Patterns in the Past

for Indirect Signs of Presence

For almost eighty years, researchers have made Wytham their laboratory, investigating the “rich assembly of species”[i] residing in the area. Forming a connection with it, they patiently observe, track and touch variables, behaviour or patterns in nature as they occur over time. Knowledge accumulated here has shaped the way we think about environmental change and Wytham has become one of the most researched areas of woodland in the world[ii].

In the short video series, The Laboratory with Leaves, Dr Keith Kirby describes the moment he consulted one of Charles Elton’s diaries and discovers the location of a rare yellow bird’s nest plant which hadn’t been seen since 1958. It is intriguing to think that the notes made by an ecologist sixty years ago can inform how we look at life in the woods today. As an artist with a scientific interest, the woods provide a rich source of creative research opportunities. Looking at Elton’s field notes provided an entry point for me. They read like a diary, revealing a world of ecology and life harboured by the woods. If you have walked through the leafy woodland trails, it is easy to picture the day an entry was written, the fauna and flora uncovered through the endeavours of Elton and his contemporaries.

Records of animal communities are important, helping to build a picture of changing ecosystems and inhabitants of an area. They can indicate the presence of a species long thought extinct.[iii] Linking past and present knowledge by researchers seems fundamental to the way research is conducted at Wytham. Its trees have seen the climate shift and species migrate, while others invade. The Fen has captured wings of beetles and ancient pollen. Therefore, with hopes of finding parallels with the past and serendipity, a date was set for a reconnaissance trip to the woods. I consulted Elton’s field notes for that same day. His entry for 16 July 1951 describes the area he and Rick Miller observed:

“Today this was an entrancing field of flowers, but scattered thinly like flowers on an old French tapestry.”[iv] [v]

Struck by how personable, colloquial and often pictorial the entries are, I felt encouraged to share observations from July.

Accompanied by Hermeet Gill and Sara Lowes, we walked in search of the beech trees Elton described.

“With Rick Miller, to the “Bowling Alley”, and the open big planted beech woods of the Singing Way. “[vi]

Our walk led us to a chance meeting with Dr Keith Kirby. He directed us towards the Singing Way, the beech trees that line the road there and the dead wood nearby. From here we encountered a number of similar species to Elton, caught sight of a leaf beetle with distinctive orange markings and a ground beetle scurried away as I attempted to take photographs. A leopard slug traversed the inside of a decaying branch, while a motionless spider held my gaze emphatically. Staying in a single spot and absorbing the surroundings brought more into view. Using a reverse lens technique to focus on very small areas, similar to using a paper viewfinder; I was captivated by the striations of bark and the mottled flesh of fungus. In the diary entry Elton made, he references soldier beetles “mating”[vii]. An earlier entry remarks their “frolicking”[viii] and sure enough, as we walked in the direction of the fen, a parade of cow parsley lined the track holding an abundance of them. Although these descriptions are insufficient to inform an ecological survey, discovering insects referenced, left a feeling of connection with the past.

Within the field notes, an abundance of beetle species have been described. Although this is unsurprising when the UK hosts over 4000 species of beetle[ix]. They highlight that twenty to fifty percent of biodiversity in a forest is dependent upon dead wood in some way.[x]

“Dead wood matters!”[xi]

As do the species recycling nutrients, unseen under bark or feasting upon heartwood. When looking at a fallen tree, what do you see? There is the drama on display in the moment of collapse and evidence of struggle against gravity where a limb has sheared. It is the existence of the invisible species in the calm that follows that I would like to render visible in this project; as part of Indirect Signs of Presence.

- Joe Wilson

[i] The Pattern of Animal Communities, Charles S Elton p50

[ii] Oxford University. Wytham Woods: Oxford's Ecological Laboratory. Edited by P. S. Savill, et al., Oxford University Press, 2010.

[iii] I've Never Killed A Pipit. “The blue stag beetle.”

[iv] Wytham Area General Field Notes By C.S. Elton Book 6 p82

[v] Ibid p83. “A small mosquito (Aedes geniculatus (Olivier)) attacked us while sitting under trees at the edge”

 On a further visit in October, I had an encounter with A thunderous blur of red and orange, dive bombing at close range. Could have been a cockchafer… I am sure Charles Elton would have known…

[vi] Ibid p81

[vii] Ibid p82

[viii] Ibid Book 2 p84

[x] Dead and dying timber provides one of the two greatest resources for animal species in a natural forest. If fallen timber and slightly decayed trees are removed the whole system is gravely impoverished of perhaps more than a fifth of its fauna”, Charles Elton: The Pattern of Animal Communities p279

[xi] Dead Wood matters: the ecology and conservation of saproxylic invertebrates in Britain Edited by K J Kirby & C M Drake