The Straight Line Pt1

By Ruth Levene

During the research period from which A Field of Wheat was born, we came across a path that cut diagonally through a wheat field, it was a striking sight, clear enough to show up on satellite imagery. The field belonged to farmer Andrew Ward and was part of Glebe Farm in Leadenham, the path marks the route of The Danelaw Way, a walk of around 60 miles through Lincolnshire & Rutland countryside. The Danelaw was an agreement which was reached in 886 on the extent of the territory of the Viking invaders. Andrew is legally obliged to keep the footpath walkable for ramblers, he does this by sowing his crops in full and then sprays the path back into the land destroying the crop. At one stage he proposed the route be changed to follow the edges of the fields which he argued contained wildlife, a stream and set-a-side and would be a preferable walking experience, but the ramblers and council contested this and the path remains in its place.

This defiant line which looks to the past and connects us with history, gives us permission to be close up and present in a field only normally frequented by heavy machinery that’s driving towards the future for the sake of progress. Straight lines are synonymous with progress; the most direct, economical efficient route. The combine harvesters on Andrew’s farm are guided by satellite to an incredible one cm tolerance, the bigger and more fuel needy these machines get the more need for larger, flatter fields to make them economically viable. Trees, paths, hills, rivers and pylons become things in the way.

The curve of the river at the edge of the farm becomes another striking and defiant line, meandering through the land with twists and turns which were this time nature’s easiest and most efficient route.

At the time of this research I was also following another line, this time on the work The Boundary Walk, a collaboration with artist / film-maker Ian Nesbitt which saw us walk the circumference of Sheffield Metropolitan Boundary Line. We took a pilgrimage along this administrative bureaucratic line which was marked on the map but not on the ground. We often came onto private land by following public footpaths, these paths began to feel like a dwindling network of arteries that allowed the life blood to flow through them affording us access to places we would not go otherwise.

I had a tangible sense of how special if archaic these paths are.

Walking, marking and mapping the line and lay of the land have long been an interest of mine and have manifested in different ways, often using myself and the limits of my body to explore the contradictions of the way we record the world around us. In As Far As The eye Can See, I created a series of my own personal Island maps based on as far as I could see.

Depth of Field (video above) revealed what seemed like a flat white screen to be the snowy landscape it was by pacing one metre lengths that left markings in the snow. I’m interested in the space of the 2d (the flat map or screen) and the real space of the land. The map and the territory.

During our research in the archives of The Collection Museum & Art Gallery we came across The Ploughing Match  by George F. Carline, painted in 1897. I couldn’t get it out of my head, a crowd stood in the field, eyes fixed on the farmer showing off his skills. A Ploughing Match is a contest celebrating agriculture and farming skills. Points were awarded for straightness and neatness.

“In 1917 the government made a decision to standardise farm power alongside its campaign to plough up grassland for arable usage, and ordered 5,000 Fordson tractors. It also published weekly notices regarding the achievements made through the use of tractor power and held monthly ploughing competitions where prizes were awarded for the greatest number of acres ploughed rather than for the best or straightest furrow”.

Farming in Lincolnshire 1850-1950 (Studies in the History of Lincolnshire) by Brown, J

There it was, embodied in a simple straight line, the shift from celebrating quality and the skills of the farmer and his tools to quantity and the mechanisation of the land.

In the UK today there are 250 local ploughing champions with classes for conventional, reversible and for nostalgia, the horse-drawn plough. Just as the government pushed towards tractors then, today’s government is investing £160 million into researching precision technology, aiming to move away from heavy machinery compacting the soil and treating the whole crop as one, to precision farming using drones and satellites from the air to identify and treat the crop on an individual plant basis.

I shot photographs and video and collated maps that exposed these curvy and straight lines, some already existed and others we made ourselves.

Some of these ideas also resonated with our previous collaborative work Timeframe and Anne-Marie’s Field Sensing practice of many years ‘a process that focuses on the simplicity/complexity of walking slowly with awareness as a way of being – offering a framework for experiencing time and place in a different way’. The video above was an experiment with Anne-Marie walking slowly through a fully grown field of wheat blindfolded. A slightly adapted (faster and blindfolded) form of Field Sensing –  Moving forward along the narrow track, knowing and not knowing where I’m going and how far along. We then experimented with Anne-Marie walking along the wider paths left by the barley stubble.  What happens if I try and walk forward in a straight line here? I veer rapidly off track. I need someone to realign me and set some margins of error.

The research online that Anne-Marie came across talks of scientists findings that humans and other animals find it impossible to keep straight without visual reference points (such as the sun or moon) to keep them on track. Almost inevitably we end up walking in circles or spirals ending up often back where we started. There have been a number of theories put forward but none have been proven.

Navigating blindly through the huge expanse of mono-culture was something that resonated throughout. Who is creating the lines? Are they slow meandering ones that bend and curve? Or direct straight ones where we remove the things in our way? What marks and scars do they leave on the land? Can we see where we are heading?

Click here to read Pt2 of The Straight Line