One simple line


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Posted on May 23, 2016


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The forbidding Wasdale Screes form a wall along the eastern edge of Wastwater, England’s deepest lake, which stretches for 4,888 metres. Just over a week ago, we placed a 1.5-metre wide strip of yellow material onto these screes, running from the base of a beautiful oak tree in a direct line, down to the dark water of the lake, 110 metres below the tree. The cloth was imprinted with the words of a poem written by Harriet. 

This installation is part of our work in a two-year project, The Long View, which uses seven trees as a trigger for exploring the land and its stories, and the many issues associated with trees, biodiversity and land use. In the course of the project, which has many elements, including work with schools and universities, public walks, poetry and photography, each of the seven trees is receiving a colour transformation and this was the first. 

You might think that 1.5 metres of yellow out set against 4,888 metres of hillside wouldn’t account for much. But the small yellow line stood out and punched well above its weight. It celebrated the oak tree it pointed to, and at the same time became a striking symbol for the impact that we humans have had on the planet in our relatively short time here.

And it made a huge impact on social media, with a flood of comments that surprised us in their intensity. The threads began with vitriol and complaints, and developed into personal abuse, name calling (‘idiots’, ‘sick morons’) and threats on our own wellbeing (such as a wish that ‘the artists’ would be strung up by the yellow cloth, or have it forcibly stuffed it up their … ).

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These kinds of comments were soon met with equally passionate calls for the installation to be celebrated and a many-layered debate about the issues that it was intended to raise. People began to discuss questions such as, What is natural? What is a wilderness? How much do we turn a blind eye to our negative impacts on the planet? Do we notice individual trees? What is a perfect view? Whose view is it anyway, and should it always stay the same? What choices do we make about our individual and collective impact on the environment? Questions were raised about attitudes to pollution, to deforestation, to reforestation, to traffic, to nuclear power … the list is very long. The installation also spurred a debate about the value of art to provoke questions, and revealed a polarisation of thinking about art in Cumbria – for some people the ‘natural beauty’ of the countryside is enough and art should be confined to museums; for others art in the landscape is welcome and should be encouraged. The online airwaves rippled for several days, BBC radio and online news picked it up, and people kept talking.

The Long View takes as its focus seven trees. The Wasdale Oak is just one. While we’re looking really closely at these trees, and at issues related to trees, this was never going to be the only thing we did. And the installation at the Wasdale oak has shown this – you can’t point to a single tree without quickly noticing that everything is connected. These last three words gave the installation its proper title - ‘Everything is Connected’ – although it was quickly given the name ‘The Yellow Line’.

The National Park is a place that’s designated for the enjoyment of everyone but meeting this requirement is a very, very difficult thing to do. It is a place where biodiversity as well as a rich human culture, which includes activities from farming to fell running and art, as well as mass tourism, are all supported. The Lake District is not alone in having to deal with conflicting demands and the impossibility of pleasing people with opposing views; and the debate that is centred on a local event could be relevant to many other parts of the planet. When we came up with the concept for the installation of the yellow line we were considering the connections that underpin nature, and the way that humans can break these connections, with frequently disastrous consequences. The day that Harriet wrote the poem for the line was the day that scientists declared that the death of numerous whales washed up on northern European beaches was caused by their consumption of plastic. Just one of many events that demonstrate that, through human action, a line has been crossed, and something has been broken. The resonance of the poem written for a particular tree, in a very particular place, has, it seems, gone beyond its small surface area of 165 square metres.

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To quote Neil Postman on the idea of Spaceship Earth from ‘The End of Education’ (1996):

“We have here, then, a narrative of extraordinary potential: the story of human beings as stewards of the Earth, caretakers of a vulnerable space capsule. … If any part of the spaceship is poisoned, then all suffer – which is to say that the extinction of the rainforest is not a Brazilian problem; the pollution of the oceans is not a Miami problem; the depletion of the ozone layer is not an Australian problem… ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls,’ wrote John Donne. ‘It tolls for thee.’ If ever there was a narrative to animate that idea, the Earth as our one and only spaceship is it… This is an idea whose time has come. It is a story of interdependence and global cooperation, of what is at the core of humanness; a story that depicts waste and indifference as evil, that requires a vision of the future and a commitment to the present.”

Here are some notes Harriet wrote the morning after we had removed the cloth from the screes:

“The air is entirely still. Screes, trees, grass reflected in a still lake, blue sky edged with picture-perfect fluffy clouds. When we reached the Wasdale Oak last night at about 8.30pm a lone cloud rested on Great Gable and turned, slowly, from grey to white to salmon pink. The wind dispersed and we took the cloth away with a gentleness and calmness, three sets of people working opposite one another, pulling out pegs and rolling the yellow. Behind the cloth wood sorrel had put out delicate flowers, bracken was unfurling. The saplings we had cut round were a rich green. No flora or fauna were harmed in the making of this brief ephemeral work. Nothing harmed except perhaps people’s sense of rightness or righteousness. And as well as the growth of flowers and ferns along the line there has been a growth of friendships - new friends made among a group if people who are willing and eager to support statements like this and say, it's ok, just for a few days, to put something different in front of people's eyes and suggest, just maybe, that it's worth considering our own points of view and the possibility of change.”

You can read more about the installation, including the poem that appears on the cloth, at The Long View website and the blog post 'Everything is Connected'.

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And to finish, here are some of the comments that have been posted on Facebook – a very small sample of more than 300,000 words we have so far collected. We’d like to thank everyone who has joined in the debate.

I'll defend it because I love it and I love the reasoning behind it but mostly I love it because its got you pompus up your own backsides members of this group outraged at having our (I'm a born & bred local) heavy industrial man made landscape forced back into your faces rather than the chocolate box image of 'naturalness' you all con yourselves into believing.

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A: There's a place for art but this isn't it. Spoiling the countryside is a sin ????
B: And where is that place for site-specific, outdoor, public Art if it isn't here?
A: Anywhere but in the country.
B: So, only people who live in cities should have access to modern Art? This isn't the best piece of Art, but it is successful as it has got hundreds of people talking about it and the landscape around it. Art doesn't have to be liked, and your idea of what the countryside should look like isn't shared by everyone. I like it, and am looking forward to the next installation.

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And let's us all appreciate the magic natural beauty of the Lakes, + not do this stupid stuff! It's not a London new art gallery for plonkers, it's a beautiful, unspoilt part of the world, + I for one am appalled at this, + the sooner it's gone, the better!! I'm up to Scotland again on Friday, + a little detour to destroy this thing can be added to my agenda! (smile emoticon)

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The whole point of Art is to try to get behind the surface of what you see and discuss it properly.

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I'm also amazed at how furious people are over such a temporary and low impact thing. Maybe those who are shouting for art to be kept in galleries (in their 'proper' place) don't seem to realise that if all art was in galleries, lots of us would never have been exposed to it.

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It's beautiful. I love it.

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A: I can only hope that this ugly scar on one of the most unspoilt beautiful places in England is removed, without any traces, at the earliest opportunity.
B: Unspoilt. Totally. Apart from the pylons, cables, road, stone walls, buildings, acres of monoculture caused by grazing sheep, damns, constructed footpaths, buildings, pub, car park, constructed watercourses, signs, pine plantation, farms, farm machinery, portaloos and reservoir. How dare they put a piece of yellow ribbon in there for two weeks. The cheek of it, in OUR unspoilt valley!
C: I'm often amazed by the level of aggression and intolerance humans beings are capable of directing towards each other on Facebook. Have they nothing better to get worked up about than a temporary art installation? I think it's fab.

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I loved it and am absolutly gutted that people from this Facebook group set up a witch hunt against the two lovely artists that became so abusive and included a death threat that their work was taken down a week early and under the cover of darkness due to said threats which in its self put them at heightened risk on that tarrain. Its an utter disgrace that this group allowed its hatred of anything different however fleeting to escilate to such a dangerous and damaging degree! I'm sickened to my stomach by those who only visit my county but feel they have the god given right to take such selfish ownership of it and ignore us locals or are so envyous they feel they have to ruin things and be insulting just because they can. Its time you all started respecting our home for what it is, a living breathing working changing area like any other and we resent being held back in the dark ages just so you can have a lovely week or so. We find it beautiful AND evolving and if you wish to come here and still be welcomed and have us tollerate you bloody well respect the fact that we like art that you might not 'get' but we do and dont sit back and passively take part in witch hunts and general slagging off and moaning about shit that in the greater scheme of things is nothing more than a slight annoyance.

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