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ArticlesWorking the Land

Working the Land

working the land for webA new film being made in the Marshwood Vale highlights more than the beauty of the area. Filmmaker Lawrence Moore talks to Fergus Byrne

Sowing the seeds for tomorrow; harvesting the bounty for the months ahead and observing newborn calves and early spring lambs are joys that were nothing new to Lawrence Moore when he first moved to Dorset in 2012. Brought up in the Welsh countryside he had spent his youth fascinated by the antics of otter families and learned from a local poacher at an early age how to tickle trout and lay a snare.

Even as an art and film student Lawrence hadn’t been far from the land. Before eventually going on to produce several films about climate change and the environment, he had lived in an old bus on a farm in Hertfordshire where, as he recalled, ‘I learnt to drive a grey Ferguson tractor, manage a combine and help with the myriad tasks that face all farmers.’ However, when he and his wife, food writer and film-maker, Shirley Booth, moved to the Marshwood Vale, they both began to get an even keener sense of how the land and the soil play such an enormous role in our lives.

Now, after making 80 documentaries for television, corporations and cinema, and winning some 25 international awards including the coveted Prix Italia for his film about climate change: Can Polar Bears Tread Water?, Lawrence has been inspired to make a new film about the Marshwood Vale. ‘We chose this area of West Dorset, initially because of my family connections here’ said Lawrence, ‘but also because it is such a beautiful location. I began to record, on film, some of the local craftspeople, the first being Sean, a skilled dry stone waller. It was when I was filming him that the uniqueness of the Marshwood Vale struck home and I began to feel the landscape around me more keenly. Ideas gradually came into focus as Sean talked about the underlying geology, and the stone he was working with, made up of millions of sea creatures who were destined to end up as fossils to be searched for millions of years later by eager hunters along the local beaches. Now on the western side, they form part of the ring of hills enclosing the Vale.’

A keen painter, Lawrence had always been influenced by artists such as John and Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Sutherland, Constable and Turner. He pointed out that they were all ‘hugely influenced by the British landscape.’ However, despite being surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country he is keen to ensure that his film does not present a solely rose-tinted view of the area. ‘It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing the Vale as some kind of bucolic paradise’ he says. Although appreciating the ‘narrow curving lanes, the abundant grassy meadows and floral hedgerows; sheep and cattle quietly grazing on the lush grass’ and describing them as ‘very Hardyesque’, Lawrence has found that talking to some of those that work the land highlights another side to the Marshwood Vale. It is the ‘realistic picture’ that shows ‘struggles with landowners; constant awareness of the changing weather; the unforgiving clay of the Marshwood Vale; the vagaries of farming economics and the uncertainties of the future for young families who want to hang on to their farms and the skills and machinery they have acquired – some over many generations.’

The one common factor in all this he says is the land itself; ‘the soil, the earth, the goodness that may or may not come from it, depending on how we use or abuse it.’ Pointing out that last year was the UN’s “International Year of Soils”, an initiative that aimed to raise awareness of the “profound importance of soil in human life and to educate everyone about the crucial role it plays in food security, climate change adaptation, ecosystems and alleviating poverty”, Lawrence explained: ‘This is the theme of our documentary – the land, the soil and our attitudes to it. In effect, it is a portrait of a unique piece of landscape and those living here, but particularly, their response to the land itself.’

The quality of the produce coming from the land, and indeed the soil in which it is grown, has also played a role in Lawrence’s inspiration. He explains: ‘Through my wife, Shirley, who is a member of the Guild of Food Writers and passionate about food and where it comes from, I began to appreciate the importance of soil quality in food production. Not only that but the close inter-relationship between the cycles of nature and our understanding of the soil as crucial to our survival here on earth. Without good soil we have no food, without food, the human race would become extinct. It’s as simple as that.’

Another unique aspect of Lawrence Moore’s film is the physical view of the Marshwood Vale. Despite being a seasoned film-maker he has been quick to embrace new technology and has made use of a drone fitted with a high definition camera that can capture a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Although small plane pilots have sold us aerial views of our homes for decades, there is a magical feel to the slow tracking shots of a combine traversing the fields of west Dorset.

Beyond the views captured by the camera, Lawrence is keen to include more local memories and reflections from those who have spent time working the land, as well as from those not directly involved in farming. In order to record life throughout the seasons, he will be filming for many more months, and aside from looking at both small and large scale farming, he wants to look beyond traditional land workers too. ‘As well as farming we want to include artists’ he says. He wants to include those that might see the visual importance of the land, and how it changes through the year. ‘A potter who uses the land itself as he or she shapes the clay; the woodturner who uses felled timber, another product of the soil; the forester, who manages tracts of land for fuel or building materials; and, above all, people who have stories to tell us about the Vale and its families.’

As a film-maker, the process and indeed the end result are all part of a voyage of discovery, one that Lawrence believes will evolve through the thoughts and ideas of those that participate. ‘We hope this will make for a compelling and imaginative documentary’ he says, ‘and we look forward to talking with those who would welcome an opportunity to speak their mind about life in the Marshwood Vale.’

Anyone wishing to offer their thoughts should contact Lawrence on 01308 423109 or 07858 258777 or email lawrence@earthrod.co.uk.

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