Nature has a History
Next month, Deirdre O’Mahony, Artist and Educator, (Centre for Creative Arts, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology) will present her art practice and research at the upcoming Land│Labour│Capital conference at Limerick City Gallery of Art. O’Mahony gives Future State a preview of what to expect.
Dennis Cosgrave argues that we ‘cannot know nature outside the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. Nature has a history.’(1) That history; the culture of agriculture, has been shaped by agricultural practices that were informed by local, tacit knowledge. Called dinnseanchas in Gaelic, this specific local knowledge of geneology and agricultural practice, was a way of holding onto the practiced knowledge of place developed over generations. ‘Tacit’ knowledge could not be explained through words alone but had to be demonstrated in practice. It applied only to the specific place where it had been developed, and it made sense as part of a wider understanding of one’s relationship to one’s holdings.’(2) Over the past fifty years official agricultural policies have devalued that knowledge in favor of codified, scientific knowledge that was more efficient and ‘rendered methods developed for specific locations redundant.’(3)
The decline in the numbers of small farms in the west of Ireland slowed when Ireland joined the European Economic Community, the EEC in 1973, however that also marked the moment when farming practice diverged from tradition and became linked to subsidy. A resentment towards agricultural “experts” and decades of official disregard of local knowledge, has led to sceptical and often cynical attitudes amongst small farmers towards “official” rural policies. The emphasis has further shifted to the promotion of the farmer as custodian of the landscape and environment, prioritising the history, meaning and appearance of the land over its arable utility. In this light of previous experience, it is no surprise that farmers are slow to become involved with the contemporary rural development agenda further exacerbating the social and cultural isolation of many small farmers.
The psycho-dynamics of competing subjectivities being played out in rural public space today continues to engender tensions and conflict within rural communities when interests collide and particularly noticeable in relation to planning, tourism and heritage developments. The effect of globalisation on local agricultural practices is most evident in contemporary rural Ireland by the shift from food production to high-value cultural production. Responsibilities that were once the landowners are now a matter for National and European regulatory agencies. Visual decisions were once a part of the commonsense, commonplace knowledge of everyday rural life; field management, wall construction, ploughing, planting, or inventing ways of ‘making do’ in order to make tasks easier. They have a social and aesthetic value which is of enormous relevance in contemporary culture, particularly in relation to sustainable development.
My research has been focused on examining and unpacking the power relations playing out in conflicts between competing perspectives on landscape and identifying new methodologies that use cultural space to re-examine and re-present complex questions, perspectives and voices that are unheard or cannot yet be heard. Sustaining rural culture is a problem across Europe as food production moves to cheaper supply bases and EU policy, and subsidy, changed so that the farmer is now the custodian of the landscape and environment and prioritising the history, meaning and appearance of the land over its arable utility.(4) This move away from traditional farming has prioritised a post-productivist agenda; areas such as “alternative” food production, local tourism development and through LEADER, a focus on activating participatory, “bottom-up”, governance models where the design and implementation of development action is handed over to local stakeholders. (5)
Áine Macken-Walshe recently published a report for Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, that examines the socio-cultural factors governing the “poor engagement” of farmers and fishers in adapting to recent changes in rural development polocies. A signifigant number of traditional farmers continue to follow “non-viable” small–scale farming and are slow to become involved in economic activities – the ‘cultural turn’, in line with the contemporary rural development agenda, maintaining a sceptical distance from “official” rural policy development. Macken-Walshe notes that many farmers experience occupational and cultural estrangement from new policy driven agricultural practices such as organic food production, farmer’s markets, cultural tourism initiatives etc. (6)
written by Deirdre O’Mahony
(1) Dennis Cosgrove, Draft notes from the Landscape Theory seminar. Emailed text from James Elkins received Friday 24th September 2007. 4.
(2) Aine Macken-Walsh, Barriers to Change: A Sociological Study of Rural Development in Ireland. Athenry: Teagasc/RERC, 2009. Web. 28 Jan 2010. 45, citing Jorgensen, A. ‘Fields of Knowledge’, in (eds.) Corcoran, M.P. and Peillon, M. Uncertain Ireland: A Sociological Chronicle 2003-2004, Institute of Public Administration, 2006, 101 – 102.
(3) Jorgensen, 2006, p120 – 121, cited in Macken-Walshe.
(4) Macken-Walsh, 6.
(5) Ibid, 36.
(6) Macken-Walsh, 42.