In early 2020, we commissioned artist Isabella Martin to create new work exploring the traditional boundaries of the Pendle landscape.
After her first visit, the pandemic has prevented her returning to access the area, but Isabella has continued to make work and research from a studio in Denmark. Here she shares a poetic reflection on this experience and a new perspective on the project and its subject.
Time passes differently. That’s what we said for most of last year, and now we’re saying it again. There are many thoughts that would seem odd to our previous selves, not least among them this idea that the interior walls of our homes would become so incredibly familiar, so increasingly strange.
Over a year ago I began talking to In-Situ and visited Pendle Hill. I explored the trails up to the top, got lost on old sheep tracks, distracted by stacks of peat and piles of stones, an old reservoir, and then the view from the top. Green fields to the horizon, divided by hedges and walls. Distant settlements disappearing into the blue of distance. Back then I was beginning a period of open research, trying to think about history, themes, and ideas, but mostly just walking in that unconscious way that’s hard not to fall into when you’re by yourself in a new landscape. Passing strangers on the path occasioned a nod, a little step aside as we slipped by. A long wait for a bus was saved by a lift back to In-Situ in the passenger seat of a passing car, a brief conversation about timetables, weather, mud. Both events seem impossibly intimate now.
That trip, and many online conversations, led to the start of a project exploring the Pendle landscape and the heritage of the hedge and drystone wall field boundaries I’d viewed from above. I wanted to understand these traditional borders in terms of local ecosystems and geology, and the wider role they play in shaping our ideas of the countryside. This thinking expanded into histories of enclosures, of common land and private ownership, agricultural attitudes and processes, land access and heritage, flooding and the climate crisis. There is something apparently simple and impossibly complex about the skill of choosing and fitting stones together, guided by the effects of local geological processes, by practicality, by style, by function. Dry stone walls in particular represent a building and rebuilding that has occurred over hundreds of years. It is a reassuringly continuous process; stones gathered, assembled, undone, and worn smooth by weather, sheep, and hands and put back together again. Same, but different.
Of course, for a project exploring traditional boundaries to be interrupted by new unexpected boundaries feels almost inevitable now. As visits to Pendle, unfortunately, had to be postponed with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, the presence of these new boundaries becomes impossible to ignore. They’re as much an invisible and yet insistent part of our landscape as are the hedges and walls of the countryside: the front gate, the garden hedge, the walls of your home. The edging around strangers in the street judged by your idea of what 1, 2 metres feels like. The very familiar wall of your screen, which could have begun to feel less like a boundary, or maybe even more of one. The feeling switches second by second. Are boundaries also places? I asked myself this during initial research, as I began to think about walls and hedges from the perspective of a mouse, or a patch of moss.
There is a style of building a wall that’s intentionally unsteady and lets light show through cracks between the stones. The idea is that sheep won’t trust the wall enough to jump or climb it, so it deters them from even trying. The animals learn to give these walls a wide berth, having learned that they collapse at a touch. I learned this from a book, one of the many I’ve been sifting through in the absence of being back in Pendle. Wall building manuals, walking guides, local history pamphlets, online maps, and archives. Research and online conversations that were initially in preparation for muddy hikes, field recordings, and in-person meetings have become the primary source of engagement with this landscape and these ideas.
A project that began as intrinsically local has been refracted through the lens of the global. I’m thinking about walls in fields and I’m looking at the walls of my home, again. We’re used to looking at the walls around us, in that sense nothing is different. We still spend time inside, sitting in the same chairs as we did before. This time, the walls represent something different. They’ve become visible as boundaries; a line that marks the limits of an area, a division between you and everyone else.
An outline of something indicates the edge of an object. It’s essential to help us divide this from that. It doesn’t exist except as an abstract description. When we draw, we often start by tracing an outline, this isn’t something we can actually see, it just helps us begin somewhere. If this line is dashed or dotted, it becomes more visible, more uncertain. I think about walls with intentional cracks in-between the stones, and the idea that the perception of a boundary as fragile is perhaps the thing that keeps us from breaching it.
The delineation and experience of something as a boundary is always a matter of perspective, and not always one we are in control of. A wall is only a line when viewed from a distance. A boundary is also defined as the limit of something abstract, a collision of thought and reality. I’m thinking back again to the lines of walls and hedges running through the countryside. They could be seen not as the edges of something but as outlines that are inseparable from what they surround. Or rather as a site of movement through and into the landscape, if you’re a mouse.
Photo credits Isabella Martin
Photo Credits: From Lancashire County Council Maps & Related Information Online, 1960s Aerial photos of Pendle Hill, OS First Edition 1:2,500
Isabella Martin is commissioned by In-Situ as part of The Gatherings, the art and people strand of Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership. This work is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.