In the final section of Bright Edge Deep, we reflect on the future of peatlands. In particular, the impact that the rehabilitation and management of these environments to combat climate change might have on the landscapes which inspired the generations of practice exhibited across the Bright Edge Deep project. We also look towards the future and what these changes might mean for these environments.

Nigel Rolfe (2011) Still from: Into the Mire. Image: The Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, with permission.

How will restoration change human interaction with peatlands?

Rolfe’s still of the video capturing the (deliberate) fall of a man (the artist!) into an Irish bog (video at https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/1413/) can be seen as a reflection on the ‘fall into’ the mire literally and metaphorically, on generations of artists, as illustrated by the small selection of artworks for the ‘Bright Edge Deep’ exhibition. Created at a time when the Irish economy was going through the property boom of the ‘Celtic Tiger’,  the artwork posed a reflection on the pitfalls of leaping headfirst into the next phase of societal change (at the time – unregulated property investment and economic growth) – but can we read it now as a reflection on the dangers of falling into an alluring, but romantic vision of bogs in the past and bog restoration in the future? 

Rosie Everett and Ben Gearey

What is peatland restoration ‘restoring’?

The Irish painter Gerald Bruen’s painting shows a bank of cut ‘turf’ – the result of an activity that supported generations of rural Irish families through times of economic shortages and fuel poverty, all the way through to contemporary generations when in some places, peat cutting became as much a social activity, for the craic, as one Irish farmer’s son commented to us. But what in this image are we aiming to restore and protect? Is it the peat from pre-drainage and cutting (on the right of the painting)? The vegetation on the ‘regenerating’ surface to the left includes plants such as Eriophorum (bog cotton or cotton grass) and Iris pseudocarus (flag iris), plants typical of ‘natural’ wetland environments. In time, this surface might ‘recover’. And what about the historical evidence for turf cutting? The marks and traces of the peat ‘harvest’? Rehabilitation may erase physical elements that are woven into the layers of social history that make up a landscape. These and other complex questions and issues need to be considered as part of rehabilitation and restoration programmes.

Bruen’s Scene shows the cutting and harvesting of peat alongside the hopeful regeneration of vegetation, demonstrating the Irish landscape’s accommodation of human activity and natural life flourishing. Although the cutting of peat is a destructive act, the gently-painted Eriophorum and Iris pseudocarus communicate the delicate beauty of the resource that makes up much of the Irish landscape. The painting provides us with a lovely section of the peat and turf, in which the stratigraphy of the peat is on display. Several rich shades of brown and purple can be seen mixing together within the ground. Studying the stratigraphy of a deposit of peat helps us understand how and when a given layer of peat formed in relation to the surrounding material, but it also allows for a beautiful pattern to be observed and represented in the painting. 

Rosie Everett and Holly Mullins

Gerald Bruen (1908-2004), Turf Bank. Oil on canvas, 54.20 x 64.50 x 8.10 cm, The Crawford Art Gallery (CAG.653), with permission.
Driving a peat spade into peat, detail close up, people at work, South Uist, Historic Environment Scotland and University of Edinburgh with Permission
Cotton grass Eriophorum, Hatfield Moors, S. Yorkshire. Photo: Peter Roworth.
 Conor Lane, Bog Angel, 2020, private collection. Image by artist, with permission.
This sculpture was made with bog oak from Hawkfield bog, Roseberry, Newbridge, County Kildare, dated by dendochronologists at Queens University Belfast to 956 BC.
Bog oaks and Pines from Ballymacombs Bog, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. These are dated using tree ring dating to the period between 5024 BC to 509 BC. Photo: Phil Barratt.

Where might sources of artistic inspiration come from with bog rehabilitation in the future?

What is the future of artistic production inspired by peat and peatlands, how might this change or grow with rehabilitation programmes and the end of ‘industrial’ peat extraction in Ireland?

How will the social tensions surrounding these changes be reflected in the creative side of art and literature? We can consider the wonderful example of the sculpture from Conor Lane. This carved piece is made of ‘bog oak’, ‘sub-fossil’ wood preserved in the anoxic conditions of peatlands and therefore only possible due to the cutting which has exposed the wood, often in the deepest layers of peat. Once exposed, the wood is available as a source of artistic production, but at the same time this reminds us of the material link between artistic creation on one hand, and extraction and environmental degradation on the other. Poetry and literature inspired by ‘the bog’ likewise takes inspiration from this ‘cut’ into the landscape, the layers exposed and the people who toiled over them in the past. Seamus Heaney’s ‘Bog poems’ are another example of this; digging and peat cutting as a metaphor for the artistic process.

We can only speculate on what the future holds for creative inspiration and the social role of art in changing perceptions of peatlands in the face of the climate crisis, but it is clear that science, art and literature all have crucial roles to play and as we hope Bright Edge Deep exhibition has shown, the stories that different disciplines tell, can intertwine and combine, generating new perspectives and inspiration.

Rosie Everett and Ben Gearey

We can leave some final words to two colleagues; Dr Maureen O’ Connor reading from Ernie O’Malley’s On another man’s wound: Ernie O’Malley and Ireland’s War for independence. To close, poet Annemarie Ni Churrean recites Bogmedicine, from her award winning collection Bloodroot.