Data of the Heart and the Critical Zone
I want to talk about the Critical Zone. It’s a term used to describe the thin surface layer on this incredible planet Earth: the layer that extends from the top of vegetation to the bottom of drinking water aquifers. And soil is at the heart of it - living, pulsing and breathing, and supporting an incredible array of life, from billions of microbial organisms and fungal networks to the tiniest of flowers, and the tallest of trees, and all the animals that depend on them.
But this isn’t the only critical zone. It seems that we humans are also in a critical zone. We live between the past that we’ve shaped - through extraction and abstraction and separation, as well as through love - and the future that we’re also shaping. We have so much knowledge about the impact of our actions. And, in theory, we know enough to shape choices that could benefit both ourselves and the planet. But that’s not all that informs our actions. What do we love, and what, through this act of love, are we driven to care for? I’m thinking about love for the planet and all that dwells here, and also love for each other; how does love play a role in overcoming issues of inequality, resource depletion, wastefulness and degradation?
It might sometimes be tempting, particularly if current pressures feel a tad overwhelming, to think that we are at the mercy of a runaway system; but we are all actors in shaping the future, each and every one of us. Even choosing to do nothing - to make no significant changes - has an impact. And working together, and making a commitment to listen to one another’s insights as well as to one another’s joys and loves, is vital. Conversations like this one that’s unfolding now are vital.
A couple of people in this Love + Soil conversation have spoken about the way language can encourage and/or reveal separation. For instance, when talking with Barbara Bray, Kate Mayne reflected that some terms seem to be ‘owned’ by particular groups - and in this context, she talked about farmers who practice what might be called regenerative farming by other people, but it’s not a term they would use themselves. Even talking about ‘nature’ implies a separation between us humans and the world around us: it’s a separation that does not exist physically, in any tangible reality, but is a perception that has built up over a very long time. You can go way, way back to the beginnings of Abrahamic religions to interrogate the presumption that humans could have ‘dominion’ over other species, or could imagine themselves outside of, or apart from, a system that is one of interdependence and coexistence. In 2021, more humans dwell within a constructed and controlled urban environment, increasingly reliant on digital technologies; this has reduced the ability to sense connection with the soil on which we all rely.
Other separations exist between disciplines of practice, politics and academia, where knowledge is sometimes dressed up to the point of being impenetrable to most people. It’s become clear to Rob and me, from our personal experiences and the work we’ve done together over the last ten years, that the knowledge that comes from working in fields and woods, and having daily contact with weather, water and soil, is deep, rich and relevant. But this is often valued less than knowledge arising from academia. Surely the time for this kind of hierarchical valuing of knowledge systems and the habit of working within separate silos has passed. What’s needed now is more knowledge sharing. We live within landscapes where habitats are fragmented, where families and societies are fragmented, and if conversations continue to be fragmented, how can we make changes sensitively and rapidly enough to slow and ultimately reverse the current trajectory of climate change and biodiversity decline?
For the past four years, Rob and I have been working with a team of data analysts and environmental scientists, including soil specialists, as part of the Ensemble project led by Lancaster University. The main goal of the project is to try to use digital technology and data systems to better understand complex interactions in landscapes in the context of a changing climate, and to inform approaches to land use going forward. We wanted to add something to the information about water, soils, temperatures and other quantitative data that others were collating and analysing. We brought ‘Data of the Heart’ into the discussion, drawing on our personal arts practice and using workshops and an online survey. We’re curious: How do people actually feel? How do we relate to the land and landscapes around us, and how do our actions reflect our feelings, whether these feelings be love or fear, excitement or anxiety?
I want to clarify here that we think about love as a verb, not just an intellectual or abstract concept - it’s a doing word, an experience that lives as much in the body as in the mind. Love, along with so many other feelings, is something that grows and can be nurtured through the senses. Sensual contact with the natural world is crucial for us to avoid research and conversations becoming too abstract. Our practice includes taking long walks (sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks), and we work alongside people whose lives root them in the landscape as we help with tasks like mending walls or planting trees, gathering sheep, clearing becks. Data of the Heart is not an intellectual distillation: it is born from the feeling of feet on the ground, face in the wind, hands in the earth; from breathing in the scent of animals and grass and rain; from hearing the sound of sheep, owls, larks and the voices of fellow workers, or the knock of stone on stone in the process of wall building.
For every human being, the experiential connection with place through body and heart is as critical to understanding and decision-making as is the processing of information gained from science and analysis. And when we’re making decisions about what is termed ‘nature’, whose near-future is in our hands, an active and emotional connection is vital. Not everyone is in a position to have this continuing connection, but those who do, including farmers, foresters and active conservationists, have opinions and insights that must be heard.
The critical zone - the here and now we find ourselves in - is a time for listening. And that includes listening to science and to birdsong, and making space for greater listening between policy influencers and those who have their hands and feet, daily, in contact with the soil that supports us all. It’s not just listening to words, but also welcoming body and heart into the conversation. To leave out love is to ignore something that’s as hard to pin down as the miracle of an oak tree growing from an acorn, but as valuable as a forest.
Wherever we are, each person’s ‘here’ is connected. And while if we are to keep our sights on the future we want to create, we can only do so from here, from now, with our selves firmly grounded, seeking ways to build and sustain better connections.
On a different note, but not altogether disconnected from this Love and Soil conversation, Rob and I are currently setting up ‘the PLACE Collective’ to bring together environmentally engaged artists and building networks with researchers in a range of disciplines. In the planning stages for the network, which embraces People, Land, Art, Culture and Ecology, one of the advisory group asked us to think about what success could look like. The response came in the form of a poem, and it seems fitting to share that here, in the context of our thoughts on Love + Soil.
What does success look like?
here we stand, wind bitten
taking in the view of the past
that has led us to here
here we stand on the highest hill
looking across a patchwork land
threadbare, a hanging-on of fragments
linked by remnant strands
and the beginnings of repair
what might our view be
from the highest hill
in five, ten, one-hundred years’ time?
this tattered land, healing,
through acts that begin
with the simple tool of listening?
harriet and rob fraser / somewhere-nowhere.com