I’ve been interested in the potential of culinary offerings that resonate with the core themes of my animated imagery since staging a feast – for the eyes, ears and tastebuds – for the Countryfile cameras; a showcase for my collaboration with the Great Crane Project and farming communities in the Somerset Levels. The resulting episode aired to seven million people and farmer Roderick Hector – who featured in the soundtrack of Echo-Maker and in whose barn the event took place – saw a surge in enquiries concerning his amazing Devon Ruby Red beef following a glowing endorsement from the ubiquitous Matt Baker.
Consequently this has been something I wanted to develop within this project from the outset. For earlier iterations of the ‘oeuvre’ see here, where pies and beer champion our indigenous hyaena (Billy) as standard bearer for adaptability and an altered perception of time. And here, where St. Melangell’s Pie presents the mountain hare, our truly indigenous hare, now a climate change refugee and bearer of questions surrounding our own future as a species.
Back in the Somerset Levels, for the chorus of Echo-Maker I took Aldo Leopold’s evocative and insightful words about the crane to convey its being in both human and beyond-human worlds. Leopold wrote ‘When we hear his call we hear no mere bird – we hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untameable past, the wild sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men’.
In just the same way, the curlew is a great deal more than a charismatic bird with a haunting song. It is ambassador for an ecosystem on which we are utterly dependent for our own well-being. It is flood mitigation. It is carbon sequestration. It is a host of less culturally resonant species, all of which depend on each other for survival. It is us, our divided politics, our mores, our future. And it is both spring, renewal, hope and the avatar of wild, empty spaces. Like the crane perhaps, it speaks of an untameable past for which we in our micro-managed twenty first century lives hanker.
In aspiring to meaningful action which might help arrest the demise of the curlew, over the last eighteen months I have been tuning into Curlew Action’s excellent and thought-provoking series of seminars in order to educate myself about the complex issues surrounding curlew conservation. In the most recent, ‘Curlews and Silage’, Professor Russell Wynn spoke of the need for holistic action encompassing not just frontline conservation but a comprehensive buy-in by the wider public as consumers if the curlew and everything it serves as flagship for is to be rescued from impending oblivion. Our extraction from the land comes at a price to that which inhabits it.
This chimes with my own long held perception and accordingly with the tragic story of the other bird this project is concerned with – the great auk. Put simply, overconsumption – our profligacy – rendered the great auk extinct. The curlew is currently on the same trajectory as the great auk and for much the same reasons. We don’t appear to be very good at absorbing and acting on the lessons of the past; at living within our means. And perhaps our crime against the curlew is all the greater because our knowledge of the mechanism of extinction is so much clearer than it was in 1844.
We waste a lot of food. Taking more than is needed is a definition of greed and greed is, of course, a delicate subject to be contemplating in the midst of a cost of living crisis. But the fact is that the wealthiest in society are responsible for a disproportionately high carbon footprint. More than half a million tonnes of dairy products are wasted every year. And beyond all that, when you contemplate the World War Two food ration it’s difficult not to conclude that a good many of us eat more than we need to. When we discussed all this in Ysgol Bryn Coch recently one boy stuck his hand up and said “I think I eat too much”. I wanted to hug him for his honesty and courage.
How then do we feed a nation and balance the books, such as to diminish the damage to biodiversity we continue to inflict at a greater rate than almost any other nation? And how do we make consumers aware of the far-reaching consequences of their actions in landscapes with which they have fleeting connection? The curlew asks us these questions – and with increasing urgency. Farming and food production inevitably come under the spotlight.
My work as artist in residence for Radnorshire Wildlife Trust’s Rhos Pasture Restoration Project has shown me that we need cattle in the uplands as ecosystem engineers which benefit the curlew, the black grouse, butterflies et al (including us) – but in the right numbers and at the right time. This is a world away from the abhorrent cattle lots of the USA, one of which blew up recently killing a staggering 18,000 animals. Upland grass-fed beef is however comparatively inefficient as a protein source in terms of production cost, so one can only envisage a mid to long term future in which it becomes a premium product marketed to that wealthy (carbon-belching) minority. Think Waygu beef – but without all the air miles. More cost-effective food production resulting in affordable food will take place elsewhere where it’s easier.
I’m also increasingly interested in ‘doughnut economics’ which espouse a circular, non-extractive ethos echoing the underpinning philosophy of many indigenous cultures – stemming from the architecture of nature itself. Inuit traditional culture (which is disappearing as it meets the Western way) is founded on a gift economy. The hunter doesn’t pursue his or her quarry, rather the animal gives itself to the hunter provided due respect has been shown. There is then an obligation to share the harvest – to give. ‘Rights’ as such don’t exist – society is based on this assumption of non-extractive sharing; of the gift. Thus, everything is passed on, a circular flow maintained and symbiosis exists. This tenet is visible in nature, where everything gives to that with which it co-exists.
There’s no suggestion of antipathy to profit per se in all this. It just has to be sustainably arrived at. My feeling is then that we need to find food narratives which promote producers who are embracing this sustainable ethos and are therefore able to perform a vital role in delivering interwoven public and environmental goods. There is, after all, a sizeable cohort of affluent consumers who want to invest in such stories – and who aren’t going to get any poorer. This, I suspect, is the future of upland farming as increasingly stretched public finances mean levels of subsidy for farms will come increasingly under the microscope. We all must adapt – or die.
Reassuringly, I see this future made real close to home in a regenerative here and now at Swan’s Farm, Treuddyn. And a narrative of hope manifest stemming from this hub: one of co-operation and sharing with other regional producers Hafod Brewery and Black Mountain Honey whose impacts radiate out all the way down to the heather and the black grouse around Llandegla. This ethos will similarly benefit the curlew – and all it represents.
In Ysgol Dyffryn Iâl, Llandegla, we’ve been talking about the symbiosis between the black grouse, the bee and the heather. We shouldn’t be surprised that research undertaken at Royal Holloway University London shows that heather contains a ‘medicine’ which kills harmful parasites in the stomach of the bee should we? For this is the way things are in nature; evolution over thousands of millennia has yielded a network of interdependence and beneficial relationships which we are only beginning to understand and appreciate.
So, with a swirling chorus of spring curlew bubble song, I present this small collection of food offerings which stand for all of the above – a story to reflect on as you mindfully munch and sip.
We must do the same.
PS. I’m sure there are other examples of positive action out there but they haven’t presented themselves yet. Maybe this start will provide the catalyst for a suitably spring-like emergence. I hope so – I’d really like to develop this further.
PPS. You can see the film I made about the symbiosis between butterflies, cattle and people Y Clymau Sy’n Cynnal in our Watermill Cinema at Loggerheads on the 28th April – details here.