Soil, Fungi and Chthonic Communication

Humans aren’t the only ones who send messages. In his third guest blog, visual artist Shane Finan talks how nature sends messages underground.

A photograph of a spoon of soil taken in a forest, with trees in the background
In a spoonful of soil you can find up to 100m of threads of fungal hyphae, as well as thousands of living organisms. Photo credit: Shane Finan

As I approach a residency that looks at networks in the forest, I have been investigating the soil and how messages are passed below the ground. Regardless of any other area of investigation on this project, soil provides the link that makes all other things possible. The idea of place is tied to the structure of soil – the demarcation of one place from another not by borders but by identity is how people perceive ‘place’. The earth under our feet is the connector that allows us to create place (although advanced sailors like Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook in the 1700s and purportedly could always point to his home island in any weather without aid of map or compass, may disagree).

The word ‘chthonic’ is defined as ‘subterranean’ or, in mythology, ‘of or relating to the underworld’. This word provides a strong basis for a historically enabled artwork that encompasses the underworld as a story-telling device and as a medium of transfer of ideas.

We often think of soil as a limiter, as the soil of one’s nation creating borders between places, or as a solid in an otherwise non-solid space. But soil is also a source, and a transmitter. Plants grow from the nutrients provided by soil. The roots of trees connect into the fungal bodies via threads of mycelium that weave through the soil. In a teaspoon of healthy soil there are as many microorganisms as there are humans living on the African continent (Nature, 2011). In the same space, there can be between 10 and 100 metres of mycelium curled around the miniature rocks and dust (Bragg, Boddy, Gurr, & Johnson, 2018).

A photograph of tree roots with soil attached to them, jutting from right to left. The soil is dry, implying that it has been exposed and the tree has fallen down.
Fungi and trees communicate at the level of roots, passing messages below the soil. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Fungi and plants often work together, forming the ‘Wood-Wide Web’. Although there are common partnerships, many mycorrhizal (green plant and fungus) networks are led by chance, where fungi find themselves next to unfamiliar trees. The history of mycorrhizal networks is as much as 420 million years old, among the oldest living relationships we know of (Remy, Taylor, Hass, & Kerp, 1994). In these partnerships, fungi and trees exchange water, nutrients, and messages.

Healthy soil is needed for the woods, and the Wood-Wide Web, to grow. The soil becomes a transmitter, providing nutrients, passageway for insects and other small creatures, and growing space for roots and fungi. Soil, as a transmitter, allows the movement of animals, water and roots, but also allows the transfer of parasites, chemicals, and other invaders from neighbouring areas. The fungi that find the most comfortable, collaborative environment can thrive and grow.

The underground ignores human demarcations and borders just as the overground does – roots do not know where one field ends and another begins. The delicate ownership of soil, and the ability to grow, is important and has been highlighted in recent years by artists, farmers and activists. Fungicides kill the helpful fungi as well as the harmful ones; pesticides kill pollinators as well as pests; chemicals sprayed in one area can affect neighbouring places unintentionally.

As with fungal networks, human infrastructural networks (water, electricity, internet) also creep through the soil, sometimes, unfortunately, coming into competition with tree roots or mycelia. These are usually controlled by states or companies and maintained locally by individuals or teams employed by these larger bodies.

A photograph of a sign that reads Danger Underground Cables in faded lettering. The sign is old, and overgrowth of grass and shrubs is beginning to cover it up.
Forests and human networks both pass messages underground. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Cables for telephone, internet or electricity stream through the landscape both over and underground. These structures create abstract networks of interconnectivity that follow less ordered patterns than in planned urban areas, flowing with the landscape around streams or forests.

The potential for ad-hoc networks to provide an unstructured system of communication is one that has been explored by technologists and artists as a way to ensure community control over network infrastructures (O’Dwyer, 2020). In places as diverse as Zambia and Thailand, rural ad-hoc networks that transmit short-range signals that bounce data from one home to another are established in villages by local residents (Johnson, Belding, Almeroth, & van Stam, 2010; Lertsinsrubtavee et al., 2015). These locally coordinated networks decentralise the ownership of the internet infrastructure and place it in the hands of those using the connectors. Decentralised networks are arguably stronger, less open to corruption, and can be self-regulated.

Transmissions happen underfoot all the time. They pass through the soil that seems so solid underfoot. Soil has to be imagined not as a solid, but as a transmitter, and my artworks are looking at soil as a transmitter, a point of movement of messages, nutrients, and life. It is only through this understanding that the chthonic can really be understood.


References

Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D. (Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D.). V. Brignell (Producer). (2018, 15/02/2018). In Our Time [Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09r3nwl

Johnson, D. L., Belding, E. M., Almeroth, K., & van Stam, G. (2010). Internet usage and performance analysis of a rural wireless network in Macha, Zambia. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 4th ACM Workshop on Networked Systems for Developing Regions.

Lertsinsrubtavee, A., Wang, L., Sathiaseelan, A., Crowcroft, J., Weshsuwannarugs, N., Tunpan, A., & Kanchanasut, K. (2015). Understanding internet usage and network locality in a rural community wireless mesh network. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Asian Internet Engineering Conference.

Nature. (2011). Microbiology by numbers. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 9(9), 628-628. doi:10.1038/nrmicro2644

O’Dwyer, R. (2020). Another Net is Possible. In K. a. L. Gansing, Inga (Ed.), The Eternal Network: The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture (pp. 68-80). Amsterdam and Berlin: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, and transmediale e.V., Berlin, 2020.

Remy, W., Taylor, T. N., Hass, H., & Kerp, H. (1994). Four hundred-million-year-old vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91(25), 11841-11843.

Reflection upon neoliberal rural Chile: Social upheaval, a referendum and the adoption of a profitable niche.

Carlos Bolomey Cordova is a second-year PhD student at the CRE. He is researching the livelihoods of agricultural producers in southern Chile, and here, discusses how a hardcore neoliberal logic has shaped agriculture in the region in recent decades. He also reflects on how this relates to Chile’s upcoming constitutional referendum.  

Social upheaval and a referendum

Towards the end of 2019, people across Chile took to the streets to protest the country’s hardcore neoliberal socioeconomic model – imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973 – 1990) and further consolidated by successive democratic governments.

Chile’s neoliberal rationale is reflected in the liberal free trade agreements it has signed with most of the world, as well as in an array of reforms that undermined the country’s social fabric. The latter have included the abandonment of both public education and public health, and the privatisation of natural assets such as water and copper. 

When Chile embraced the global market, it became one of the most developed countries in Latin America. However, despite having the region’s second largest per-capita GDP, Chile also has staggering levels of inequality. This has been one of the primary drivers for the recent protests, during which many Chilean citizens have called for dignity and social justice.

In response to these protests, politicians have called a referendum on Chile’s 1980 Pinochet-era constitution, set to be held later this year. This brings the possibility of not only developing a democratically-written constitution, but also of setting boundaries to a fiercely neoliberal model under which private property is the central right and state interference in social life is kept to a bare minimum.

From grain to fruit: Neoliberalism and agriculture in southern Chile

Last winter I travelled from Newcastle to the ‘La Araucania’ region in southern Chile to undertake my fieldwork. Here I witnessed first-hand some of the contradictions underpinning the neoliberal rationale regarding agriculture.

When La Araucania was incorporated into the Chilean national territory in the 1880s, following a military occupation of Indigenous land, it became a region devoted to cereal production. However, farmers across the region are now switching their crops to fruits.

This transition has occurred because of two complementary drivers. Firstly, climate change has been expanding the temperate weather of central Chile southwards, making southern regions warmer and therefore more hospitable to fruit production. Secondly, public policies have encouraged farmers to adopt high-value crops such as berries, primarily for export.

A traditional smallholder field in which maize, beans and quinoa are all grown in the same plot. Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

As a result, many farmers have reaped the rewards of higher crop prices and access to export markets. They have been able to capitalise on Chile’s numerous free trade agreements, as well as its geographical location, which makes it a counter-seasonal producer in relation to the northern hemisphere. Yet, not every farmer in the region has benefitted.  

Some farmers I spoke to at a local farmers’ market have not been able to grow berries because they do not have access to enough water to grow them (berry production typically requires significantly more water than grain production). This is partly a legacy of Pinochet’s constitution, which allowed for land and water to be considered as two separate ‘goods’. For instance, someone who owns property immediately next to a river cannot use water from that river if they have not bought the right to use it. The same problem arises when farmers dig wells: they must register these under the ‘Code of Water Management’, an expensive and bureaucratic procedure. Hence, many small farmers rely on rain water only, a system better-suited to grain production.

If access to water is not fairly distributed among farmers, those who are not able produce higher-profit crops, such as berries, often end up taking on work as wage labours or seasonal farmworkers. Within Indigenous communities, people are increasingly moving away from a highly diversified subsistence farming to selling their labour in the thriving (monocropping) fruit industry. In addition to locking people into a cycle of precarious work, this presents a threat to local biodiversity and the survival of traditional crops, as biodiverse subsistence plots give way to mono-cropped fruit fields.

Reliance on an export model compounds these issues, as producers become increasingly exposed to the fluctuations of the global market. While the government continues to implement schemes aimed at fostering the transition to an export-oriented mode of agricultural production, it disregards the fact that in the process, many producers’ livelihoods have become more precarious.

A government-issued poster encouraging farmers to grow flowers for export
Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

A large banner at the entrance of the local rural development office alludes to a previous pilot that sought to help producers to export flowers, illuminating the government’s export-oriented focus. One official said to me that the main problem with the ministry of agriculture is that they are obsessed with export. He added: “the government supports many niche initiatives, but these niches often die… it happened the same with the strawberry growers of an indigenous community here”.

It is crucial to reflect on how a neoliberal logic entails a specific way of addressing agriculture, generating a set of unintended outcomes that obscures those who are left behind by development. The upcoming referendum will shine a light on many of these issues. Some farmers see it as an opportunity to claim water as a common good that cannot be privatised, and to cast doubt on the neoliberal model that has relegated many of them to poverty. Others in the rural elite will fight to retain their water rights and their access to an export-oriented market. Certainly, this conversation will develop as the referendum approaches.

Gender, arts and farming

Centre for Rural Economy artist in residence Joanne Coates has been exploring reasons for gender bias as part of her residency. Although the Covid-19 lockdown has halted her artwork, here she highlights how feminism and women’s leadership are viewed in farming and further afield.

Close up of crops. Credit: Joanne Coates

In the art historical world, gender bias is not a secret. Ever since stories have been told, they have been told through the voice, seen through the eyes, and felt through the experience of the masculine. As recently as 2012, only 4% of artists in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) were women. In my own medium, photography, only 15% of photographers are women. In the industry, women earn on average 40% less than men[1]. The situation is no different in agriculture. according to the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, with only 14.9 % of registered farm holders in the UK being women.

I have recently begun working with Professor Sally Shortall at the Centre for Rural Economy, and our conversations about gender bias get my mind racing marathons. One discussion brought me back to a time when I told a high-up middle-class (obviously) man in the arts that I was dating a farmer, and his exact words were, “you’ll just end up a farmer’s wife.” I can’t think of many jobs where you just end up somebody’s wife. I think of my partner’s Mum, the work she does for the farm, the behind-the-scenes running of farms women have done for centuries. Are these women ‘just farmers’ wives’?

Farmer Izzy Credit: Joanne Coates

Since December I’ve been immersed in research, preparing myself to move to rural Northumberland for the practical side of my residency. Lockdown was announced the day before I was due to move. I stayed put, in the lowest part of the North East, in the furthest-up part of North Yorkshire. A bleak rural landscape, my dog for company, (slow) internet, and my partner, a farmer. It is definitely a challenge to how I usually work. I’ve found solace in online conversations with people I’m yet to meet through email chains, talking about gender roles with women who are living the farming experience.

On one of my lunchtime escapes I was listening to the WNYC podcast ‘Dolly Parton’s America’ and two and two finally added to four. One moment in particular helped to explain much about the gender imbalance in farming and how portrayals of feminism link within this.

Dolly’s fans hail her as the original third wave feminist icon. However, Dolly doesn’t view herself that way. When the podcast presenter asks if she thinks of herself as feminist, her response is clear: “NO I DO NOT. I think of myself as a woman in business. I love men, I have a brother, a dad, a lot of cousins. I look like a woman but I think like a man, but I think like a woman too.”[2]

The podcast goes on to hear from Sarah Smarsh, who wrote a book called Heartland, and writes a lot about Dolly and Class. Coincidentally, Sarah grew up in a rural area, on a farm in a poor area 40 miles outside of Wichita, Kansas. She highlights how femininity has changed within the portrayal of feminism, with Dolly Parton paving the way in breaking down these stereotypes. To quote:

The feminism of the 1970s and 80s, it’s where you had a lot of women start with traditional roles in both the workplace and the home. That’s a moment. When women who had business ambitions were being encouraged to sort of downplay their own quote unquote femininity. You don’t need to wear makeup. You can cut your hair short and put on the pants. During the second wave Dolly is one of the first to represent the future third-wave. She went, like, in the opposite direction which was like you have a problem with my tits then here. They are hanging out. She played it up and was like, you can deal with it. I think I’m more kind of a millennial spirit of approach to feminism… There’s this idea of what feminists are supposed to look like. Feminism can be whatever that it is you wanted to be as a woman. You want to have big hair and big boobs and wear rhinestones then do it.”

What she said next also struck a chord with me. Sarah explained how women live feminism in different ways: “Let me put it through my own experience. I had a very complicated relationship to the term feminist when I was a teenager. In America they choose to sort of like feel this backlash (to feminism) that is full throated now. It was like burgeoning when I was a teenager and I could feel it. Certain words have a different life in those two worlds, but there are women who as we speak are living the tenets of feminism more strongly and in a more badass manner than women who wear the word on a T-shirt and March in the marches.”[3] This struck a chord with me.

Country landscape Credit: Joanne Coates

Sarah is from a farming community, and I’m part of a farming community. They can be closed communities, with outsiders not fully understanding their complexities. Rural villages and hamlets are not big cities, universities or towns. The language used is different, the way communities engage is different. Women have worked on farms for hundreds of years, they have supported and pioneered. The female shepherdess isn’t a new phenomenon. The language around being a woman in a traditional role, and the more recent trend of using ‘feminist icon’ as a term for a leader, makes many feel uncomfortable. This, however, doesn’t mean they are not. It is in their actions. We still have to look at and deal with the lack of female leaders within the farming industry. From conversations I’ve had to date, I have noticed a clear tendency to downplay their roles.

I’m a keen advocate of voices. For women to see themselves as farmers or leaders, they need to literally see themselves as farmers and leaders. To make space and create space for this. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

When it is safe to meet, I will take my interviews from screen to face-to-(covered) face. I will chat with women in different roles within agriculture. Together I am hoping we will look at and challenge attitudes currently held within the industry. For now, here’s to those women that have been leading the way in farming but not speaking about it. In the words of Sarah, those ‘Badass’ women of agriculture.

Footnotes

[1] Figures  from Women Photograph https://www.womenphotograph.com https://theconversation.com/women-were-photography-pioneers-yet-gender-inequality-persists-in-the-industry-today-119056

[2] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/sad-ass-songs

[3] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/sad-ass-songs

References

https://theconversation.com/women-were-photography-pioneers-yet-gender-inequality-persists-in-the-industry-today-119056

https://www.gov.scot/publications/women-farming-agriculture-sector/

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america


Planting, Stewardship and Value

How do trees and tree planting fit into a sense of place and stewardship? Shane Finan discusses how art can play a role in this in the second of his CRE guest posts.

Photo credit: Shane Finan

Henry David Thoreau saw trees as essential for healthy places: “A village that has them not will not be found to work well. It has a screw loose, an essential part is missing” (Higgins, 2017 quoting; Thoreau, 1906). Thoreau felt the deep loss of the natural environment, and, from extensive observation, saw how the natural environment forms mutual partnerships.

There has been a recent surge in popularity in the idea of tree-planting to ‘re-green our planet’. Botanist and chemist Diana Beresford Kroeger, one of the early advocates of mass tree planting, has recently changed her argument slightly to emphasise the more urgent need to preserve the ancient forests that we have. This follows similar arguments, such as the backlash against a project to plant one trillion trees. Forty-six scientists put their name to a paper arguing that planting alone will not solve the current climate crisis (Veldman et al., 2019), and that unplanned planting, such as introduction of non-native species, lack of fire controls, etc., could be more detrimental than not planting at all.

A photograph of the cross section of an array of cut cedar, with an orange-brown hue on the timber and concentric rings showing the tree ages
Many people only see the value of the forest in what it provides in timber and fuel.
Photo credit: Shane Finan

A detailed study on rainforest preservation has found that indigenous communities are ideally suited to replanting efforts, and simultaneously finds that deforestation has more negative impact than reforestation has positive (Walker et al., 2020). It concludes that “the outlook for Amazon forests and their continued stewardship by [Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities] is tied to the political and economic future of Brazil” (p. 3023). Indigenous knowledge is shown to hold a value that is beyond quantification or economics: The ecologically conscious practices of the indigenous groups helps the forest to thrive.

Since the beginning of 2020, I have been working with the Kielderhead Wildwood Project in Kielder, Northumberland, in anticipation of an art residency there. The project is a rewilding effort run by Northumberland Wildlife Trust, where members of the community are planting native trees in a large area of north England.

Kielder was described to me by one of the regular volunteer planters as “the remotest place in England”. The village was built to service the local forestry in the 1920s, but over time the forest was mostly cut for its economic value. As a result, the place has lost a large part of its identity. This is something the wildwood project has the potential to restore, and even improve.

Asking local communities to be involved in the creation and maintenance of a forest has benefits. Aside from physically replanting a forest, it creates a sense of responsibility, identity and memory of place that connects the community and that place. Place-attachment is the concept of forming a close cultural, historical or social memory of a place, whereby people value a location and give it an identity that creates a relationship between them and the place. In a recent example from China, the role of place-attachment is seen to be crucial for grass-roots forestry management: “At the policy level, given that place attachment is an important predictor of pro-environmental behaviour towards heritage forests, efforts should be devoted towards the promotion and articulation of the cultural and historical values of heritage forests” (Cheung & Hui, 2018, p. 44).

An image of a corridor of trees that meet above the head, with a person standing facing away from the camera in light winter clothing inside the corridor
The yew cloister in Gormanstown, Ireland, is an example of an artistic and cultural creation of place: The garden was planted in the early 19th Century as a concessionary gift from one of the Preston family, the owners of the estate, who forbade his daughter to become a nun.
Photo credit: Shane Finan

By providing value to place, local residents gain a connection through social, historical and cultural memory. Folk music, stories, sculpture, events, artistic interventions, and the process of engaging people in place are all enablers of cultural association, creating a relationship between people and places. Art groups like Transition and Grizedale Arts promote this sense of place and stewardship by encouraging communities to grow, care for and maintain their places.

Art is valuable in its ability to create connections, and even more so in its creation of a different type of value. Returning to Thoreau, he argued that trees should not be cut unless necessary: “Every tree is better alive than dead…and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it”. This type of value in the life of a tree is a value for the whole forest. Artists create this value by showing the individual as the universal.

Stewardship is about what we value, and why. A steward needs to value each organism, not just the number behind it. The value is not in one trillion trees, or in the 39,000 that the wildwood project hopes to plant, but on the single one that connects the forest together. If one person takes stewardship for that one tree, the forest will survive.


Cheung, L. T., & Hui, D. L. (2018). Influence of residents’ place attachment on heritage forest conservation awareness in a peri-urban area of Guangzhou, China. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 37-45.

Higgins, R. (2017). Thoreau and the Language of Trees: Univ of California Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (1906). Excursions and poems (Vol. 5): Houghton, Mifflin.

Veldman, J. W., Aleman, J. C., Alvarado, S. T., Anderson, T. M., Archibald, S., Bond, W. J., . . . Zaloumis, N. P. (2019). Comment on “The global tree restoration potential”. Science, 366(6463), eaay7976. doi:10.1126/science.aay7976

Walker, W. S., Gorelik, S. R., Baccini, A., Aragon-Osejo, J. L., Josse, C., Meyer, C., . . . Schwartzman, S. (2020). The role of forest conversion, degradation, and disturbance in the carbon dynamics of Amazon indigenous territories and protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(6), 3015-3025. doi:10.1073/pnas.1913321117


Material culture: mask behaviour in rural Japan

PhD researcher Chisaki Fukushima is currently in Japan conducting fieldwork. Covid-19 has caused the nature of her fieldwork to change, which she has had to adapt to, but it has also provided an opportunity to observe other phenomena, particularly, the changing role of masks in the community.

Masks handmade by Machiki-san. Credit: Chisaki Fukushima

Transformation, observation and Covid-19

It took only a couple of weeks from the beginning of March for the small rural town I have been living in for my field research to turn into a ghost town. All the stores were shut except for the supermarket and franchise convenience stores, and no one, except a few people in cars, was visible on the street.

Given a large part of my research involves human contact, methods such as face-to-face interviews and participant observation became impossible to conduct, apart from the latter, at a distance. My ‘outsider status’ has made my fieldwork further challenging; people recognise that I am from outside of the community, and, even worse, that I am from abroad, where the terrible Covid-19 crisis is taking place. Despite the fact that I have observed a quarantine period and observe scrupulous hygiene measures, people see the ‘outside’ world in me. (I am continuously reminded that my existence has multiple social layers that will impact the data I produce.) Therefore, in order to minimise my ‘alien’ attributes, I moved into my informants’ neighbourhood, which allowed me to interact with them daily and reduce the anxiety some people may have felt about me moving in and out of their space.

Material Culture: Mask Behaviour

While some elements of my fieldwork have been compromised, new opportunities have arisen. For example, I have had occasion to observe how the rural Japanese community I have been living in has adapted to the public health threat that is Covid-19. I have noticed the rise of social conformity regarding public hygiene, and mask wearing is a significant part of this.

Kinds of masks

The mask is a relatively recent development in public health, originally introduced in Japan during flu outbreaks just before World War One[1]. The masks I refer to are not face masks but ‘surgical masks’ which cover the mouth, the nostrils (depending on how they are worn) and the surrounding area, regardless of the size or fit. These come in an array of categories: unisex, men/women, adult/child, S/M/L. They are available in an astonishingly varied range of materials, brands, character designs, patterns, colours and so on. Some people opt for a utilitarian look, while others seem to want to express themselves, using their masks as a fashion statement. Both are quite commonly observed.

Mask wearing

Because of its coastal topology and a history of fishing spanning hundreds of years, the region is exposed to numerous and diverse diseases and natural disasters. People practice(d) exorcist rituals and the worship of an epidemiological god. However, wearing masks has not historically been one of their practices. Although fishing is no longer economically viable, the rituals and the storytelling around fishing are still actively practiced and maintained on a daily basis. Fishermen’s patriarchal kinship is still dominant, and status and position are inherited by men from prominent families. I do not know if fishermen’s machismo has something to do with not wearing masks, but this is a population proud of being healthy because of its high fish diet, and there are some people who seem to have actively resisted wearing masks so far.

PhD research Chisaki Fukushima in a hand made mask. Credit: Chisaki Fukushima

Masks and sneezing

The common pattern when people sneeze without a mask is to cover their mouth with the palm of their hand. Coughing and clearing the throat are associated with more varied hand gestures, including covering the mouth with the hand either stretched or in a fist. Using a hand to cover one’s mouth remains common in public spaces with or without mask. However, people in the home environment tend to alternate behaviours by not using their hand at all or covering their mouths with their hand slightly further out in front of the mask.

Gendered divisions

I have observed that both purchasing and crafting masks from scratch generally seems to be done by female family members, either the wife of the head of household or the wife of the older generation of the household. Machiko-san, an informant, complained, “There are no masks at the shop so I thought, I must make it rather than exposing (one/my)self to risk without wearing a mask!” She picked a couple of masks out of her beautiful batch for me. When she is praised by people, she demurs, “No, no, no, I just made use of a piece of textile that was of no use at home, handkerchiefs and towels, rather than let them go to waste. They are not authentic at all and only made up by myself (laughter).” I wear her mask every day and sometimes see the same patterns and designs worn by strangers on the street. I assume they were given by Machiko-san. Handmade masks are becoming very popular these days because people stay at home with reduced outside work, and this is something they can make at home. That is an interesting case of people’s needs matching their interests and talents in the face of the Covid-19 emergency.  

Meanwhile, masks are the first thing to run out stock at stores. It is not an exaggeration to say that the everyday discussions start and end with masks. I clearly see the mask becoming perceived to be one of life’s ‘necessities’. The cultural connotations of this are profound, but as yet, unknowable.


[1] Palmer, Edwina; Rice, Geoffrey W.(1992) ‘A Japanese Physician’s Response to Pandemic Influenza: Ijiro Gomibuchi and the “Spanish Flu” in Yaita-Cho, 1918-1919’. Bulletin of the History of Medicine; Baltimore, Md. Vol.66 Issue.4: 560.

How COVID-19 may impact rural communities and what can be done to support them

With the COVID-19 outbreak set to continue for the foreseeable future, the implications for rural communities have received relatively little attention in policy and the mainstream media. This blog summarises some of the main challenges and emphasises the importance of monitoring rural economies and communities going forward.

The present COVID-19 outbreak is affecting every aspect of rural life and as things stand, the duration of its impact is unknown. Rural areas have experienced something similar to this lockdown before, when the countryside was shut down in response to the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak, although this was not as widespread. There could be lessons to be learnt from that experience and the recovery afterwards.

Whilst certain aspects of rural life could prove to be a benefit at this time, being more sparsely populated areas of the country, other aspects of rural life can make life harder during the lockdown with implications for rural business, agriculture as well as wider societal consequences.

Rural businesses

For the rural economy there are both demand and supply-side shocks. On the demand side the impact will be greatest for those firms (and their supply chains) unable to provide their produce or services to consumers other than within their own business premises. On the supply side the lockdown predominately affects the availability and productivity of labour. Although the majority of UK farms are family farms where the workforce and capital is already on site, or drawn from their immediate rural localities, this will be a particular problem for certain agricultural sectors that rely on a mobile workforce, such as horticulture.

Social consequences

Everyone is feeling the pain of social isolation, both rural and urban. For those groups with limited access to the internet or with poorer mobile signal, this is exacerbated. Elderly people often do not have the skills to use the internet to stay connected, and there are issues of affordability. Some rural areas also have limited connectivity. This will have implications for home-schooling children, the online economy, and staying connected. Going forward, full digital connectivity is essential, regardless of class or place. It is also essential that training is made available so that people have the skills to be able to stay digitally connected.

It is also worth noting that Covid-19 is itself prompting many positive responses of community, neighbour and volunteer support. How public, private and third sectors effectively work together, and crucially with the rural voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) ecosystem, is critical to the immediate emergency response and will be vital to longer-term recovery. Greater support of these are needed.

One interesting aspect of the current lockdown is the social and cultural relationship between rural and urban populations. There has been widespread media coverage of roadside signs asking visitors to stay away from the Lake District and rural Wales, for example, sometimes reinforced by police checkpoints. Visits to second homes as rural sanctuaries have been especially divisive, reflecting the continued concentration of services in urban centres. Many rural residents fear their already limited services will be stretched to breaking point by the influx of urban escapes. This highlights ongoing battles around issues of sustainability of rural communities without the influence of tourism or second home owners.

Recommendations

Looking to the future, there is a need for ongoing and long-term monitoring of business impacts, resilience and recovery. Firms and social enterprises in different sectors and places are impacted and recover at different rates. Experience of FMD and credit crunch/recession showed that for some firms and rural economies the recovery will be swift, for others it will be delayed and this pattern is likely to be repeated in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Many of the core rural institutions also face a struggle for financial survival because of the impacts of Covid-19, including village halls, village shops and pubs. ACRE and the Rural Coalition report[1] that the ability of village halls to weather the storm is uncertain. Support for these institutions is critical to their long-term survival and the help they can give in the recovery phase.

The distance from sources of advice and support, issues with digital access and literacy also highlight a need for the monitoring of the uptake of support to ensure that it is taken and appropriate and equitable assistance. During FMD, when large swathes of the countryside closed for several months due to measures to prevent the spread of the disease, it was apparent that many firms had not sought or obtained special assistance. These included some that were severely impacted, and many were frustrated in their attempts to access aid or fell through the gaps of the support framework.Better monitoring is needed to ensure that this does not happen again.

This blog was summarised from a recent CRE briefing note. Read the briefing note in full here.


[1] Joint letter “Covid-19 and Rural Communities” to DEFRA Secretary of State from the chairs of ACRE, Plunkett Foundation, Rural Services Network and Rural Coalition, 20th March 2020.

The CRE Blog gets a facelift: announcing a new commissioning and editing process

Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) blog editors Beth and Adrienne have recently attended a training session with an expert editor, and are now ready to take the CRE blog to the next level. Here they announce some forthcoming changes to the commissioning and editing process.

What is the purpose of the CRE blog? Who is our audience? What information should we be trying to convey? These are some of the key questions that we, as editors of the CRE blog, have been asking ourselves recently.

We took on the role of editing the CRE blog approximately 18 months ago and have really enjoyed working with many of you to publish your ideas. It has been quite a learning curve for us, and while we have been really pleased with the number and quality of posts we have received, we think it is now time for us to up our game as editors. To this end, we connected with freelance writer and editor extraordinaire Julia Glotz, who ran a fantastic blog editing workshop for us earlier this month.

There is a wealth of experience and ideas within the CRE and we believe it is important that a channel is available to staff and students through which to communicate both with each other and to a wider, less-specialist audience. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has highlighted how valuable blogs can be for communicating complex information in an accessible manner. We also recently learned at training delivered by Newcastle University’s Policy Academy that rigorous academic blogs can be an important source information for policymakers, particularly when they are pushed for time and need insights into current issues in an accessible format and from a credible source. We believe the CRE blog can play this role.

One of the key things we learned in our blog workshop is that good editors need to be more than proofreaders. They must help their writers shape their ideas from the outset so that the final product is as engaging, accessible and informative as possible.

In order to ensure your writing gets the attention it deserves, we will be changing our editorial process to maximise the consistency and quality of the CRE blog going forward. This will include providing more guidance to you, our writers, in order to make writing a blog less of a daunting task.

We will shortly be circulating a briefing note that will outline the new process. We hope this will make the blog submission process easier, not more difficult, and encourage more of you to contribute. The CRE blog cannot be a success without you!

For now, we leave you with a few key takeaways:

  • A blog post should be able to tell readers something they don’t already know. What is surprising or unexpected about your idea? Are there any elements of conflict or change?
  • You should be able to summarise your topic in a catchy headline. If you can’t think of one, you probably need to adjust your idea!
  • Keep it simple and to the point. You should be able to convey your message in 600-800 words.

We look forward to continuing to work with you all to make the CRE blog the success we know it can be.

For more information on training sessions run by Julia Glotz, visit her website: www.juliaglotz.com. We can’t recommend her highly enough!

The City, the Country and Resources

Shane Finan is a visual artist from Ireland. He works with mixed media installation to create places. He writes computer programs for these installations, linking the places that he makes to contemporary technology. In April 2020, he was due to begin a residency with Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC), collaborating with Kielderhead Wildwood Project, Northumberland Wildlife Trust as part of the residency programme ENTWINED. Rural. Land. Lives. Art. The residency has been postponed, but he is sharing some of the background research and development from his project to date (more information https://varc.org.uk/shane-finan-the-wood-wide-web/).

In 2014, after a frustrating period of unemployment, I gained a role as a graphic designer with a print firm in Tallaght, in an industrial estate in south Dublin. Having lived in the city for nearly two years, I had familiarised myself with the passages and rhythms of the city structure. But the time spent in an industrial estate opened my eyes to a supply chain that I had previously been unaware of.

A photograph from a bridge in Tallaght, Dublin, showing the road networks entering and leaving the industrial suburb
Tallaght is an industrial suburb of Dublin that links the city to the countryside. There are many industrial estates in Tallaght that include manufacture and distribution.
Credit: Shane Finan

One of the first things I noticed was the flow of resources to the various industrial units in the area where I worked. The lorries and trucks delivered raw materials, such as glass, fibres, food, plastics or car parts from other parts of the country. Assembly was carried out in the industrial estate, with clients usually based inside the city as the final destination for goods. This dreary industrial estate is one of the general supply lines for the city.

What was striking was the way the chain operated. The cost to the final recipient for any work carried out was high, considering the supply chain and the people involved in moving goods from one place to another. This is natural in supply chain economics, but I had never seen it as acutely before, and it made me realise two things.

The first was the economic imbalance between city and country. Those suppliers who brought materials from rural areas were paid at a lower rate, despite bearing the burden of importing the raw materials, and of transporting them to the south Dublin estate. This imbalance was a micro climate of the macro level economic flow in globalised capitalist markets.

The second was that resourcing was required to operate in the countryside, via an industrial estate, to service a city’s requirements. Because of the need of space and cheaper labour, this meant that there was a necessity for resources to come from areas where they could be manufactured, mined, or otherwise sourced.

Both of these points made me suddenly aware of the fragility of the city, and of its reliance on the countryside and communication infrastructure for resources and supplies. Although on a macro scale, most of these supplies come from international markets, even on a micro (national) scale, this meant that the city of Dublin could not function without these supply chains. More poignantly, the grittiness and dishevelled nature of the work in the industrial estate was an enormous contrast to the “clean” image of the city.

An image of shipping containers at a port in Dublin, piled four containers high.
Dublin port is a major shipping area. The ports provide a route of transmission for goods and services that translate into the “clean” city image.
Credit: Shane Finan

I grew up in the countryside, and had always been aware of the imbalance of cost of living and salaries between the city and the rural. However, this time spent in the industrial estate made me far more aware of the existence of the seen and the unseen in the city: The engine that makes sure the car keeps running.

This fragility was something I learned more about when working on a European Union project proposal about port security. On this proposal, my eyes were opened to the macro-level array of supply chains that exist in ports throughout Europe, and their own fragility. The shipping container industry changed international trade and made possible the macro-level supply chains that supply cities and countries today (Levinson, 2006). Shipping containers are big business, but to maintain supply lines in international trade they are also regulated only insofar as they can be based on the availability of people. Security breaches, like human trafficking or movement of illicit materials, is very difficult to track.

These micro and macro level observations made me acutely aware of a type of balance in supply that I had never considered before: Without the countryside the city cannot function. And more than this: Without the grit of an industrial and agricultural underbelly, the pristine, techno-utopic city would not exist. These might seem like obvious statements to any scholar of globalisation, but their effects were never as strongly felt by me personally until I was wrapped in those structures.

Later in 2014, after an accident on the factory floor led to a co-worker nearly losing his arm, I left the company (still probably in a state of shock) to leave behind the industrial grit and position in the link between country and city. I was lucky to be hired by Trinity College Dublin to manage a European project at this time, and so moved from the semi-city industry to the city proper again.

The experience has not left me, however. I see pieces of the work that I was involved with in strange places – on the seats of Ryanair airplanes, or the side of construction machinery on building sites. I am aware of that link, from country to city, and aware of what it costs people who live in that world between worlds.

But more than everything else, I am aware of the mask that is created between the “grit” of the country and the “cleanliness” of the city. David Batchelor wrote about the desire for a pristine state of existence for modern people in his exploratory book Chromophobia. In it, he outlines how the contemporary citizen strives for a clean, white, dirt-free environment (2000). His exploration of this idea is poignant because it shows up the falseness of the quest for the pristine. He also highlights how the move away from “dirt” is perceived as a move toward civility.

The city operates in this way. This is why there is outrage in cities when there is a visible grime. Cities hide their “dirt”, for example when the Australian government built false partition buildings to hide slum aboriginal neighbourhoods when pitching for the 2000 Olympic Games (Pilger, 2002). Many cities worldwide, including recently in the USA, ban homelessness and force homeless people out of city centres, not fixing the problem but removing its visibility (Lam, 2019).

The end result is a removal of responsibility, a separation between the “dirt” and the “clean”. This is important in any philosophy that suggests a closer connection to nature. This connection between rural and urban has been intentionally eroded in a dream of a pristine city reality. Although an illusion, the dream is, as Kant may have described it, a “Regulative Ideal”. It is an unattainable goal, but one that nonetheless guides the philosophy of the expansion of cities.

An image of a mound of earth on a forest bank
Our fear of ‘dirt’ relates to a fear of the rural, something that has developed in post-industrial western culture
Credit: Shane Finan

This idea was exemplified in the satirical video artwork The Dust Channel  by Roee Rosen, which I was lucky enough to see in Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseilles in 2018. In this video, an operetta about Dyson Hoovers, a couple slowly remove all dirt, filth and grime from their contemporary apartment, creating a clean environment (Rosen, 2016). Simultaneously, police come and joyfully cart away the musicians playing in the opera, all of whom gradually take on the image of refugees or (in this case) Palestinians. The dirt is removed, along with the culture, the music, the history. And all that remains is the Dyson-inspired clean world. Or at least this is the illusion (the video proceeds after the end of the opera to show a Dyson Hoover channel-hopping as it searches for the best news and entertainment about vacuum cleaners amid images of protest and unrest).

By using satire, intense imagery, and a unique imagination, Rosen highlighted the illusion of the pristine as a Regulative Ideal, a false concept of a perfect world. I believe the perfect world has more dirt, not less. It is one where the natural and the city collide, where the desire for the pristine is one of the ideas that dies away.

As I write this, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Europe (in the last month it has forced the curator that I am working with to be grounded in her home in Turin before postponing our exhibition launch indefinitely in Clare, Ireland). I have had to postpone my planned residency at Kielder. Uncertainty is everywhere. The pristine is suddenly more valuable, as hand sanitisers sell out and public spaces are seen as unsafe.

In an even stranger turn of events in this saga, the spread of the virus has also amplified xenophobia, in this case anti-Chinese sentiment. Rumours abound about how this manifested, and who may have been to blame. As the first cases occurred in China, this is where the diatribe is directed. In Europe, north Italy has become a pariah for the unclean – in the first two weeks of the pandemic in Ireland, most cases reported were from people who had recently travelled to north Italy.

COVID-19 exemplifies the disconnection between the rural and the urban, between nature and people. In the anthropocentric view, we hold a belief that this type of pandemic is beyond us – our medical incisiveness and antibacterial advancements have, we believe, kept us safe. But in truth, they are potentially making us less so. Although immunity cannot shield us from all disease, our own immune systems need to be practiced if we are to overcome major outbreaks. By killing 99.9% of bacteria, we may have left room for the feared 0.1%.

In each area, we have lost sight of the importance of the network. Divisions are created between the city and the rural, between the civilised and the wild. These divisions only serve to increase our reliance on a system that has already failed us.

_________

Batchelor, D. (2000). Chromophobia: Reaktion books.

Lam, K. (2019, 15/12/2019). Cities are criminalizing homelessness by banning people from camping in public. That’s the wrong approach, report says. USA Today. Retrieved from https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/12/10/homeless-camping-bans-criminalization-report/4378565002/

Levinson, M. (2006). The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger: Princeton University Press.

Pilger, J. (2002). Globalisation; the New Rulers of the World. In: UK.

Rosen, R. (2016). The Dust Channel. In. Marseilles: Friche la Belle de Mai.

Overseas Institutional Visit – Toulouse School of Economics

In the latest CRE blog PhD student Elena Benedetti reflects on her recent study visit to the Toulouse School of Economics

Toulouse – Credit: Elena Benedetti

During February and March 2020, I had the opportunity to visit the Toulouse School of Economics (TSE) at the University Toulouse Capitole, in the South-West of France. I was able to go following the kind invitation of Prof. Nicolas Treich, whom I met last year at a Centre for Rural Economy seminar. Nicolas is a senior researcher and director of INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), working mainly in environmental, behavioural and animal welfare economics. This experience was funded thanks to the overseas institutional visit scheme offered by my scholarship, the ESRC-NINE DTP. I really recommend every NINE DTP PhD student apply for the same scheme to visit another institution for a few months. ESRC can fund travel and accommodation, and also extend your scholarship, in some instances.

TSE is a world-renowned centre for research in economics, chaired by Nobel laureate Jean Tirole. It works to connect research to policy, in France, Europe and worldwide, and comprises various economic research groups, including applied economics (environmental, food, health), finance, econometrics, public economics, industrial organization and macroeconomics. The centre recently moved to an impressive new building that won the Pritzker prize this year. It was fascinating to study in this modern glass building with terraces, where we could go to have chats and coffee breaks (the coffee was free for everyone). I had a big office just for myself and I could focus very easily on my research. The environment there was very stimulating and, in a way, I was much more motivated to do my work and be constantly focused. Being there allowed me to appreciate more what I am doing for my PhD and be more willing to explore and study new things. I learnt how important it is to do research with people that are passionate about many of the same things as you. It is extremely vital to connect with other researchers and exchange ideas.

Overall, it was a great experience, both for my professional and personal development. My own research benefitted substantially from this visiting period. I believe the suggestions and feedback I received while there will notably improve the quality of my project. Discussions with various academics enabled me to consider new and different perspectives on my research. I met people that implemented very similar micro-simulation model to mine and we listened to and challenged each other. This was essential to correcting some parts of my research, allowing me to achieve better results.

In terms of dissemination, engagement and knowledge exchange, I had the opportunity to present my work and research findings in a seminar in front of experts in environmental, health and food economics, many of whom gave me excellent suggestions and feedback. This was without any doubt a very useful practice for my presentation skills in view of future conferences and my PhD viva.

Toulouse – Credit: Elena Benedetti

The best thing about my visit was the opportunity to meet different types of academics and have direct contact with them on a regular basis. Everyone was kind and willing to help, in every moment. The PhD community was very welcoming as well. They informed me about the possibility of attending the job market conference during my final year of my PhD in order to apply for job opportunities. I could talk with them about my issues and concerns and discuss my research at any time. We also had some social events together where we went for drinks and dinner. I really enjoyed this experience because I could talk with everyone about my project, also during lunch time.

The connection between TSE and IAST (Institute of Advanced Study in Toulouse) offered the possibility to exchange multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge among researchers. I could attend one or more seminars each day (where the lunch was always provided), with speakers coming from everywhere. I learnt about new models and new research topics, among other things; every day I spent there was a learning opportunity. In fact, I am still able to attend these seminars online, which means I can continue to learn new things daily.

Some researchers read my working paper and provided me very detailed comments, essential for the improvement of my work, in view of future journal submissions. Also, I introduced to them the new part of my PhD concerning the effects of environmental regulations on trade. It was extremely useful because I was able to get suggestions on how to develop this new project and which direction to follow before starting it.

The city was very beautiful and charming, with nice streets and squares. The walk along the river is one of the best part of the city, and I was able to enjoy it every day on the way from my house to the university. The sunset was amazing, everything painted with pink color, from the houses to the sky. The food and wine was also great, especially the cheese! My favourite was the raclette and the fondue. I also had the possibility to travel around in the weekends.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Toulouse before the actual return date due to the coronavirus outbreak, but I am very satisfied for the overall experience. I managed to do what I planned to do and create some good networks with many researchers in view of my future career. I would like to go back sometime to visit some of the PhD students I met there. Again, I really recommend that everyone consider this opportunity. It is extremely worthwhile, and can help you appreciate your project more, get more exciting ideas and enrich your skills and personal development.

The importance of nature for mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic

The latest CRE blog features a guest post by MSc Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security student Jack Swain. Here he talks about the importance of nature and its’ impact on mental wellbeing.

Credit: Poppy Swain – https://poppyswain.myportfolio.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives across the globe. Here in the UK, we are forced to stay inside our homes and are only allowed to leave to collect food and supplies, care for vulnerable people and exercise once a day. The focus so far has been on reducing the lives lost to the virus and the economic recession that is likely to follow. However, the coronavirus will have other secondary wide-ranging impacts, namely on emotional wellbeing. But there is hope to be found in reconnecting with nature.

Emotional wellbeing has not been treated with the same priority as limiting deaths for obvious reasons. As we get further into this crisis, the secondary impacts of self-isolation will become more obvious. The term ‘social recession’ has been used by several commentators to describe the harmful effects to mental and physical health that reduced human interaction, loneliness and isolation can cause. The so-called loneliness epidemic just became pandemic.

Coronavirus threatens the social connections that humans require. We have evolved to feel safest in groups thanks to our hunter-gatherer origins, where teamwork translated to higher chances of getting food and defending our families. Forced isolation goes against our primal need for connection and causes increased stress. Cortisol levels, a key stress hormone, become heighted if experienced for an extended period of time and overall cardiovascular function decreases with the effect equivalent to the impact of being a smoker or non-smoker. Isolation just doesn’t suit our social nature. Adjusting to life inside, which involves working from home, caring for children and vulnerable people, and not visiting bars, restaurants and cinemas, can have a significant effect on our mental health. These changes can create the conditions for loneliness, referring to the subjective experience of isolation, and ultimately lead to an increase in long-term acute loneliness.

Nature can help us to lessen the impacts of loneliness and isolation. Spending time in nature has real, measured impacts on the body and mind. It has the healing ability of alleviating stress and providing deep psychological relaxation, as well as supporting physical activity. A study by DEFRA found strong evidence linking contact with nature and health benefits, stating that it improves mental wellbeing and even maintains a healthy immune system, effectively making you happier and healthier(1). This message is echoed in the traditional Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing’ or taking in the forest atmosphere. Spending as little as 2 hours per week surrounded by trees and greenery has been found to have strong positive effects on health and wellbeing(2) by reducing blood pressure, increasing parasympathetic nerve activity and lowering concentrations of stress hormones(3).

The surroundings on the CRE forest bathing last year

Our rural spaces can play a large role in curbing the impacts of coronavirus on our mental health. Strict government measures have enforced many rules upon what we can do, who we can see and where we can go. But within these new rules is the guidance that people should still go outside for fresh air and exercise. A brief survey carried out for this blog post found that participants talked about feeling more peaceful, refreshed, inspired and generally positive when they made the effort to walk in parks and wooded areas. Being outside surrounded by nature reduced the feeling of being trapped or contained when isolated in their homes. Social distancing can still be observed when enjoying the natural environment and we have many parks, woodlands and urban green spaces that remain accessible to visitors. It is important to respect the current rules when out enjoying nature, ensuring you are at least two metres apart from those you don’t live with and not congregating in groups. I hope this blog post inspires you to go for a walk, run or cycle in your local green space during these tough times.

Why not tag @cretweeting on Twitter with images of the nearby outdoor spaces you are making the most of.

References

1. Lovell, B. (2017) DEFRA evidence statement on the links between natural environments and human health. Available at: https://beyondgreenspace.net/2017/03/09/defra-evidence-statement-on-the-links-between-natural-environments-and-human-health/ (Accessed: 26th March 2020).

2. White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B.W., Hartig, T., Warber, S.L., Bone, A., Depledge, M.H. and Fleming, L.E. (2019) ‘Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing’, Scientific Reports, 9(1), p. 7730.

3. Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y. (2009) ‘The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan’, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), p. 18.