Circular Podcast with Caitlin DeSilvey
Do we only repair the things that we cherish? Is there a place for visible mending in our built environment as well as our clothes? Can a repair add value to the object that is mended? And do we always need to intervene with repair – or is ‘curated decay’ sometimes a better option?
On today’s episode, I’m talking to Caitlin DeSilvey, a geographer whose research explores the cultural significance of material change and transformation, with a particular focus on heritage contexts. She has worked with artists, archaeologists, environmental scientists and heritage practitioners on a range of interdisciplinary projects, and is one of the most inspiring academics I have ever come across. She has worked with artists, archaeologists, environmental scientists and heritage practitioners on a range of interdisciplinary projects, supported by funding from UK research councils, the Royal Geographical Society, the Norwegian Research Council and the European Social Fund.
Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.
I’m Katie Treggiden, and this is Circular: a podcast exploring the intersections of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the thinkers, doers, and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear “take make waste” model of production and consumption and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about repair.
We also became quite interested in how value is created by repair. So, by tending to something and extending care, then we actually produce value. So, it’s not just about a thing that we value and therefore we get it repaired. This is actually, this is much more dynamic relationship with the things we repair.
Caitlin DeSilvey is a geographer, whose research explores the cultural significance of material change and transformation with a particular focus on heritage contexts. She has worked with artists, archaeologists, environmental scientists, and heritage practitioners on a range of interdisciplinary projects, supported by funding from UK research councils, the Royal geographical society, the Norwegian Research Council and the European Social Fund, a recent monograph ‘Curated Decay Heritage Beyond Saving’ received the 2018 Historic Preservation Book Prize. She is a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter where she is Associate Director for Transdisciplinary Research at the Environment and Sustainability Institute. Her current research projects include a collaboration with the Copenhagen Medical Museum and the Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change Projects with the National Trust and Historic England.
GUEST INTERVIEW PART 1
KT: Thank you so much for joining me, Caitlin. I’m really looking forward to talking to you about mending and repair. I’d love to start right at the beginning and ask you about how sort of mending, repair, decay, damage, all those sorts of things showed up in your childhood and early life.
CD: Hi Katie, thanks for having me and inviting me into this conversation. And thanks for that question. It’s kind of a big question for me because I do think about this a lot; where my interest in these topics came from, and I guess there’s sort of, there’s some family stories.
So I grew up, from when I was about three and a half, on a farm in Vermont and my dad was a doctor, but it was one of these early seventies ‘back to the land’ experiments from my parents. And so I spent a lot of my early childhood following my dad around while he fixed things on the farm. And so I was the kid who was interested in that, or at least that’s how the story went. And so’ really as a little kid, like five, you know, I would, you know, go out with him and help him turn the old tool shed into, turned it into a little cabin at one point, but we were always fixing things. There were tools around, you know, I was, I was fascinated, and I would do my own little carpentry projects. And then his dad was actually a travelling repairman who would fix turret lays 3.12. So they’re these massive machines that they use in night manufacturing. And the story about the turret lay 3.14, I think that I will always remember is it’s the only machine that can make all of its own parts.
So, he was grandpa John was a, he was a pianist, you know, sort of, he would play a maritime 3.30 piano in some roadhouses around Western New York and Ohio where he worked and he travelled around in a camper and he didn’t have a fixed abode. So he would come and see us and take us out. I think I was always aware of his actual hands, honestly, like he had these really big hands and he just felt very effective in the world. That was what I remember about my grandfather. He died when I was about 10. So there was always this sort of background sense of the value of being able to do things, fix things, make things. And my really abiding memory of my dad giving me a toolbox for my 12th birthday, which I still have. And I still have the hammer that was in that toolbox. And so I think that that started early, but then the counter story, which is also relevant, was that I was, you know, growing up in rural Vermont, where there was a lot of grown over sort of second or third growth forest and a lot of farms abandoned up in the Hills.
And so it was really relatively common to come across, they’re like, structures, old stone walls, their sense of a place where people had been, where they had moved on and, and the way that those places were being overgrown and overtaken by nature. And I was also fascinated by that as a kid. So, yeah. So there was sort of these, both of these things were percolating.
KT: Yeah. There’s something I remember about the house we lived in. When I was very little, there were some tumbled down pick sheds at the bottom of the garden that had overgrown. And my sister and I were fascinated by them. It was just kind of the kind of history.
So you went from rural Vermont to an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and Environmental Studies. So first I’m interested to know what, if anything, the relationship between those two subjects. And then secondly, how you went from Religious Studies and Environmental Studies to a master’s and PhD in Cultural Geography.
CD: Ah, yes. Okay. Missing chapters. Yeah. So, yeah, so I started out as an undergraduate at Yale, not having a clue what I wanted to study. I think I actually declared English as my, as my proposed major. And then I proceeded to take all these courses in Introductory Biology and Comparative Religion and Atmosphere and Oceans or, there was one module called that, and I was also taking classes in Sculpture. And so I had this whole, I had an incredibly eclectic and bewilderingly, wonderful undergraduate career.
And the kind that you can’t really do in the UK, but it was true. It was liberal arts in its truest sense.
KT: It sounds amazing.
CD: And so I had a bit of a meltdown. I mean, I can, I say this to my students sometimes where they don’t have as much choice here, but there’s still often a moment where they’re like, what am I doing here? You know? And so at about midway through my second year, I ended up having a bit of a wobble because I was taking so many different things and loving them all, but not really seeing the connections. And so I ended up taking a term off and spending some time at home teaching cross country skiing, and then going out to Puget Sound and working on a schooner where we were bringing school kids onto this beautiful boat and teaching them about environmental ed and the ecology of Puget Sound in the West,
Northwest, Pacific Northwest. And so I had a, I think at that moment, I got really interested in, some of the native American stories about that area and the way they connected to the ecology of that place, because we would tell the stories on the boat. And I think that seeded something in me that I needed to look for the joins between all of these things that I was interested in.
And I came back and started my third year and realized that I could do an Environmental Studies degree, but also bring in some of my interest and help people make sense of the world sort of, and storytelling and thinking about science in a true storytelling. I know that sounds a bit mad, but I got really interested in how language influences how we think about the world.
And so in the end, the religious studies came in because I extended my interest in sort of Native American cosmology and, and storytelling, but also meaning-making to a project on a proposal to drill for oil and gas in a sacred landscape, just south of Glacier National Park in Montana. So the Blackfeet Nation had a reservation adjacent to this area, and they also had an interest in these mountains where they declared them and they believed them to be sacred.
And the forest service was managing this landscape, and really struggled to get their head around what that meant. And so I wrote an undergraduate dissertation on different meanings of sacred land and the different ways in which those meanings influence decision-making around this beautiful place. That’s a very long answer. But I think that the key thing was that it was somehow I was muddling my way through to what I would later realize was Cultural Geography, which is where I’ve ended up. And these questions about how people make sense of places, how the past of those places informs their present and their future, how people ascribe value to particular places. And at that very moment in the early nineties, Cultural Geography was emerging as a thing in the UK, but it didn’t really exist where I was. And there wasn’t even a Geography department at Yale. So in an odd way, I was sort of already being a cultural geographer as an undergraduate, even though my degree doesn’t have anything to do with geography. So that was how that puzzle unfolded.
KT: Yeah. I think some of those links are really interesting. I was reading a book called The Gift by Lewis Hyde, and he was talking about indigenous populations. And I can’t remember where, who, when they took salmon out of a river, they would eat the flesh. And then they would put the bones back into the river as part of, you know, sorts of religious rituals that they were sort of in some ways sort of appeasing the salmon gods or whatever it was by putting these bones back. And it was, you know, based on myth and with the various sorts of Western scientific heads, you’d look at it and say, well, what a load of nonsense, but it strikes me that no one is ever going to trawl that, that river, you know, they’re never going to overfish that river. And so, I think a lot of these sorts of myths and stories that have grown up through different religions are actually the precursor to a circular economy and sustainable ways of living. It’s just that they’ve been, they’ve been couched in, in stories that enable that behaviour to be passed down through generations. And then so often we look at it with Western, modern, secular eyes and think, well, what a load of nonsense, but actually the behaviours that are encoded into those stories are exactly the sort of things we need to be doing. So I think that when I saw a sort of Religious Studies and Environmental Studies, my kind of English, Christian, I’m not Christian now, but I was brought up Christian, went, well, what the hell is Christianity got to do with Environmental Studies?
But of course religion is a much wider subject than that. So that’s where
CD: yeah, No, I mean, I think it’s interesting because I’ve, since I did that work as an undergraduate, I haven’t gone back to that kind of studying of an indigenous worldviews. And, and, and obviously now it’s coming back in and a really interesting way around the whole debate around decolonization and decolonizing homologies and, and thinking about different ways of knowing the world and really questioning some of the foundational principles of Western science and, you know, and, and so I think it’s really fascinating how there is, as you say, encoded in some of those perspectives, things we really need, need to know now, and that we need to carry with us. And I think the challenge is doing that in a way that is respectful of the texture and the complexity and the place-based knowledge that is there, not just kind of creating a caricature of that. I think it’s; it is,it’s an interesting moment for that.
KT: Yeah. It’s a way of kind of learning from that without sort of stepping into cultural appropriation there’s no, which is, which is the danger. So you, you, you’re now Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter, which is the context in which I met you when I was studying the History of Design. And I’d never heard of Cultural Geography until I met you. And it struck me how much overlap there was between Cultural Geography and History of Design and the way that you and I were studying those two things at that time. So could you unpack for us a little bit more kind of what Cultural Geography is? Because I think a lot of people listening won’t have heard of that term either.
CD: Yeah. I mean, for me, it’s just an incredibly accommodating home academically. And so I think I can describe it from the inside, or I could describe it from the outside. And I think it’s probably not worth going back into the sort of history of the discipline and how it appeared. But I think for me, I think I already indicated it’s a discipline, a subdiscipline, that allows for engagement in questioning and co questioning with a lot of other disciplines. It’s really porous as a discipline.
And I think that the baseline is cultural geographers are interested in people and places and meaning and meaning making. And, but they do that in a number of different ways. And often the people who I end up having the most interesting conversations with right now are artists and architects who are interested in the kind of ideas that I’m working with. And I suppose what’s a little bit unique about Cultural Geography is it doesn’t really do much sort of boundary maintenance and it explicitly encourages that kind of collaborative thinking.
And so it exists in a really robust way here in the UK. But one of the reasons why I’ve ended up here is because while it exists in the US obviously where I began my academic career and where I’m from, it doesn’t have that critical mass. And so I think you would need to, I would need to explain myself a lot more there than I do here.
And so it sits within human geography, but I think one of the things that I love about it and, and the way that I teach as well is that, because I’m in this broader discipline of geography, where I have Environmental Scientists and Biologists and know, and people who do quite, you know, straight natural science studies, I have access to them as well, and we can teach together and we can explore across, you know, within the discipline, we explore vast territories. And that feels incredibly unique to me actually, as an academic to have within your department, people who are coming from such different perspectives. And so I’m on one, on one end of the spectrum where my sort of happy place is more in the arts and humanities, but I work with people who are working on all kinds of different topics. And very often we actually, find shared interests.
KT: Yeah, no, I think it’s fantastic. And certainly, the way I was studying the History of Design and the way I was taught the History of Design was about this idea that we were asked to select a single object or place or space for each essay.
And then you could almost see the whole world in that object, you know, and it was very much about seeing the meaning and seeing the people who’d interacted with it. And so there was some lovely overlap when, when you and I were talking about my dissertation, so I am holding in my hands and I don’t know why I’m holding this up to the screen because we have a audio audience I’m holding a book called Visible Mending, Everyday Repairs in the Southwest, which has got a map of the Southwest in white on a, on a blue background. And it’s a really, really beautiful book. This is a book you co-wrote with Stephen Bond and James Ryan in 2003. And it came out of a project that started three years earlier called Small
is Beautiful?, question mark. As I,, there’s a question mark. On the end of the title.
I would love you to tell us a little bit about that project and then the book that it evolved into.
CD: Right. Yeah. I would be happy to. I’ve just realized that there’s a missing chunk of life, which probably will help explain how I ended up doing that project. So, I’m going to go ahead and give you that. So, when I graduated from university, I went, I went west and I lived in Montana where I had done that undergraduate project. So for most of my twenties, I was living out there and I was doing everything that wasn’t academic. So I was working on organic farms and I was helping set up community gardens. And I was working on this crazy little urban experimental site called the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, where we showed people how to compost worms and how to fix bicycles and how to build things. And so that was my hands-on period in my twenties. And then I got the sort of hankering after going back into academia in the late nineties. And about the same time, I happened across this amazing place, which was this derelict homestead up in the hills, north of Missoula, Montana, where I was living and, and this place kind of captured me and didn’t let me go. And so there was a long backstory in that, which I don’t have time to tell, but the gist of it is it was a place that had been assembled by makers and menders extraordinarily. And so I ended up getting involved in trying to keep that place from being burned down as a training site for the Missoula fire department, which was a training site, sorry. Right. And then went off to do a masters in Edinburgh and where I became a proper Cultural Geographer, but meanwhile kept that place in my head. And then I, when I had an opportunity to pitch a PhD project at the Open University, I pitched that I would go back to this homestead and I would do a material culture study of the things that were in this well that were in these old buildings.
And try to tell a story about the history of that place through those objects. And so that took a good chunk of my life. I got my PhD working on that project, going back and forth from the US to the UK. And then I decided, I went back for a couple of years when I finished my PhD to become the caretaker of the homestead and came back to the UK to start my job at Cornwall in 2008.
And I gave a presentation very early on at an event out in West Penrith that was attended by a number of people who then I stayed in contact with. And out of that event where I presented photographs of this homestead site and my sifting through these objects and making sense of them and telling stories about them out of that, I got an email a few months later saying I saw your presentation about your Montana homestead. And I have a place that I want to tell you about, which is an abandoned cobbler shop in Carhartt. And I thought, oh, where’s that? Because I’d only been in Cornwall for about six months at that point. And so, found it on the map and then got in touch with the people who were involved in the fate of this little building. And it was a backyard workshop that had been in operation by, for decades. The same family had been tending it. And then the person who ended up carrying the business into the 21st century had died. And so, I got invited to go out and check it out, but I brought along Steve Bond. Who’s a photographer who was recommended to me as an interesting person to bring along to a place like that by a friend. And so, Steve and I walked into this little place and we both felt this spark about this place, because it was a fascinating little site, but we also had a spark about working together and thought there’s the seed of something really interesting here. And so, we came up with the idea for the Small is Beautiful project and the theme of repair in that project, from that initial visit to that little cobbler shop in Carhartt. And so, what we ended up doing was getting funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to work together with James Ryan, a colleague of mine, to go out and scout the Southwest for places where people were still repairing ordinary things. And it was very much a focus on everyday things that we handle in our everyday lives, not the, I think the most sort of specialist repairer that we went to was probably the rare book restorer in Wellington, but there was, you know, everything from the little electrical repair shop tucked into a garage in Penzance, you know, to the amazing blacksmiths in Sherbourne. And it was just, there was a sense in the project that we were seeking both places, but also people who, when we walked into their shops and told them what we were doing, acted as if they’d been waiting for us to come all along. It was this really interesting dynamic where yeah, it was just, it was just this funny, it was, there was a chemistry about it. And so some people, we would pitch the project and they would just, you know, too busy can’t you, can’t be involved, but then other people, it was like an instant connection. Like, oh, you want to hear about what I do here? Oh, yes, of course. And so for those people, we then built relationships with them. So about 20 different shops across the whole of the Southwest. And so, we, started working with them. I was interviewing them. Steve was taking photographs, often we were doing this at the same time and we assembled this amazing archive of text and images about these places and about the labour and the love that was going into repair in these places, but also about how most of them didn’t actually think about themselves as repairers, because they thought of themselves as creators or inventors, you know, or as social workers, there was a whole range of things that they thought they were. That was also in addition to being repairers. So, we gathered all that together on a website. And then we put the book together with Colin Sackett at Uniform Books. And it was, it was an incredibly special project because it had something about it. That was just, it was like a little hum or a glow that you don’t get often in a research project. And we ended that project with a, by gathering together the repairers, and then also people, because in that moment in 2012, there was this, it was the beginning of the sort of trendy mending thing, right. It was just starting to happen.
I think the very first repair cafes were probably kicking off. There was some stuff going on in London, but it was really early days. And so, we invited people who we sensed being part of that movement to meet the repairers. And we had a big event on the campus, the university campus in Exeter. So, the book is an, is an index to some of that work, but certainly not all of it.
KT: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Cause I think some of those sort of high street repairers I’ve sort of grown up with and taken for granted and you sort of don’t notice that they’ve started to disappear. And I think it’s so wonderful to have sort of had the opportunity to capture so much of that often quite ordinary mundane sorts of repair work.
But as you say, there’s a, there’s a magic in it and there’s a sense of creation or, you know, sort of the conversations that happen over those repairs or, or whatever it is. There’s a lot more going on besides just, just the mends. You quote Elizabeth Spelman on the inside jacket cover. And the quote that you’ve used is that ‘we do not repair everything we value.
We would not repair things unless they were in some sense valuable to us and how they matter to us shows up in the form of the repair we undertake.’ I’d love you to unpack that quote a little bit and explain why that was sort of the opening quote for the book.
CD: Yeah. I mean, her book is, do you know, you must know her book.
It’s a lovely book. I’m not going, I don’t have the full title with me actually, but she’s a philosopher. So, it’s a sort of philosophical treatment of repair and why we repair. And I think one of the things that we became really interested in in the project was how the objects that people were bringing to be repaired and the stories that they, that the repairers told us about these objects, was as much about people’s identities as it was about the objects themselves. And so there were stories about, you know, the woman who would bring her old blown out slippers that she got in Asda, you know, and say, oh, I need you to put the new soles on these. And there was this phrase that the repairers would use, you know, they would say, it’s not economic, you know, and their response would be no, no, but you really need to do this because, you know, they’re the only slippers that are comfortable or you need to fix my porridge pot because I’ve been making porridge in it for the last 50 years. You know, there was this, there’s always a little bit of a narrative attached to it and that sense of value and what we value and, and that being often uncoupled from economic valuation, you know, that sort of what became really central to the project. But I think the other thing about that quote, when you read it back to me, is that I think we also became quite interested in how value is created by repair. So, by attending to something and extending care, then we actually produce value.
So, it’s not just about a thing that we value and therefore we get it repaired. This is actually this much more dynamic relationship with the things we repair.
KT: Yeah. It almost becomes more valuable because you’ve gone to the time and effort to.
CD: Yes. And that comes into a lot of the other work I do on much bigger things like building some heritage objects, but get onto that later.
KT: We will.
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GUEST INTERVIEW PART 2
KT: So, I know you very much as someone who specializes in repair, you know, I, I was writing my dissertation about repair and then came to you to ask for your advice, but your primary interest is actually in the damage and how things in places fall apart. So, what is it about damage and decay that captures your imagination so much?
CD: I think at the core, they might be the same questions. You know, it’s about how we relate to the matter around us, you know, and how we make meaning and anchor our identities in objects or in the case of heritage preservation, conservation in buildings and structures. And we value those because they help us tell stories about ourselves or about our societies that then anchor identity.
And so, it’s not that the slippers aren’t that different from the ruined Abbey, you know, it’s just that just sort of playing out on a different scale. I love that Abbey, because, you know, so there’s this sense of that meaning-making is central. And so, for me, I think what’s fascinating is, and I mean, this also comes into the repair thinking, is that the relationship that we have to build structures, our historic environment really comes into focus when they start to fall apart. You know, we don’t pay that much attention to them, or we don’t puzzle over them when they’re intact. We just sort of say, oh yeah, lovely. No, that’s part of the past. I appreciate that. It’s there.
You know, you know, you might attach a narrative to it, but, but, as with the sort of breakdown thinking philosophies, you know, when something like that starts to fall apart, that’s when we have to then renegotiate our relationship to it and try to understand what the value both in repair. But for me, I’ve been really interested in the value and actually not repairing.
So, what happens when we have a structure that is probably already on that path? So, the, so something that is falling apart, ruining, you know, however we want to describe that process. And instead of pulling it back from the brink and making it intact again, we just let that process play out. And the stories that become available when you allow that to happen, I think are interesting and worth telling. But it’s an approach that only applies to specific contexts. And that whole, that way of thinking around that you can find heritage value in something that’s falling apart, as well as something that’s held together. It really came out of that work at the homestead because that place, for me, it was the decay and the dereliction and this interplay, the way in which animals had occupied the buildings and the way in which there was this real blurriness around nature and culture, that actually was so rich about that site. But to be honest, my interest in damage and breakdown and decay is partly about the moments when we can allow that to play out and learn from it. But also, partly about the moments when we just can’t resist intervening and, and why when those moments come. So, it’s not, it’s not necessarily about always stepping back.
It’s also about trying to understand our impulse as human beings to fix things.
KT: Yeah. And what kind of what drives which decision we make.
KT: In 2017 you published a book called Curated Decay, Heritage Beyond Saving. So, is that what that book was about this idea that sometimes we just have to step back and let that decay continue?
CD: Yeah. So that had come out. I mean, the original, the seed of the idea had come out of the work I’d done at the homestead when I would find these things, these artifacts like the one that, that still sticks with me was a box full of books that probably been sitting in this little milk shed where they used to put the milk after they milk, the cows. So, it’d been sitting in this milk shed for 50 years more, and it was full of books from the late 19th century, sort of old encyclopaedias and things like that. But clearly no one had opened this box until I came along for many, many, many, many years. And, but the mice had been in there and they had been making themselves a really lovely nest. And so, they’d been shredding all of these old encyclopaedias and things and, and making their own little mouse poems. And, you know, and, and, and I found this, and I looked at this box and I was like, whoa, what is this? And, and then I realized what I was looking at. And I, and I had this moment where I was like, hang on a minute. My choices are pretty limited here.
Like, you know, if I’m being a good curator, I go in and I pull the books all out and I dust them off and I bring them down and I get them conserved properly and they’re saved. And that’s a good thing. Or alternatively, I could just decide that they’re too far gone and just burn the whole thing, you know, and just be done with it.
But there didn’t seem to be an option available to me, which was, wow, this is fascinating as it is. So, let’s just sit here and look at this and think about this for a while. And while there’s a precedent for that kind of mixed, messy thinking, certainly in art practice. And in other places, there wasn’t really in conservation practice, that’s a bit unusual. And so, the whole of the, an element of my thesis worked on that idea. But then I decided, when I came to Cornwall, to scale it up and start looking at bigger things where you might allow that kind of meaning to emerge from working with process and change rather than working with sort of permanence and fixing things or stabilising them in some way.
And so, I started to think with places like Mullion Harbour, which is very near where I live and also places farther fields. So, there’s some really interesting industrial heritage sites in the Ruhr Valley and in Germany. So, I went there, I roamed around. Mostly, it was places in the UK, but in each of those places, I would go. And sometimes they were explicitly managing that those processes would change in ruination. And sometimes it was just a potential, but they were all places where there was, there was something interesting going on. And so, I would talk to the people who were managing those places and ask them what they were doing and try to make sense of that. And so, the book is really just a way of making visible this alternate path for heritage practice, which is partly about places that are beyond saving, but also about a paradigm, which is beyond the impulse to save. So, saying let’s do something else. Sometimes in some places let’s just do something else happens.
KT: I love, this is what I love so much about your work. Caitlin is where anyone else would have seen a box of ruined books. You saw mouse poems.
That’s just, I think the way you think fascinates me. So, you’ve written a chapter for everyday; Everyday Stories, Resources and Maintenance in Architecture. And this is a book that came out of the 2019 International Architecture Biennale in Sao Paolo that hasn’t been published yet, but you’ve given me a sneak preview, which I read only this morning. And I love the way you, you tell us so much in that chapter about, through the medium of a simple story about a porch and your chapter opens, ‘this happened, read the brief email message from my husband’. Can you pick up the story from there and tell us a little bit about that chapter and kind of how that fits into your work?
CD: Sure. Yeah. So this was one of those spontaneous opportunities to recycle a, an ordinary everyday event into a book chapter. But so, this happened message came from my husband with an image attached of the front porch on the house that I’m sitting in at the moment, a little granite terraced cottage, in Constantine Cornwall, the front porch, having just fallen off one day while I was up in Exeter at a meeting. And it was really, It was quite abrupt. One moment, it was on the, on the side of the building, the next, it was just belly up on the, on the path in front. And so, you know, in the moment it was just panic, our porch was gone. And then, and then there was this sort of everybody who owns a house, you know, experience this, I now know, you know, who can we get to fix it? You know, what do we need to do? Why did it happen? You know, and the sort of drawn-out process of trying to put this thing back together again, and right around when it happened, I got the invitation to contribute to this book, which was lovely. And I hadn’t been involved in the event in Sao Paulo, but they had used curated decay to think within that event. So they invited me to contribute something to the book. And so I thought, well, what can I do? And I then, you know, recycled the moment and thought, well, I’ll just write about what’s happening with the porch.
And so, I followed the story of the porch in the chapter and would add to it as I went along. And then eventually it tied into a story about this writing studio space that I work at in Helston. And it had a diversion into the histories of slate in Cornwall, and then the slate that went on the little porch, which initially was from Brazil, but then was replaced by salvaged Cornish slate from a little place out on the Lizard. And I think you probably, I can’t tell the story and, you know, I think the point is it was, it was just a little seed of a moment and everyday moment, which I then was able to weave into other stories, other places, other moments, quite opportunistically, frankly, you know, I just thought, you know, I will harvest a story out of this because this is life happening to me and I have to make sense of it. And, and I do, I love doing that. I mean, sometimes it doesn’t work, but mostly it does.
KT: Yes, no, I think it’s the best kind of writing because, you know, it ended up being this global story of, you know, tiles that come from Brazil and Cornwall and, there was Portugal as well?
CD: Yeah. There was some Spanish slate.
KT: You know, this kind of global story of slate through the medium of this very abrupt collapsing porch, and you use a lot of visual imagery and storytelling in your work and kind of participatory activities.
And, you know, I think a lot of people tend to think of academia as this very dry, linear written space, whereas actually the way you do it, it’s kind of full of stories and images and activities. Why do you think that is so important? You know, you talk about engaging people in imagining changing environments and places. Why does this sort of very visual narrative-driven approach work?
CD: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, I always, almost always, I suppose that chapter might be an exception, but I do that in collaboration with other people as well. So, we, I, you know, the stories aren’t sort of born in my head alone, they emerge out of conversations and collaborations with artists or photographers. And that just feels like an incredibly natural way of working to me.
So, it’s certainly, it’s not something I sort of sought to create. It was just how things happened. And I find it, I think as a result, my work is probably, well, it is quite accessible. I think people have lots of ways into it. And I get lovely emails from people who are not academics, you know, sort of thanking me, which I always find really special actually, because it’s not obvious that it would matter, but, but something, I think something about it does connect with people. And when you offer them different ways in the story, the image, you know, the anecdote, you know, from the academic angle, I do sometimes get people telling me it’s too journalistic.
You know, what is it, what is what’s going on here? I mean, that sort of has stopped now, to be honest. But when I was an earlier career academic, I had to slightly defend my space. But, but another reason about the stories I do, I have a book I’m holding Richard Powers An Overstory and I just
KT: I have that book.
CD: So, he’s got this one, this one little phrase in it. And it’s funny, I read the book and then this little phrase was in my head. And then I had to really search to find it. Cause I couldn’t remember where it was, but he’s writing towards the end. He writes ‘the best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story’.
KT: I think I have that underlined with the page turned down in my copy. Yeah.
CD: And it’s, you know, it’s simple, a simple little thought, but I think we need to, you know, I actually noticed that you had something in one of the bits of information you sent me before this, about how we need better stories and we do, we just need better stories and we need, I mean, we haven’t touched on big stuff like climate change, but I think this is one of the things I’m preoccupied now with, is we need really need better stories to move us into this future that we’re facing. And, and we need ways of knowing the world and watching it change that are not all about loss and despair, you know, where there’s some hope, which can be difficult at times. But yeah. So, for me, I think just trying what works.
KT: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s, it’s a very liberating approach. I think for me, you know, as someone who had quite an academic education, but yearns to be more creative, I think it’s, it, it, and it feels right, as you say, I think storytelling is such a powerful way of capturing people’s hearts and minds. So, we’ve sort of started to come on to, you know, some of the big questions about climate change and the future. How do you think opinions towards mending and repair are changing within that context?
CD: Yeah. I mean, I think it is interesting watching the popular interest in repair. That’s popping up at least here in the UK with, and I have to admit I’ve not, I don’t really watch much TV, so I haven’t watched Repair Shop and I haven’t heard the Dare to Repair episodes that are coming out on Radio Four eminently, I think, or maybe they’ve already started.
KT: I think they started yesterday yet as, as, as of recording by the time this goes out, I think they will have all led. So.
CD: Okay. Yeah. So, I mean, there’s obviously a lot of interest right now, and it’s interesting because I find myself sort of watching that and thinking about what we were doing 10 years ago now and wondering what difference it would’ve made, if that was happening then, you know, like whether you might’ve convinced a few young people to actually take on some of these shops that were, you know, that were actually fading out because they just didn’t have succession plans. And I think about half of it, I might be exaggerating a little bit, but I think about half the repair shops that we worked with at the, you know, in 2010 and 11 are no longer there. So, it does feel a little bit like this sort of Eljaiek like, you know, that that resource was there, you know, and it’s very difficult to reinvent it and this sort of repair as a hobby. I think it feels a little bit like it’s come too little too late, but on the other hand, you also have the, you know, the Right to Repair Acts and this real, you know, the holding corporations to account and that’s happening. So, I think it does, it is looking better for, for the, for this sort of repair ethic. But I think these broader questions about, you know, living in a broken world with a broken climate are really, really fundamental and much more difficult to grapple with then can I get my toaster repaired? Honestly, I mean, it’s just, it feels Like the warm glow around the, the new popular interest in repair. I feel faintly suspicious, although I’m not very good at articulating why.
KT: No, I think there is a, I think there’s a sense, well certainly I have the sense that there’s this big emphasis on what we as “consumers” and I’m doing air quotes can do. Whereas I think actually to really move the needle and solve these big problems, we need governments and big businesses to be making big shifts. And I worry slightly that this emphasis on darning our own jumpers or using reusable coffee cups is a bit of a distraction technique to sort of keep us all occupied.
That we’re all doing our bit and it’s all going to be fine. Whereas actually what you know, to really make significant change. There’s a, to go back to the previous series of the podcast, and waste, there’s a stat they came across when I was researching the book that for every sack of waste you or I generate and put out on the curb to be collected 70 sacks, seven zero sacks, of rubbish is generated in the making of those items that have ended up in our bins, which just makes you think, well, if my impact, you know, just to use that as an analogy, as one 70th of the impact of a sort of big producer or big business, that’s really where the focus needs to be. So, I think I share your sense of suspicion, but I also think kind of personal agency and personal responsibility is really important and it helps to kind of, engage us, with those topics and then ask questions of those big businesses and governments and there’s that as well.
So, I think lots of my listeners will be familiar with visible mending and the, in the sense of textiles and sort of darn worn as a badge of honour. And perhaps even in the sense of ceramics and kintsugi, and those things are sort of very trendy at the moment, but you’re looking at visible amending sort of, even within a context of, of stonemasonry and around heritage sites. Tell us a little bit about how that translates to that scale and why that’s of interest.
CD: Yeah. I think one of the things that I try to do in the work that I do with heritage sites and practitioners is to try and talk to them about the decisions that they make about repair and how they make those decisions and what the expectations are. And when you’re repairing a listed structure in the UK, you, usually you’re expected to do a like for like repair. So, what you, the repair will blend in with the original and at some of the places that I’ve been working with and people that I’ve been talking to, we’ve been talking about the value of actually not necessarily doing like for like, actually making visible the change. And so doing things like using a different colour grout in a stone repair, for example, so that you can see where the repair happened. And so that you can tell the story of that repair so that it doesn’t just present itself as this structure, which has always been, as it appears now, you know, in this sort of ‘no time’ so that you give time back to that place by showing a history of repair. And I think that in itself, it can sometimes be a little bit challenging, but, but it opens up opportunities for people to ask questions as well. And there is a bit of a tradition in, in conservation work of making sure that your repair is visible to the expert eyes so that you could replay, you could go back and redo it if you had new technologies or techniques that allowed you to do a better job, but there’s less of a tradition of making that kind of repair visible in a more outward way to people who visit these places. And when you say a different colour grout, are we talking like a different shade of grey, or are we talking hot pink?
CD: Hot, pink has not happened yet!
KT: What do you think? What do you think the future holds then for, for mending and repair? You know, do you think this is a trend that is going to peak and disappear again? Or do you think we’re generally genuinely moving towards a more repair centric culture?
CD: Yeah. Well, I think tying into the visible mending comment, I think, I mean, we have to be focused on repair at this moment because it’s so obvious that things are a bit broken.
And I think we just lived through another very, very dry spring. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently is sort of ecological repair as well as material repair. And so this week I ordered a tree to put in my backyard and thought about what kind of tree needed to be there because I’d taken out one, which frankly, I just didn’t like. And I ended up deciding to put a Holm Oak, a Quercus Ilex, in that spot, in the corner of my garden. And that was partly because, so Quercus Ilex, it’s like, it’s an Oak, but sometimes called a Holly Oak and it’s an evergreen and it’s native to the Mediterranean. There’s quite a lot of them in Spain and Portugal. And I’m interested in this particular tree because I think it’s a tree of our future climate in a sense.
So, it’s a tree that’s much more accustomed to the kind of dry weather that we’ve been having and this sort of period of drought and more extreme weather. And it feels to me like planting that tree in a way is a visible mending of the future planet, right? So, it’s like, okay, I am not going to put a native Oak there because that native Oak is no longer fit for purpose.
We’ve actually broken this thing. And we now need to put things in those, in places that will allow us to keep working on the planet and the climate, you know, that that will actually function. And it’s more important that we put in things that will function and that are honest, you know, that an honest repair of the planet is not going to involve it, looking like it has looked for most of our lifetimes. And that will be incredibly hard to do, but I was just, I was just trying to think it through in relation to this one little tree, which is only about three feet tall.
KT: At this stage.
CD: Yeah. So, I think those are the questions, you know, that we have to keep asking ourselves and it will mean letting go of a lot of things like, you know, our fondness for certain kinds of landscapes and, and the, you know, insistence on native versus, native species over invasive ones, you know, redefining what that might mean.
KT: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s really interesting. Cause I think so much of the conversation in this space is about going back to pre-industrial times, you know, and going back to how things used to be done.
Whereas actually looking at this as more of a visible mend than an invisible mend and saying, what’s going to help us out in the future and what’s going to help us to thrive, you know, on, on a change to planet ultimately.
Thank you so much, Caitlin. That was a fascinating conversation. I knew it would be.
CD: Oh Good.
KT: Thank you.
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This episode was produced by Sasha Huff, so thank you to Sasha, to October Communications for marketing and moral support, to Sugru for their sponsorship, and to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to Circular with Katie Treggiden.
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