Common things

It can never be too strongly impressed upon a mind anxious for the acquisition of knowledge, that the commonest things by which we are surrounded are deserving of minute and careful attention. 

James Rennie The Natural History of Insects, 1830

As a child, like so many children, I loved to read myself to sleep. I would read until my eyelids started to close, then carefully turn out the bedside light, cross the floor to open the sash window of my farmhouse bedroom and leap quickly back into bed.  In the ‘60s and 70’s, an open window with the light on always meant a room full of circling, blundering moths.

I still sleep with the window open but these days there is no need to keep it closed while I read.  I am unlikely to be troubled by my winged friends now. They no longer come out of the night, with all their powdery fragility and find me. I miss them, as I miss so many of my more-than-human neighbours, it is their absence that weighs upon me now, disturbing my nights, filling my dreams.

Moths, on the whole, are misunderstood, overlooked and deeply unloved.  The Biblical: ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt’ sets the tone of decay, and a general ignorance of their lives does the rest.  (For the record, it is the larvae of only two, out of the two and a half thousand British moth species, that will eat your cashmere cardigans).

The work of artists and poets has always been to love what is unloved, to show what is unseen and neglected. All the same, when I started on this work, fumbling my way toward some kind of response to their absence from our lives, I had no idea what was ahead of me, no real idea of the catastrophe unfolding in our woods and fields.

Modern life may be brightly lit but our attention to the lives of so many creatures has largely slept and the damage has been enormous. Some facts and figures give a sense of the scale of things: European data suggest that the biomass of all insects has fallen by 80% in 25 years. Britain the most nature-depleted country in Europe has seen about 60 moth extinctions since 1914. In the last 35 years, the overall number of moths on these islands fell by one third, and some, like the well-known day-flying Garden Tiger, whose caterpillars are the main food of our much-missed cuckoos, have fallen by 80% or more.

The loss of an individual species is always eye-catching but what matters far more is the grim totality – the extinction of abundance. All the ecologists and scientists that I have spoken to during my research emphasise that it is the inexorable decline of the common creatures that signals collapse in the fabric of living things. What appears to be happening in Britain, is an insidious thinning out – crucially both of abundance and distribution. Habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and light pollution are all to blame. As a result, hundreds of moths, once common enough to be known by lovely vernacular names as well as by their Linnaean binomials, are disappearing fast.

Charities such as Butterfly Conservation, using the ‘Red List’ rules compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), chart the progress of species decline in carefully constructed terms from ‘vulnerable’ through to ‘critically endangered’ and, terminally, to ‘extinct’.

The patient dedicated and vital work of scientists presents to the world in a language that is tightly measured, laden with statistics and bound with caveats. There are many acronyms, manifold appendices, a thicket of diagrams and charts… Reading and researching over the last years and more recently during a residency discussing the finer points that distinguish and define ‘extinction’ and ‘ecosystem collapse’ with academics and leaders in Cambridge, I find myself wondering if a retreat into rules and statistics might be a very human way of coping with the uncertainty of what seems to be a  runaway catastrophe.

How on earth to respond?  For me, the loss is visceral – something akin to an ache. The increasing absence of fellow beings, of my more-than-human neighbours, leaves me unmoored and lonelier in the world. The numbers can be paralysing, despair sets in. It is vital that when we most want to close our eyes to the facts of biodiversity collapse, we resist. We must wake up, look about us, and pay attention.  To quote Rachel Carson, ‘The more we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.’

In this spirit, in these times, to wilfully focus one’s attention on something so small, so under-loved, so common as a moth becomes an act of rebellion every bit as much as trespassing grouse moors or gluing oneself to the pavement.  If there is even the remotest chance that in attending lies an antidote to our careless destruction, then that, as an artist is what I must do – to focus. It’s not enough but it’s necessary.

In his essay Serious Noticing the author and literary critic James Wood writes: ‘The slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention is disturbed by the reawakening of our attention …to notice is to rescue, to redeem…’

Interestingly, ‘to attend’ comes from the Latin ad plus tendere –to stretch out towards. To attend is to be present, to accompany, to take care of, to listen, to expect, to tend. Attention is so central; its practices embody a manner of relationship – a relating that embraces receptivity and care. An attentive stance towards the world is more humble and more open… also much richer and stranger. Beyond attention lies engagement, but attention comes first.

With time and practice drawing then becomes not only a way of speaking about the world but also an engagement with the world. It’s a way of bringing forth a world that refuses to be reduced to objects but is laden with meaning.

Let me try to explain what happens when I’m drawing or engraving. After several hours of close attention, I might – just might – experience a distinct dropping away of a sense of self. I experience it as a great relief. I become, as I negotiate the branches or shifts in pattern and tone at the edge of a wing, entangled – a part of the complexity. Maybe it’s better expressed by saying that for that while, in that comparative stillness, there isn’t anything else. And, as there isn’t anything else, neither is there ‘me’ and the ‘moth’ (or tree or whatever).

John Berger described that moment of concentration in drawing as being ‘like a ball thrown and caught’, but it’s deeper than that. There’s no subject and object, no viewer and viewed. There’s just that turn, this edge, that light, this shadow, the edge of that shadow, this hand, this carbon, this breath… and somehow in that space, the being of the moth becomes present. I want to say inside, in one’s heart, but that might be too much. It feels like a pulse or a shared heartbeat.

The moth in Pallant House Gallery’s current exhibition is a ‘Common Quaker’.  Common by name and thankfully still a common and widespread resident of these islands.  Its caterpillars feed on a wide range of broadleaved trees, including Oaks, Sallows, Birches, Elms, Hawthorns, Sweet Chestnut, and Hazel.

Small and pale brown in colour, why notice such a creature? My answer is simple, because he is my neighbour and has much right to be here as I.  If, like another once-common moth the Bordered Gothic, or the Union rustic, he was to become pushed to the margins of this land and eventually become extinct, who knows what connections would unravel as a result.

My chosen method is a centuries old engraving technique called Mezzotint.  Mezzotint, otherwise known as la manière noire, is an intaglio print method perfected in the mid 17C. It is a form of tonal engraving on copper in which the artist works from dark to light, pulling the forms of her design out of a uniquely velvety black.

As a way of working, it is a labour of love. Crucially a love of absences, of what is not there. The method is slow and gradual and difficult. There are few opportunities to impose oneself, to splash gesture and ego. No other print method gives up quite such magical softness in the highlights, nor such an utter inky darkness.

Beyond that, the gradual drawing forth of the moth from the darkness seemed a perfect matching of method to subject. The method itself holding meaning for me somewhere in its ability to speak literally and poetically of the moths being neither present nor absent but always both. Here and not here… Also, because I’m working in a mirror and from dark to light and without line, there are, in the long hours of making, many when it’s not at all clear if I’m ‘drawing forth’ or the moth is revealing herself. There’s much more of a play, a conversation between these two possibilities than there is with some other media. I value that exchange more than I can say.

I must emphasise here that it’s the revelation that’s important. There is in the short lives of those Quakers, Ermines and Tigers a glory that comes from their participation in the whole complex, entangled fabric of life. Thei

r fragile, winged emanations speak to us urgently of the dark, of the earth, of our own bones, of all we cannot see. Art, like poetry, is of no interest when it comes from the self – only when it comes from beyond. I am not an ecologist, my response can only be a poetic one, but I hope I might make work that awakens some sense of the sentience of moths, pushes back against the desensitisation that characterises much of modern life and plays its part in telling a story, a story that momentarily de-centres the human and re-awakens some collective memory of abundance and connection.

Sarah Gillespie March 2023

A version of the above first appeared on the Pallant House Gallery website in March 2023



One comment on “Common things

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.