Beneath the Surface

Marley Fen

Hermeet is interested in ideas, systems and data and how these are structured, combined, translated and communicated. Originally trained as an engineer, she had a career advising organisations, including on innovation and strategy, analysing complex issues and developing solutions. Throughout, a key focus was how to communicate complex ideas to a range of audiences, often using media that was unconventional in that context, such as animation, cartoons, film and games to enhance engagement. She enjoys working on the boundary of different disciplines. Her current activities include design, letterpress printing, writing, photography and developing and experimenting with new skills.


Beneath the Surface – Marley Fen

There is a real joy in looking at an object, building or place, with those who have spent years extensively researching, teaching and protecting its hidden complexities. The stories and descriptions they share create images and ideas; a new layer of meaning which settles over the physical. It has been inspiring to learn about Marley Fen, a rare wetland habitat that is unique within Wytham Woods, in this way. From these conversations, a number of themes have emerged.

The Fen is a natural archiveOver 10,000 years’ of information is preserved in the form of peat, remnants of living matter, which can be used to create a picture of what was here before - what it felt and smelled like, and what grew and lived here, traced back through time.

Preservation and purification take place in the Fen. Water flows into and through the fen, critical to the process of preservation. Loss of water risks erosion of the peat and its exposure to the air, resulting in the deterioration of the archive. In turn, the water itself is purified as it flows through the fen.

Fens are both reliant on and endangered by harvest. An underground herringbone pipe system was installed in Marley Fen in the 1870s to collect the clean, naturally purified water; the resulting water loss is now understood to be detrimental to the resilience of the fen. Conversely, a fen is not a stable environment, it exists as a fen only due to the grazing of herds of wild animals, and later, by human harvests of valuable resources. Without these interventions, it would become overgrown into a wet woodland, a different type of habitat with a different biodiversity.

In recent times, harvests of a different sort have been carried out. A small number of investigative peat cores, insect and plant surveys and water bore hole measurements are valuable resources of data and information, used to create knowledge. While this physically discreet harvest shows us the value of the habitat here, it does little to delay its transition to a wet woodland. So, a parallel effort is required: in lieu of animal grazing, there is an annual cutting of reed, along with careful vigilance and thoughtful long-term management.

The Fen, like all living systems, is also reliant on and endangered by its connections. In recent months, we've come to understand in an extreme way that our human network is a potential source of contagion, but also, as communities have come together to share resources and help each other, a source of resilience.

The same is true of the Fen. In the past, numerous fens would have been found close by. A species lost in one might be repopulated from a neighbouring fen, however, this resilience no longer exists. Marley Fen is also intimately connected to the wider environment. The pollen captured and preserved here has travelled through the air but so too has pollution, travelling in the water cycle and changing the conditions in this habitat.  

So much is unseen, both here in the fen and in the conception of the place, its stories, its study and its care.

Some is hidden: thousands of years’ of information accumulated underfoot, painstaking lab work to clean, identify and count individual pollen grains, the fen’s increasing isolation from other similar habitats and the quiet formulation of plans to improve the water quality.

Some is too small to easily see: microscopic pollen grains, traces of minerals and the microbes which clean the water as it passes through the fen.

And some occurs in limited windows of time, ghosts of physical presence moving across the space: wild auroch grazing here, the explorations of researchers, the visit of badgers, the changing patterns of water flow or a soldier fly swooping in from a long-gone neighbouring fen.

It has been inspiring to learn about Marley Fen as part of Indirect Signs of Presence. I hope my work will capture the joy and celebrate the hidden in this place and the work of the community who study and care for it.  Many thanks to Curt Lamberth for generously sharing his extensive knowledge and boundless enthusiasm.

- Hermeet Gill

References or additional information