Getting Creative when your PHD changes direction
How might you react to the news that the subject of your research, which in my case is Africa’s Great Green Wall, changes direction?
At the start of the second year of a Landscape History PhD – at this middle point – it seemed appropriate to reflect on my experiences so far: the hopes and realities of the remaining time I will be working on this project, and why being part of the Creative Spatial Practices cluster offers an important perspective on my work so far.
My background, before studying Landscape Architecture, was in illustration and children’s books publishing, and, when starting the MA at the University of Sheffield, I was overjoyed to find myself in a dynamic department where a huge diversity of research and practice was undertaken alongside teaching. At the end of my masters I wrote my dissertation on the English forester and environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker, founder of the Men of the Trees and the original instigator of Africa’s Great Green Wall. My PhD enables me to continue my work and pursue my interest in this fascinating man, and to understand his contribution to environmental thought.
The Great Green Wall, Richard St. Barbe Baker’s most ambitious and most contentious proposal, has always been a utopian and mythological project. In 1952, Baker and two colleagues undertook an ecological survey of the Sahara Desert with the aim of understanding and measuring the rate at which it was spreading; the popular belief at the time being that the desert had been growing since Roman times and that it threatened to engulf sub-Saharan Africa, bringing with it untold human and environmental catastrophe. Baker believed that it was human action which caused deserts to spread and that it would only be through human action that the process could be reversed. He proposed A Green Front as the means to oppose this tide of destruction.
The Green Front, also known as the Great Green Wall, was conceived as a line of trees planted across sub-Saharan Africa, thirty miles deep and stretching from coast to coast, from Dakar to Djibouti. It is, encapsulated like this, incredibly simple, but the subsequent years revealed desertification to be a much more complex issue. The development and humanitarian ethos and implications of the Great Green Wall were revealed to be much more involved and contentious, as illuminated by this article in the Economist.
But, the complexities aside, it is a proposal that is now being realised as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative. The innovative virtual reality video called ‘Growing a World Wonder’ called ‘Growing a World Wonder’ transports anyone interested in the project to the landscape of Senegal where the ambitions of the project are introduced to the viewer. Its modest 123,040 views belies its importance, in my opinion. It is well worth watching. (YouTube published on 1 Dec 2015 )
So far, the project has allowed me to travel to Canada to explore material held in the University of Saskatchewan’s Special Collection and Archives, the Baker Papers, meet friends and colleagues of St. Barbe Baker in the US, Canada and the UK, and visit sites associated with Baker and the organisation that he founded, now operating as the International Tree Foundation. These exciting and challenging experiences are something I am reflecting upon as I start to write my thesis which explores the history of the Great Green Wall, how it relates to colonial and post-colonial narratives about desertification in Africa, and addresses how these narratives have shaped its current form.
But, what happens when you open an email saying that the Great Green Wall – the subject of your whole PhD – has changed direction?
Since my days working in children’s books PR I have had a few handy tricks up my sleeve, one being Google Alerts as a means of keeping up to date with my topic appearing in the news around the world. It’s a great measure of the impact that the current incarnation of the Great Green Wall is having; who’s taking up the story and how it is being represented and interpreted. There have been some fascinating comments so far, from the piece in the Economist to more descriptive and less in-depth items which cover the recent history and instigation of the project, though with less interest shown in the roots of the proposal.
What has always been consistent is that the Great Green Wall has a very simple and iconic form, indeed, so clear that the intention is that it will be seen from space. The line, first drawn by Baker across a map of Africa in 1952, has changed very little since then. But, to my surprise one day I received an email notification saying that the Great Green Wall had changed direction…
It was exciting to receive such a message and read this whole new interpretation of the Great Green Wall and where it is going. The premise of the article being that – instead of the original linear form – the Great Green Wall is poised to become the iconic representation of an approach across Africa that seeks to restore agricultural lands along sustainable principals and make lives easier and safer for the people there.
Do I think Baker would have minded? I would imagine it unlikely, as for him the Green Front and Great Green Wall were always symbols and narratives of social and political will, above a hard-and-fast plan. The motto of the Men of the Trees was that it was a society of earth healers, dedicated to planting and protecting trees and creating a tree-sense everywhere, and that message is, I think, particularly pertinent within the Landscape Department and the Creative Spatial Practices cluster. This allows me to shape and interrogate my research from the perspective of an academic and professional discipline which aims to understand, interpret and shape the world around us for the better. And, with all the profound changes afoot, it is critical to have a quick-footed and creative response to an ever-changing world.
Creativity has meant different things to me at different points in my life. At times it has been connected to my love of art and drawing practice, at times it has been through problem-solving and design, but at present it is most expressed in my enjoyment of research.
Bringing creativity to research means making connections, applying an inquisitive mind to topics, and responding flexibly to the twists and turns presented by the research journey. When the Great Green Wall changes direction it doesn’t derail my PhD’s direction, instead it goes some way to demonstrate that the inspiration and aspiration of the proposal: to plant and protect trees as a means of improving livelihoods – is important everywhere, and this is a more profound result than I could have hoped for.