Drawing in the field opens space for encounters that extend beyond the visual. Observation takes time and space – not only time spent putting pencil (or peat) to paper, but also the quiet intervals and intervening periods of awkwardness and restless uncertainty. There is the time spent moving between sites, time adjusting and settling, arranging a new work station. Beyond that, there is the busy work of daily life – food, transport, accommodation, communication. All these processes involve time spent as a living body relating to the landscape. They are a necessary part of field research, by which I mean not only that the research could not happen without them, but that they are part of making field research what it is, and as such they merit attention.
My commute to wetland sites from the apartment in Yesud Hama’ala takes me through orchards and past grain fields, along eucalyptus-lined dirt tracks. In the heat of the day, the pounded chalk of farm tracks hurts the eyes and throat; in the half-light of dawn and dusk it is kinder, but the way is long, and rough going on my worn-out old bike.
The valley breathes at dusk and dawn – cool, sharp air off the river; moisture rising from warm peat at the close of day; fruit trees blossoming each in turn. When the wind gets up, it beats unchecked across the flat plain.
A shortage of fresh vegetables at the local mini-market sharpens my appetite for wild greens. The gardens around my apartment are thick with nasturtium, but I’ve seen the gardener liberally dousing the ground with a spray pack. I chance upon lush banks of nettles at a disused agricultural site. Surprisingly, they have no sting, which takes me off on a trail of internet research – I discover Urtica hulensis: formerly considered endemic, but now identified with a common eastern European species, kioviensis – and known for its mild sting. As spring begins to kick in, I satisfy my iron cravings with nettle, wild mustard and marsh mallow leaves.
Later, returning to draw at the site where I gathered nettles, I find the plants wilted – the tracks apparently doused with herbicide as a cheap form of maintenance. I stay to draw the wilted plants, and the wildlife in the adjacent abandoned fishponds. As I wonder about the site, I notice my sandalled feet beginning to itch. I have no way of knowing if it’s a physiological response to the chemicals, or psychosomatic – or even a reaction to the wilted nettles (though that is a familiar sting I would expect to recognise, and one to which I have anyway grown more-or-less immune by long exposure). I wonder, too, whether my occasional sudden sneezing attacks in the last weeks are hay fever, or triggered by airborne chemicals from the frequent spraying – crop planes and masked agricultural labourers are a regular sight.
I’ve written in an earlier post about how sounds map out the spaces of the valley. Taste, scent, and touch help situate the body directly and intimately within that landscape. Looking up as I hear the cry of cranes overhead, I don’t merely see – observe – their passing. Instead, I sense – in the ache of tired muscles, the taste of dew on the air, the warmth of sun on my back – a bodily echo of the cranes’ striving presence, as their bodies rise and fall with each strong thrust of expanded wings.