In his 1971 essay ‘Field’, writer and artist John Berger suggests the diagram as an alternative approach when personal encounters with landscape exceed the conscious lexicon of language. Situated between writing and drawing, diagrams offer a way to investigate patterns and processes within the complex physical world. ‘Skywriting’ applies Berger’s theory to a case study site in Canberra, using the conventions of the routing diagram to chart seasonal flight paths of birds and insects in a small suburban park. As a linear form of flow diagram, this schematic approach accumulates subjective, sensory experience into a spatial arrangement of data that reveals ecological and biographical relationships formed between place and inhabitants.
Keywords: field — Berger — diagram — drawing — seasons
At dawn the park is simultaneously full and empty. No one is here and yet the air is lined with sound. Unseen magpies, wattlebirds, wrens, rosellas and currawongs call and respond in ancient tongues. Standing at the edge of the grass, I eavesdrop on multiple, ongoing conversations about abundance and territory.
Unroll the picnic blanket.
Unroll the tight coil of paper.
Weight down each corner with assorted field-guides.
Fold the towel into a cushion.
Uncap the first of the new pens.
(Writer and artist John Berger observed (2008: 136): ‘Your eyes get used to the dark. Owl drawing.’)
The park is located between the city centre, the bushland reserves at Black Mountain and O’Connor Ridge and the evergreen corridor of Haig Park. Most mornings a sequence of ravens, corellas and cockatoos set forth from Black Mountain, passing over the park en route to local historic pine and cedar plantings.1 During the daytime, birds and insects fly into the park to forage, to rest, to claim, to nest, ‘to arc into a space without surface as if it were an inhabitable, flickering event’ (Robertson 2011: 68).
Hold the pen ready above the white space and here come the ravens darkly cawing and I’m drawing four straight lines that converge on the cottonwood.
My actions enact an idea from John Berger’s essay ‘Field’ (2002) in which he suggests that the diagram offers an alternative approach to articulating direct experience between self and place. Watching the airspace of the park, I transcribe these twilight movements into black lines2 that chart the flow of aerial activity through my field of attention. As a form of routing diagram, these drawings record seasonal arrivals and exits as an accumulation of linear gestures. As a record of lines of flight, each drawing ‘acknowledges an oscillation between stillness and motion’ (Lauterbach 2005: 13), yet its monochrome linearity reduces detail and specificity such as flight direction and species identification. These diagrams concentrate on the orientation of the movement of birds and insects relative to the vegetation of the park. Uninterrupted lines reveal the park as a thoroughfare. Tight curves and swerves close to the taller trees mark the territorial defence-lines of local magpies, peewees and currawongs. Steadily darkening clusters mark out favoured trees and shrubs. This schematic approach pinpoints connections and reveals how the ‘narrative thread’ of the park constitutes a ‘connection between spaces and events’ (Darley 1997: 73). These drawings are ecological indicators of trees, time and weather. The contour lines momentarily map the air, similar to the traditional stick chart used in the Marshall Islands to demonstrate seasonal patterns of currents and waves (see Romm 2015).
From the ground, flight is noted as solitary lines or as quick successions of parallel curves. Each line begins where and when I notice movement. Entering from the edges. Curving, disappearing.
By reading the sky as a site for transcription, my diagrammatic field notes practice Cees Nooteboom’s observation: ‘Some forms of writing are not intended as such’ (2016: n.p.). In applying aesthetics to organic elements, my diagrams exhibit characteristics present in the Wandering position series created by Yukinori Yanagi. Made between 1988 and 1999, his continuous line drawings enlist ants as equal collaborators. Within a greased boundary, Yanagi crawls after a single ant, tracing its path with a red waxcrayon directly onto the floor: ‘I let the ant free to wander. It creates a natural line’ (in Weintraub 2003: 236). Readers of this uninterrupted narrative find the margins becoming dense with activity as the ant tries to define — and escape from — this new territory.3 The paths of ants are also fundamental to the film Quarta-Feira de Cinzas / Epilogue, an audio-visual collaboration between Rivane Neuenschwander and filmmaker Cao Guimaraes (2006). Following the annual carnival, the Brazilian artists sprinkled the forest floor with sugar-soaked confetti and filmed the purposeful actions of ants transporting the coloured discs into the dark crevice of their nest. Accompanied by the pattering of a samba rhythm played with matchboxes, this deceptively simple work explores Neuenschwander’s favoured themes of temporality and chance. Such projects rely on observing the actions of wild animals, reframing instinctive responses as works of art.
The sun is creeping above Black Mountain in the east. Faint plaintive calling of corellas from somewhere in that dark silhouette. Suddenly the sky is full of white feathers.
These diagrams constitute a narrative map of the day, ‘marking from word to word the present moment always in reference to what went before, what’s on its way’ (Smith 2012: 32). This process of marking each word in relation to its surroundings is cursive, scriptio continua, connective — a fundamental element in both calligraphy and cartography where the entirety of composition is important. As a narrative map these drawings evoke lines from poet Maureen Scott Harris (2012):
I dream of language yearning for landscape —
wind or birds in the trees
fluttering toward form.
Open to the vagaries of weather, the emphasis here is using an open-ended approach: ‘drawing is set free to drift towards the condition of writing’ (Ratcliff 1972). On paper, my aerial loops and scrawls recall writing in the way that Cy Twombly’s painted gestures use ‘line that falters between language and image’ (Share 2011). Variations in scale, speed and altitude make the flight of each species as idiosyncratic as an autograph. A graphologist might decipher these scripts, looking for the pressure, the slant, the size and spacing. Viewed in profile, currawong flight has a distinctive copperplate script. Wrens flick from branch to branch. Galahs fly in loose arcs, full of flamboyant curves that extend my arm across the paper. Magpies have a simplified line of flight, although the acrobatic sparring of territorial birds sees the airspace of the park transformed into an aerial dogfight. Their manoeuvres point to black-and-white photographs of smoky trails left above London during the 1939 Battle of Britain. While high-altitude contrails can linger for hours (West 2008), commercial flights can be readily retraced within a similar period due to their predictable routes. Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell charted the elliptical paths of international flight in Air routes of the world (1989–2001). Their series of diagrammatic screenprints used a system of dots and lines for airports and routes (see Langlands & Bell 2015). A similar semiotic of line and point for journey and arrival is used within my park drawings, with flight indicated as a continuous line, and the landing of birds or insects land on the grass signaled with a short series of dots ...
Curious juvenile magpie watching from the Chinese elm. Flies down beside the paper and then back up. A see-sawing movement with the pen.
These routing diagrams document the complex interaction of breeding cycles, migration and climate. Reoccurring each season, the pattern of arrivals and exits changes while annually re-establishing a recursive form that is equally series and repetition. Berger reminds us that ‘recognition depends upon the phenomena of reappearance sometimes occurring in the ceaseless flux of disappearance’ (Berger 2008: 70). It is experience — necessarily temporal and spatial — that brings the field into focus through learning to identify birds by sight and sound. Unfamiliar calls alert me to migrating newcomers. Reading my field guide, I add bowerbirds, thornbills and gerygones to my vocabulary of avian species (see Simpson & Day 2004). Witnessing and recording these avian actions recalls a series of large-scale drawings by Barbara Campbell that extend her research into ‘interspecies agency between birds and humans’ (Bokor 2015). A video accompanying the drawings reveals how the artist performed these works as a form of visual transcription. Using audio-visual footage recorded during a bird-watching event at Roebuck Bay in Western Australia in 2012, Campbell performs gestures that map the changing coordinates of departing birds against the sky, re-embodying her experience of focused attention generated by this seasonal event.4
Details of the flight of insects feature in my diagrams, although many fly too fast or too distantly for my vision. Eventually I arrange a late summer walk through the park with an entomologist, whose identifications demystify many of the flying insects that I have drawn, including three butterflies — Orchard swallowtail (Papilio aegeus), Common brown (Heteronympha merope), Common grass blue (Zizina labradus) — and the whirring blur of ‘wingless’ grasshoppers (Phaulacridium vittatum) whose sporadic leaps define low arcs across the foreground of one diagram. In the warmth of the afternoon, the grass releases atomic swirls of tiny grass gnats.5 Impossible to follow en masse, my dancing lines are composites of attention, each swirl of movement a collage of the multiple attempts I have made to focus on a single insect until the whole cloud drifts out of sight.
The warm air is quiet. Birds retreat into high shadows. The occasional ratchet-like spring of grasshoppers against the background hiss of traffic. Lilac moths tremble above the pollen-dusted plantains.
Over the course of the day each diagram condenses into a matrix of movement. This proliferation of undifferentiated activity creates ‘a single/ time-lapsed suggestion’, akin to slowing the shutter speed of a camera to capture traces of gesture (Burnside 2006: 98). The drawings develop into studies of density, thick with birds, insects and sky. This practice of accreting data from the natural environment is common to the kinetic drawings of Cameron Robbins, Anne Lydiat and Tim Knowles. These artists use a range of improvised drawing machines that adapt the energy of natural phenomena such as wind speed and direction, or the movement of the ocean. By enlisting fluxive elements of the surrounding environment as the source of their mark-making, each artist takes on an intermediary role as a medium or translator — control of the outcome is sacrificed for the chance of signifying something more than the self.
Robbins describes the adaptable potential of his drawing machines: ‘While it is a mechanical thing with axles, bearings, and pulley wheels, it also has inbuilt flexibility which allows it to respond to subtle and chaotic dynamics and to stray from any predetermined path’. The phenomenological process of producing my series of park diagrams is present in walking drawings, subway drawings and pocket drawings made by William Anastasi since the 1960s. These were created using soft pencil notations whose orientation and density were unconsciously directed by Anastasi’s movement while walking or travelling on the subway (often with his eyes closed): ‘When there’s motion, let that motion, rather than predetermination, be the energy for the drawing – rather than consulting the aesthetic prejudice of the moment, which we usually do when we draw if our eyes are open’ (Nackman 2012).
Trace the shape of flight, the contours of feathers against air. Straight lines. Curved lines. Scribbles. Dashes. I take dictation directly from this continuous stream of activity.
Using the format of the routing diagram amasses all aerial arrivals and departures in a continuous present. Documenting these ephemeral actions places emphasis on ‘the purely momentary nature of everything, both timeless and transient’ (Smith 2012: 30). In their simultaneous visibility, these drawings depict a compression of seasonal daylight, with each drawing documenting ‘movement, piled on top of movement’ (de Waal 2015: 142). Free of the confines of a written text, the diagrams are able to visualise, ‘in the same tense, two events which have occurred simultaneously’ (Saramago 2000: 5). By accumulating all action within the single frame, the increasing density of marks reflects philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of the ‘thickened present’ in time is pure motion, a kind of ‘layered simultaneity’ that opposes the sequencing of instances common to photography and cinema (Hornby 2017: 209, n16). ‘Skywriting’ explores the ‘present-tense ability’ of this continuous transcription method (Smith 2012: 32). Contained within the frame of a large sheet of paper, the specificity of each diagram resists linear, singular, placeless time, and instead demonstrates John Berger’s embodied experience: ‘as though these minutes fill a certain area of time which exactly fits the spatial area of the field’ (Berger 2002: 355).
Parallel curves as three galahs veer towards Haig Park.
Clicking of rosellas feeding in the long grass.
Contained by the length of daylight, each diagram becomes a short story filled with ‘exits and entrances’ (Berger 2002: 356). An attempt to read these diagrams as a script enters into the speculative art of translation. Drawing on theories derived from linguistic, literary, cultural and philosophical contexts, this is a process of ‘following untrodden paths to translation, or more cautiously (re)tracing the familiar routes’ (Bloemen et al n.d.). Familiar routes include the traditional direct — literal — method, which aims for a word-for-word exchange, favouring linguistic meaning and ‘formal’ equivalence.6 Others have followed the development of free translation, which emphasises dynamic communication of meaning over formal semantic and lexical structures, aiming ‘at complete naturalness of expression’ (Eugene Nida, in Munday 2001: 42). Within these disputed territories, limitations can be both frustrating and freeing. Translator Kate Briggs notes, ‘it’s more that when it comes to writing and reading translations the question of what is wholly normal or truly plausible, of what was really said or written, gets suspended, slightly’ (Briggs 2017). Applying this antigravity to my diagrams, one might then approach them as visual texts that move between prose translation and an ekphrastic reading of place. This lyrical analysis suggests a combination of the extremes proposed by Walter Benjamin who stated: ‘the intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational’ (2007: 76–77). Combining the poetic and the specific within the diagram prompts a move past the threshold of definition and specificity, instead offering insight into how ‘this drawing might also be read as a kind of landscape’ (Jaray 2014).
Where multiple lines meet these drawings resemble snarled nets, tangled threads, knotted strands of long dark hair.
The intersecting lines in the diagrams reveals the park as a network — a reminder of its role within a wider ecosystem of connected green spaces and suburban zones. In this way ‘both the original and the translation [are] recognisable as fragments of a greater language’ (Benjamin 2007: 79), as Ali Smith has observed concerning how a story ‘can be partial, can be a piece of something and still hold its own, still be whole’ (2012: 30– 31). Documenting these aerial activities establishes the park as ‘a domain of entanglement’ (Ingold 2011: 71). The diagrams are discursive in nature, yet each of these flight lines contains direction and purpose — what at first glance is an abstract linear composition resolves into a ‘hub of the actual’ (Hirschfield 2017: 285). Suspended within the aerial field, these ‘lines are always leading somewhere else, and in this they are the opposite of geometric lines, which assemble together everything which is theoretically existent’ (Berger 2008). With guidance it ‘is possible to trace a path ... to see a legible image once more’ (Ghirri 2016), using the lens of natural history in the way a kaleidoscope resolves fragments of colour into recognisable patterns. Viewed with the eyes of a naturalist, these diagrams reveal ‘habitat and habits of rest, eating and moving’, evident in the shape of each line, the patterns of perching and the seasonal preoccupations (Cooke 2012: 31). English naturalist and writer Paul Evans viewed my park diagrams as a micro-scale version of the annual migration atlas issued by the British Trust for Ornithology, which visualises the routes of bird species between countries in relation to the calendar year.7 My account records the relatively stable presence of resident birds, as well as the seasonal appearance and absence of particular species, including the pied currawongs, gang-gangs and king parrots that arrive during winter. By choosing to transcribe all flight paths into 0.5mm black lines, ‘Skywriting’ does not impart specific or quantitative information about the arrival or delayed departure of bird or insect species, nor does its subjective collection method provide precise numbers for statistical analysis. The emphasis of my research remains on multiplicities, charting movement in relation to the park’s plantings in order to create an interlinked apprehension of seasonal activity. This approach to data collection is very much that of Berger (2008): ‘what is unchanging in a drawing consists of so many assembled moments that they constitute a totality rather than a fragment’.
Within each diagram, the lines of flight interact in a multitude of ways. The foreground is a tangle of insect activity during the warmer months.8 The mid-ground documents how the central grassed section offers grass seeds and fallen pods to foraging parrots, rosellas and magpies. The tall trees act as panoramic vantage points, located within the diagram as massed black implosions of line. Compared with a topographical map of the park’s plantings, the diagrams reveal these dense nodes as corresponding to favoured perches in the tallest trees: English oaks, blue gum, elm, pin oak, claret ash and cottonwood. The darkest point corresponds to the cottonwood. Once the tallest tree in the park, it was visited by many birds, ranging from tiny thornbills to ravens, and housed a nest of corellas within a hollow branch. Its dark green leaves rippled in the sunlight to reveal a flocked pale underside, and in a breeze, they made the sound of the sea. The tree was cut down in 2013 after losing branches across a season of storms and high winds. Now a crumbling stump, the poplar is an absence in the landscape. Without it, many of the larger birds now fly over the park without stopping.
It is a day of looking up, across and side-to-side. Trying to maintain a sort of openness of vision. Trying not to let my thoughts wander off too far so that I miss the glimpse of white wing against the blue. I have to try and see everything, but whatever I miss, I miss.
Reading these diagrams, I am also conscious of the limits. Each drawing combines my seated panoramic perspective with a topographical — bird’s eye — angle, seeking to combine fixed and mobile points of view. In attempting to capture as much as possible of the park, I would sit along the southern long edge of the park, with the paper laid out on the ground in landscape format. From this sideline position, I would record the horizontal profiles of winged flight, while the trajectories of overhead movement would become compressed into simple straight or curved lines.
Despite the advantages of this seated position, certain trees and shrubs remained blind spots. Seated in front of the humming thicket of pittosporum, ash and oak saplings, I had a clear view straight across the park towards the pin oak and cork oak; looking left towards the white oak, elm and distant argyle apple; looking right to the cottonwood and claret ash. These same trees blocked my views to the edges of the park, and the sprawling viburnum on my right hid the entire playground from sight. At the same time, this greatly diminished any impromptu interactions with children and their parents, most dog-walkers, and the early and late streams of workers and students that followed the desire path etched towards the southeastern corner.9
The durational aspect of each seasonal diagram extended across ten and twelve hours of daylight, and my unobtrusive position attempted to minimise an effect on the behaviour of the birds and insects: ‘The world is watching: one cannot walk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of report spreading out from one’s passage’ (Snyder 2000: 20). Within the park, I am witness and I am witnessed. The birds tolerate my presence in their territory without provoking aggressive calling or swooping. The local magpies are curious. My first winter drawing shows the scuff of claw marks where a young magpie has clattered across the corner of the paper. Sometimes I am treated to a warble. After we move away I continue to visit every few months to collect more data. At first it seems nothing has changed much. Some of the saplings have grown. The small beech has died. But several further generations of magpies have been born in the park since we left, and these birds see that I am a stranger.
This moment, this quiet end of the day holds a kind of sadness. The park is slowly emptying. Proprietary magpies begin their rounds, stabbing darkly into the grass.
When I discussed these diagrams with writer Paul Evans, he was particularly interested in the limits of my drawings: ‘the things not in there’ — things I am not seeing, the things I see but don’t mark, the ‘unmarkable’ and my relation to them.10 He was about to publish Field Notes From The Edge, a lyrical exploration of the in-between spaces of landscape found in caves and along cliff edges and tide lines, and so immediately noticed the overlooked places and gaps in my research. His questions reminded me that I miss many things — mostly by accident, some on purpose. Birds fly while my head is turned, or my focus drifts elsewhere. Individual flight paths are harder to discern at the far ends of the park or in low light. My attention becomes syncopated when too many birds arrive or depart simultaneously, or I have to decide which insect to track as a single uninterrupted line. One summer I found myself struggling with whether to draw in the flock of pigeons that had settled on the grass on the far side of the white oak because I was angry that their territory had extended into the park. Later that day I deliberately frightened off a pair of common mynahs. Added to this is the context of the park as part of a larger urban ecosystem that is ‘always in movement, always renewing itself’ (Hazzard 2000: 70).
So each diagram is a record of everything I could see, everything I could notice, but not everything. This inherent incompleteness within each set of seasonal data articulates another of Berger’s observations about the difficulties of capturing experience, that maybe these ‘are not proper drawings but simply sketch maps of an encounter’ (Berger 2011: 10). Accepting this subjectivity, this set of diagrams confirms Berger’s conclusion in ‘Field’, how ‘the field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life’ (Berger 2002: 357). The mapping of movement affirms how meaning that resides in the relationship between place and self can be visualised through the dialogue between eye and hand. As with all my investigations within the park, while the diagrams tell one story, the missing data tells another. There are lifesized gaps and spaces. These absences of attention record rainy days and heatwaves, fatigue and poor choices, toilet breaks in bushes and lunchtime visits from my children. They also reflect the limitations of my sight and attention, creating idiosyncratic maps that document individual experience; they demonstrate accuracy in its original sense, ‘done with care’.11 As such, each diagram is a strange map consisting of trees, weather, gestures, sunlight, nests and shadows; it is instantly out of date, without scale, without orientation; a tangle of history, theories, attention and distraction — the landscape of its creator.12
Three ravens underline the evening. I ink their return in long straight lines across the paper. They keep flying. Off the edge and out of the park.
1 Haig Park was originally planted in 1921 as a windbreak to protect the developing suburbs of Braddon and Turner, and is recognised on the ACT Heritage Register for its mass tree plantings of eight species: Argyle Apple, Snow Gum, Pin Oak, Monterey Pine, Deodar Cedar, Desert Ash, Arizona Ash, Italian Cypress. See https://yoursay.act.gov.au/haigpark (accessed 8 November 2017).
2 This linear system of notation and duration was developed during an artist residency at Bundanon in 2006, where I made a series of durational drawings that followed the flight of a single swallow above an adjacent field.
3 Yanagi’s series have political underpinnings. During this period (1988 to 1999) he was working between New York and Japan, and comments that this series symbolises ‘his own struggle to define himself as Japanese while working in North America’. See T Ingrisano 2015 ‘Tony Ingrisano on Yukinori Yanagi’, Painters on Painting, https://paintersonpaintings.com/tony-ingrisano-on-yukinori-yanagi/ (accessed 7 November 2017). Yanagi has repeated these installations as comments on power and incarceration in specific locations, including Alcatraz. See Wandering position on Alcatraz 1996, exhibited in ‘Field Work on Alcatraz’ (4.30-5.11, 1996 / Cap Street Project, San Francisco); this floor drawing reproduced the dimensions of an individual 5 x 9ft cell.
http://www.yanagistudio.net/works/wanderingposition01_view_eng.html (accessed 7 November 2017).
4 In 2012, Campbell joined a group of bird watchers farewelling bar-tailed godwits on ‘their 29,000 km annual circum-navigation of the Pacific along the East Asian-Australian Flyway’. K Liberiou 2015 ‘Introduction’, in A Stephens and L Palmer (eds), Barbara Campbell: Ex Avibus. Sydney: University of Sydney.
5 Also known as fungus gnats (families Mycetophilidae and Sciaridae).
See http://www.canna.com.au/fungus-gnats-pests-diseases (accessed 26 October 2017)
6 Walter Benjamin (2007) counselled against the urge to break down stories into individual words or sentences, warning that a focus on syntax, with its emphasis on order and harmony, risks losing sight of meaning. On the same issue, see P Hodges 2009 ‘Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory’, TranslationDirectory.com,
http://www.translationdirectory.com/articles/article2019.php (accessed 17 November 2017)
7 Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland (edited by Chris Wernham, Mike Tomes, John Marchant et al, published by Helm, 2002) presents the most up-to-date information on bird migration, using data collected from ringed birds by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who also release an online ‘Ringing and Nest Recording Report’.
8 During the summer months, the long days and warm air encourage a far greater variety and number of birds and insects out into the day. Flying insects respond to the mass flowering of grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees during the warmer months. As noted in the diagrams, there is a marked reduction in numbers during autumn and winter as the cold-blooded (ectothermic) insects disperse during cooler temperatures.
9 While my inconspicuous position within the park was an attempt to reduce interaction with people, pets and wildlife, it was impossible not to be noticed. Sitting in the park with a large sheet of white paper invites curiosity from early morning dog walkers and their charges. I did not include any of these grounded interactions on the drawing. No dogs, or people or ground-feeding birds or crawling insects. These are charts of the sky.
10 Phone conversation with Paul Evans while in England on 28 October 2015.
11 accurate — ‘done with care’. See Etymologyonline, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=accurate (accessed 4 November 2017)
12 Based on a passage from Ghirri 2016 ‘The Impossible Landscape’, in Luigi Ghirri: The Complete Essays 1973-1991, London: MACK
All photographs: Brenton McGeachie
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