The concepts of both tragedy and irony are rich seams for creative inspiration to chip and forage away at in the search for nuggets of truth. As a forager who, since the beginning of April, has been attempting to live the entire year on wild food, I have been forced to explore this dreadful irony. In fact, this particularly exhausting irony is more finely nuanced than you might suppose, as its juxtaposition of opposites has some particularly annoying friends: got to hit rock bottom before climbing back up; you can only completely appreciate a full belly of food when yours has been entirely empty, and other such variations on the theme of apparent contradiction. In fact, I'm coming to realize (not that it isn't completely obvious) that living in the modern world with a regular job, and all the other clutter of modernity, postmodernity - or whatever you wish to call it, is virtually impossible if one wishes to forage for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That, in itself, is a full-time Mesolithic job. And so, in my hectic rush to slow down these past three weeks, only one thing has allowed me to do so. The moment came last week after meeting Adam, the creative explorer of roadkill tragedies (and so much more) at his show, Roadkill: The Last Supper. All his pieces are brimming with painful nuggets of truth - the truth of tragedy and, yet, also the truth of opportunity; the opportunity to change. Look deeply at his works and you may be struck so intensely that you breakdown, burst into tears, as I did, or even laugh hysterically in opposition to your deeper feelings. But, playing positively with the dynamics of contradiction, and looking deeper still, the horrors that cause such passion breakdown into more basic parts: love and compassion, friendship and laughter.
So what led me to react the way I did, to have such a strong emotional reaction? Well, the answer lies in the resurfacing of a painful childhood memory, an event that so traumatized me at the time that its influence touches on many of my beliefs and activities today. It is, for example, why, in part (always in part), I am concerned about roadkill; why I refuse to sell wild food; why I have never smoked and why, indeed, I have issues with any form of external authority or power - be that rules of grammar, teachers, governments or global capitalism.
It was a gloriously warm and windless sunny day in early May 1979. With reckless abandon, nature had decided to cast aside the cold shackling chains of winter, showing off instead her fully verdant spring virility for all she was worth. I was 8 years old and bursting with enthusiasm for all things wild that crawled, hopped, flew or simply hid away from my prying eye. It was the prying eye of identification. Seek, find, name, understand, befriend. That was the childish logic of my daily pursuits and it applied especially to beetles, spiders, butterflies, moths, frogs, toads and newts.
A typical day, then, would see me striding out net in hand to capture things that flew - butterflies and moths, or things that swam - sticklebacks, toads and newts. Having built a small garden pond I was very keen to bring it to life with wildlife riches from what I considered to be the mother pond down the road, so off I skipped to the local park.
Everything was just so perfect - that perfection informed by both relativity and welcoming relief. It had been cold and grey for the previous few weeks and now the relative change in weather fortunes had families out playing games on the grass whilst other groups of people lay sprawled out in homage to the spring sunshine. Around the pond tadpoles were teeming and newts were abundant amongst the weeds. I was feeling particularly chuffed after managing to net both a male and female newt. I retired to the grass to watch them swim about in my jar, imagining my little pond some time in the not too distant future filled with generations of newts now that I had, so cleverly, hooked these two up together. After all, it was obvious from the way they swam that they were now partners for life with a one track mind: make baby newts!
As I lay there two older boys ambled over, admired my newts and asked if I would get them a few. Seeing my reluctance they offered me 10p for every newt I could get. Wow, my pocket money was only £1, and I had to wait a week for that. Now, I calculated, I could earn that with my net in about half an hour. No doubt these boys also had ponds in need of a few newts. Catching 10 newts was a sinch. I returned to the boys, now sitting in a ring that had grown in number to about 6, and triumphantly presented them with a jar of newts. The exchange was done; two fifty pence pieces jangled in my pocket; the sun shone; the day had reached an entirely unanticipated perfection beyond perfect. I walked away and glanced back over my shoulder. The boys (actually 4 boys and 2 girls) had placed the jar at the centre of their circle. As I continued to gaze one of the boys waved me away with a dismissive flick of the hand. Feeling uneasy for the first time I continued to linger, watching as they tipped the water out. I was acutely aware that on a very hot day newts liked to remain cool so this puzzled me. With some boldness, and in spite of again being waved away, I turned back. Perhaps they simply didn't realise that the newts wouldn't like to be out of water in the midday sun? If so, that was surprising because, I thought, older boys and girls, being so much more knowledgeable than me, would have known this. The jar had now been completely emptied of water. One of the boys held his hand over the jar. A cigarette dropped from his mouth - up until this point I had not noticed that everyone there was smoking. On his hands and knees, the only free hand he had that was not supporting his weight was the one covering the newt jar. He removed this to retrieve his cigarette. As he did so two determined newts made a successful bid for freedom. There was much laughter as he fell over trying to retrieve them. This struck me as a perfect moment to pipe up. So I did, suggesting that if there was water in the jar the newts would be quite happy and not try to escape. "You've got your money, now FUCK OFF!", said the boy who had handed over the 50 pence pieces. Suddenly the day of joy and light was taking on a darker hue. More laughter at the shocked look on my face. I explained that the reason I had got the newts, apart from the money, was my understanding that they wanted them for their pond. This statement sent them into convulsions of laughter. "Fuck off", they shouted, "we don't need you any more; we'll do what the fuck we want with them."
I won't give any graphic description, suffice to say, what they wanted included burning them with cigarette butts and mashing and grinding all life from the newts with pounding sticks and and hammering stones. As they laughed merrily with bits of newt splatter on their faces I stood, watched, and cried. Dark is the night without light or reason.
And so with these dark memories locked away I strolled around the gallery, until....
Road Kill ( Light on Reason )
The piece had the following explanation or, rather, observation:
One world famous Squirrel, oil taw, willow lantern-work and three bar stool, coin of the realm and chromium plated steel bolts, oiled rope. When I began working on the squirrel I discovered the skull had all but completely disintegrated. I presume on impact. Further investigation showed broken limbs, ( both fore paws and left hind leg ) massive internal injury, stomach having burst through the abdominal muscles and finally its spine had been snapped in half. Trauma throughout the muscular systems of the animal was evident. I'm reminded of a recent experience with students showing me a podcast of a squirrel being launched into the air via a clay pigeon launcher and the resultant giggles.
I could hear the demented laughter once again, its long-remembering arms dragging me back through time to be surrounded by grotesque newt splattered and contorted faces.
Dark is the night without light or reason. And yet 8 years after that incident, about the time when I must have been the same age as those boys and girls, I was ready to understand through an exploration of my own inner darkness. On a windy night of madness as clouds rushed across the moon I fully explored the complexity of their motivation - its ugly and wicked depravity as well as its deep fear and genuine curiosity so that, in part, I now understand.
Respect is one of the keys; respect not purely represented in action but as intention, as a state of mind. Over the course of the coming year I intend to continue with my wild animal skins project; I intend to continue with a diet that may at times include roadkill. I may even post up a few recipies. There will be stock, wild roots, mushrooms and salt. And yet neither these nor the main roadkill food item will be the main ingredient; the most important ingredient. That ingredient will be respect because respect is the key.
Any roadkill clothes I make and food I cook will all be made with respect in mind. Here I am supported in friendship and agreement with Adam. As he has said and I would say:
"All my pieces contain naturally processed forms which without exception bare in mind the simple premise of working with respect. The processes I use are indigenous in origin and therefore proven to be environmentally benign. However it is not entered into lightly and my understanding comes from the knowledge of what it costs to produce.
My premise is that all synthetic and processed materials have a relative cost and we as adults make a conscious decision regarding the materials we use. Often these decisions are made without a true understanding and therefore due to this fundamental flaw without our true consent.
I entered into making these pieces to highlight the plight of many of the animals under our care and stewardship and believe we have a duty care to protect and sustain the natural spaces still remaining, before we ruin them by exhausting them completely.
The real truth; 'It is easy to turn a blind eye'"
If you read my last blog you will know that I had intended to write about the generosity of saints and, in particular Bristol's St Werburg and England's St George. One supplied me with wild garlic, japanese knotweed, and a roadkill buzzard amongst other things, the other with his eponymous mushrooms. Well, it's a long story and there's no time for it now. At least that protector and defender of animals has put in an appearance: St Francis!
Next time, my trials with wild bread - so far disaster but hopefully, by this time next week, success!!!?