Victoria Leslie is one of the artists working with the WetlandLIFE project, part of the Valuing Nature Programme. As part of the Ramsar Culture Network and ecoartscotland #art4wetlands story leading up to the Ramsar Intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands’ COP (Conference of the Parties) we are highlighting the role of artists in environmental research. In this piece Victoria, talks about being part of the team and the role of storytelling and folklore.
On Sunday 28th October (18.15 in Room 7) the WetlandLIFE team will host a side event at the Ramsar Intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands‘ 13th COP in Dubai. The event focuses on ‘Sense of Place & Wellbeing in Wetlands: Using Film & the Arts to achieve SDG3’.
It’s a bright spring day, though a chill persists, a memory of recent snowfall. We have forgotten the cold for now, huddled around the fire – a raised fire-pit more accurately – as we eat our sandwiches. There are quite a few of us converged around the warmth, mostly Hands on Heritage volunteers, enjoying a well-earned break from their labours on the Saxon longhouse we are ensconced within. I am the interloper, warming my hands, as I listen to their stories amid the crackle and spit of the flames.
It’s dark inside, the only light emanates from the doorway, the stained-glass windows at the gabled end and the fire itself, which, as long as a trough accommodates us all comfortably. It is easy to see why homesteads were constructed in this manner, with the room arranged around this central channel, creating such a practical socialising space. And it is just as easy imagining yourself in that bygone time, thanks to the many convincing details: the unlevelled render over the wattle and daub, the intricate wood carvings based on a ninth century original.
This recreation of the Saxon longhouse, part of the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership Project, is one of the initiatives brought to life by enthusiastic volunteers learning a range of heritage crafts. They are just some of the people I have been meeting as part of my role assisting Dr Adriana Ford with her Community Voice Method, a participatory approach examining the relationships people have with their local wetlands. Thus far, I have been fortunate to meet a whole host of people keen to talk about their experience of the Levels, from reserve managers and volunteer conservationists to local historians and environmental bloggers.
Being part of the WetlandLIFE team in an artistic capacity, I am interested in local storytelling traditions, customs and folklore and am engaging with this material to produce new narratives for the wetlands in writing both fiction and non-fiction. My creative approach usually involves plumbing the depths of the archives but in working with Adriana I have also had access to a wide range of people, keen to talk about their experiences and to share stories belonging to the wetland’s past. As a folklore enthusiast, this makes for rich pickings, with traditions such as the wassailing of the apple harvest still enduring, along with memories of reballing – the fishing of eels with a knot of worms – and even tales told of a large wild cat stalking the moors.
In turn, Adriana and myself – and the WetlandLIFE team more broadly – have been engaging with theoretical approaches to storytelling, thinking about how the narratives we tell undoubtedly contribute to the cultural identity of a place and sometimes function to preserve particular environments, often due to the sentimental associations they generate. Adriana’s interview process includes an exploration of oral histories, but through working together, now contains questions related to literature and discourse; of the stories that wetland-users consume as well as the ones they tell.
I think that this kind of relationship offers a fresh perspective and approach, a different way of interpreting and giving voice. It certainly strikes me, sitting at the fireside, that it would have been in a hall very much like this one, throughout the long bleak nights, that people would have gathered together and told stories. Orbiting the fire, fictions would have been created, memories and experiences shared. It is this spirit of exchange that resonates through WetlandLIFE, of ideas kindled by thinking together, of stories unearthed by collective exploration and of taking turns to stoke the flames.
Victoria Leslie is writer and folklorist, author of a short story collection, Skein and Bone, and a novel, Bodies of Water. Her fiction has accrued a number of awards and nominations and she has been awarded fellowships for her writing at Hawthornden in Scotland and the Saari Institute in Finland, where she researching Nordic water myths. Her non-fiction has appeared in History Today, The Victorianist and Gramarye.