Shall I not have intelligence with the earth. Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?
—HD Thoreau ‘Walden’, 1854
I lived in character as the Beaulieu Beadle for twelve months from July 14th, 2013 until July 13th, 2014 in a six-metre long, floating Egg sculpture in the Beaulieu River on the fringe of the New Forest National Park in England. It was an innovative and energy efficient, self-sustaining capsule, providing a place to live as well as a laboratory for studying the life of a small tidal river in a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Climate change is already creating new shorelines here, as established salt marsh is eroded by a combination of rising sea levels and falling landmass, and the entire littoral environment is in a state of flux. Sea level is predicted to rise by 114cm from today’s levels by 2115, with the loss of over 760 hectares of salt marsh.
The implications for wildlife and flora, as well as for people, are challenging and raise awareness of a particularly 21st century sort of tension and anxiety. The Beadle’s task was to raise awareness of the past and the unfolding present of this very special location, whilst living in an ethical relationship with nature and treading as lightly as possible on the land. My job description for him was to give a voice to mute nature, to be amanuensis to the tides, terns and turnstones, and to demonstrate the interconnection of life from the egg shaped hub of his personal parish.
The impracticability of the Egg as accommodation (even putting up a shelf was difficult on its complex curves) was more than balanced by the meaning of its shape as a symbol for life, nurture and new beginning that was easily understood by a virtual audience around the world. Everything comes from the egg, and with its close evolutionary companion the seed, it is the source of all life in the sciences as well as the cultural imagination.
So it was never about enjoying great views of beautiful scenery. I wanted no window in the Egg for the Beadle, except the circular roof light that offered a glimpse of sky. From most angles this appeared egg shaped too, and was a perennial reminder that the Beadle’s journey was to be of a more contemplative order.
Physical distances travelled grew less each week, as the boundaries of ‘round here’ were redrawn ever tighter about the Egg itself, and as depth of engagement replaced distance or travel, with a transcendent take on place. Memories and daily events painted a layered, complex and changing picture of the land, connecting past to present and informing an idea of place where art and everyday life are joined in a real time, 24/7 performance. The Beadle’s journey was one of deep communion with nature in parallel with the practicalities of everyday living.
Of course, the Egg was ‘lean, green, and clean’ in its manufacture and operation. The Beadle showered with two litres of water from a garden pressure sprayer, in a cubicle made from the timber of a former garage door. His laundry was done in a tub of cold water, and he relied on a chemical toilet that needed emptying into the mains sewer once a week (never like on many boats, into the river). He dyed his own clothing for an Egg wardrobe from colour provided by the surrounding flora. He collected and conserved food from the same sources, and in building up an Egg Kitchen of mint, gorse, blackberry, sloe, marshmallow, nettle, rose hips, and sea salt, he gently explored the particularity of a locally distinctive and cultural landscape of friendly flora.
His power was provided by a solar array sufficient to charge the batteries of a camera, lap top, and the Wi-Fi aerial (so as to share a virtual connection with the world). With no energy left over for lighting, the Beadle tuned into a diurnal rhythm, asleep soon after sun set and awake with the dawn as the length of day changed in duration through the year. Packaging was re-used as support for drawing, using ink made from the flora, and pens from found goose feather quills. So the best of the past was measured against the newest of digital technologies also deployed.
All of this was against a background of the physically changing land. Samphire growing outside the Egg in the summer of 2013, for example, had disappeared the following year. The water flow had eaten at the soft yielding edges of the marsh and the same ground was layered with green algae. The Beadle eventually found plentiful samphire growing further up river and made a preserve in white wine vinegar, ironically, when it seems harder to conserve alive in the river’s natural environment.
The Beadles experience was modelled on that of Henry David Thoreau, who in the 1850s built a secluded home on the edge of Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts, where he lived simply and frugally for just over two years. His writing embraces spiritual development, provides a guide to self-reliance, and a commentary on human ‘development’. “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”, he said. On the banks of the Beaulieu River, the Beadle sought communion with the rising briney waters. To paraphrase Thoreau; are we not also mostly water ourselves?
Stephen Turner’s work often involves spending long periods in odd, abandoned places, noting changes in the complex relationship between human-made and natural environments. His projects are rooted in research, which explores these themes in a variety of media. Disciplinary boundaries are challenged through a creative practice that involves sampling, collecting, annotating, editing, and merging of historic, geographic, and environmental data with other more subjective investigations into the distinctiveness and particularity of place. The Exbury Egg project builds on the artist’s earlier installations for Turner Contemporary in Margate, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire, and for The Bridge Guard, Art & Science Centre on the Danube Bend in Stúrovo, Slovakia.