Site-Specific Exercises

Last Thursday, I cycled over to West Town Farm near Ide for a workshop on Site-Specific Writing. The lovely Oriana from Resident Writers organised it with Christine from OrganicARTS, based at the Farm. OrganicARTS has done a lot of work with pottery using clay from the Farm, natural materials and dyes, and it has been an ambition to encourage writers too.

We convened in the workshop for introductions and a cup of tea. Then Chrstine led us on a tour of the Farm, while we chattered enthusiastically and incidentally followed Oriana’s instructions to notice places and things that touched us – whether veg patch, old railway cutting, shepherd’s hut, open fields, skeletons of buildings, henge of native trees, woodland, pigs afar off. Then Oriana brought us back to the workshop and gave us a tour not so much of the theory of site-specific work, but of some illustrative and inspiring examples. After a shared lunch (Bryce brought the most incredible vegan gluten-free chocolate brownies), she put us to work on a series of timed exercises.

There were about fifteen of us, with an impressive range of experience and genre. I felt a little – well, being on a beef farm, I think the word has to be – cowed. But it really didn’t matter. The whole day was so laid back, and the slightly ramshackle workshop with its patina of clay so welcoming to informality, that sharing of our attempts was surprisingly unthreatening. So here are mine.

Exercise 1

Think of three characteristics you have, or things you believe in or stand for. How could they be represented by things at the Farm? The exercises were all very flexible. Stories could be poems. Three could be one.

Make connections

There is no sign now of the old railway line except a cutting, but it is still linking places and sparking connections…

I am under the sea, looking up to the surface far above. The ferns are the fronds of seaweed drifting in the current. All around are the rocks, the earth – a sea bed of sediment laid down, compressed, pummelled, churned and turned. Fallen trees are the masts of long-drowned tall ships, now encrusted with lichen corals, barnacle-strong mosses and waving ivy anemones. There is treasure set among the mast roots.

Attentive to the common-place

Bramble shoots hang from the old railway bridge over the cutting. Year-by-year they add feet of growth until eventually they will reach the bottom of the cutting and root themselves and spawn. Rapunzel is letting down her thorny tresses, up which we can climb to ambiguous adventures.

Slightly eccentric

I want to dig into the woodchip pile and snuggle amongst the warmth of composting mulch.

Exercise 2

Imagine your niece or nephew has never been to a farm. Tell them a short story to describe the farm.

Once upon a time, because that’s how the old stories lost in the mist and mizzle always begin… once upon a time, there was a Town in the West. There were shops and houses in the Town, surrounded by tarmac and concrete and barren lawn, and the shops and the houses were filled with stuff. The roads around them were straight and smooth, and filled with cars and lined with signs telling the cars what to do. And on the northwest of the Town, there were highrises, tall and grey.

But in this Town in the West there lived a Talking Head, which spoke of oases and rivers, fields and trees, daisies and berries. And as it spoke the Town began to change. The highrises began to put out branches, and their sides became grooved and knotty. The branches put out leaves and buds and flowers. And the specks of air pollution became bees and hoverflies and pollinated the flowers. And as the trees put their roots down into the water supply system, the fruit started to swell and ripen, and the people laughing climbed to pick it.

The cars abandoned by the people became cows and sheep and pigs. The roads cracked and curved, and the central reservation and the streetlights and signs all blossomed into hedgerows. And the cows and sheep and pigs all grazed on the hedgerows and the tarmac, which had become grass and wild flower meadows. The sodium lamps burst into sprays of elderflower, and the blue signs to the M5 became speedwell and borage in the hedgerows; and the red stop signs and traffic lights became red campion and foxgloves, and later haws and rose hips; and the green A-road signs and traffic lights became the many-hued greens of may and rowan and ash and spindle and hazel and alder and willow.

And as the Head continued to talk, the shops and houses started to spread themselves wide and long, and all the stuff in them began to take root and grow. The stuff in the buildings with cellars became parsnips and carrots and potatoes, and the stuff in the bungalows became cabbages and chard and pumpkins, and the stuff in the terraced town houses became rows of runner beans and tomatoes climbing high. And the barren lawns grew into fields of grain waving their heads in the breeze.

And the people spent their days looking after the farm that used to be the Town in the West, and celebrating a place that was no longer a grey desert, but bursting with life and growth gifted by the Talking Head.

Idea for story sparked by Talking Heads “(Nothing But) Flowers”

Exercise 3

Write a lyrical recipe, or an ode to a vegetable.

It’s best to pass over this one.

Exercise 4

Write a story or poem about a place on the farm that moved you. Or write about how you found the day, the group, the farm, site-specific writing.

Time out from my routine. Morning writings interrupted. But this is writing too – inspiring people, new perspectives, stretching exercises. And a challenge: can I find an environment becomes a place provoking words, while surrounded by a group chattering away? There are many stories here, from many sources, but must I be alone to listen to the stories of the land?

To native trees whispering of delving deep and reaching high, of fellings and fallings and rebirth. To bardic birds, singing of territorial battles and courtship, and daily meals hard hunted, and the fierce joy of it all. To wildflowers, writing with light and colour, and eager pollinators humming and whirring as they sup from jewelled cups. To the human remains, the steam lane become green lane become cathedral, arched with trunks and fallen spars and ancient-to-modern brickworks.

And did I listen properly through the others’ words, and give them their due?

The Way Home

I’d not cycled to Ide before, and I discovered a new-to-me old lane in Exeter. My route lay along the familiar stretch down Woodwater Lane, beside Wonford Playing Fields and down to the river. A modern arched footbridge took me across the river, a swing bridge across the canal, and an older brick bridge across the railway. Barad-dûr, the incinerator under construction, stands guard at this entrance to the Marsh Barton Trading Estate, where I always cycle at peril from the criminal negligence of white van SMIDSYs.

I tried a new route; instead of going straight ahead and through Alphington, I turned right immediately, then left and past Sainsbury’s, where there’s a section of cycle path. I still didn’t manage to suss the A377 Alphington Road / Cowick Lane / B3123 Church Road junction, though, and this time I was aiming for my new old lane. Ball Farm Road runs roughly parallel to the A30, and it took me to the footbridge over the A30 and Ide Road. A corkscrew up, over, and a corkscrew back down delivered me into the heart of Ide. Now was possibly the most dangerous part of the journey. Country lanes are not busy but there are a disproportionate number of accidents as motorists drive too fast. Anyway, it was still beautiful, and not too steep, and I arrived safely.

But the best was left to last. After a day in the countryside, the ride back through the country lanes acted as a gentle reimmersion into the weavings of nature through and around the urban and suburban landscape.