived the shale bings would have ecological significance. As a boy I remember them being described as eyesores on Reporting Scotland. These days it’s rare to hear anyone calling for their removal. Some bings are being mined for road building material, while others are defined as SSSI or public parks. To me the most interesting aspect of Latham’s artwork is the lack of a physical sculpture. Renaming the site offered a fresh perspective, even a deliberate misunderstanding of the landscape, which allowed its value to be realised, eventually. What was spoiled had gradually healed. This healing has obvious meanings in terms of individuals and their recuperation from long-term illness, whether physical or mental, as well as helping us think in terms of the time land requires to recover.
This imagination of recuperation – very slowly – from chronic illness is central to Day of Access. The bings are a ravaged and yet, at the same time, healing landscape. As motifs and ecological realities, they differ from the rewilding or wilderness sites Day of Access typically focusses on. That said, our first event, at Meall Tairneachan, concluded at a Barytes mine.
Another difference with this event is that mostly our definition of access involves people who cannot walk far, or at all – a community for whom any access to wild land and altitude is deeply moving. Whereas the bings event is concerned with healing and the mind, perceptions of landscape and the self – what is a wounded landscape/self, and what is a healed landscape/self?
I know from my own life that physical vulnerability, and limits on walking, bring with them a natural anxiety in terms of wild landscapes. Now that Long Covid has limited my walking to a couple of hundred yards my experience of landscape has become more fraught. Almost anywhere I want to go is fraught with the potential of a dose of pain lasting days. If I go further than this micro-realm I will relapse. It doesn't matter if the walk was to a bus-stop or a waterfall, or whether it made me happy or sad, the mechanism of the disease doesn't care. That changes how I experience the world. I am sure there are parallels with those whose vulnerabilities lie in the mind, for whom the act of walking, or being alone, or being seen, in wild places is daunting.
I have set out some ideas and associations for the event, but the response to the walk is for the participants to define and I look forward to what significance the bings have for them. You can read Rob's report below.
I’m also interested in promoting the site as a place to view the wider region from.
I’m keen to know what flora the participants recognise.
I’m also aware I can no longer access the bings – Craig and I went there with my then wife – and so there’s an aspect of “proxy walk” to the event, where the participants are walking for me, and perhaps for you.
Ashes and orchids
When he died, in 2006, Latham instructed that his ashes be scattered on the bings, so the fondness he felt for them is clear. This is a short poem I wrote, as a summary of his vision, followed by a satellite image showing the bings as they are today.
Latham found his new
and ancient goddess
visioning her in
Faucheldean and Albyn
pinkish spoil renewed
by a flush of green
fringed with rare alpines
Greening the spoil
This is something I wrote for an earlier blog post:
It takes time for technology to be absorbed, to become, as it were, natural. An element that seems to one generation to demand removal may, to another, become a memorial, or be transformed, by some unforeseen evolution, whether this is led by notions of public use or a radical altering of perception.
Latham saw the role of the artist as a purposelessness of looking: 'Ground-level politics are a form of sectional-interest civil war.' An artist, or as Latham retitled them, 'Incidental Person', may be able to observe the 'the doings and listen to the noises, and to eliminate from output the signs of received idea'. In doing so they are more willing and equipped to represent 'people who would not accept their premises, time-bases, ambitions, formulations, as valid'. Above all, this about-to-evolve species of artist-person would gear themselves into the long-term, the real processes of the future, looking at such issues as derelict land and urban renewal afresh. The Goddess was Latham's radical and avowedly eccentric conclusion; and yet, uncannily, and to Latham's credit, ‘She’ came to exist in the greening of the spoil.”
How do wounds heal over time. How can we learn from nature’s ability to heal. What has been spoilt and what can still heal?
the event: creative responses
Rob guided the group. The responses took the form of sole maps and acrostics, which you can see here.
An aim of all the events is to create place-aware mappings that encourage new visitors.
For anyone who wishes to experience the walk there is public transport available: https://moovitapp.com/index/en-gb/public_transportation-Broxburn-Scotland-site_44715627-402
This map, from NLS, is the first edition six-inch OS, 1860, showing the area before the town of Broxburn and the shale bings existed.
Photography: shale bing, by Hannah Devereux; sole map, AF; John Latham book at Five Sisters bing, AF (with Amy Todman); Barytes Mine, Meall Tairneachan, Mhairi Law; satellite image of Greendykes Bing, National Library of Scotland map library; photo of participants, Rob Bushby; all other images courtesy of the estate of John Latham.
Thanks to Friends of the Award Edinburgh & Lothians, Heritage Lottery Fund, Lapidus Scotland, and Paths for All, for making this event possible.