Past and Present

As a way of understanding the changes to the landscape of the woods, I’ve found the old photos archived in Middleton Library very useful. Comparing views of the land in photos from the 1950s and ’70s allows me to answer questions I had regarding how old certain wooded areas were. For example, the area in the picture below seemed old to me when I walked though it. Bearing in mind that I know next to nothing about dating trees and areas like this based on the growth and characteristics of the flora, my ideas were conditioned totally by a subjective feeling of walking through a shady, prickly patch populated by bent over, thorny trees and shrubs.

It turns out that this patch of ground — in the middle, where the wet patch is between the trees and the houses — was completely clear before the 1960s.


This is what I meant in the initial post by the ‘romantic nonsense’ my head is stuffed with, and which this research is stripping away. I’d rather have knowledge about how the land has changed over time than a fantasy based on uninformed ideas about the natural world.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the River Irk’s course was changed at some point after this photo was taken in the late 1950s. See the small boy running across the field in the foreground!

I took my own photo from approximately the same vantage point, just in front of Alkrington Hall.

2016-07-27 13.11.40

The following photos, from the late 1970s on the left and now on the right, show how the appearance of trees has totally changed the aspect when walking from the lodges and along the river towards the town centre.

These ones taken from the field along the main road show how major buildings in Middleton are now obscured from view. Fencing post have also been taken down and paths are less obvious.

I feel disorientated by these pictures from only a few decades ago, because they present the land to me in a way that I do not experience now. When finding the spots from which the old photos were taken, I have to orient myself according to buildings that are still there — like Warwick Mill — but which are no longer visible from that vantage point due to the growth of trees.

I find it difficult to represent these changes using pictures or to describe them using words. Both seem to fall short of the actual experience of walking that path to the town centre: not only today, which I did as I walked from home to the library and back again, but also the knowledge I have of the terrain in my head, built up over some 18 months of walking. (Something I like about this patch of land is the variety: of terrain, altitude, paths that intersect. It gives a sense of infinite variety, that you could take any number of routes through the land based on whim and, as is often the case for me, the need to escape aggressive dogs. This creates a very flexible  sense of the land, as I’ve approached areas from multiple directions and know where things are in relation to each other.)

I need a human perspective based on the knowledge I have and the imagination I am compelled to use in juggling the terrain as it is now with what the photographic record tells me it used to be. Therefore, I’m trialling drawing as a way of showing multiple images that now coexist in my head. Stylistically, they are both sort of ‘mappy’ sketches, pointing out changes to perspectives and shapes in the landscape (as in the river boundary change), but also hopefully skilful enough to work as drawings in which, say, trees can be identified as such.

I don’t think these drawings are totally successful; I’ll explain why and why I made certain decisions in my next post. The method has potential, though.

Reflections on my current research methods

It strikes me that what I’m trying to do here is very different to what I’d do if I was trying to write a cultural history of this land as an academic for an academic audience. I definitely am not suggesting that academics would not do similar things as a way of understanding what they were trying to do, or that they wouldn’t experiment with ways of presenting their ideas. I have been influenced in starting this project by Katrina Navickas’s work on ‘protest and the politics of space and place‘ in her website of the same name, which also takes the form of an academic monograph. This post represents the routes protesters took into the centre of Manchester on the day of the Peterloo Massacre, and maps the residences of victims. As we learned at this year’s Chartism day conference, she is currently creating films in which protest marches through the centre are shown with digitized images of buildings and crowds. It was well received by the audience and the atmosphere was energized (in the final panel, as well) by a novel way of representing things we thought we already knew. The innovation stimulated others to think about the subject and was therefore very helpful in promoting the healthiness of the field as a whole. I will be looking more closely at her use of digital techniques to see what tools are available to me.

So, these things are definitely done, I just can’t imagine doing them myself as an early-career academic, concerned to build up a roster of research ‘outputs’ in ‘esteemed journals’ in time for the next REF cycle (apologies to readers who don’t know what this means, but I won’t explain this; I’d rather not know myself). I would be too worried about ‘wasting time’ on experiments and potentially non-productive labour, even though I think such an approach might be the only way (for me, at least) to keep sane and to keep the intellectual and creative spirits alive in a system that I experienced as destructive and couldn’t accept.

As it is, I have complete freedom in this forum to represent my ideas in any medium that feels appropriate. In that way, I feel like I have returned to a more well-rounded version of myself, before academic specialization encouraged me to develop one aspect of my personality and abilities, and I inevitably left others behind in that time-consuming project. Now it feels like it’s time to return to activities I’ve left behind and explore them.

Drawing, as above, is one such activity. I don’t do it now with the ease and confidence that I had as a kid, but that might return if I keep it up. If I use both written and visual media, it will be hard if not impossible to assert a distinction between intellectual and visual-art forms of creativity. Such a division feels false to me.

Another important part of this research is walking, both through the woods for pleasure and through them on the way to Middleton Library to access the archive materials. As in my previous post on this subject, I used a sports app to track my route, which can be viewed here. (The return leg is choppier as I stopped to take photos for this post and, at one point, scramble up a slope to escape a threatening dog.) Walking is a crucial part of this research, as I take certain routes to collect photographic evidence, and take those routes repeatedly, as I have to compare impressionistic memories with the exact contours of the landscape that photos in the archive tell me either were there (before land management) or that are still there but which are now obscured by the recent growth of trees. As I walked to the library, I anticipated the batch of photos that I intended to look at today and kept an eye out for features I’d have to think more carefully about. On the return leg, I planned the structure of this post and confirmed or rejected suspicions about potential changes to the landscape that the latest research had suggested.

This approach need not take me away from theoretical considerations, either. In thinking about walking I was reminded of reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking, and how central walking has been to the work flows and health of writers and thinkers. I also suspect that returning to the writings of John Berger might help me to understand what I’m trying to do with using drawing as a way of representing my ideas. Drawing forces you to really observe the object of study, and would therefore teach me a lot about the things I focus on.

In short, I think that this project and the approach I’m taking has potential, and could lead me in many different directions, which is exciting.


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