Only a very small amount of life on earth is lucky enough to exist without any human contact or interference. The Dung beetle largely lives beneath piles of muck, dragging it down into the tunnels it has burrowed beneath, to feed its young , but still their lives are often disrupted and entangled in our reality.
I often see dung beetles when I am walking the hill in the summer or in my horse fields. There are about 60 species of dung beetle in the UK with slightly different habits. They can fly and live on carrion, decaying plant matter, fungi and muck, encouraging seed dispersal, nutrient recycling, soil aeration and simply cleaning the ground. Some create a noise by rubbing the upper part of their hind legs together, (stridulation) thought to be used in mating, defence, communication and fighting over dung dung balls in hotter climates.
Alex sent me an image of a dung beetle he photographed in his village. As Alex’s photographs are so vivid it was easy for me to visualize one to draw. I usually draw animals life size or a bit smaller sometimes for larger animals. I like the drawings to be seen as the animals rather than a piece of art. I tried doing some life size drawings of the beetles but I didn’t have room or the skill to describe them at less than 10mm long. As Kate said - the importance of these beetles to soil and their connection to mammals is larger than their dimensions. So I went big, recording them in the reverance of a diptych and possible triptych when the summer comes and I can see others.
Their outer structure and form is armour like. Their body is made up of three parts, head, thorax and abdomen. Their bodies are covered by a hard chitinous (a nitrogen –containing polysaccharide that is a component of insect exoskeletons and the cell walls of some fungi) carapace (protective shell) that shimmers from black to bronze, purple, blue and green depending on the type. I was trying to capture their iridescence and thought of nail polish. There are now nail powders which I used alongside black gloss house paint.
Dung beetles are increasingly used in case studies on ecosystems, environmental change and land use because of their abundance and their connections with farm animals and wild habitats. According to the British cattle Association dung beetles save the British cattle industry £367, million a year, by encouraging grass growth. Although most farmers know the benefits of dung beetles, many treatments for the control of cattle, sheep and horse parasites have a negative effect on dung beetle activity and breeding. The knowledge of their importance is growing - hopefully they will be revered again as they were in ancient Egypt when they were seen as the divine manifestation of the early morning sun, Khepri, who rolled the disc of the sun over the horizon, every morning at daybreak.
February 17th 2021.
Click on the audio below to listen:
Kate, Sally and Alex have invited me to explore and experiment to create an EarthBound soundscape to be used with a short film in the final exhibition. My house is just behind an old quarry in Wirksworth which is in a state of regeneration, and during the last year’s lockdowns I have been walking through it most days. Like listening to a favourite album and hearing new things with each subsequent listen; each walk has built up a sound-image of the environment, which has been my starting place for creating this soundscape.
Some of the sounds I have focussed in on as key sounds of this environment:
— echo of a mine shaft in the quarry face; walls wet with water seeping through the porous limestone —
— thick, resonant, rusting iron structures; crawled half-under a blanket of moss —
— clink and crunch of shifting rocks underfoot; heaps of spoil, these rocks are the last evidence of the activity of this place —
— summer hum of busy buddleia; pioneers in regenerating the barren and the forgotten, each a small parasol of shade, a slowly-expanding oasis of plant and insect life —
— hiss of the wind through the trees in summer; in winter they roar and clack their limbs against each other, a skeletal applause —
— minute sounds of the many-legged; the pitter-patter of tiny feet carving out homes in a stack of decomposing railway sleepers: mining in miniature.
Not all of these sounds are easy to capture! Like a foley artist, I’m approximating some, creating an almost hyperreal version of imagined or exaggerated sound.
To create the soundscape with these sounds, I’m playing with a technique called granular synthesis. Small parts or “grains” of sound are taken from a sample and played back in various ways to create new sounds. Using larger grains, the sounds retain their texture but new structures are created. Using smaller grains, new textures arise which can then be shaped into something entirely new.
This process reminds me of the cycles of regeneration I see in the quarry: decomposition and rebirth. Skeletons of sea-creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago visible in the limestone; alongside the rotting wood of old quarrying structures that are filled with new life, and the plants and trees working their way back into the once-barren rock.
February 16th 2021.
Quarry men in April 1902 discovered a fissure in the limestone that had been eroded by water at Hoe Grange Quarry. Over 10,000 bone specimens were subsequently unearthed from the cavern, many of these from the Pleistocene layer. These included many Bovine and Cervus (deer) , the lower jaw of a cave lion cub, wildcat, wolf, bear, Rhinoceros Leptorhinus, the milk tooth of an elephant Antiquus, Fallow deer bones and Hyena. The Fallow deer bones were significant as Fallow were thought to have been brought here by the Romans. Although no conclusive antlers were found, there were enough bone specimens to assume Fallow were here in the Pleistocene era.
The reason why there were so many bone specimens was that the Cave hyena’s hunting ability lay not in their speed but in their size and strength enabling them to kill and drag their prey to their den where they dismantled the prey with their bone crushing jaws. Cave hyenas were a paleosubspecies of the spotted hyena, but much larger and stronger. Hyenas were the hunter- gatherers of this cave, surviving on whatever they could hunt and scavenge, leaving the remains as a time capsule, a bone museum of millennia.
Although I look at anatomy books so I can understand the structure of animals, it’s their movement and life, their spirit that interests me. The way their flesh falls as they lie or their muscle stretches as they turn, what they have to do to survive and how they live.
Alex suggested I could draw with hyena coprolites as hyenas digest everything but the inorganic matter in bone, making a chalk like substance. Some hyena coprolite was found in the pinhole cave at Creswell Crags , Derbyshire which when analysed showed some remaining pollen, 1% tree pollen and 99% grass pollen indicating the cave hyenas hunted prey that was mainly on open grassland.
They are a species that have survived millions of years, living in large packs, with sophisticated vocal calls, and a varied, stubborn and powerful hunting technique. Coming over from Africa to Europe about the same time as homo sapiens, but never succumbing to our dominance, the ultimate survivors.
February 16th 2021.
When I make a sculpture or drawing I know it is nearing completion when I start to talk to the work. This owl was dead. I mourned for it as soon as I saw it in Kate’s tender photographs. Spending so much time with the images Alex took of the owl for me, so immediate, with every delicate feather, the imprint of It’s pure white breast etched itself onto my retina. There was a quietness to drawing such a beautiful sadness.
Kate sent me some barn floor. I was unprepared for the physical wave of grief that came over me when I took the earth to the drawing. Earth made up of its life, from a place where it ate, reared young and died.
The Owl lies, slowly joining the soil beneath it, which is composed of the fallen remains of the prey that kept it alive, muck, traces of visiting sheep, insects and dust.
Sheltered in death as in life by Spitewinter Barn, built generations ago with stone quarried from the same ground .
February 10th 2021.
Modern birds are descendants of a group of two-legged dinosaurs known as Theropods, whose members included Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame. I was keenly aware of this fact as I studied the dead barn owl that lay before me, a silent killer and a marvel of avian evolution. I handled the owl slowly and respectfully; it was to be my photographic subject for the day and even in death I was humbled to be so close to it.
I felt very grateful to Kate for sharing this fascinating albeit sad discovery with me. She found the owl at the entrance to an old stone barn she passes every day as she heads out to tend her horses. We believe the owl starved to death during prolonged harsh winter conditions. It weighed next to nothing in my hands. Naturally the dead owl was reported to the local Wildlife Trust as all such data is useful in understanding how the local population is fairing.
These graceful birds have several distinctive adaptations that enable them to efficiently hunt voles and other small mammals: asymmetrically-positioned ear openings to help pinpoint prey, two large discs of feathers on the face arranged as a pair of parabolic reflectors to capture the faintest sounds, long legs and talons for reaching deep down into the sward to grab prey and a comb-like structure along the leading edge of the foremost primary feather of each wing that breaks up turbulence and enables almost silent flight.
At high magnification, photographing details becomes challenging as the depth of field (how much depth is in focus) becomes very limited. To overcome this, I use focus stacking to build up a composite image of each detail I wish to capture, giving sharpness all the way through the subject. The feather image above, which represents 1.5 cm in real life, was built up from over 100 individual frames or ‘focus slices’, captured sequentially from front to back with a little overlap between each to allow for seamless stitching. When out in the field, a focusing rail mounted on a tripod allows me to make the fine adjustments required between shots. Back in my home studio I instead mount my camera in an adapted stereo microscope stand for ultimate precision.
The ebb and flow of life can be seen graphically in the tiny bones scattered across the floor of Spitewinter Barn where our barn owl once lived and thrived, largely concentrated under the roost site. Amongst the other small mammal bones, I discovered a curious mandible with red teeth that caught my eye in the gloom. Closer inspection revealed this to be an object worthy of detailed photography, so I collected it and took it back to my home studio. A quick check in my books confirmed that it once belonged to a common shrew.
After carefully cleaning the find, I focus stacked the mandible, positioning it on a microscope slide that was suspended over black velvet. This setup (shown above) allowed me to introduce backlighting from a second flash unit underneath the subject, illuminating the striking red teeth from behind to emphasize their razor-sharp edges.
Further reading revealed that the red tooth enamel contains iron, which adds strength. The iron is concentrated in regions of the tooth that come under the most stress, specifically the chewing and grinding surfaces.
This is what photography has always been to me, a means of exploring the natural world and understanding how it works. It forces me to slow down and notice nature at a level of detail I would certainly miss with the naked eye. Capturing the image is often the starting point in the journey, the real excitement coming from researching exactly what it is I have on screen in front of me.
February 8th 2021.
Dark footprints across white ground are what I follow, the fog and snow in this winter twilight numbing my sense of place. My footfall from this morning’s journey show me the way, across Spitewinter Meadow back to the old barn with it’s buckled spine, hunkered here for hundreds of years on the top of Wirksworth Moor. They used to smelt the lead ore up here from Roman times, because there’s always a wind, Spitewinter is well named.
I found the barn owl, so beautiful in its new death, so pure in the dirt of the doorway of the barn that morning, on my ritual walk up onto the Moor. I stride now on my second pilgrimage back to the barn, with my camera this time, before scavengers find the fallen. I photograph its hungry body against the harsh snow, the shadows of this place deepen too quickly around me, I don’t have long. Kneeling here like this a week ago at this same time, if I was very lucky, I could have just heard the almost silent push of white wings, as it left the barn to hunt through the hawthorn shadows and rough edges on the Moor, not now.
I look down at beautiful evolution, but not quite perfect enough, this cruel wonderland has starved and frozen the ghost of Spitewinter Barn.
January 15th 2021.
For Years I walked down past the old Brick Kiln Lane Dump at the bottom of the meadows, often I would see Niki down there digging holes into it’s layered history of crap, searching out treasure in the broken asbestos tiles and other waste of earlier generations. If I walked past another day he’d have dug deeper and got to the Victorian bottles that he was really after, he could get a bit of money for them. His Mum had died when he was very young, those fields and the dump were his escape. A territory away from his house that was needed for survival through some hard teenage years to adulthood.
I got to walk with him the other day, his knowledge of archaeology is really impressive. He now has a really top spec metal detector and found a gold coin earlier this year worth a fare bit. We were talking archaeology and his best finds on the old Bolehill Mine spoil heap as the sun went down behind the quarry cliffs, when we were suddenly surrounded by bullocks. Niki’s a survivor, he’s had to be, this wasn’t the image I was expecting to get of him, but when it happened I knew it was right and we walked on home, blanketed in the last after light, talking bullocks for a bit.
August 7th 2020.
There had been an early summer rain storm that morning, so I said I would meet Phil by the old barn down the bottom of the meadows to hand over his eggs. This had been one of the new rhythms of my lockdown, to meet people with my hens eggs and deliver them from a distance or leave them on their doorsteps, eggs were in short supply. One of the eggs was still warm, freshly fired out just before I set off from my home on the Hill. My Loki dog heard Phil’s dogs coming while I waited in the doorway of the old barn, Phil and his wet, lolloping dogs arrived, Phil picked up his eggs and leaned in the opposite side of the old doorway, while the dogs rolled and rollicked in the meadow. We both stood on the layers of cow muck, some of it wet, new and pungent in the air mixed with the smell of deep wet early June grass and newly soaked earth. Phil was chuffed with his warm egg and opened the box to feel it, I felt this picture building and took his portrait quickly, then camera back in its old leather bag. We chatted some more about the strange life in Lockdown. I told Phil a little about my new EarthBound project and that I thought the portrait that I had just stolen would be a good one for it. I asked if he’d be up for writing a few words to go with his portrait. On my next ritual egg delivery with Phil he handed me a couple of crumpled pages from his pocket, torn out of an old diary, like him those words are about as sound, honest and grounded as you can get.
Kate Bellis, June 21st 2020
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