CHARLOTTE SMITHSON - ON NATURE AS OUR TEACHER

My connection to nature began in childhood. I grew up in Swaledale, North Yorkshire and most of my childhood memories are outdoors. Each spring, swathes of wildflowers dance across Swaledale and they appear in our family albums as frequently as birthday celebrations and Christmas parties. These landscapes hold such fond memories for me but I recently learned that Swaledale’s ancient wildflower meadows are amongst the remaining 3% left in the country.


Larking about in these landscapes as a child exposed me to their multisensory richness. Nibbling clovers, holding buttercups under your chin to see if you like butter, breathing in the sweet scent of yarrow, watching minibeasts whilst swallows swoop overhead and curlews call from the hills; Swaledale wildflower meadows are the epitome of a healthy mutually symbiotic ecosystems, where everything is connected and beneficial. Having lost 97% of our country’s species-rich grassland, these remaining pastures form an important part of our heritage and support native breed livestock and countless invertebrates and pollinators, whilst capturing carbon in undisturbed soil. I realise how privileged I was to grow up with this on my doorstep.




A concern for the environment has been with me from a young age. I was about 8 when I picked up a Friends of the Earth leaflet inside our local big supermarket. I distinctly remember walking the aisles looking at the pictures and feeling immensely sad, reading about rainforest destruction and the people and animals it was affecting. I was really into jungles at the time and had a collection of ferns and frondy plants in my bedroom that I spent hours watching and chatting to. There is a join-up between our relationship with nature and our environmental conscience, and this was my first touch point with it.


Plants and growing things have remained a constant in my life. Professionally my career has meandered through community arts, rural development, youth and prison work, museums and heritage where I’ve worked for organisations such as the National Trust, Oxfam and a number of small NGOs, delivering projects that connect people and nature in some way, be that through volunteering, growing or creativity.


*Image credit Tessa Bunney ‘- Come what may’ by Charlotte Smithson

* Image credit Julian Winslow ‘A world of wonders in one closet shut’ and The Verges’ by Charlotte Smithson



My connection to nature is core to my creative practice. As an artist, I create plant based installations and deliver immersive engagement activities, which connect people with nature and enhance wellbeing through creativity. I have exhibited installations across the UK including at RHS Chelsea, the Garden Museum and End of the Road festival. They usually incorporate suspended glass test tubes, which contain curated collections of natural material. There is something in their fragility that communicates the quiet vulnerability of the natural world.


Within these installations my choice of plants always tells a story and I’m currently working on a project which explores the disconnect between everyday items and the plants they are made from.

During the pandemic I’ve spent a lot of time examining my environmental footprint and when the insecurities within our food systems presented themselves in lockdown 1, I became intrigued by the ingredients in our food cupboards. I operate on three strong black coffees each day and until taking the time to research the efforts that sustain this habit, I had largely taken this privilege for granted. Whilst I’ve always bought fair trade, ethical brands and my conscience about coffee has always been concerned with the farmers who produce it, I realised I had no idea what a coffee plant looked like or the conditions it requires to grow. Hiding in plain sight were a number of other household items and ingredients that I don’t associate with their natural form.


Having a personal connection to plants, understanding how they grow and how they behave amongst other living things, really helps me to value them - this is the essence of nature connectedness afterall.


In September 2021 I am producing an installation at End of the Road festival in Dorset called Hiding in Plain Sight, which explores this in more detail and will feature my collection of carefully coaxed coffee plants.



My curiosity about plants extends beyond the enjoyment of growing them. Over the last 5 years, I’ve become very interested in plant science. Understanding how different plants grow and the hormonal reactions taking place really inspires me and this research is informing a methodology in my work that draws from biomimetics.


I’ve always been interested in biomimicry and how the natural world can support innovation and design. But as I’ve learned more about the cycles and processes that occur in plants and ecosystems, I’ve started to explore how nature can also inspire our actions, attitudes, moral codes or frameworks, and how I can apply these to my work.


Earlier this year I was commissioned by Rise, Manchester Metropolitan University’s student enrichment programme, to design and lead a project which engaged students with my creative practice. I was keen to use collaboration as a method of problem solving and explore ways of connecting more people with nature in our city. When curating the working group, I asked nature for inspiration.


Science shows that healthy ecosystems rely upon diversity. Plants that grow within diverse ecosystems have access to more nutritious soil than those grown in monocrops, and are more nutritious as a result. Science also shows that people with more diversity in their gut microbiome, tend to be mentally and physically healthier than those with less variety. This diversity comes from the food we eat and The Sourdough School’s Vanessa Kimbell and Professor Tim Spektor of Kings College London both share interesting research into the effect that plant-rich diets have on the gut’s biodiversity.


To emulate the profoundly positive effects that diversity has on plant, soil and human health, I was keen to curate a working group of individuals whose varied interests and skill sets would bring richness and depth to our work. Amongst our group were students of textiles, economics, filmmaking, fine art, linguistics, primary education for children with special educational needs and psychology - from first year undergrads to final year masters students. It was fascinating to see how drawing from a diverse range of personal interests, studies and concerns helped shape the codesign process.


I also established some ground rules, which were ‘mutually symbiotic’ by design and were explored through a series of creative group exercises. Throughout the project I regularly referred the students back to our symbiotic project scaffold, and not only did it bring awareness to how we personally interacted within the group, it also inspired the ideas we had for connecting more people with nature; where both people and nature benefit.



*Image credit Julian Winslow


Alongside my own artistic practice, my partner and I run a business called 24 Design. At 24, we design and fabricate exhibitions and visitor experiences for galleries, museums and other public spaces across the UK. In my role as a Creative Producer, I work closely with curators to find creative ways of storytelling their archives, historical objects, spaces and collections.


Earlier this year I co-produced a film with 24 Design, about RHS Bridgewater’s walled gardens featuring Tom Stuart-Smith’s Paradise Garden and Harris Bugg Studios’ Kitchen Garden designs and interviewed Dr Sylvia Travers, who oversees the walled gardens. In the film Sylvia speaks passionately about nurturing soil and beautifully describes how as gardeners we don’t just grow plants but ‘really, we grow soil’.


After interviewing Sylvia, I noticed the garden team mulching the beds in their gardening gloves. In the heritage sector, when handling historical artefacts we wear cotton gloves to protect them from oily fingerprints and human touch. This scene in the garden got me thinking about our handling of nature. Imagine if we put the same care practice in place when dealing with earth?


Imagine if we put on our gardening gloves to protect the soil from human intervention, rather than protecting ourselves from it? As a metaphor for our actions towards the planet, isn’t it interesting that we are so precious about human-made artefacts, but often so flippant about the fragility of earth and nature itself, which is the most ancient 'artefact' of all? Not least our life source…

The planet is in a more fragile state than when I first read that Friends of the Earth leaflet 30 years ago, but the more I work with and learn about plants, the more motivated I am to protect the Earth.


Nature can teach us so much about innovation, design and infrastructure, but it also has ancient wisdom that can guide us personally. As we maneuver our way through the pandemic and negotiate the challenges of climate change, nature can help us learn about hardship, resilience, healing and regeneration. Our connection with nature is key.



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