Peat Past, Present and Future

Melanie Giles, Anke Bernau and Joanne Tippett with Nicki Whitehouse 

The creative power of peatlands has a strong link to their cultural heritage. All too often seen as ‘natural places’ it is easy to dismiss these landscapes as timeless, flat and uninhabited. As the Bright Edge Deep project has shown, art, poetry and literature, history and archaeology all have the potential to reveal the intimate pasts of each landscape, both in terms of their peatland character and the histories of their use. For the last half a century, this story is generally one of exploitation and extraction, naturalised as a way of making what was perceived as ‘waste’ common land into something more productive. Very often, this has meant turning shared, public resource into private property. The arts played their part in shaping that fate, yet as the themes in Bright Edge Deep have shown, there have always been counter-narratives, different perspectives and more radical points of view which enable us to understand a more subtle, dynamic relationship with these rare and fertile landscapes.  

Those pasts shape the current ecological and heritage potential of peatlands. It is the present – and future – management of these fragile landscapes which have the potential to make a powerful contribution to the challenges of climate change, preserving and enhancing their natural ability to act as carbon reservoirs. Yet they are peculiarly fragile; prone to both the re-release of carbon stored over millennia through anthropogenic practices (pressure to clear and develop peatlands for housing, continued commercial cutting and extraction for fertiliser or fuel, drainage to preserve current farming practice, etc.) as well as the exacerbated risk of dessication from episodic wetting and drying as well as fire.  

The Peat: Past, Present and Future Project brought together stakeholders from local communities, charities, government advisory bodies, commercial cultural and heritage management companies, planning officers, alongside creative practitioners – poets and artists – to discuss the meaning, value and future of these extraordinary landscapes. Funded through an initial grant by the University of Manchester (UMRI Research Recovery Funds), we have partnered with our Bright Edge Deep colleagues in the Wetlands Discipline Hopping network, in productive conversations about the challenges of peatlands: their historic legacy, current state and status and future developments. Workshops in Manchester’s John Rylands Library and the Whitworth Gallery and field visits to Cashel bog and Rannoch Moor helped bring together interdisciplinary expertise from Scotland and North-West England.  

One of the outcomes of this project (funded by the University of Manchester’s Humanities Research Institute) was a ‘mind-map’ of some of the current issues facing this diverse range of expertise, in curating peatland landscapes in the present 

A mind-map mind-map’ illustrating some of the current issues in curating peatland landscapes

From our creative collaboration we worked in partnership with artist Rose Ferraby, whose twin images of peatlands captured both the lived-in, inhabited traces of the past that shape their current appearance (Peopled Peatland), and a more visionary image of their ecological potential (Dynamic Earth). If you would like to use these images, please do contact Rose through her website.  

Dynamic Earth and Peopled Peatland ©Rose Ferraby (for the Peat: Past, Present and Future Project) 

These images accompanied a suite of poems authored by poets from the north-west, in the collection ‘Peat’: you can browse these poems using the e-book below, and if you would like to hear project lead Melanie Giles in conversation with Rose about the project, here is a short video talking about the collaboration.  

Download the Peat ebook here

(Rebecca Hurst’s poem Black Lake is now published as part of The Iron Bridge, Carcanet Press).

The project team would like to offer their thanks to both the UMRI Research Recovery Funds, for supporting this project, and the Bright Edge Deep team and Wetlands Discipline Hopping, for collaborating to produce these creative outcomes from our time together.