Times of disintegration demand new habits of thinking, new ways to engage with the world. I began to wonder what it would mean to journey with something as abstract as a colour, to cast aside all ideas of being in control and allow myself to be taught? What would it be like to live the knowledge that a colour, like everything else, has agency? Could I allow myself to fall fully into the colour and allow it to alchemically transmute my life?
To journey is to travel beyond the immediately visible; beyond physical, psychological, societal, cultural, and temporal horizons. Eighteen years ago I made a very long journey. With my young, typically Western nuclear family I migrated to Aotearoa New Zealand from England, one of a diaspora of around 300,000 British citizens who make the choice to leave their homeland every year motivated by work, adventure, or the desire for a better life. In a society largely removed from a sense of connection with place, diffuse and pervasive loss of connection is a strong motivator to keep moving in search of some kind of belonging.
On arrival we found a land covered in vast swathes of green. The skies have an intensity of colour and light I had never experienced, and the ocean frequently displays and reflects intense blues.
Perhaps this is where it began, like the gradual spreading of watercolour paint on wet rag paper. In these vast empty landscapes everything is infused in everything else; the rain-soaked mosses and lichen; the loose scree surfaces of volcanic mountain sides which slide and shift underfoot, breaking any illusion of solidity normally associated with mountains; the braided rivers whose paths dissect and dissolve the land with the falling rains; bottomless reflections of sky on shiny wave-soaked beaches, into which it seems you could stumble and fall forever.
I always felt like a visitor in this place. For years the sense of dislocation and the search for belonging that I have heard many migrants speak of was visceral. In searching for relief from the sense that a part of my body and spirit had been misplaced, I began to seek comfort in listening to and working with the land where I was; the land my feet moved across every day. Placing my body on the cool earth, gathering clay for pigment-making, and moving with the wind supported a gradual integration and growing love for the land I had chosen to live with. Blue led me into an exploration, through photography and video, of ancestry, and the complex feelings and emotions relating to the place of tau iwi; a Māori term often used to refer to new migrants or visitors in Aotearoa New Zealand.
And then, perhaps unsurprisingly, blue brought me to a crossroads. It seems that in every journey there is a crossroads. One evening over dinner, during a conversation about blue, my daughter mentioned woad and I was hooked.
Woad, Isatis tinctoria has been grown in Europe for at least 10,000 years. It is an ancient dyer’s plant, native to the Middle East and Turkey, yielding a blue pigment that by Medieval times was in use across Europe. As the only light-fast blue available it was used in such diverse contexts as the Bayeux Tapestry, illuminated manuscripts, as a body paint, a textile dye for uniforms, and now in contemporary contexts for home furnishings, textile art and clothing. From the late Middle Ages, indigo from Asia slowly began to replace woad in Europe as a less expensive alternative. Eventually the introduction of cheaper synthetic dyes and pigments made the labour-intensive production and processing of woad unviable.
I was living on the other side of the world, discovering that the last working woad mill in Britain, which was dismantled in 1932, had been just a few miles from where I grew up in the Lincolnshire Fens. The landscape through which I regularly cycled as a teenager would have once been yellow, not with oil seed rape, but with woad flowers. So I planted woad plants in our New Zealand garden and began making paint with woad powder and traditional binders and using it to make body prints. In the course of the daily nurturing and handling of this sturdy member of the Brassicaceae family I felt a strong call to return home. It came at a time when my elderly parents were adjusting to the increasingly ill health of my Dad. I gave notice on my rented studio, put everything in storage, landed at Heathrow as spring got underway, and made my way back to the Fens.
Once with the land, the physical act of wandering the fields and lanes where woad used to be grown release[d] a flood of information and connections
Once with the land, listening viscerally for waymarkers, the physical act of wandering the fields and lanes where woad used to be grown seemed to release a flood of information and connections through synchronistic meetings, including the local author of a historical research article on woad, Jane Keightley, who lent me Woad in the Fens written by Norman T. Mills in the 1970s.
According to Gerard, quoted in Mrs Grieves’ A Modern Herbal, women and girls ‘painted their bodies blue with woad and went naked to some of their sacrifices’. It is said to have been used to paint the bodies of warriors to make them more fearsome in battle, and that through this use its antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and styptic properties became well known. The old herbalists warned against using it internally whilst some modern herbalists will quite happily recommend making a tea or decoction with it. More recently it has been found to be a rich source of alkaloids and flavonoids, as well as having anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, antiviral, and antioxidant properties. Perhaps this is the reason that dyers were known to never get arthritis.
On the Lincolnshire woad farms, whole families devoted their lives to the cultivation of woad, sometimes moving around to the different locations in which it was grown, passing specific woad farming jobs down through the generations. It was hard physical labour, profitable for some but damaging for many others.
Back in the studio, in using the woad powder with natural binders, another teaching began to emerge. The gritty nature of the pigment meant that the prints I was making had gaps and spaces in them. This began to fascinate me. It was as if the negative spaces were almost more important, and most certainly had something to say. I recalled a leaf I had photographed where it lay decaying on the ground near a waterfall, and how the gaps in that leaf spoke to me more directly than the remaining leaf material.
So I began to live life with more gaps, more pauses, more spaces. I experimented with regular movement practices to try and interpret how the negative and positive spaces in the leaf and the prints felt in the body, and through this process it became clear that what I was needing to understand was that rest is a radical act. To rest, to pause, or even to move very slowly, perhaps walking barefoot on a forest path, is to allow space for us to catch up with ourselves. Rest and pause create space to receive, space for our souls to find us, space to hear the other stories that are drowned out by busyness, space to feel, see and hear those new and tender budding things on the edges of awareness. If we are to shake the narratives of consensus reality perhaps we need to see rest as a radical act and agent of change.
De-centring the human may be a huge task from where we are now: firmly embedded in a fast, busy, industrialised human-centric culture, largely unaware of our own conditioning. But perhaps rest, pause, and listening on the edges can help us to hear our own particular next step, one footfall after another. Perhaps rest can help us locate, as Mary Oliver puts it, our place in the family of things.
Perhaps rest, pause, and listening on the edges can help us to hear our own particular next step, can help us locate, as Mary Oliver puts it,our place in the family of things.
But what of Isatica? Isatica was the name of a small hamlet, consisting of cottages, a school and a woad mill near Brothertoft in Lincolnshire, built by Mr J. Cartwright in the eighteenth century. It was named from the Latin term for woad, Isatis tinctoria. Today there is no trace of the settlement. Apart from a brief mention in the literature on woad there is nothing to mark its existence. It has, like so many things in the marshy liminal fenlands, dissolved into the mists of time. In this ethereal landscape, transience and ephemerality are the guiding forces. The land that was re-claimed through man-made drainage systems, forever changing the indigenous fenland way of life that depended upon wildfowling, fishing and reed-cutting, is sinking and already returning to the sea. Ecological zones here are ever-shifting. Perhaps it is the case that the edges of awareness can be more easily accessed in places like these.
So perhaps woad blue is illuminating a story of transience; to value and learn from the past but, like the settlement of Isatica, to accept complete disintegration.
Perhaps this apprenticeship to a colour highlights the value of going to ground, to pause, rest, and only then to regenerate; to live and create anew from the charnel ground of the changing world in which we stand. Perhaps in the gaps it is possible to listen for new and emergent ways to relate and journey with the place and time we walk within.
And perhaps it invites a new relationship with the world, predicated upon practices of living in response. If the background music of the migrant experience is the call to home, perhaps this can be heard as a call to re-orientate, to relocate according to the internal as well as external compass; coming home in a rootless time, guided by a plant and a colour.