Read: Trees breathe out. We breathe in.Katie Holten

Katie Holten

 

Tell us about what’s happening at Ardee bog, and why you are campaigning to stop it.

 

Ardee Bog, in Ireland’s County Louth, is threatened by an absurd infrastructure project. If a proposed road, the N52 Ardee Bypass, is allowed to proceed in its current form it will cut through Ardee Bog and its surrounding buffer zone habitat, violating many local, regional, and European directives. The damage this would cause is inconceivable. An Environmental Impact Assessment was never carried out. The “planners” drew a line on a map, connecting two existing roads by slicing through the bog. What they saw as a blank space on the map is a real, living, breathing ecosystem.

Ardee Bog photographed by Katie Holten in 2019

I grew up on the edge of Ardee Bog and spent a lot of time there when I was younger. I made my first artworks in and about the bog; a series of drawings, photographs, and strange musical manifestations called Bog Awareness. I love the bog but hadn’t appreciated just how unusual it is until a few years ago. As Ireland’s most easterly raised bog it’s a rare gem, not only locally, but globally. A proposed Natural Heritage Area, it’s a sanctuary of heather, a living carpet of psychedelic greens and reds of sphagnum moss, lichen and sundew, with yellows and pinks of bog orchids, and whites of bog cotton. Otters, cuckoos, owls, hares, bats, frogs, deer, and snipe call it home. Curlews too! They appear to be nesting nearby. Their haunting call fills the air. We’re trying to monitor and confirm their presence. Curlews may become extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within ten years, so it’s vital that we protect them and their habitat.

The Last Curlew (Flying Toward Extinction), ink on paper, animated, 2020

As I wrote last year, a road can be relocated, but Ardee Bog can’t. When the government announced the resurrection of this destructive scheme, a neighbour and I started researching to find out what we could about the bog, past and present. Friends of Ardee Bog was born. I made a website and started a petition. Now there are more of us and we’re actively working to conserve and protect the bog.

Bogs are beautiful. As the largest store of carbon in the Irish landscape, you could say they’re Ireland’s rainforest. Bogs hold 75% of the soil’s organic carbon and can sequester and store atmospheric carbon for thousands of years, so Irish peatlands are vital in mitigating the effects of climate change. We need to protect them, not drive roads through them.

Perhaps the saddest part of this road project is that the reason a bypass was proposed in the first place was to help reduce traffic congestion in the town of Ardee. But the real traffic comes from the N2 coming from Dublin, not the N52 from Kells. The new road would bypass the wrong part of town! Local politicians have been aggressively promoting the road as a sign of their “support” for the local economy. Local people go along with it because it’s the only story they’re told. They don’t understand that it’s a non-sensical plan that will cost millions more than the millions proposed eighteen years ago when the road was first proposed. Beyond the financial costs though, it will cause extreme, non-reversible environmental harm. The planners didn’t even realise the area is a Flood Zone until we told them. Their road will be under three feet of water after heavy rainfall, which is most of the year. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

How has the Irish landscape inspired your work as an artist?

 

I crave the mossy depths and fern filled dampness of home. When I read Robert Macfarlane’s Ness I identified with the character called “she.” She is “lichen & her flesh is moss & her bones are fungi & she breathes spores.” It’s always felt like the land is a part of me and I’m a part of it. We’re all made of the same stuff, stardust and water. We’ll rot and fall back into the earth, feeding something else that will blossom when we’re gone. The whole planet’s breathing and we’re a little part of it, like dust motes – like the virus – we float around doing our thing, minding our own business, but we’re all connected. At the root of my work is an obsession with trying to understand these connections.

It’s apparent now that our systemic problems stem from a failure of imagination. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten to listen to the land, forgotten to listen to our old stories. I believe we need to remember these memories, reconnect with our local landscapes and reach backwards through time so we can find a meaningful way forward. As a walker, I explore the world on foot, step by step. The Irish landscape is riddled with stone walls and stories, seventy thousand Irish place-names, and countless fairy trees. The Irish word for fairy is sidhe. The Sanskrit word is siddhi, mythical being. I’m unearthing creation myths and old folk tales, drawing new fairytales…

 

You’ve recently created an ‘Irish Tree Alphabet’. How did the project come about?

 

 

Isn’t it about time that our stories consciously embrace other species? Why are our books full of humans when the world is teeming with so many other creatures? Why is it taking us so long to get over the myth of human supremacy? I started making Tree Alphabets (and Stone Alphabets) as a simple way to write from another perspective, beyond my human body. It was a way to invite other species into my thinking. Non-humans also have stories to tell, lessons to teach us. Maybe we can’t understand each other yet but opening yourself to another being is the first step in a relationship.

A few years ago I transplanted words from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to streets in Dublin’s city centre, spelling out his sentences, letter by letter with ceramic tiles, like a giant game of scrabble. Lucretius was the first to write about atoms. Nothing comes from nothing. Everything has its seed. I felt like I was playing with the molecules of language. My new alphabets go further. I realised that I could collapse language by dismantling the alphabet entirely, rebuilding it from the roots up. Replacing each letter of the Latin alphabet with a tree created a new ABC. I drew a family of trees, one species for each letter of the alphabet, creating a Tree Alphabet and a typeface called Trees. In the new Irish Tree Alphabet, A is Ailm (Scots pine), B is Beithe (Birch), C is Coll (Hazel), etc.

Ireland has an ancient “tree alphabet.” Ogham is a medieval alphabet used to write early Irish. It survives today as part of our folklore: enigmatic inscriptions on stones. In Ogham, the characters were called feda “trees” or nin “forking branches” due to their shape. So it was inevitable that I dive deep into the Ogham before I could make my own new Irish Tree Alphabet. Because I can’t speak Irish and no one speaks Ogham, it was complicated. I just wrote about the experience for Emergence Magazine.

During lockdown I started drawing bog pollen. As pollen is stored in the peat for thousands of years, it’s a way to see what trees grew there at different points in time, what was native and what’s moved in as the climate has changed. Understanding these changes during the last ten thousand years will give us some sense of what to expect going forward, as even more climatic chaos unfolds. Once I started drawing the pollen, I realised that I was adding another member to the Irish Trees font family. One day the font will let you write the seasons, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, as well as type with pollen, spores, and roots.

 

Bog Pollen (A, B, C), ink on paper, 2020

 

How do you hope that people might use the tree alphabet, and how might it impact on their relationship with the natural world?

 

Reading and writing are how we compose ourselves and make sense of the world. Could translating from English into Trees (or other beings) help us conjoin ourselves with the world around us? What happens when we translate what we think we know into Trees? If nothing else, it slows us down, forces us to look again, re-read what we thought we knew, re-forest our imaginations…

Tree Alphabets also offer the possibility to plant your words, see them take root and grow. We can use the place-based “living” alphabets for New York City and Ireland as planting guides. As we reconsider what monuments can be, shouldn’t we consider living memorials as well as lumps of bronze? What if we plant living time capsules with secret messages written to our future selves? Why limit ourselves to writing online when we can make our words matter by planting them. We can seed secret messages of resistance, plant blooming poems, cultivate landscapes of renewal, germinate dreams…

Trees breathe out. We breathe in. But what happens when there’s only one tree left? Although there’s been a lot of talk recently of planting trees, much of it is problematic and not a real solution. I’m an optimist, but I do fear that we’re getting awfully close to a point of no return. Last year and again this year we’re literally watching the Amazon and Pantanal incinerate. At this rate, pretty soon the Amazon rainforest will turn to Savannah. It’s like we’re rushing towards an Easter Island scenario, gobbling up all our trees until it’s too late. My tree alphabets are a simple gesture with a huge heart.

 

What do you believe is the role of the artist in the Anthropocene?

 

Like a lot of people, I think, I struggle every day with what it means to be a human in the Anthropocene. I’m always trying to see how I can make a difference and, hopefully, make the world a better place. Being an artist is not separate from being human. What is the role of being human today? I think we all have to follow our own journey. What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What do I love? What can I help with? The only responsible role really, I think, must be to do whatever it is you’re good at. ACT! LOVE! DREAM! We only have this one brief, precious life. I’ve always believed that my work matters, that it’s about searching for the truth, what it is to be alive on this planet, at this time, in this body. Some say the role of the artist is to create beauty. I’ve always been horrified at the idea of creating simply to make something “pretty.” But I think truth is beautiful, and I keep chasing it.

 

What is the most powerful piece of art or literature you’ve encountered that addresses the Climate and Ecological Emergency?

 

A few years ago I discovered The Song of the Amergin, the earliest Irish poem and perhaps the earliest poem from the British Isles. The story goes that the bard Amergin came ashore on the Ivereagh peninsula in the west of Ireland – right there, where 1,000 years later I was working on a new alphabet – and uttered these words:

 

Wonderfully, the poem conflates the human “I” with all “things.” The self of the poet merges with everything. An ur-poem, if ever there was one. It’s a celebration of inter-species commingling. It was written so long ago – how could it be related to the current Climate Emergency? I feel in my bones that it’s deeply relevant.

Last year I visited Newgrange – a 5000 year old passage tomb in County Meath – with my mother. Entering that liminal space is like stepping out of time. It’s not necessarily Art (maybe it was) and not necessarily addressing the Climate and Ecological Emergency because they wouldn’t have yet seen that coming (or could they?), but their vision and profound connection to the world beyond the human moves you deep in your core. Visiting a Neolithic site in the 21st century offers a journey through our own mortality as a species. What have we done to get here? Now we’re on the brink of extinction…

 

What public figure would you most like to see spell out their message for the future of the planet using your alphabet and why?

 

Obviously Greta Thunberg – she speaks simply, beautifully, powerfully of our time. Wouldn’t it be nice to plant a living time capsule with her message?

Like Greta, though, I’m wary of public figures. The last four years have been traumatic for so many of us. We’ve seen the hate and the harm that people with power can cause by twisting words. What would make my heart sing is if the Tree Alphabets make just one little person see the potential, the possibility, of thinking beyond themself. If we can help a younger generation see the possibilities and write a new future – that’s it, we’ve solved the problem! Right now I’m working on making a Tree School Toolkit. It feels vitally important to communicate and work directly with young (and older) children. The Tree School Toolkit will invite everyone to explore and write their own story…

 

Katie Holten is an artist and activist. She was born in Dublin in 1975. At the root of her practice is a commitment to study the inextricable relationship between humans and the natural world. She explores the hidden histories, ecologies and stories of place. Drawing is her primary research tool in visualizing the challenges. She represented Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. Since 2014 Holten has hosted monthly Sunday Salons in her home for a community of artists, scientists, writers, philosophers and engaged citizens to explore the possibilities for Art and Activism in the Anthropocene. Sensing a crisis of representation as our species adapts to life in this new geological epoch, she began creating alphabets and languages beyond-the-human. Interested in exploring possibilities for multispecies storytelling, she made a Tree Alphabet for her book About Trees (Broken Dimanche Press, 2015). In 2018 she created a New York City Tree Alphabet while artist in residence with the NYC Parks Department. During lockdown she made a new Irish Tree Alphabet for her solo exhibition at VISUAL Carlow. Katie Holten is quarantined in Montecito, California.

 

Act now: Please join Katie in signing this petition for Ardee Bog. She will deliver it to the Irish government in the new year.