The arrival of new machines often gives rise to fear. Aeroplane technology, like the mass production of cars, caused grave concern in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many held deep worries about the impact that the sheer speed of these new vehicles would have on our bodies and minds. Even the use of lifts or elevators in modern building design was sometimes seen as a threat, a ruinous invention that would lead to overcrowding far worse than any Victorian slum.1
The motorised tractor never inspired such angst. Another machine that emerged before World War Two, it was instead seen as a solution: a labour-saving device that would “displace the horse on the farm,” in Henry Ford’s words, and allow the farmer to perform once-arduous tasks at the press of a button.2 Even those who felt uneasy about the rise of car production could agree with Ford on this. Running on petrol, the tractor could cover a field at a fraction of the time of the old horse-drawn plough. Various new attachments ensured it could sow, fertilise, water and even plant and harvest crops at a similar speed. By common consent, then, the tractor was judged a great gift to human progress. It may have taken work away from agricultural labourers but that work had been awfully hard, and none of them would ever miss it. Like others they could benefit from the almost magical harvests, so much larger than ever before, that tractors enabled after 1945.
It took a poet, Randall Jarrell, to reflect on the fact that, when an aeroplane rises into the air, fields are often the last things we see. “Field and Forest,” his poem of 1962, describes a recognisable experience of looking out of a window and watching as cars and lorries shrink to nothing before the roads on which they move themselves become “ruts, braided into a net and web.”3 Down below, once the plane climbs into the cirrus, only the proverbial patchwork quilt remains. Mustard yellows, brassica greens, and the browns of fallow or ploughed fields are the last shapes left of the world your plane is leaving behind.
But between the lighter patches there are dark ones. A farmer is separated from a farmer By what farmers have in common: forests, Those dark things–what the fields were to begin with.
The world the tractor made becomes visible in other ways. Over millennia, while some pollen has fertilised plants, far more has been left unused. Falling from plants and pollinators, it has swirled “around the lower atmosphere,” “washing into lakes and bogs,” leaving a sediment from which we can retrace the history of vegetation.4 Future geologists, according to National Geographic, “are more likely to grasp the scale of industrial agriculture” from this “pollen record”—from “the monochrome stretches of corn, wheat, and soy pollen” now replacing the biodiversity of ancient prairies or woodland.5 Evidence of the rise of monocultures appears in the last look Jarrell takes before the land disappears beneath the clouds. But it also accumulates in the pollen deposits of today, and in the evidence they bear of the changes the tractor has written into the land—of the hedgerows it has stripped, the pesticides it has sprayed, the long lines of seed it has sown. Happening overnight, in geological terms, the motorised shift to just a few dominant crops will leave a trace equivalent to the ice ages and droughts of geological time.
Seen from this high, The fields have a terrible monotony.
Made with pollen, a material restructured by the Anthropocene, the images in this exhibition ask us to take another look at a familiar set of agricultural views and machines. They are a culmination of an ambition to paint with the substance, and of using it to reflect on questions of nature and control, which Freddie Yauner has been exploring between other projects since 2014. Early on Yauner worked on a small scale. Brushing the material from individual flower stamens, he used a nib pen to paint small messages, words of warning or calls for change which he set in the William Morris typeface Golden Type. More recently, following the rise in popularity of pollen as a breakfast food, Yauner found he could buy the material in sufficient quantities online to contemplate the far bigger aerial views that are the newest elements in the gallery. An offshoot of our global food system—specifically, of the honey farms of Hungary and Bulgaria—has allowed him to work at scale, attaching brushes to axles and creating other mechanisms to follow the lines of the tractor and evoke a world akin to the one Jarrell saw from the air. Yet the pollen at the heart of these images remains a live medium. Changing over time, darkening or lightening, it is organic, a tiny element diverted from the future record of plant life now under the control of the fields and the farming machines that these larger paintings depict. The resurgence of nature welcomed in Jarrell’s poem—his vision of how “there are no more farmers, no more farms,” at night, and of how the “fields dream” and “become the forest”—may also evoke memories kindled in this new medium for painting: pollen too might suggest possibilities of life before and after the field, beyond the conquest of the industrial machine.
Andrew Warnes, University of Leeds
1 Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (London: Secker and Warburg, 1940), p.240.
2 “Henry Ford Sets Out to ‘Revolutionize Farming’,” Life. July 17, 1939, p.24
3 Randall Jarrell, “Field and Forest,” Poetry. Oct/Nov 1962.pp.54-5.
4 Jonny Gordon, “Pollen analysis: what is it? And why is it useful?” https://www.york.ac.uk/anthropocene-biodiversity/news/biodiversification-news/202021/pollen-analysis/
5 Age of Man: Enter the Anthropocene,” National Geographic July 15 2022. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/age-man-enter-anthropocene/