Making Meaning


Following on from my encounters with the birds at Dartington, I wanted to know if I was right to imagine that the estate would once have been home to a far greater bird community. I found a graph showing the catastrophic decline of bird populations in the UK since the 1950's (when records first began to be kept systematically). The graph is shown below, and there is no escaping the terrible toll of post war farming practices on the farmland bird numbers (shown here in red). This data confirmed the suspicions raised by my time drawing flight paths in the top field, but I remain mindful of the limitations of data-driven knowledge- we have to be aware of shifting baselines, possible bias and potential failures in data collection.

I wanted to create some work that ties this information into the site at Dartington, since it has a particular history linked to the changes to agricultural practices in the 20th Century that have so drastically contributed to the decline of field bird populations (see Fieldwork).

I work with re-presenting the graph data in the print studio. The monoprint technique allows me to add an embodied touch to the data, and the delicacy of the line has a thread like quality that fits with my thinking about each part of the ecosystem acting as a thread, that once it begins to unravel, undermines the fabric of the whole. Donna Haraway names this type of thinking as - 'An emerging "New New Synthesis"' that 'in transdisciplinary biologies and arts proposes string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, affects, performances, technologies, and more.' (Haraway, 2016 p63)

Through a happy accident, some of the prints show the graph in reverse, and the lines appear to rise steadily. This now reads as a hopeful gesture, full of the potential to reverse the trend of disappearance. The three lines also appear to take on the form of a bird in flight or to echo the lines of the murmurations of groups of birds moving together, as if returning the body of the birds to the skies.

I think of Xavi Bou's incredible 'Ornothographies' photography works, that track each wing movement of birds in flight, creating beautiful, complex trails across the sky (Dee, 2020 pp75-86).

Graph sourced at: https://www.birdguides.com/news/new-report-uk-birds-continue-to-decline/ (accessed 5/5/22)