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Performing Wild Geographies: An ethnographic report

The event:
Performing Wild Geographies, a two-day creative workshop, took place at Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex (2nd-4th October 2017). Focused on collaborative performance-making strategies between artists and academics from disparate disciplines, the event aimed to be a cross-disciplinary experiment around wild(er)ness and rewilding, drawing in particular on the Knepp’s Wildland Project case, in the southern block of the estate.

The event was led by Jamie Lorimer (Geography, University of Oxford), David Overend (Drama, Theatre and Dance, Royal Holloway, University of London), and Danielle Schreve (Quaternary Science, Royal Holloway, University of London), and brought together a transdisciplinary group of sixteen participants. This group included theatre practitioners and scholars, human geographers, paleo-ecologists, conservationists, visual artists, and journalists, and was joined by the estate’s landowners, Sir Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree, and Knepp’s Resident Ecologist, Penny Green. As will be described in detail below, the workshop involved a series of presentations, creative walks, workshops and discussions around the meanings and practices of rewilding, as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations and entanglements. All participants stayed at Knepp’s campsite for the two nights, which created a stimulating atmosphere for rewilding discussions.


After all participants arrived, we gathered at Cow Barn, by the campsite, and David Overend briefly introduced the workshop. Drawing on the idea of “learning to be affected,” David mentioned that in this workshop we would explore the links between performance and rewilding – not only what the first could offer the latter, but also vice versa. For him, the workshop was also an “unknowable and unpredictable encounter with the other,” with scope for disappointments, similar to the rewilding ethos. Afterwards, Charlie Burrell made a presentation about Knepp Wildland Project, a large-scale conservation initiative established in 2002, in the southern block of the estate, where free-roaming herbivores (Old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, and red and fallow deer) have been the main drivers of physical disturbance and habitat change. He focused on the history of the fields, from intensive arable-farming to rewilding. This shift towards “work with the land, rather than battling against it”, was highly inspired by Frans Vera’s theory of succession, according to which temperate Europe would have been characterised by open wood-pasture driven by grazing animals, and not by closed canopy forest. According to Charlie: “what you will see is Vera’s theory in practice.” He mentioned how since the beginning of the project terminology has been a constant challenge, as concepts can mean different things for different people, and how important it is to learn a language that enables talking among each other. Before the concept of rewilding was in use, for instance, the project was called a “long-term minimum intervention natural process-led area.” When talking about the successes of the project, which nevertheless is focused more on processes and open to surprises, rather than on targets, as opposed to mainstream conservation, Charlie mentioned that “life is poured back in here.” Due to the constant and dynamic interaction between large herbivores and vegetation, landscape is in constant transformation – more than a mosaic, it is a kaleidoscope. He also mentioned the “pop-up Knepps” that the project has inspired and ended up by underlying how rewilding is about scale and perpetuity.

At the end of the night, after dinner, David Overend, Jamie Lorimer and Danielle Schreve led one-to-one meetings with all participants, using objects (tree trunk, beaver bark, and elephant figures) to either talk about their work or tell a story related to wild(er)ness and rewilding.

Back in our tents, yurts, and alike, naturally illuminated by the bright moon, deer roaring and acorns falling over the metallic roof were the wild soundscape to me remembered by all the next day. More-than-human collaborations.


The second day started with a series of presentations and Q&A. Jamie Lorimer focused his presentation on the ontologies, epistemologies and politics of rewilding. Drawing on the example of the Heck Cattle, he addressed the three main questions around which social sciences can contribute to discussions on rewilding: What is the wild? Who knows the wild? Who decides? Exploring the links between rewilding and temporalities, Danielle Schreve’s presentation focused on the contributions of paleoecology to conservation and rewildling, namely in terms of reconstructing (imagining?) past environments. She focused in particular on issues around baselines and nativeness, emphasising how fauna and flora are in constant flux. Baz Kershaw closed this series of presentations by bringing performance into the discussion and proposing meandering as research through the example of “meadow meanders”. As a form of systemic performance of ecology, these allow sensing “the pathway’s agencies and energies – like gravitation waves – [that] may be flowing through us.”

After these presentations, the group was divided in two: one went with Penny, Knepp’s ecologist, on a safari; the other with Phil Smith, whose approach to creative walking resonated with Baz’s presentation. The groups would later switch. The group I followed was first guided by Penny, who introduced the project as she drove the safari vehicle. As the car was going through some of the fields on the south block, Penny explained how these are transitionary, ever-changing, ever-moving fields, using the metaphor of kaleidoscope, which was mentioned by Charlie Burrel the night before. It is, she mentions, a “moving feast”, where no two consecutive years look alike. After some discussions about non-native species, we stopped at a tree-platform, with panoramic view, where we had the opportunity to talk about rewilding and the broader landscape, provided with binoculars. After a series of Q&A about the rewilding project and animal species, either present or absent (e.g. beaver), Penny showed an example that proved Vera’s theory (wood-pasture system): an oak surrounded by holly. This, we were told, would serve as proof of the centrality of grazing animals, as holly would protect the growing oaks from being nibbled. She said: “This is a Vera’s landscape.” On this note, there were some questions about the density of large herbivores and how to assess it. Without much detail, Penny mentioned that the assessment rests on three surveys of available fodder conducted every year, and regular checks of herbivores’ health condition. As the animals go back into the food chain, through consumption, they must follow welfare and food regulations. While some participants were paying attention to the explanation, others were “exploring” the site, either walking around the platform, picking acorns, looking through binoculars or taking pictures.

Still in the tree-platform, we spotted two white storks flying. Penny asked how this encounter made us feel, as they are rarely seen in the British Isles. Some said it was a special and unexpected sighting. She then talked about the white stork reintroduction project, which is a joint venture between a number of private landowners in Sussex and surrounding counties (https://knepp.co.uk/white-storks). For Penny, the stork provides a good example of thinking big and rewilding: big animal, big landscape, etc. Back in the car, we passed by a “stork farm”, which consists on a fox- and mink-proof pen inside which storks are held, bred, and fed. These storks were provided by Warsaw Zoo. This captive-bred population of storks raised some interesting comments amongst participants about the meaning of wild and rewilding.

As we continued the safari, which as any wildlife safari is open to unexpected and uncertain encounters with the wild, we saw two Tamworth pigs resting. Penny stopped the car and we all left. She explained how this breed is similar to the wild boar, in terms of behaviour, but less aggressive, and how visitors seem to particularly like the pigs. She also pointed out how different it is to have them acting in a wild place, in comparison with a concrete area. When asked if she has noticed any behavioural changes through the years, she mentioned that, as opportunistic species, when the pond becomes filled, they start to dive and search for mussels, which they open with their tusks. While we stood in front of them watching or taking pictures, the pigs stayed in the same place for a while, almost without noticing us. They only left when a noisy truck approached. Without more wildlife spectacle to witness, we continued the safari in the car. As the car approached another field, a red deer stag was spotted. Penny stopped again the car for us to see and take pictures. She explained that Autumn is the time of deer rut, or mating season, where males (fallow bucks and red deer stags) battle and display for females, through roaring, clashing antlers, and releasing pungent pheromones. All the participants recalled the previous night, when deer were howling very close to the campsite.

At the end of the safari, and before we switched groups, Phil encouraged everyone to “listen to the ground,” by choosing a place on the floor and approaching it with the ear, as he started to talk about the “cosmic microwave background” and the existence of a map of the universe inside us. Everybody was either laying or with the knees on the floor, with the ear by the grass or concrete, in silence. The group then split and the creative walking started, with a series of exercises, each of which began with a story told by Phil.

To begin with, each of us was given a different “persona” (mine was cow with missing calf). Without the need to perform or mimic, we were asked to experience and interpret the landscape through its eyes, while walking in silence. Some of us kept following the path after Phil, others slightly deviated. As we approached the camping reception, we gathered by the butterfly made of wood pieces and Phil told another story, related to the following exercise. This time, we were asked to imagine the “God of rewilding”, thinking about the respective characteristics and how it would physically manifest, either through movement, posture, etc. After a brief discussion amongst us, where disparate but interrelated themes emerge (such as “butterfly effect”, resistance to fixity, baseline, constant movement, hybridity, or role of humans), we agreed on interconnectedness or entanglement as the main characteristic. To perform it, used the image and metaphor of an entangled knot, made out of our hands and arms. To this end, each of us gathered in a circle, put the two arms in the middle and hold someone else’s hands. We then tried to undo the human knot, using body, arms and legs, until being unable to unknot. Phil called it “God of entanglement”. One of the participants said she would consider it more as a “God of interconnected systems”, which recalls the idea of different perspectives and terminologies about the same thing.

After this exercise, we walked towards the arch made of antlers, which marks the entrance to the campsite. Standing in front of it, we were asked to imagine an animal walking through the port, such as an extinct animal that would return. Afterwards, we were divided in two groups, each of which was given a can that would act as a pinhole camera, combining all the animals that the group has imagined. After holding it for 30 seconds, we opened the can and found a photography of a wolf coming from the port. We laughed and mentioned that the wolf would be the obvious one. The next exercise consisted on using modelling clay to create three figures: a water prey, a predator for that prey, and a new sense or organ to protect the prey from the predator or to help the predator get the prey. We did that by the lake, standing in the bridge in silence and looking at the water, instead of looking at the clay. The sound of oaks popping in the water served as the background noise of the exercise.

As we walked in the direction of the campsite through the bridge, we were given a bit of soil to walk with. As we followed the path that would lead us to the campsite kitchen, we slightly deviated and stopped in a patch of grass. Phil mentioned the dystopic idea that soil could disappear in the future and encouraged us to feel the “threat of that coming void”, by feeling the soil with one barefoot. Afterwards, we walked in the direction of the woodland at the edge of the open campsite, spatially (and metaphorically) demarcated by trees, vegetation and a bridge. Standing on the latter, Phil talked about liminality and cryptic creatures – the so-called Abnormally Big Cats (ABCs). These concern reports of sightings of silhouettes of black cats, even if it is something else, such as a combination of shapes, a movement that might trigger that idea. Divided in two groups, we were asked to perform/recreate a ABC to each other. One of the groups used sound to recreate a landscape instigating fear and the unknown, while the other recreated a hunting scene. Back in the campsite, the last exercises were focused on sight and the different layers and scales of looking: from a satellite and detached perspective to the fine detail, without removing ourselves from the landscape, in line with Tim Ingold’s ideas. From “blowing the horizon”, where we were asked to look at a particular place in the horizon, take a deep breath, then exhale and move to another piece, 10 times, we were asked to focus the attention our a specific area in the grass, with hands around the eyes, as a binocular, and experience how colour intensifies as we move closer. We were then encouraged to switch between these two “ways of looking” as we walked back to the Cow Barn, in silence. After gathering for lunch in one of the fields, we shared experiences of the animals each group saw during the safari and discussed some of this ideas around walking and looking.

After lunch, we gathered back at Cow Barn for a workshop led by Karen Christopher. In the beginning, almost as a meditation exercise, she asked us to remember the beginning of the day and think about, first, where we set that beginning, and then what happened from then until the present moment, sitting in the table. After identifying five or six moments, we then added a descriptive element to each, either a sound, an image, a movement, an idea. Afterwards, Karen distributed the images that she has ripped in half and talked about metaphor of pollution/contamination – when, for instance, one does a movement without explaining (eg. moving only body to imitate grass with wind), it can stick in someone else’s memory and could later be understood or made sense of, in another circumstance; or when one does a movement and the other imitates. Following this explanation, we were asked to stand in front of someone else at the other side of the table. Each of us would start by making a gesture related to the image we got, and then switch and imitate the movement that the other has been doing at the same time.

With these two ideas in mind (memory and “contamination”), we gathered in pairs. After choosing one of the moments each of us wrote down in the beginning of the workshop, we were asked to think about how we could perform it, to show it to our pair, who would then imitate it. The duets were then aggregated in two or three, to create a “performance fragment”, around the idea of rewilding and tangling, in a short period of time. As background idea for the fragments, Karen focused on tangle and tangling, presenting some definitions and using two quotes, one from a Japanese architect (book called Tangling), the other from Ingold’s Lines. Organised in 3 groups, we were asked to do the performance fragments. Starting with the individual/duet performances, we were asked to aggregate them as a collective, with a transition in between (Duet/transition/duet; duet/duet/transition/duet).

At the end of the workshop, all participants were encouraged to reflect upon the performative experience. For some, it provided a new way of structuring things, beyond only one intellect or discipline, a conscious way to play around things, between artists and scientists, where the individual becomes a group. Besides people, it was also a tangling of ideas and materials, following or breaking rules. Other participants also mentioned the idea of movement (“you set things in motion and let it go”), the importance of non-verbal, embodied clues to communicate as a group, without instructions to work together, which might help to overcome the verbal difficulties to understand each other. The idea of soundscapes and sound as another way to reach out to broader audiences was also mentioned.

After an hour for personal exploration, the day and workshop were drawn to a close by a discussion facilitated by Laura Bissell and Sarah Hopfinger. Using Haraway’s metaphor of “staying with the trouble”, staying aligned towards the present, Laura asked: What can this moment and what can this configuration of people and practices offer to this discussion? She also underlined the idea of considering “the more-than-human as a collaborator in creating that performance moment”. Sarah, in turn, reflected upon the interconnectedness between rewilding and theatre-making, “as a medium, in its liveness”, as a collaboration “with the unintended, with the unpredictable”, an in-between “the intended and unintended, the managing and unmanaging, not necessarily knowing which one we’re doing.”

All participants were then prompted to talk about what to take from the workshop. The most consensual themes pertained to the ideas of lack of control and rules, uncertainty, constant movement and mutability of timespaces, and how they can be positive, contrary to the prevailing epistemologies of scientific knowledge, for instance. An increasing consciousness about body and senses was also referred to, namely in terms of sounds, rhythms, literal and metaphorical listening, and also attentiveness to uncanny elements in a familiar landscape. A last point focused on transdisciplinarity and what it may entail to blur the boundaries.

We were then asked to discuss in small groups about the affinities/points of connection and shared themes, which might be to do with reimagining collaborative methodologies, reimagining some of this terminology, like transdisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. After drawing some themes together, we would think about some of the tension points and come up with questions to share between the groups, as we gathered around the fire. Some of the questions presented were:

  • How do you sell rewilding? How do you make people want it? Now that the world largely accepts rewilding as a good development, what made everyone want rewilding?
  • What aspects of the past do we want to restore (and why)?
  • Where does the design come from? How do we get people to see what is not “right” in front of them? Specially because many of the things that we need to do will take decades to see the benefit of it…
  • How can we productively work at the edges of our disciplines and meet each other at the boundaries? [Boundaries as paths] might be a useful way of thinking about how we bring our disciplines together - that we might be walking together around the edges. In a way, it allows us to bring in things from both sides.

These question served as a motto for a more generalised discussions about connection between scientists and artists or performers. This discussion touched upon various themes, such as: fieldwork as a “performance practice”, playfulness or “exposing each other to the different languages” as a way to “erode boundaries, resistances and all type of difficulties”, willingly “putting yourself at that position of risk”, performance actors (humans and nonhumans) and places, or the role of witnessing.

With these ideas in mind, we went for dinner, where the discussion continued. After that, we all went to the campsite. Deer were silent this time, replaced by owls, and the acorns kept falling in the roof, ground and possibly in the pond further away – “the acorns are falling in the pond!”

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