Photos from Andrew Bartram‘s Fenland series.
The memory of a day from the my childhood returned to my thoughts recently. It was born of the colour orange, the feeling of sunlight upon my face and memories of my father. Forever being hoisted from the comfort of my house into varied, arid stretches of land in search of animalistic treasure, the day in question was a trip to a group of fens near Shrewsbury named collectively as the nature reserve, Whixhall Moss. The description of “nature reserve” does little justice to its oddly surreal aesthetic; gone are the pathways leading to the birdseed gift shops and, instead, all that is left is the decaying remnants of human presence. This was a place for the alone. Absent of people on the day, with the exception of one other individual, the reserve was barren and the heat was strong: the feeling of the unwavering rays can still be felt upon my wrists on certain days as it tried to burn through the excessive, cheap smelling sunblock. More so than other places I had been taken to up to this point, the moss resembled an alien world. The pathways were straight and were built around huge squares of reedy water but what stood out most was the soil that actually made up these false byways; the colour of it was of a deep, erratic and dusty orange. It could have been Mars.
When stepping over the ground, the particles parted and flew up into the air. It left a gentle wave of evanescent ground in the wake of the mover, like being followed by a persistent, orange spectre. On either side, sharp marron grass grew over the edges of small waterways and pools. The place seemed weaponized though hindsight recalls also my obsession with fantasy at this age; where everything lost its tedium and fell into some exciting role through a new perception of the world. No doubt it is a far more simplified and normal place than my mind’s eye’s distortion is suggesting. As a place, it held vast amounts of pleasures for someone young and enthralled by life. To walk the barren ways required a license because the waters around the moss and marsh are home to the Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus); Britain’s largest arachnid which is also endangered. The belief in my bug bottle’s usefulness began to pale as we caught a brief sight of our first and only spider. They have the ability to glide along the water’s surface and are even big enough to eat small fish. They have outgrown their space and dominate its laws. The sounds of the place become a haze in the memory, but are bookended by the opening and closing this plastic bug bottle, perhaps in nervousness, perhaps in frustration. It has a diminuendo to its sound as it traps the air beneath its circular, plastic walls and when it is held up to the eye, it not only allows the viewer to see the insect magnified but also traps the landscape around it in a brief, oval world of curiosity.
Through the haze of this bottle’s faded plastic, the whole of the vast orange dust could be contained, stored, controlled, and put away. In some ways I wanted control it, in other ways I wanted to become immersed and lost within its paths. To escape to these places is coming up for air though its dust became trapped in my panting lungs as I gulped down its continued clouds as my father chased butterflies with his net. I can still feel its particles drop down and settle in a sedimentary form within which becomes riled on occasions of memory. I cough and the dust cloud within is kicked up. It must settle again before continuing. The place is one that comes to mind when I am exposed to heat generally but it is an emotionally cold place. It has been deserted on every visit and the disintegrating remains of an old car is the only real consistent evidence of human activity there. The only figure we saw that particular day was some way already around the circuit of the moss. It was a man but little else could be discerned. I remember at that distance, thinking it could be an older version of myself looking back.
Was this a future self walking alone along the moss paths, looking in vain for the shy arachnid or the memory of a father? In a romantic way, I wish to think of it as a mental self taking on physical form and, as I write these words and recall the sweltering, dusty day, looking back over the moss and seeing a man and a young boy wandering the plains some way back, looking in a vain for something which they will never truly find. Perhaps a swallowtail fluttering upon a memory. The sun is hot, I am walking at a great pace away from the pair though I notice I am leaving no particles of ghostly spirits of sand behind as I move, leaving Whixall Moss for one last time. The dust of the dust, the ghost of a ghost. I am there. But they have gone.