If you have ever been to Orkney you will know it is a landscape dominated by grassland. With few trees here, it’s the shimmering of grass that marks the movement of wind and sun, and its growth and decay colours the changing seasons. Modern farming methods mean that many of the green fields we see are sown with a monoculture of high-sugar-content, nitrogen-loving ryegrasses suited for pasture and silage.
However, many of the permanent pastures around me provide rich habitats for bird life, with flocks of greylag geese and golden plover in winter, and nesting curlew and lapwings in early summer. Short-eared owls, hen and marsh harriers hunt voles in the long grass. Brown hares are plentiful, although the corncrake we heard call all summer a few years ago has not been back.
‘Regenerative agriculture’ promotes grazing practices that allow permanent pastures to develop deep root systems that capture carbon, anchor precious topsoil and mitigate flooding. With a move towards a plant-based diet promoted as the most environmentally sustainable option, and the drive to plant more woodland to capture carbon, it seems to me that grass gets a bad rap, environmentally speaking. Not all grass is the same.
‘When the Grass Dances is a collaboration between Orkney based photographer Rebecca Marr and Edinburgh based poet Valerie Gillies. It’s a beautiful invitation to pay attention to this group of plants that we often overlook or take for granted. I asked them to tell me more about their project:
RM: When the Grass Dances is a collection, a harvest, of poems and photographs made over a year-long collaboration at a distance. Its theme that required us to get close up to the world of the grasses. It’s an invitation really…
VG: We invite you to take a walk among the grasses with us, an experience which we have found to be reviving. By learning to recognise the grasses and to respond to them, we re-connect with the plant world and with our own human history.
RM: We took four headings for our collection: Approaching the grasses; Knowing the grasses; Using the grasses; and Living with the grasses. When we finished making, we realised that our work in photographs and poems fell quite naturally in to one or other of these categories.
VG: There is a progression in that approaching, knowing, living and using. We encourage you to make your own discoveries, by way of first-hand experience out of doors.
Timothy Grass, Photogram Invert, 2020. Rebecca Marr
Now is the time for the flowers of the grasses
to be at their best.
In May and June, some say,
they have their own hours for opening.
Meadow Grass opens between 4 and 5am,
Quaking Grass and Tussock Grass about an hour later,
Meadow Fescue and Cock’s-foot between 6 and 7,
Fox-tail, Cat’s-tail and Sweet Vernal-grass between 7 and 8.
At 11 the Dog-grass opens.
Around noon, the wood Melick, the purple Molinia,
the Mat-grass and the Sea Lymegrass unroll.
About 2pm, the Brome-grass is nodding,
the Wild Oat about 3,
Dog’s Wheat and Twitch Grass at 4.
Wavy hairgrass opens between 5 and 6,
while Fog grass opens twice, downy and pale,
at 6 in the morning and 7 in the evening.
All these grasses like to be on time,
each flower takes twenty minutes to open completely.
SC: On the website for the project you begin with a lovely quotation from the Victorian lady botanist Margaret Plues, inviting us to pay attention to grasses. She sets out a set of consequences to this. Careful ‘attention’ first makes our ‘acquaintance’, which leads to ‘admiration’ and then to ‘friendship’. Can you say something about your own creative practices, how they enact this careful attentiveness, and the ‘friendship’ that grows out of this? How did you come to ‘know the grasses’ and what did that acquaintance reveal for you?
RM: Maybe we should go back to when we first recognised the grasses as a theme. It was an experience of a sense of greenness that started us off. It was the year I moved to Orkney and it has taken 15 years for that germ of an idea to fully surface. VG: In the notebook for 2007, on my journey to the springs and wells of Scotland and Ireland which was the source for the book The Spring Teller and its outreach work, I find some jottings describing the ninety-seventh well I was visiting, at the Brough of Deerness in Orkney.
‘Rebecca and I climb up the steep narrow path, almost cut off at high tide, to the site of a small stone chapel on the Brough. We can just make out the well close by, legendary for the visits paid to it by pilgrims in search of good health, who went walking around it three times in silence and throwing water over head and shoulders. There’s mist on the sea, and islands southwards away like a mirage, the curve of the globe on the sea’s horizon’.
On the page opposite, I have written what I discovered through two years of searching for the wellsprings:
‘Every spring has its song’
A single stalk of grass is pressed beside the words, fixed in place by masking tape.
‘How good to rest in this blessed place! Among deep tussocky grasses and bird’s foot trefoil, in profound peace. Listening to the call of a loon out among the waves’
RM: We started to share stories of grass.
VG: We compared notes culled from our childhood experiences and took our place among the fresh grasses of this summer, watching and listening in different regions of Scotland. For me, language and landscape are co-existent. As a child I was free to roam the upland fields. My happy place was among the grasses on the crest of the moor, in behind the march-dyke, where the grasses grow the sweetest and the wind blows the lightest.
RM: And I think the concentration of the project meant we entered into a conscious relationship with the grasses. The strange times of the past two years have caused disconnection in some ways and I found myself seeking company with the grasses. My daily coastal walks became a checking in on the grasses. Who was new to the party? Who had altered their appearance?
Walks became investigations, hunts. I was able to slowly piece together information from books, I would be vocal in the field, ‘Ah! It’s you.’ The recognition felt pleasing. Val told me the same, she would greet the grasses when she knew their name.
I took grasses home to my darkroom where I could really get to know them. I work with photograms, a Victorian technique where the grasses are laid down on light sensitive paper and exposed to the light, then developed. The plant makes its own image, a ghost, starkly white on the black developed paper. I then scan the photogram and invert it so the grass is black on the white background, the detail can be amazing. It is not always predictable what the grass will speak of itself, sometimes the movement is there, something of its behaviour.
VG: Each of us uses our own artform to come to know the grasses. The poetry originates from close observation, peeling soft rush for its white pith, finding the form where the hare lies unseen and walking up to it. I can slit a grass blade, hold it between my thumbs, and whistle through it. These are childhood riches, becoming wisdom to be passed on today.
I was lucky as a teenager, learning how to scythe alongside my grandfather. In early August, when the grass-heads were just about to wilt, ‘gaun owre’, then we would cut our hay. Two scythers moving across the field in a curve. My grandfather set the pace, the sweep of his scythe skilful. The sound it made is a music I can hear today, hiss-swishing through the grass while we swung on. My understanding of rhythm, of poetics, arises from that sound in the field.
We paused only to set the scythes upright and sharpen the great blades, ‘straiking’ them with a whetstone. I grew in confidence because he trusted me not to slice my hand open while doing so. Behind us, the hay lay in swathes, a ribcage on the field.
Later I came back with the two-pronged fork to toss the hay and then turn it, using the shaft, to dry. Once we had gathered in the hay, the field became a ‘ley’: grazing for the horse.
I saw which grasses my aunt’s horses preferred, and often stood to watch them knock back the tufted grass for the sweet bite, their strong teeth tearing the top off one patch of grass and then moving on to another. This kind of knowledge becomes vital to our studies in the field today.
RM: We kept a joint digital journal and called it our ‘Findings scroll book.’ In it we noted memories, bits from books, field notes, our observations, other people’s observations. It was this space that became our collaborative practice: unable to physically be together, we were together in that space.
When Val and I got together at last we headed to the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, to their herbarium. We had emailed a list of grasses we wanted to see, most of them Victorian specimens and some from Orkney from the herbarium of James Sinclair the botanist from the Bu in Hoy. Beautiful card folders were laid out for us like a gift, generosity from the custodians of the herbarium and from the collectors. Within each parcel a grass carefully laid out, a particular individual of that species, selected and preserved, to be pored over a hundred years later.
We found you can never have enough books on grasses. Orkney Plant Recorder John Crossley was a library of light. He showed me where the Holy Grass grows and gently corrected or encouragingly confirmed some of my grass identifications.
Holy-grass, a blessing
Holy-grass is sweetgrass
on chapel floors strewn wide,
sweetgrass is holy-grass
by running streams fructified.
Braids of gold and green
their own scent will keep,
hung above beds serene
to bring a blessed sleep.
Holy Grass Hierochloe odorata, Near Harray Loch, Orkney, July. Photo Rebecca Marr
RM: Paying attention to a particular aspect of nature is always rewarding. I find the same with seaweeds and clouds. A small area opens out to a vast world. With the grasses this is especially accurate. As you say grass is green and I was almost ashamed that I hadn’t thought much beyond that. But start looking and the architecture of the grasses becomes arresting, their structure and texture and their shades of green, their winter colours of whites.
In the collaboration it became important that there was not too much green in the photographs, in fact much of the colour is in the poems. To make them visible I often worked in black and white or a muted palette. The vibrant green hum of grass is only really shown in the earlier photograph from Deerness we have talked about. All the photographs made during the project are about opening out that initial impression of greenness and focussing in on structure and movement.
VG: If we pay attention to the grasses they start to tell us about survival, how they regenerate after trampling or grazing. Attention makes us grateful. We felt a kinship with Robin Wall Kimmerer when she describes how we can show our gratitude to the grasses when we observe them closely and celebrate them in photography and poetry. In the ‘Living with the grasses’ chapter there is a poem ‘How to call in a field of long grass,’ it is an inventory of lost sounds. It is an act of conservation.
Field at Hundland, Papay (Papa Westray), Orkney, June. Photo Rebecca Marr
How to Call in a Field of Long Grass
For a cat,
For a dog,
For a rabbit,
For a hen,
For a pig,
Gussie, gus-gus, grumfay!
For a calf,
troo, troo, troo!
For a cow,
pree-leddy, proochie, chay!
For a horse,
Coap, coap, jee-up, how!
RM: If you recall that lazy feeling of lying in the grass in a summer doze, take a moment to notice what your hands are doing – they are running through the grass and broadcasting the seed. Other animals do it through droppings, cows are unconscious farmers treading seeds into the broken-up soil just like the wild bison before them.
While cows are grazing
you’ve all the time in the world
to weave a craa’s foot
Marram has a reciprocal relationship with its home, ensuring that it will be stable for some time.
VG: The give and take of the whole project is represented in the Kist o Wild Grasses, a box made of marram grass. The box, made by Kevin Gauld the Orkney furniture maker, is held in Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh to be used in creative workshops, art as well as writing, and in therapeutic sessions or people can help themselves to their own personal prescription by sitting with the contents of the box.
In the box is a curated collection of around 50 photograph and poem pairings. It is an antidote to the speed of receiving images digitally, it allows people to slow down and sit with what they are seeing, it is a handtool a bit like the scythe, something in your hand.
Marram, the grass which binds
the young sand dunes
its strong roots
sometimes twenty feet long
creep through shifting sand
its sea-green leaves
slowing down the wind
a glossy grass
protects the coastline
engineer of the ecosystem
planted for this purpose
it creates vast areas
as the dunes become fixed
and as other plants colonise
marram gives way to them