‘Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside fences; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows.’
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
March 2020, artist Jane Frost took her mower and set out on a personal journey across the green near her home, in Littleport, Cambridgeshire. It was an underused, over-mown piece of ground, around which the occasional dog walker and dog walked. It is 2020, the world is facing an unprecedented pandemic with the Covid-19 virus, and the UK had just gone into lockdown. It was a journey with intention and design, creating a labyrinth in the grass left by the silent council mowers. It is part of a body of work called ‘I can’t contain myself’.
We have all experienced restrictions one way or another in the last few months, encountering a new view of the world and the space around us as everything stopped. Many people have commented on the birdsong. I have found solace walking my dog through town, woods, parks and meadows - essentially watching grass grow. I am generally drawn to pockets of wildness in green spaces, between the cracks in pavements, grass verges. I love the abundant growth and my background gives me the literacy to read these tapestries. Where many people may perceive uncontrolled neglect, or mess, I see webs of life. The desire lines around my local common have been trodden over many years, maybe centuries, footfall on the turf now developing ‘passing places’ where people step aside to give way to others in our socially distanced times, and life bursts forth in the spaces inbetween.
Frost’s labyrinth is a singular path through grass sward. It is an invitation to engage and move around within a space. In due course an extension has been added by her partner and collaborator Tim, a striping pattern to off-set the swirling curves. Large areas of grasses and emergent wildflowers have been allowed to grow up around the path, leaving a textured design, gently negotiated with the council maintenance crews as they returned to their mowing. In July it is swaying, lush with complexity, humming with bees and insects.
There are battles underway in the UK over the length of grasses. With climate change and the threat of mass species extinctions, we urgently need to find space for nature, yet the cultural need for control persists. We seek tidiness. We have become disconnected from our ‘lost fields and meadows’ and lack the literacy to understand nature. Frost’s work balances the tension so well that the soft meadow grass and rugged ’weeds’ are not perceived as messy, instead it seems to attract passers-by and repeat visitors.
The presence of the labyrinth near the local school has provided an immersive, playful landscape for children on their journey home with parents and carers stopping to picnic or chat at a distance. Through the months that formal playgrounds were closed through government order, here was a space where children could run and explore, where adults could pause, think, recuperate from the stresses around them. Allowable pursuits as restrictions persisted.
The labyrinth changes the space. It began as an act of mark-making and became a humble architecture. Whilst it posits a quest for freedom, it’s presence also offers destination, enclosure and progression. The scale of tall grasses beside a small child, detracts from the view beyond and draws us to the immediate, the existing moment.
Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa talks of architecture as a ‘communication from the body of the architect directly to the body of the person who encounters the work…’
‘Understanding architectural scale implies the unconscious measuring of the object or the building with one’s body, and of projecting one’s body scheme into the space in question. We feel pleasure and protection when the body discovers its resonance in space.’
In landscape the shaping of space is achieved through the frugality and efficiency of natural elements and the gift of time. In a place where there were few desire lines, a local green that people had forgotten how to inhabit, Frost has performed a personal intervention through minimal means, temporal and easily erased. Nonetheless it creates an immersive communal and individual ‘event’, a reinvention of space, experienced in many unique ways.
Jane Frost is an artist based in Cambridgeshire