As part of the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts cultural programme for COP 26 (‘Dear Green Bothy’; hosting creative and critical responses to the climate emergency: https://deargreenbothy.gla.ac.uk), the ‘Bright Edge Deep’ online exhibition has been created to celebrate the beauty and biocultural significance of peat bogs. Designed by a partnership of archaeologists, art historians, curators and palaeoecologists with a common interest in the values and meanings of peatlands, the exhibition brings together and juxtaposes historical, cultural and scientific representations to enhance awareness of the role of these key moderators of climate change as historic landscapes, and “wild” places of cultural and natural value for the future.Read More
The exhibition uses a multi-media approach to explore selected historical and contemporary artworks of peatlands and the complex and entangled way in which they have been represented in the past and present, as well as highlighting peatlands as ecosystems of important biodiversity, and climate change mitigation. In addition to discussing what peatlands are and their scientific and cultural importance, we have chosen four key themes to explore peatlands: Wilderness and Nature, Myths, Legend and the Spiritual, Landscapes of Work and Power, and The Future. Each explores a different element of a peatland landscape, with artworks selected as offering a broadly representative historical, conceptual, and stylistic range, including both British and some overseas examples. A new film by Gareth Beale interweaves elements of the modern and archaeological landscape, to generate fresh thinking on past, present, and possible future perspectives, and track our changing relationships with peatlands during the 20th and 21st centuries.
In bringing different elements into dialogue, our understanding of peatlands as historical and ecological places provides important contextual information about their changing cultural, social, and symbolic meanings over time. In this way, and through our short interpretative texts and wider discursive material prompted by the artworks, we reflect upon how we find ourselves in our current climate predicament – is our ‘dis-connection from nature’ at the heart of our current difficulties? – and what might the future hold for peatlands within the context of current global warming?
As part of our work we have drawn inspiration from several scientific research projects we are involved with that also feature through these pages, Project Wildscapes and WetFutures. Further information on these projects can be found in the ‘What are Peatlands?’ theme.
What are Peatlands?
Peatlands are beautiful and rare environments that have often been described as one of the jewels in Britain’s wildlife conservation crown, but they are also fragile and sensitive to change, whether caused directly or indirectly by human hands.
The ‘Bright Edge Deep’ online exhibition is designed to raise awareness of these special landscapes, highlighting their benefits for biodiversity, for ecosystem services such as climate regulation (through carbon sequestration), but also their huge cultural and archaeological value, as well as noting some of the significant threats they face, from drainage, land reclamation for agriculture, to peat cutting for fuel and horticulture.
Landscapes of Work and Power
The relationship between people and peatlands spans millennia. The fragmentary glimpses into this past afforded by archaeology allow us to observe the complex interplay between peatlands and the communities which have thrived alongside or within them. For thousands of years, people have relied upon peatlands to provide safety, food and fuel. More recently we have begun to sacrifice these landscapes to agriculture and industry. Work and power have been consistent strands in this relationship.
Myth, Legend and the Spiritual
As places where people have lived since prehistory, peatlands have numerous cultural and symbolic meanings, some highly localised, others shared across regions. Sprites and faeries inhabit bogs; giants stride across moors; will o’the wisps lead travellers astray. Peat features in traditional religious or seasonal rituals, and archaeologists have discovered artefacts and burials in peat that evidence primitive beliefs in gods or the afterlife. The ‘peat archive’ bears witness to time itself, as matter decays and turn to carbon.
Wilderness and Nature
Moors and wetlands are some of the last remaining wildernesses left in Europe. They provide vital habitats for many different natural species, from birds, insects and mammals to grasses, flowers, and insectivorous plants. Many of these species are threatened by drainage, reclamation and climate change. About 12% of the UK’s land area is covered by peatlands, although it was likely closer to 25% before drainage and reclamation. 60% of the UK’s peatland habitats may be found in Scotland and the UK holds 13% of the world’s blanket bog. The breadth and solitude of moorland, and the liminal spaces of marsh and bog, have also inspired many works of creative art and literature. Evoking moods, conditions, and memories, such works can powerfully highlight the delicate balance of the peatland ecosystem, that contributes so much to biodiversity.
In this section we reflect on the future of peatlands. In particular,the impact that rehabilitation and management of these environments for combating climate change might have on the artistic forms that inspired the generations of practice exhibited across the Bright Edge Deep project.