More than Nature
by Colin Graham
Issue 94 Summer 2018
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Thirteen years ago I accidentally became a farmer. My wife and I inherited a farm that had been in her family for centuries. But neither of us had any knowledge of farming. My wife’s uncle had passed away – he had owned the land but was too much an old-style gentleman to actually get involved in the day to day of farming. He had employed, for decades, a farm manager and a farm hand, who were as elderly and set in their ways as him. And when Joe, the farm worker, sadly took his own life in his late 70s, we were suddenly left with a flock of pregnant ewes to look after.
Learning to farm has been, for me, the accumulation of new knowledge and a new argot. But more than that, it has been an accumulation of things in their actuality and materiality, and of a new sense of how time passes. Farms and farmland, are the slow, slow build-up of nature worked on by humans. Fields are grass which has been sown, land which has been ploughed for grass to be sown, drains which have been laid, so that grass will grow. Nature is cultivated and encouraged in one place, cut down and put away in others. Every part of a farm is work, layer upon layer of human labour and endeavour. Some farmers love their land, others simply inhabit it. But being on a farm is to know, implicitly, that it is lived and layered and worked land, the accumulation of things laboured on and moved around.
Miriam O'Connor's photographs are replete with the experience of farming. They feel the weight of things as those things are turned by human touch or work into something other than or more than nature. Karl Marx’s early definition of the human in Das Kapital is, in effect, that of "homo laborans", the human who is human because, through the interaction of bone, muscle sinew and brain, as Marx likes to characterise it, the human changes the world. Agriculture is homo laborans at her or his most straightforward - acting on the elements of nature, altering their shape, constitution, and substance, and accumulating materials. O'Connor's photographs are filled with these gathered elements. Piles of apples, leaves, sticks, are things moved from scattering into order - a clearing away of bracken, that perennially unkillable weed, or a bringing together of sources of warmth or nourishment. The carefully arranged parade of implements in front of the shed in O'Connor's photograph suggests a record of this physicality of farm labour - each tool is, at first glance, very similar, but there are myriad functions here (scything, digging trenches, forking dung, moving hay and straw, splitting logs), and the photograph functions as a record of work undertaken, with each implement, some of them vintage, containing within it a memory of what it has been used for.
The straw, freshly laid, which the cow lies on is another of these accumulations of natural elements for other purposes, and in this image the cow’s full back, its head out of the frame, both sets that animal adrift from anthropomorphisation and pulls it back ironically into the image as a painterly subject, as if it half poses for the photographer/painter in a studio and then reminds us that it is not human. That dividing line between nature and the human, between the things that the human works on, and the traces left on nature and the human by this interaction, is the essence of these photographs and of farming. Farmed land is marked everywhere by the human work done on it and to it over the years. Farmers are marked too – their work sometimes literally written and inscribed on their bodies in scratched hands and thickened skin, in the weathering of a face or the back of the neck. But this is also a metaphysical marking, in which the land becomes part of the farmer’s existence by another process of slow accumulation. This is not, at least in my experience, an at-one-with-nature feeling of harmony and peace. It is, instead, a labouring experience, one which is characterised by the necessity to work and by the burden of work. In O'Connor's images the women carry sticks, clearing away what’s not needed or creating those symbolic piles of materials. They are touched by and they touch the elements of the land, but they do so by carrying a burden. There is burdensomeness in the faces and physical gestures in these images. There is a story and history which is held in both the land and the people, and, as Miriam O'Connor's introduction to her work tells us, there is a story here which is embedded in the place and the people. The power of these images comes from their recognition that in farming a place, people seed their own work and part of themselves in the place which they inhabit. Who they are becomes part of the land, but who they are, like the land, is work and is a burden of work with a history, layered like the very powerful photograph here of the stacked drawers in the corner of the shed. The unmechanised agricultural landscape in O'Connor's images is not a pastoral utopia but is instead a worked-upon, grieved-over, lived-in place in which to work is to be, and in which being is work.
Other articles by Colin Graham:
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