When attempting to describe a place, any place, when trying to paint an adequate picture, it is difficult to know where, or perhaps more appropriately, when to start. It would be hard to begin the narrative of Duke's Wood at any other moment than its most significant point of human intervention.
Duke’s Wood was one of a number of sites purchased by British exploratory company D’Arcy Oil in the late 1930’s. In its first year of production, 1941, the field yielded a relatively insubstantial 6002 tons of crude oil. In wake of the Second World War the countries resources were already stretched to the point of breaking making much needed development impossible. However D’Arcy struck a deal with two American companies, which led to the enlistment of 42 oilmen from Oklahoma to work at Duke’s Wood for two years. By the end of 1942, Duke’s Wood produced 41,342 tons of crude oil, then 60,150 the following year, representing a critical contribution to the British military campaign for World War Two. After some years of exploration and production, the site began a difficult period of convalescence and was gradually ‘returned to nature’. Finally, Duke’s Wood was donated to the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust in 1989.
Thanks to a cooperation between British Petroleum and Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, Duke’s Wood is now a nature reserve with designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status. Clearings created by the oil industry are now inhabited by rare grasses and wild orchids that, some believe, would otherwise never have found their way to the site. This atypical flora lines the bases of decommissioned nodding donkeys - strange sculptural relics of a bygone industry - that still occupy the clearings.
For us the site, and the project that has arisen out of it, is emblematic of an enduring preoccupation with the environment, its influence on our personal and cultural identity and, in turn, our collective influence upon the natural world. The rich and complex history unique to Duke’s Wood serves as a welcome addition to the intricate tapestry that constitutes a sense of place and enables a discourse on some of the most poignant environmental and political issues facing our planet today. Above all else Duke's Wood embodies a vital reconciliation with the natural environment, where the impact of human intervention has been unequivocally acknowledged and addressed.
Duke’s Wood sets the conditions to consider what the term ecology means to such a place and to a project of this kind. Increasingly, in discourses attempting to define a political-ecology or a way of truly ‘thinking ecologically’, we are asked to abandon the construct of Nature or at least a perception of Nature, as Timothy Morton puts it, ‘as a reified thing in the distance, under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener’. Bruno Latour goes one step further, exclaiming ‘Thank God, nature is going to die. Yes, the great Pan is dead’.
Rather than being a stand ‘against nature’, Latour’s radical position marks a recent shift in ecological thought that implores us not to aim to marry culture and nature together, but to dissolve the distinction entirely and to view ecology as part of a collective common built on relations between humans and non-humans. As such, it is wrong to think of our woodland, or indeed any part of our environment, in terms of independence. Rather, it is essential to consider the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things, natural and man-made; a truly ecological view, one that includes human beings effect on the environment in the complex mesh that represents a truly reciprocal, symbiotic outlook.
Duke’s Wood is fertile ground for a study of what such interconnectedness can mean and how, in a literal sense, symbiosis can be played out to restorative effect. It can also be seen as a place where engaging with a very specific local historical context enables a framework from which to interrogate prominent issues in the wider global/political economy, opening up a space to ask questions. What steps must be taken to finally and fundamentally realign our relationship with the environment? What will it take for us to learn from our mistakes and finally concede to accountability for the damages to our planet and to relinquish our stubbornly anthropocentric mindset? And what can we learn from places where the necessary paradigm shift is imminent or has already taken place?
And so to art. One can always count on art and artists to ask questions; to draw out meaning from any given set of conditions. Similarly, one can count on artists to uncover things that were missed, looked over, or hidden from plain view. It is true, as Morton exclaims, that 'art sometimes gives a voice to what is unspeakable elsewhere', but art also creates real situations, makes active propositions and vibrant actions that go beyond just words. The artists working at Duke's Wood confirm such a claim. Through diverse exploratory practices the wood has been reawakened and a new form of prospecting commenced, where the elision of ecology and industrial history sets the scene for new meanings to be made, new and jarring structures to be built, and new actions to occur that at once problematise and revitalise our understanding of a place.