Sunday, 26 March 2023

What lies beneath

William Smith Geological map of Great Britain 1815

The more I think about interoception and the world around me, the more I realise that we are shaped by what lies beneath the surface of our bodies and what lies below the Earth we stand upon. Again it is diagrams that we rely upon to tell us what is there and as I have been having to teach a few sessions on the World Building and Creature Design MA, I have been reminded in particular of how signs of the geological evolution of the Earth and the physiological evolution of our bodies are physically present deep within both.

Perhaps we need to go back to Greek times to see why we can understand things in this way. R. G. Collingwood in his 1945 treatise on the Idea of Nature, had this to say about the Greek view of the natural world; 

    'Since the world of nature is a world not only of ceaseless motion and therefore alive, but also a world of orderly or regular motion, they accordingly said that the world of nature is not only alive but intelligent; not only a vast animal with a 'soul' or life of its own, but a rational animal with a 'mind' of its own.' (Collingwood, 1960. P. 3)

At one point Collingwood describes Greek thinking on this issue as an analogy. He states that before we know the world we know ourselves and when we look at ourselves we see that a complex series of constantly moving physical parts are kept in equilibrium by a mind directing all the various components. Therefore early philosophers argued that nature as a whole must work the same way. It is intelligent and seeks to maintain autonomy and survive by making decisions that are advantageous to its survival. Interestingly back in 1945 Collingwood was using this argument as a contrast to what he was then calling 'modern' or 'scientific' thought. Concepts such as the embodied mind and ecosophy were yet to enter the world of philosophical academia in England, but Collingwood's description of Greek thought would be very familiar to anyone who has read the Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia concept proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings to form synergistic and self-regulating systems that maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. Lovelock and Margulis put the idea together in the 1970s, but any believer in animism from two thousand years ago would have also understood the idea. It was the Judeo-Christian concept of a monotheistic God that removed this embodied metaphor, instead it was God the great creator, the engineer that lay behind everything, who was responsible for why things worked in the way they did. This took away nature's autonomy or as God put it:

'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.' Genesis 1:26

Instead of the world being regarded as a giant complex intelligent interconnected physical being, a thing that we had to both commune with and fit in with if we were to survive, we were given the idea that we were in some way better than nature and that we could 'have dominion' over it. 

However the ancient idea that the world of nature is not only alive but intelligent and that it is a vast animal with a 'soul' or life of its own, still seems to have traction. Sometimes we use the term 'bodyscape' to describe the metaphorical use of body imagery in relation to landscape. Ancient metaphors that understood the earth to be modelled on the human body are sometimes seen as being one-way relationships; the ‘landscape as body', but more recent changes in philosophical thinking, in particular the material turn and object orientated ontology, point to a two way process, 'the body as landscape' being just as significant. 

Pioneering stratigrapher William Smith is credited with creating the first useful geological map, (see image at the start of this post), and it is very interesting to compare drawings of slices through human skin to slices through the Earth's mantle. The fact that we think of rocks as having veins suggests that we see the layers of geological strata as being analogous to the way we think about our own bodies. 

Visualisations of layers of the skin

In the image above numbers are used to annotate the various different layers as we progress down into the human body. For example '1' is the cuticle and '2' its soft layer. '4' represents the network of nerves and '6' three nerves that divide off from that network.  The way the cross section is drawn in many ways brings together various ideas of bodies and landscapes, the need to create distinct textural areas being common to both formats, stippling and broken lines being used by both geologists and anatomists to identify different layers. 

Veins of molten rock penetrate the layers of the Earth's crust
Geological cross sections

Geological plan view of what lies beneath

Nomawethu: Map of her body, with her personal story of illness


The two images directly above are from a body mapping workshop led by South African artist Jane Solomon. To create these Body Maps, participants filled a life-sized outline of their bodies with handprints, footprints, personal symbols and text. Ntombizodwa states; "Look here where I have painted the virus. On 19 January 2001 I became very sick. Stomach pains and headache. It was summer time, the season of peach and apricot, and I thought that’s why I had a sore stomach."

Greek natural science was based on an analogy between nature as a macrocosm and humans as a microcosm. Nature was viewed as an intelligent organism, just as a human being is. In the same way that we realise that we have a mind that directs our body's operations, it was argued that nature must have some sort of intelligence too if it was to direct its various affairs successfully. Just as we devise ways to portray the interior of our bodies, we find ways to portray the interior of the land that we live on. 

A body slice

A slice through a landscape

The more I think about these relationships the more the imagery I use to depict certain states of interoceptive awareness becomes influenced by old maps and diagrams. Feelings are like 'soundings' taken from deep within the body. The body being both its own landscape and an inhabiter of landscapes. 

A feeling of internal change

The image, 'A feeling of internal change' (above) was made whilst I had bad stomach ache and was feeling sick. I had been fine all day, doing a glass workshop in the morning and helping out at a busy art book fair in the afternoon. I then walked home, but on the way began to feel totally exhausted. Knowing I had to go back out that evening, I decided to eat a fast snack, that included a spicy onion bargee and a glass of milk. Whatever the combination of spices and cooking oils was, it did not agree with me and I was doubtful whether or not I would be able to go out again. The image above was then drawn in my sketchbook while I was waiting for my friend to arrive, and then hopefully by that time I would be feeling better. The milk I had drunk, seemed to be helping combat the acid, but I was still feeling sick. While the image was still fresh in my mind, I photographed it and began to add colour in Photoshop. The blue was an attempt to show the change, with the red an indication that the pain was still sharp, but now intermittent. 
I was literally grasping around for an image that would communicate an invisible something and as I did I realised I was also sensing it in my fingers and the image is an attempt to show this as well. I was drawing a slice through an imaginary body that was also a map, but a map of an unknown territory and one that was changing rapidly, one that was being felt for by my fingers, even though they could not touch it. 
The body and a pain

Interoception includes an awareness of pain, as well as the development of images of pain with which we can at times conquer pain. But it is also about an awareness of feeling tone, of where the body is located in space and other somatic events. Alongside this complexity is a wider awareness of the interrelatedness of everything. There is another aspect of bodily awareness that is a very ancient one, one that has at times been approached under the heading of Tantric Art, and is not just a celebration of the body, but an understanding of the body as being a physical representation of the cosmos itself. Unseen but still sensed experience can I believe be understood as an aspect of the sublime. In the case of interoception, visualisations of these invisible sensations are of a hybrid form that is a composite between visual invention and memories of past experiences, and they rely on physical resemblances with other objects as well as a more abstracted understanding of energy flow. 

In order to explore a relationship between physical resemblance and an understanding of energy flow, we can look at Harold Fisk's meander maps of the Mississippi River.

Harold Fisk: Meander Map of the Mississippi River

When trying to imagine the human body and landscape being fused together, Harold Fisk's mapping processes, which looked at landscapes over long periods of time, are useful to look at. Harold Fisk's maps represent the memory of a river; thousands of years of river course changes are compressed into a single image and because of this the landscapes 'come alive'. Geological time unfolds into a human time-frame, the maps becoming 'more like us' as they do so. We often point to mapping as a very 'objective' activity, forgetting that as inhabitants of very particular bodies, we are bound to make things that reflect our particular physical make-up and awareness of time. In this case a geological feature is converted into a record of changing energy flows, using shapes and colours and a scale of production, that is little different to an anatomy diagram. As I get older I'm more and more aware of signs of ageing, but forget that signs are layered, and instead of just looking at how things appear to be as they are on the skin's surface, I think I might be better off looking for those signs that are obscured, lost beneath the skin, but which also reveal the past as well as indicating a fast approaching future. 

Harold Fisk: Meander map

13th Century English anatomy illustration

I'm not just thinking of my own body's past, but our collective human history and you don't have to go that far back to see the body as a type of landscape. The 13th century illustration above of the body could easily be read in this way, just as Fisk's maps could also be read as anatomical diagrams.

Homme 4D

The image 'Homme 4D' reminded me of a time when I used to collect old anatomy drawings, in particular ones that opened out and revealed the body as a set of layers. These disappeared many years ago, but I did find this image on a flickr site, which is another example of how to display a body seen through time as well as space, in this case folding out a series of layered representations. 

Fisk's work also reminded me of Nikolaus Gansterer's diagrams, in particular Gansterer's idea of the drawing as a 'score'. 

From the Embodied Diagrams series by Nikolaus Gansterer

Nikolaus Gansterer's Embodied Diagrams series derive from a four year research project Choreo-graphic Figures: Deviations from the Line. This was a collaborative project that developed shared figures of thought, speech, and movement reflecting on the specific nature of ‘thinking-feeling-knowing’ operative within artistic practices that seek to represent the body. Drawing was used as a translational bodily process that was able to help the research team imagine a variety of forms in which a drawing of the body can become manifest, materialise, and take shape. Gansterer. points out that, 'The German words for drawing (zeichnen) and for notation, recording (aufzeichnen) share the same etymological root'.  Acknowledging this, Gansterer produces 'scores' as imaginative prompts. These 'scores' are used to map the complex 'relation-scape' between body, place and atmosphere, a 'diagrammatic (re-)presentation of embodied knowledge(s).' 

He describes his images as mapping the durational ‘taking place’ of something happening live and the subtle processes in the event of "figuring something out". This situation intrigued me, because in my own work I had been trying to balance a representation of a thing with a process, for instance an awareness of a pain and at the same time of the process of feeling the pain and of communicating it, a quite difficult process because it crossed several boundaries. The British 'stiff upper lip' might for instance, make it hard to measure pain's effect on a subject taught to show no emotion. 


Gansterer worked in collaboration with the writer Emma Cocker, dancer Mariella Greil and others and their work is available at: I was particularly fascinated by the collaborative aspects of Gansterer's research and as I have already been working in collaboration myself, think it is perhaps time to revisit some of the issues involved. The fact that mapping is usually associated with geological terrain is something I don't think I've made the most of and as I have been trying to visualise the invisible, mapping might offer a way of building in signposts or guides as to where things might be located. 

Visualisation of a breathing restriction

Visualisation of peristaltic waves

Both of my drawings above are images derived directly from my own personal experiences of responding to an awareness coming from inside the body and they are attempts to visualise for others the feelings that I had at the time. Both images were initially drawn by hand and then scanned into PhotoShop and adjusted until the colour felt right. Photoshop also allowed me to use layers and in doing so I could add diagrammatic details such as arrows or colour used to identify where a centre of a pain might lie.  

By visualising something normally invisible to others, perhaps an alternative form of communication could be developed in relation to health matters. In particular in the case of a growing awareness of peristaltic waves, (stomach pains), this might mean that someone should be having conversations about taking exercise or eating more fibre. I think the image of peristaltic waves works well in conveying my own personal feelings, but would anyone besides myself guess that that is what the image is of. I could use an outline drawing of a body to indicate where the sensation lies, but as soon as I do the richness of the imagery is dissolved into a very obvious sign and as that happens the 'feeling tone' is lost and its the 'feeling tone' that I really want to capture. However, by taking 'Homme 4D' as a model, I have tried to develop new images that begin to have more of the visual ambition of Fisk's work and which are the basis for an enfolding or layering of images, colours and textures to suggest somatic experiences. 

The thought form of an inner body sensation


The visualisation of tinnitus

By now I have hundreds of images developed in collaboration with other people in various attempts to visualise their awareness of normally invisible internal sensations. I shall take a selection of these to Porto in July, and use them to instigate a set of workshops designed to assess how transferrable these ideas are. I will be hosting some workshops with hopefully medical staff and students and we will see whether or not there is a common visual language that could be used between both art and medical practitioners, as well as non specialist audiences. 
If anyone reading these posts is interested in taking part or joining in, you can e mail me on and I can provide more details. 


Collingwood, R. G. (1945, 2022) The Idea of Nature London: Dead Authors Society
Fisk, H.N., (1952) Mississippi River valley geology relation to river regime. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers117(1), pp.667-682.
Rawson, P.S., (1973, 2012) Tantra: The Indian cult of ecstasy. London Thames and Hudson 
Winchester, S. and Morris, M.D., (2002) The map that changed the world: William Smith and the birth of modern geology. Leadership and Management in Engineering2(2), pp.12-13.

See also:

Saturday, 18 March 2023

In Praise of the Dandelion

Early illustration of a dandelion 

The other day I was trying to get everyone excited about the various ways that research could help deepen an understanding of both the world and possible connections we could make between it and the artworks we make. Because one student's site chosen for developing ideas for artwork, was a small patch of waste ground, I have decided to put together some secondary research relating to that ubiquitous wasteland plant, the common dandelion, a plant that is sometimes regarded as a weed, but which historically has often been a vital source of both food and medicine. However research alone can make for a somewhat sterile approach to the subject and we are of course those muzzy headed things called artists, so I have blended into the secondary (book and Internet) research, the things that are personal to myself; my individual idiosyncratic bits of connection with the world that make my life interesting. In order to create unexpected images we often need a hard to grasp something, that grit in the oyster that triggers the growth of a pearl or hopefully in this case causes a poetic image to come into being.

Dandelions have historically often been used to represent celestial bodies, each one coming into prominence during the 3 different phases of the dandelion's life. The plant’s yellow flower representing the sun; the dispersed floating seeds the stars and the puffed out fluffy dandelion ball the moon. We have records of dandelion use going back over 4,000 years and fossil evidence of them from 50 million years ago. They are therefore much older as a species than humans and have had much more time to adapt to various environmental conditions. However like humans they are generalists and as such have been able to survive over a wide range of environments. The early 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, found it to be a ‘virtuous herb’, and when consumed in the spring he states, "you may look a farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles”. Its supposed ability to sharpen our eyes could be a clear metaphor and alongside its cleansing quality in the treatment of obstructions of the liver, gall bladder and spleen, you have a restorative concept that could also lead to images of healing. 

In folklore the dandelion got its nickname, the ‘shepherd’s clock’, because the flower opens after sunrise and closes at dusk. They are of course very easy to grow, Dandelion seeds germinate quickly, generally taking from three to six weeks to sprout, and are able to survive a light frost. It is an aid in activating compost as well, making Dandelions useful agents for getting a wasteland's transformative energies moving quickly and keeping those energies moving. It is an essential component in a natural healing process, whereby if we leave a plot of wasteland long enough it will become a vital, thriving community of interrelated species. Therefore dandelions are an aid to their surrounding environmental community, helping to transform environments so that more delicate plants can grow; also providing a wealth of nutrients to a wide range of animal herbivores and omnivores and providing bees and other insects with nectar during times when other plants are not in flower. You could think of the dandelion as a catalyst for other garden reactions, its presence signalling that a healthy plant community was being built. 

The dandelion 'sun' flowerhead

The dandelion’s bright yellow flowers open when touched with the sun’s first light and close again in the evening as the sun dips over the horizon. Because of this mimicry of the sun's actions and its appearance as a radiating yellow disk, it has long had strong associations in people's minds with the sun. This has led to certain folkloric metaphors, such as the dandelion’s yellow flower being able to shed light upon that which would otherwise be hidden. In herbal remedies, it can, because of this association with the life giving energies of the sun and therefore light, be used to help give the confused clarity and to rejuvenate the tired and enervate us after illness. It does indeed help clear the blood and has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. The dandelion is classified as a herb, and was used by Native Americans for eradicating kidney disease, reducing swelling, alleviating skin problems, stopping heartburn and curing upset stomachs. The Chinese used it for curing stomach problems, appendicitis, breast inflammations and lack of milk flow. In Europe, it has been used to relieve fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes and diarrhoea. As a child when you blew its seeds out into the air, you often made a wish or sought to foretell the future, but little did we think at the time, that our childish ‘seed-thoughts’ were helping the dandelion to plant its own seeds in far away places.
The distinction between weeds and non-weeds is a fascinating issue to examine. The definition of the dandelion as a weed shines a light on how human concerns shape the way we think about non-human things as well as how they fashion the types of spaces we develop. For instance, there is an old hierarchical organisation of inorganic and organic matter, that is measured against the position of human beings within the cosmic order of things. It is interesting to look at that and compare it to more recent ways of exploring relationships within current socio-economic practices, especially ones that define what plants are allowed to exist and where. 

Raymond Lull and his staircase of hierarchies

In Raymond Lull's diagrams of hierarchies, notice how each element sits one above the other in importance, people are above animals, that are above plants, that are above moving forces such as fire and water and which are above inert things such as rocks. People are though below more spiritual beings such as angels, God of course occupying the top step.  

From 'Book the ascent and decent of the intellect' 1305

Back in the 13th and 14th century Raymond Lull developed a way of categorising the hierarchy of relationships that existed between God and all of his creation. Lull used the metaphor of a ladder or stairway to do this. The mind 'ascends the analogy of being' and as it does so it contemplates the relationships that God has set up between himself and all of his creations. This contemplation would have been centred on passages from the Bible, such as this from Genesis: 1:26–28.

'God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'

In this passage from Genesis, God is giving human beings the authority to have dominion over every other living thing and that means that Jews and Christians have for over 2,000 years been taught that plants like the dandelion are a step or two below ourselves on the ladder of being. 
The fact that certain plants have been historically understood as food, textile material, money, religious objects, ornaments or weeds speaks to the many socio-economic variables at play in their categorisation; their names sometimes preserving traces of their various social lives. With this in mind, along with a very particular personal reason, the story of dandelions, and their ambiguous existence on the border between weeds and food, becomes something that begins to open out for myself several avenues within which to develop visual inventions. 

Perhaps I ought to explain my personal association with dandelions. It is twofold and complex but all the more rich therefore in its potential. My father was an obsessive lawn maintainer. He was one of those people that liked to see an immaculate lawn in front of the house, as if it was a sign of the ordered house behind it. I was taught to mow the lawn in straight lines, so that the grass was at exactly the right length and bent over at a particular angle so that the lawn's stripes, lined up with the house's axis. 

It was a time when boys up until the age of 12 still had to wear short trousers

A nice striped lawn

As well as to mow the lawn, my job was to weed it. Dandelions were for my father a particular threat and they were easy to spot, a tiny spot of yellow was for my father an eyesore and to keep him happy, I learnt to keep an eye out for them. I was taught to use Weedol and would pour it onto any foreign plant that threatened to disturb the lawn's homogeneity and as these were two of the most resented tasks my father forced on me, both mowing and weeding became inextricable from my idea of what he represented. (Yes I am aware of Freud's Oedipus complex) Many years later I was to get a phone call to tell me he had died, he had had a heart attack when mowing the lawn. My mother's mother, my grandmother, lived in a village and was deeply attuned to the natural world and every year we would go walking in the local fields and would pick dandelion heads, so that she could make dandelion wine. This was a joyous experience, instead of a chore it was lots of fun and was a time of immersing myself in the world of tall grasses that ticked your legs and felt warm as you rolled down banks covered in what my dad would have thought of as weeds, but which my gran knew as plants with stories. These two alternate visions have stayed with me throughout my life and still influence my view of the world and our relationship with it. The dandelion for myself, representing a focus around which these two opposing realities moved. What I'm suggesting here is that when looking to develop work around something, it is often useful to find a personal relationship to the subject. This may of course allow others to accuse you of making your approach too subjective, but for myself, it has always been an essential aspect of why I'm bothered to make work about the things I do. 

In my father's mind the human / plant relationship was one of signals about property and ownership. He did not want any 'weeds' to dilute his signs to neighbours that he was in total control of his domestic life. He owned the house and controlled what was allowed within its boundaries. But my father was not alone in his thinking. A quick search of the Internet will reveal a host of ways to eradicate weeds from lawns, millions of home owners still wanting to ensure their immaculately kept lawns are free from foreign invaders. There is a very good article on lawns by Krystal D'Costa that was published in Scientific American, 'The American Obsession with Lawns', in it she states;

"Lawns are viewed as an indicator of socio-economic character, which translates into property- and resale values. Lawns are indicative of success; they are a physical manifestation of the American Dream of home ownership. To have a well maintained lawn is a sign to others that you have the time and/or the money to support this attraction. It signifies that you care about belonging and want others to see that you are like them." (D'Costa, 2017) 

The dandelion becomes, not just a couple of steps down the ladder of being, as in Lull's medieval hierarchy of relationships, but an economic threat to property and resale value. A reflection of the gradual erosion of the Christian religion and its value systems and replacement by capitalism and its value systems.

There are dandelion stories that have been told over and over again and in many different languages, common tales that belong to everyone and these stories contain within them other sets of values, in the case of the following story a more communal idea is fostered, could it perhaps suggest that the dandelion be celebrated for its socialist ideals? 

This story has been told many times, sometimes it is an angel that does the judging and at other times fairies, but whichever version of the story you will hear, it is always one that celebrates the virtues of a flower that seems to be able to grow almost anywhere and that has edible, roots, leaves and a flower that makes for tasty wine.

Long, long ago, the flowers and their fairies had been having long ongoing talks and discussions as to which was the most beautiful, the most special and therefore the most loved flower. The talks went on for many weeks and eventually an argument started; each and every flower at some point claiming to be the most beautiful and the most special. Finally, after much distress and shedding of petals all of the flowers agreed to let the Flower Fairies decide. The Queen of the Flower Fairies was a fair, gentle and kind spirit and so the fairies turned to her and asked her to settle the issue and to give one plant her blessing and the title of the "most perfect" flower. At first she refused the task, she told the flowers that they were all wonderful and said to the other fairies, "They are all beautiful in their own way." But the bickering began again and she could see that there was not going to be a solution until they all had an answer.
The Fairy Queen had ideas of her own about beauty and what was special and she therefore decided to test each flower by asking them one question. She had always understood that it was only by considering the needs of others and the relationships between everything that we could become aware of how delicate and wonderful the fragile nature of existence was and her question was designed to find out if the flowers had ever themselves thought about these things. Although she loved them dearly, she had always had a suspicion that they loved themselves a little too much and that they rarely thought about how much their beauty relied on the efforts of others.
The first flower the Fairy talked to was the rose. "What is your ambition?" she asked. "I would like to climb the castle wall." said the rose. "And then kings and queens and nobles would pass by everyday and exclaim over my beauty, my scent and my delicate nature." The Flower Fairy Queen nodded her head and thanked the rose, and then moved on.

Next she came to a tulip, standing tall and proud. "What is your ambition?" she asked the tulip. "I want to live in a public garden" said the tulip. "Where everyday people would come and admire my wonderful colours and see how straight and tall I stand." Once again, the Flower Fairy Queen nodded her head and after thanking the tulip, she moved on.

She walked until she came to a forest. There she found some violets. She asked them "What is your ambition little violets?" "Oh" said the violets quietly "We like it here hidden in the woods where no one can see us and where the trees keep the sun from dulling our beautiful colour." Once again, the Flower Fairy Queen nodded her head and after thanking the violets, she moved on. She then talked to the tiger lily who told her how wild and fierce it was, of how it wanted to be the strongest and bravest of all the flowers. She talked to the sunflower who barely answered her because all she wanted to do was be warmed by the sun. The Queen talked to the orchids who only wanted to dance and she tried to talk to the narcissus but it was too busy looking at it's reflection in the water to speak to her.

The queen walked on speaking to flower after flower, each one full of self regard but of little awareness of the needs of others or of how and why they had themselves become such beautiful things.

After many months of wondering the Earth she was becoming worried, was there no flower that understood the world in a similar way to herself? She was ready to give up and go home when she came to a field with bright fluffy yellow flowers on long thin stalks. The leaves were long and jagged and very close to the ground and the flowers looked happy and cheerful. "What are you called?" she asked? "I am a dandelion" said the little flower. "What is your ambition little dandelion?", she asked, just as she had all the other flowers that she had come across. "I'd like to live wherever there are others. I want to live beside the road, and in the meadows, and push up between the sidewalks in the cities, and make friends with snails and flies and beetles and worms and other plants and mushrooms and algae and birds. I want all things to feel happier when they see my bright colours, when they feel the thin fingers of my roots tickle them, when they see my juicy leaves and taste how delicious I am." The dandelion chattered on happily saying, "I want to be the first flower that children pick in the spring and take to their mothers. I want to carry wishes on the wind and become part of everyone's life."

At last the Flower Fairy Queen began to smile again, she nodded her head and said "Little dandelion, you are the most perfect and special flower of all and you shall have your wish! You will blossom everywhere from spring until autumn and be known as everyone's flower." This is why the dandelion comes so early and pushes its head up everywhere with such strength and determination; and why it is so loved by other plants and soils, who offer it hospitality throughout the year.

So when you see a dandelion peeping out between the cracks in paving stones, sitting in alongside the too neat grasses of a manicured lawn, or simply holding on to what would be a bare patch of waste ground if it wasn't around, remember that it is the most special of flowers and blessed by the Flower Fairy Queen and if you don't treat it with the utmost respect she will know this and will remember you and that is something you really don't want to happen.

Dandelion stars

The dandelion stars are of course its method of seed distribution. In the mass of seeds known as a dandelion clock, each seed is suspended from a parachute-like stalk. We have all as children released these seeds with a puff of our breath, but as we did so we were never really aware of the complex science that lay beneath this seductive process. The dandelion's seed parachute is a bunch of bristles called a pappus. Each pappus carries around 100 filaments, each attached to a central point, rather like the head of a chimney sweep’s brush. Just like a parachute, it increases aerodynamic drag, slowing the descent of each seed and allowing it, once aloft, to stay in the air for much longer. 

Images of the low pressure vortex created as a dandelion seed-head floats downward

The dandelion's parachute of bristles is arranged so that when the pappus falls, air flows between the bristles and creates a low-pressure vortex. When captured using special imaging technology, this vortex is rather like a tiny ghost that travels above the pappus and yet is not attached to it, an invisible familiar that generates lift and prolongs the seed’s time in the air. An article in 'Nature' by Cummins, et al. (2018) explains that the key to this lies not in the bristles of the pappus, but in the spaces between them. 

       'If projected on to a disc, the bristles together occupy just under 10% of the pappus’s area, and yet create four times the drag that would be generated by a solid disc of the same radius. The study shows that air currents entrained by each bristle interact with pockets of air held by its neighbours, creating maximum drag for minimum expenditure of mass. The pappus’s porosity — a measure of the proportion of air that it lets pass — determines the shape and nature of the low-pressure vortex'. (Cummins, et al. 2018 p. 417)

What interested me most about this however was the fact that the dandelion had evolved to respond to the thickness of the air, something that I had only thought animals could do. Like the dandelion's parachutes, tiny insects, such as the featherwing beetle have evolved to swim through thick air. Featherwing beetles do not fly using traditional wing shapes, they swim through the what is to them, thick viscous air, using ‘paddles’ made of bristles. The difference between plants and animals is perhaps less than we would like to think. If we think of a dandelion more as a series of interacting processes, then its seeds floating away are just one of several aspects, all of which are equally important to its life cycle, and one aspect of this life cycle is that its seeds need to fly. 

The featherwing beetle

The dandelion's 'stars' are not just mythically attuned, they are reminders of how narrow our particular frame of reference can be. The very air that we breathe is of course a fluid substance and one that for some creatures is like a sea within which they swim. The dandelion being one of those living things that is uniquely poised between earth and air. 

When botanical illustrators are asked to show the dandelion, they often concentrate on its above ground features, but sometimes an illustrator will acknowledge that there is as much going on under the ground as above it. Durer gives us the underlying sod of earth that he cut out of the ground with his plants, as an integral part of his subject and in doing so he also gives us a glimpse of the complex interrelated life of these plants, rather than dissecting them, atomising them and cutting them up as if they were 'dead' things.  


Various artists' approaches to illustrating dandelions

The Japanese approach to dandelion illustration is less 'scientific' but more poetic. The interrelationship between things is more important than the dissection of its parts. 

Hare and Dandelion: Kubo Shunman: 1820

Dandelions are deeply respected within Japanese culture, but perhaps a poem serves us better than prose. 

Stars and Dandelions by Kaneko Misuzu

Deep in the blue sky,
like pebbles at the bottom of the sea,
lie the stars unseen in daylight
 until night comes.
You can’t see them, but they are there.
Unseen things are still there.

The withered, seedless dandelions
hidden in the cracks of the roof tile
wait silently for spring, 
their strong roots unseen.
You can’t see them, but they are there.
Unseen things are still there.

The Little Weed puppet between Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men

In the 1950s the BBC used to have a series of children's programs most of them involving string puppets. The Flower Pot Men was the story of Bill and Ben, two little men made of flower pots who lived at the bottom of an English suburban garden. Julia Williams was the voice of Little Weed, a dandelion with a smiling face, who was always shown growing between the two large flowerpots that were the homes for Bill and Ben. The program was for myself as a child a powerful visual influence and as I got older became one of those personal image banks on which I could draw upon, the further back in my personal timeline they emerge from, the stranger they seem but somehow also more comforting. The talking weed in particular would sometimes come to inhabit my dreams, eventually of course I would need to draw it, a process that at times can be vital to the construction of what I see as an externalised mind. I'm afraid this is another very personal account, but by thinking of artworks as externalised minds, I am able to think about how they work for myself and why I need them. 

Various drawn manifestations of the dandelion/Little Weed in my own work

Other artists have found their own ways to use the dandelion within their art. The American art collective 'the art department', gathered bags of dandelion seed heads in order to construct their 'wish processing centre'. 

The art departmentwish-processing centre

A participant makes a wish

In a working industrial site southeast of downtown Los Angeles, the LA-based group 'The art department' created a wish-processing centre. This ephemeral installation, lasted for just one weekend. It incorporated large piles of dandelion seed heads, which have long been associated with the granting of wishes when their seeds are blown off into the air. People were expected to gather seed heads and make their way to the wishing stations and make wishes. 

I have only touched upon the many and diverse stories associated with dandelions, from their current use as a substitute latex in the manufacture of rubber, to particular recipes for salads and the myths associated with bed wetting; as soon as you begin researching, more and more avenues to follow will open out. 

Dandelions remind us of our childhood and those times when we really believed in make-believe and that wishes could come true and as such as far as I am concerned, they ought to be celebrated as wonderful things and never, ever regarded as weeds. 

I'll leave you with the work of the Japanese artist Yusuke Aonuma, dandelion seeds form the building blocks of very carefully arranged architectural artworks preserved on rafts of perspex.


My old friend Terry Hammill sent the cartoon below as his favourite response to the dandelion. 

Stephen Collins

See also:

Drawing and the diggers: including more thoughts on using the dandelion in an image