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Reflections on the environment through archives: Earth

A toy wooden boat and animals, next to a brown cardboard box.
A toy wooden boat and animals, next to a brown cardboard box.
Written by
E. Carvajal
Published date
04 December 2020

Continuing with UAL:ASCC’s social media stories project, where volunteers reflect on archival collections, lately I can’t help but think about environmental issues reflected in the collections.

Wooden toy boat with animals

Noah’s Ark

I came across a mid-century, wooden Noah’s Ark toy set designed and made by Susan Wynter (b. 1920), whose creations have been sold at Harrods and Fortnum and Mason, for example. The toy set itself looks innocent – a menagerie of varnished animals with two figures representing Noah and his wife. Perched on top of the ark is a white dove which signifies that the flood waters have receded. However, what struck me was that instead of seeing the toy set for its designed effect as an innocuous and anesthetised plaything, I couldn’t quite shake off the darker motifs which undercut the item’s cheerful and polished veneer: cataclysm, civilisations destroyed, mass deaths, rising waters and the attempts to conserve the diversity of the planet’s species. A bit too dramatic. But isn’t that what we are currently facing at the moment?

As I continued to browse the digitised collection, this same environmental theme informed me and drew me to items within the Camberwell ILEA Collection, whose motifs seem obvious and literal but depict themes and subject matters within our world which are taken for granted -  perhaps we even look away from them - yet they remain, ominously.

A 'dolly' made from plaited straw

Corn dolly

I felt this sentiment when I came across a straw work ‘Yorkshire spiral’ corn dolly that is constructed using a 5 straw spiral plait. Before agricultural mechanization, and throughout pagan European culture, corn dollies (also called 'harvest tokens' or 'harvest trophies') were fashioned for use in harvest customs. Made at the end of harvest time using the last sheaf of wheat or from other cereal crops, farmers would construct corn designs which they kept until Christmas or the first months of the new year. Sort of like a good-luck charm. They believed that by constructing corn dollies, they would preserve the grain’s 'spirit' until it was returned to the land for the new season. Harvest rituals differ in the ways the grain’s spirit is returned to the land, either through burning the corn dolly, feeding it back to animals, or by ploughing the token back into their fields. In this sense, the corn dolly or 'harvest trophy' represented the idea of returning fertility back to the land or soil in order to encourage a good harvest for the following season. This practice declined after the mechanisation of farming practices, especially at the turn of the century. However, the craft was revived in the 1960s when corn dollies were made for tourist souvenirs.

Worryingly, with the trends in contemporary agricultural production, particularly in intensive farming, the UN estimates that the world only has around 60 harvests left. The chronic stress brought on by sustained land tilling has resulted in environmental damage to our topsoil, such as the loss of water and the loss of microbial growth and diversity which results in poor harvests, not to mention the loss of huge amounts of carbon that would otherwise be drawn back into the soil by plants and foster the microbial growth needed for the world’s flora. Instead trapping this carbon through the process of 'drawdown', the world’s degraded soils fail to capture the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide which continue to make the world a hotter place. The soil erosion wrought from contemporary trends in intensive farming practices have effectively tired the world’s topsoil so greatly that farmers today are compelled to mask the problems with greater amounts of fertiliser to sustain their crops.

Also, I learnt that while the world’s land area exceeds 13 billion hectares, less than half of that area can be used for agriculture, including grazing, while only around 1.4 billion hectares is suitable for specifically growing crops. The majority of the world’s land is too wet, too dry, too shallow, too rocky, nutritionally deficient or simply frozen to use agriculturally. Historians have even argued that civilisations (for example, the Mayan civilisation and the kingdom of Mesopotamia) have come and gone according to the quality of their soil and their destructive farming practices.

So, when encountering this corn dolly within the Camberwell ILEA Collection, I noticed it for its aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship. But I also saw within it the darker motifs embedded in the object that our contemporary, mechanised, technologically-advanced society works hard to archive – feeding the world at a profit (let’s not forget!) and dictated by the handful of multinational corporations whose business practices force farmers to accelerate the world’s desertification. While antiquated harvest rituals involving the corn were performed to encourage agricultural abundance by showing respect to the earth’s 'spirit', our modern and intensive farming practices have achieved the opposite. It would seem that in our attempts to feed the world, we have lost the 'spirit of the corn'.