Lucy Purdy explores the human urge to leave our mark on the natural world
I sift through treasures left by the waves: bubble-pop seaweed, slick gleaming razor clams and a purple crab shell mottled with a map of the Milky Way.
Nearby, children squat close to the sand as if sprouted from the shore itself. With driftwood sticks and fingers, they scratch into the silt below the tideline: their names, stars, hearts, etched in impermanence.
This urge to leave our mark – it feels so human. Why do we do it? Why carve our initials in the ground, or pile stones up in cairns, recording our presence with each smoothly worn stack?
Why are we so drawn to trees, venerating them with coins pushed into trunks, hanging their branches with rags or charms, winding wool around them? We associate trees with wisdom, maybe. Ideas “take root”, a book has “leaves”. The young, the old, the curious and the romantic, hook our hopes on to them, as they bear witness.
Even where nature is neutered, we make meaning with what is left: scrawls on bleak brick walls
We tuck feathers into gateposts and leave daisies, pinched from the earth and threaded into chains, swinging from stiles. Even where nature is neutered, we make meaning with what is left: graffiti scrawls on bleak brick walls. We wedge bottle tops into grass in parks, leave footprints in freshly-poured concrete and throw coins into fountains that are more civic than sacred. Half-hearted wishful-thinking.
We live at a distance, our lives mediated through screens, but we perform these acts of contact too, streaming out silk ribbon lines of connection wherever we go. They weave meaning into the land, marking our existence. Each act is a love letter in our relationship with place.
The children’s words are being drawn back into the ocean now. The fluency of our language is like water, ever-coursing onwards. We haven’t stopped speaking to the Earth, the conversation is all around us.
Illustration by Elena Boils