‘But a man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.’
– Rachel Carson
Invoking Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the poet and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry links ‘the natural principles of fecundity and order’ with the principle of justice. Berry’s thought, as laid down in his collection of essays, Home Economics, is freighted with centuries of nature writing and its insistent bedfellow, activism. Travelling through America last year, photographic artist Diana Matar sensed a profound sense of disorder in society, which, she observed, was replicated in the natural world, as though the trees were losing the fight for environmental justice.
America’s earliest folk hero, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, influenced by the religious philosophies of Emanuel Swedenborg, dedicated his life to planting apple trees along the expanding western frontier. His belief in the essential harmony of nature outlawed grafting as harmful to living things, so he sowed seeds instead. It was in this spirit of expansion and industrialisation that the American orchard flourished, and, with it, an enduring vein of intellectual, cultural and sensory life, connected to the land.
In a way, Matar was looking closely at the soil of America when she travelled around California, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma, documenting sites where law enforcement officers had killed citizens. The level of violence is exceptionally high in the US; 1,093 members of the public were killed by law enforcement officers in 2016.
The photographic images she made for her 2017 series My America – remnants of desert, pieces of sky – became a kind of memorial to lives obliterated, and to the American dream turned sour. Yet while she was looking in one direction, she was also summoned irresistibly elsewhere; seeing with more than her eyes. In the country of her birth, something was happening; difficult to define, yet perceptible. It felt like the very foundations of democracy might be shifting underfoot. And the orchards were dying.