Wilding on the inside

Artist Fiona Macdonald explains how living in nature expands her artistic imagination.

Fiona Macdonald01 Apr 2019

When I moved out of the city in 2012, I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on me. On my health and wellbeing, for sure, but also on my understanding of what Life was, and what my place or purpose in it was.  

Yes. Exactly.  

I didn’t go seeking this foment. It crept up on me. Quite literally, in some cases (ants). Despite having only moved just beyond the M25, a series of quietly penetrating ideas and beings revolutionised my work as an artist. 

For twenty years, I had been excited by and worked with landscape and organic forms, but via a fairly conventional studio practice based in painting. I painted exotic plants uncannily emerging from the tangled undergrowth of English woodlands; abstracted or personified mushrooms, ivy covered fenceposts, rootballs. Small views, closeups and textures fascinated me, and were rendered into lush textured canvases or delicate watercolours. But as I grew into this newly wildish place, I moved towards a very different approach, in which the landscape was not so much a ‘view’ to be appreciated or represented, but a living breathing tangle of lives being led alongside my own. My artistic imagination, having been trained to think about objects and images in white-walled spaces, stepped out into a complex living world, and couldn’t quite bring itself to get back indoors.  

In some ways it is a subtle shift from appreciating nature as visually exciting to appreciating nature as a multiplicity of lively beings whose worlds intersect our own. But it alters one’s ethical relation to landscape completely. For most people a healthy field of wheat looks like ‘nature’. It can look beautiful, after all, as it washes golden in the breeze (or even as a nascent PM runs a wake through it). But once your focus changes, it is not so much the wheat you notice as what is not there. Which, all too often, is anything else.  

View of Darent river
Darent river, Kent © Friends of the Earth

The Darent Valley is bordered by chalk hills with thin soils that don’t support arable farming on the higher slopes, and thus in places the land is allowed some unusual freedoms, or benign neglect. Orchids flourish, as do hawthorns, elder, dog roses, vetches, yews, crosswort, clovers, scarlet and yellow pimpernel, plantains, gentians… the list is long. These plants in turn support a (relative) proliferation of insect life, which in turn supports birds and reptiles and fish and voles and moles and… well… you get the picture. In places, at times, it is almost brimming. It drops hints of the glorious, diverse abundance of life that we’ve largely squandered, in pursuit of profit, or cheap food.  

Even when we live in rural places, we often act as if nature is just the more or less attractive backdrop for the real business of our lives. Somewhere to walk the dog, take the kids, fall in love, de-stress. Nature remains over there, the ‘scenery’ to the ‘action’ of human needs and drama. Which, once you stop and take stock, is anthropocentric nonsense. We rely on thousands of species for our food, clothes, medicines, digestion and immune system. A vole is the centre of her own world quite as much as I am the centre of mine. Gradually, as I slowed down, and looked ‘inside’ the view, ideas of human uniqueness began to unravel. In response, the core of my artistic work turned towards an enquiry into how we might relate more creatively and imaginatively to nonhuman beings, and how art might enable and reflect encounters between species. 

Artist Fiona Macdonald communing with nature
Fiona communing with nature © Fiona Macdonald

How species interact, communicate, eat, exploit, and adapt to each other, and thus co-create local ecologies, is not fixed or random, but culturally and temporally determined. Humans change things, but so do ants, beavers, fungi, trees... If you are intrigued by the potential of ‘rewilding’ you will have heard about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.1 The wolves now keep the deer population on the move, which means that previously overgrazed valley-sides have recovered their plant life, which in turn benefits numerous other species. You could say that the colours of the pattern are returning. The wolves, because their actions have a profound effect on the whole ecology, are described as ‘keystone’ species.  

Rewilding, though, can happen anywhere; perhaps needs to happen (at different scales) everywhere. Waste ground and brownfield sites harbour a species’ diversity that conventionally farmed land, with its hectares of chemically treated monocultures, can only dream of. In recent analyses of organic farmland, ecologist Dr Darren Evans’ team were surprised to discover that the fundamental species to the health of the farm as a whole were common ‘weeds’ like buttercups, thistles, clover and cow parsley.2 These humble plants fed diverse insects and birds, who in turn protected the crops. 

In the 19th Century, landscape painters and poets revolutionised the way people thought about rugged, mountainous terrain, reframing people’s fear and horror by highlighting the majesty and drama of these untamed places, where the soul might be lifted. Writers and artists now play a role in steering aesthetic appreciation away from glamour and order towards the intertwined glories of the tangled bank, weedy edges, lively scrub.   

Since my relocation, the art always emerges in co-production with other human and nonhuman beings, so we go by the name of  Feral Practice.  What Feral Practice aims to do is bring suggestive spaces of not knowing into human imagination – creating space in which people can engage imaginatively with nonhuman beings, and perceive them and ourselves in new ways.   

It’s timely that this ‘escape from captivity’ for art was not inspired by pristine wilderness, but by an (admittedly lovely) edgeland, one of thousands of ordinary-extraordinary places on the perimeter of cities. Places where human and nonhuman, wild and domestic beings bump up against each other continually, landscapes that contain multiple pressures and enormous potential, given the will, for enabling a wide diversity of nonhuman and human lives to blossom. 

Fiona MacDonald is an artist and researcher who works with human and nonhuman beings as Feral Practice to create art projects across species boundaries.