Invisible Deserts and Visible Diversity by Susan Brown

When I was a child I lived near a large pond which backed onto a wood. In spring the pond would fill  with frog spawn. I remember waiting  till the tadpoles emerged out of the gelatinous mass of spawn and catching a few up in a large jar. I’d endeavour to recreate the pond ecosystem in the jar- a haphazard process of topping it up with smelly pond water and strewing the water with pondweed – and wait for the tadpoles to transform into frogs.To my consternation, though their four legs sprouted and their tails began to retract they never made it to adulthood.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons


The memories of willing the tadpoles to turn into frogs are imprinted on my mind. It was, arguably, a 7 year old’s act of eco-vandalism but it has left me with the notion that frogs are intrinsic to any aquatic, countryside landscape.


Frogs and their galaxies of spawn are now uncommon features in the UK. The rich childhood memories I have would be unrecognisable to many children now.


Notwithstanding my own childhood memories I tend not to notice the absence of frogs or frogspawn  until I see them and  those vivid memories are triggered.


What is erased from the landscape tends to ebb from our minds and then from the language we use to describe it. Flies on cowpats, the tart taste of gooseberries, the local fishmonger, these things disappear imperceptibly. If they are not erased from memory, they are seen as heritage rather than a vital part of a contemporary landscape.


Not everything disappears for good. The demise of industrial manufacturing in the UK, whilst bemoaned by many, has resulted in the return of cleaner rivers and the wildlife these support. While the redbrick chimneys, the behemoth water coolers, the belching factories, once significant parts of landscapes across the UK, have largely disappeared, the dippers, herons and perch have returned. The liminal landscapes of defunct factories overgrown by weeds and serving as homes for bats and aspiring music bands are, in their turn, disappearing. Landscapes change. Change can be good or bad depending on your perspective. What is not good from any perspective is a landscape devoid of diversity.


Diversity makes landscapes dynamic. Mono landscapes, landscapes dominated by one feature, fields of mono crops, conurbations of tower blocks, chain shops selling the same goods, landscapes where vernacular skills and the vernacular language that accompany these have disappeared, all of these deplete diversity. The almond tree is very lovely, but a landscape full only of almond trees is an impoverished one. It may look beautiful but the soil at its roots is depleted. It is a desert, albeit an invisible one.


I doubt there are many people that devote themselves to the preservation of mono-landscapes and mono-cultures. Where there are mono-cultures, there are fewer jobs, fewer skills, fewer opportunities, fewer things of interest and beauty to engage with.  Such places, by their very nature, are impoverished. The problem is that if we don’t hold the memory of what diversity can be in a landscape, then we don’t notice the desert creeping through it. As we lose memories of that landscape, the language used to describe it, the skills we need to engage with it the task of replenishing it become that much more arduous.


The notion of conservation, whilst it can be a powerful one, particularly in terms of ensuring habitats for endangered species, is insufficient. What is perhaps needed more is a sense of the potential  of a landscape, one derived from a combination of understandings of the richness a landscape has yielded in the past- its vernacular skills, the variety of its food produce, its biodiversity-along with an envisioning of the diversity it can hold in the future. This  amounts to more than conservation. It is an exercise in enrichment. Such an exercise takes knowledge, knowledge that is accessible, close to hand, fizzing within any locale. It takes creativity, a willingness to explore, to experiment and to innovate.


Such enrichment is predicated on knowledge and educational landscapes that are themselves rich and diverse. We need powerful ways of conveying the knowledge and skills of the past and of building visions for the future. This can be done in a variety of ways:


We can find spaces for (interactive) images and video which convey a sense of landscapes of the past, landscapes as they emerge in the present and as they are envisaged for the future.

It was fairly common practice for UK pubs and teashops to hang photos of ‘olden times’ in their locales on their walls. These serve as potent reminders of past ways of life. With the disappearance of many pubs and teashops this practice is disappearing. We need to retain in other ways such practices. Such photos can serve as reminders of diversity in the past, its diversity of skills, its biodiversity and the language used to describe these. The trick however, will be to discern in these photos what are artefacts of bygone ages and what can nourish our understandings of current landscapes and our visions of the future.


We need to think creatively about where we place and how we interact with images/videos that at once evoke the diversity of skills, of biodiversity and of language in the past as well as acting as palates for envisaging future landscapes.

We now have technologies to hand that offer such opportunities. Using digital apps to interact with digital murals is a way forward. If we can move these beyond gimmick we can begin to paint our future. Museums can do this well and have an important role in illuminating past landscapes and helping us envision future landscape. While museums are constrained in the scope of what they can do by their containment in buildings, the knowledge and expertise of their curators may well help inspire ‘scaping’ projects in the broader community.


Alongside evoking and envisioning landscapes through images and video there needs to be greater access to skills: to engineering, to artisan-ship, to working in the natural world etc.

Apprenticeships, community projects, a broad variety of courses in colleges all can form a part of this diverse mix. Such opportunities cannot be walled, institutionalized and overly bureaucratised. They need to be open to the many. There are a growing number of projects and organisations interested in extending skills into communities Maklab in Glasgow Remade, projects in Brixton, Edinburgh, Leeds (committed to developing skills in reuse and repair) Treesnottrash:  Edinburgh, Onawi (which makes wind turbine design available to all). The growth of such projects and the pioneering of others, will all enhance a diverse knowledge landscape.


A formal educational landscape dominated by a preoccupation with ‘raising standards’ in subjects judged significant to make countries competitive is not one conducive to helping us build the skills and knowledge we need to rescue our landscapes from invisible deserts. A greater focus on interdisciplinary education and bridging the theoretical and the practical: the teaching of vernacular skills in history lessons; a focus of maths in the community; creating solar whirlygigs (see Solar Schoolhouse video below), such a diversity of approach may be better placed to do so.



Ensuring diversity in the educational landscape will require financial commitment from the entire range of sectors that have a capacity to do so. It will require building on the many projects already working towards the same or similar goals.  It will require dialogue around learning and the spaces which give rise to such dialogue. Nobody thrives in landscapes stripped of diversity.


We need to understand how to stop the encroachment of invisible deserts. Our knowledge landscapes will need to be rich enough to help us do this. Imagination in our educational approaches  and the way we build knowledge landscapes may well be crucial to ensuring that frogs and their spawn are seen as integral parts of the landscape by future generations.