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A Life More Wild - Series 2 Episode 2

Gemma Cairney & Tom Dixon

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Exploring Jupiter Artland with Gemma Cairney

Episode two of the second series of A Life More Wild finds us just outside Edinburgh, taking a walk in the incredible Jupiter Artland. The place is a bizarre and beautiful art park, containing everything from abstract sculptures on hillside clearings to spooky figures of weeping girls in the woods, a crystal cave and the sweeping curves of huge grass mounds separated by ornamental lakes where swans glide serenely on the still water. Gemma Cairney is "thinker in residence" here, an odd job title which she openly admits that nothing in her radio and TV career has prepared for. Her partner Cameron came along for a stroll too.

So... what is this place?

Gemma: Well, here we are in one of the weirdest, most wonderful parts of our Scottish life. I can't believe that we get to spend time at Jupiter Artland.

Cameron: Yeah, I can't either. You've got your own little bothy here that you're using.

Gemma: It's too good to be true, because it does feel like an Alice in Wonderland type of place.

Cameron: I guess we should start from the beginning. It's a... what would you even call Jupiter Artland? It's a big art gallery... interactive...

Gemma: Yeah, I guess the closest thing would be an art park. There's sculpture. There's an experience, there's art as education. There are very strange elements in terms of design. So even the hills are architected to bend your mind. There's an amethyst cave! It's really bananas, but so amazing. I mean, I've already had quite an unusual adult life, with my job, working in radio and TV and literature and all the madcap, ridiculous, pretentious stuff that I do. But I wouldn't have expected to find Jupiter Artland. I'd never heard of it until I moved to Scotland. And I wouldn't have expected to end up writing books and being able to be, a "thinker in residence".  What even is a thinker in residence?! A thinker in residence at Jupiter Artland! 

What do you do all day? Just think?

Gemma: I have residency, so I can come to Jupiter whenever I want. I have keys, and I have my own little office, essentially, a warm spot. So even on a cold day, I can utilise the resources. There's some excellent books in the mini library here. And I am writing my book, but I am also integrated into the planning of events here. Jupiter Artland is a space of wizardry and the people that run it are pretty mystic. I really like that.

Can you believe you ended up here?

Gemma: No! (To Cameron) Did you think that when we met in Malawi in 2018, that we would end up not only living together but living together in Scotland and regularly hanging out at an Art Park? 

Cameron: Yes. I certainly did. 

Gemma: Oh we're at the mounds. So to describe these, the mounds are what you come across when you first come into Jupiter, just to really set the tone. There's a series of ponds, really strangely shaped and well designed. This is where you start to wonder whether you're on the actual planet. And I love that Jupiter has this metaphoric frequency that you might not be actually on earth.

Is that why you like working here?

Gemma: Astrologically, Jupiter represents a lot of very beautiful things, from femininity to creativity. We live in the centre of Edinburgh, and you can drive out and not only be in wilderness when you live in Scotland, but find somewhere as eccentric as this place, with all its different sections.Right now we're in the learning area. So sometimes when I'm working in my office stroke library, stroke, Bothy, call it whatever you want, my little safe space, I see really excitable children, little people, hopefully the leaders of our future, running around here learning in the outdoors. And I really love the energy from many people immersing themselves in the outdoors and being guided by real troubadours of an alternative education and how important art is.

It's been quite a journey to get here hasn't it?

Gemma: I am going to be, at the time of recording, 37 in less than a week. I started my job on radio when I was 23, so I've been doing this a long time. I know I still dress like a child. I'm actually a professional broadcaster these days. And what's happened is that it's evolved. It's changed. I've learned, I've grown. And one of the things that I probably have worked out at least, I love nature. I love to be outdoors.

And is that a recent discovery?

Gemma: I'd already moved out of the city of London quite a long time ago. I moved to Margate on the southeast coast, and I was swimming in the sea regularly. I've got to say our move to Scotland was led by different feelings and thoughts and this kind of want for new beginnings. We've both got Scottish heritage as well which is really nice, because if we need to think about roots, we can. I mean, I have a rampant imagination to the exhaustion of myself and most people that know me. So to find a way to live in amongst nature, where your imagination is allowed to roam free has been really helpful for me.

Cameron: It seems like the kind of swimming in Margate, that was your introduction to nature and it's hard to find stuff like that living in London, which you were doing before. 

Gemma: I definitely was much more inspired by an urban scape for a long time. In my 20s, my career started taking off. I was working in amongst pop culture, I was doing a lot of breakfast radio shifts. I've done so many different types of radio, but working for Radio One, the biggest TV station in the country. In so many ways it was quote unquote, "successful and exciting". But it was very, very, very busy. And if I'm completely honest, it's always interesting what language people use, but I did reach a type of burnout. And I think having the sea close when I lived in Margate it was literally outside my bedroom window and my lounge window, I could see the Walpole Bay tidal pool. So I didn't even have to check the title tides online or anything. I could just see the tide. It put a lot of things into context. It's all that poetic stuff that people talk about. When you see a massive blue sea every day, it makes you feel a bit smaller, but in a good way! I guess nature for me is blue. For you. It's mountain.

Cameron: I think it's two sides of the same coin. It's that great expanse, something that kind of opens up your horizon.

Gemma: I think my relationship with the sea changed my life for the better and invited me to what nature can really really do for the soul. And now it's sort of changed a little bit, now that I'm in Edinburgh, now that I'm in Scotland. I can get the same feelings about Arthur's Seat that I know really well. I've a strange relationship with Arthur because I broke my leg up Arthur's Seat three days into living in Scotland, but that's a whole other podcast!

Where are we now?

Gemma: So this is the weeping girls. Well, these are the weeping girls. So they are a series of sculptures that are very evocative, quite haunting. And they are three girls, essentially children In Victorian smocks, it looks like, with their hair cascading around their faces and they're crying It's really sad.

Cameron: Four girls, we got one hiding over here. Oh another one. Five

Gemma: I've never seen these you know. They really affect people but I actually have purposely not tried to make it out to them because they, they upset me. I'm pretty sensitive. Why are these girls crying? They don't look like they're having happy tears, do they.

And now we're heading for...?

Gemma: Let's head towards the amethyst cave. That's my favourite. I always describe places in rhythms. Because I feel for me, it makes me understand like, what I might feel, how I might go about things in different places.

Cameron: And what was London's rhythm? 

Gemma: Ohhhh, we can hear it. You can hear it in grime music.

Cameron: What about Edinburgh? 

Gemma: What would be Edinburgh's rhythm? It's quite refined, as we always say. We giggle quite a lot, because we live in a student area of Edinburgh, but we feel like the naughty ones. Everybody's holding a classical instrument case and clutching a plant lovingly. 

Cameron: Oh, it's incredible. I'll be walking down the street and there'll be a group of university students in front of me, and I'll just kind of overhear conversations and they're talking about foreign policy...

Gemma: well neither of us went to university either and it's quite an amazing thing to live in a university city.

Cameron: We're going back to school!

Are we near the cave now?

Cameron:  I think this is the way I think so

Gemma: I'm impressed that you know. Ohhhhh, yes! Ok imagine this, guys listening. You open up a gate. And then you walk into a cave, there's a very thin pathway. And as you go down the steps, you're going deeper underground. Knowing that when you get to the bottom, you will be immersed. It's like the neverending story, into an amethyst.

Cameron: So what are the special properties of Amethyst?

Gemma: The ancient Greeks used amethyst, I'm sure a lot of different ancient cultures would have come across the properties of Amethyst, partly because it's so beautiful. It's purple, mauve, sparkly, iridescent, mystic deliciousness. Apparently, it's just, it's a centering crystal so it will keep you grounded.

Cameron: I do feel grounded here in this cave. Is this your favourite part of the whole Jupiter Artland? 

Gemma: Do you feel like the walls resonate, like a nice feeling? I mean, I would happily sit and write my book in here. It's really cooling as well, isn't it? There's a beautiful American poet called Mary Oliver and she writes a lot about the healing powers of nature and the outdoors for your mind and body. But there is something about that practice within nature, whether it's a swim, whether it's potting in your garden. It's like when I see the little kids when they come here, to, you know, get involved in workshops and learn, and coming back with bunches of leaves holding them in their hands, this kind of tactile nature that we can have when we're gentle but loving within nature. It changes the way you breathe. It changes how you think creatively. It changes lives. It definitely does. Again, you have really taught me that, Cameron, because you are naturally somebody that is outdoorsy.

Cameron: I talk to everybody about how much I love the way that Edinburgh has kind of integrated nature within the city. And I keep talking about how that's hard to come by.

Gemma: Yeah, I'm increasingly passionate about it, the older I get not just for myself! I think it's fundamental that we experience nature and I really think that we all deserve a chance to roll around in the grass. And hug a tree! We do! It's so fun.

Cameron: Shall we head on back?

Gemma: To the real world? It's been a lovely morning, lovely. It's so nice to walk around here

On a slightly smaller scale than the Jupiter Artland project, Tom Dixon, who actually co founded canopy and stars back in 2010, is doing something similar with the land he now lives on in Devon, inviting community groups and artists to come and be inspired by the outdoors. It's just a part of what he feels is responsibility that all businesses have to give back to nature and society where they can.

First of all, tell us where you are set the scene. Take us to Devon.

Wow. So where we are is right up on the moor and today is a typical moors day, I would say. Foggy, misty, pretty much the weather that we get for sort of five months of the year. I shouldn't really be saying that, because we try to get people to come down here! But no, it's got that kind of slightly mystical, kind of feel to it. Hound of the Baskervilles type of day.

How long have you been down there now?

We moved down here, just the end of 2019. So September 2019, end of September 2019. And we moved from Bristol. And for us, it was about trying to live a life more wild and spend a lot of time helping other people to do that. I always felt really inspired by the owners and seeing the kind of life that they lived. And obviously, as a business, that's what we're all about. So for me, it was us as a family, it was about trying to sort of move towards a life connected to nature and living in the countryside. And yeah, that was the big driver of the move.

So when you say us as a business, obviously, you founded canopy instars way, way back, what, 10, 12 years ago now. So how did that come about?

I'd reached the point where I was looking to change and do something that was more aligned with my passions and interests. And I became aware of Sawday's. And it was a company that I'd always admired, and obviously with a focus on ethical business and travel, and that's something that I really love and have always been passionate about. So I approached Alaster Sawday, the founder of Sawday's. And the idea really grew from a little acorn of an idea of a tree house company.

And it's quite a popular idea now. But back then, did people get it? Was everyone jumping on board? Or was there a bit of confusion?

Yeah, I guess there was an element of that, you're right. It's a really well understood concept now, glamping. And in fact, when we started, we didn't even really mention the word glamping anywhere on the website, we were slightly sniffy about it! We were always about holidays in nature. But I had this little notebook that I'd created, which was a leather-bound, mood board of everything that I felt we wanted Canopy & Stars to be. So it was much more than just the structures, but it was the soul sort of life around it. And that really helped to sort of explain the concept to people that perhaps weren't fully on board with it. I do remember someone sort of saying once to me about the book that I'd really sort of managed to get in his head around what he was dreaming of. And it kind of just brought it to life. And I guess, because there it was so broad in all these different sort of photographic references and sketches. That's really where we wanted to be. We didn't want to be too defined by one particular type of space or another. It was really letting the community grow the collection if you like.

Did you not go down to see someone who's going to build a tree house and didn't have any trees?

Yeah!  I mean, back then that was okay. Because we didn't have guests and owners and things like that still. So it was kind of like, okay, how to kind of internalise then take shape in the early days and well, Chris, as you know, those early days when it was, just the two of us for some time, chatting together about where the business could go. I think it might have been your first day at work or certainly was in the first couple of weeks, when we went out on a road trip in the trusty gas car that was just the bane of my life for inspection trips. And it broke down somewhere in Wiltshire I think. And that was the way it went, you know, this is our company car!

I was so pleased because that was my first day on the job and we had to drive through the town I went to school, and loads of places I knew so I could navigate and look really useful. I was very pleased about that for day one on the job.

Yeah. And then we got a lift back in a recovery vehicle at two o'clock in the morning. I don't know why it took so long. But yeah, those early days. just being out on the road visiting people, meeting owners. I don't think any of us thought we'd be getting any bookings! But actually, it proved to be quite a success and, and it's grown from there. And yeah, what an adventure.

Was this a path you're always on to having your own place and, and living the way you do now?

I think so. It's one of those things where if you want to look at the present or the future, you kind of look back at your past and sort of join the gaps. My childhood was spent on a smallholding in North Devon and a lot of that time was outdoors, building dens and tree houses and things like that, and we holidayed in yurts and gypsy caravans before I was, you know, aware of this opportunity that became Canopy & Stars, but I think there was always this part of me that felt that to complete myself and for what we wanted as a family, that actually running a space was really important. And so it's always been an ambition. And I feel very grateful and lucky to be doing that.

I know something that Canopy & Stars is really thinking about is the broader access to nature and you're keen on that idea too, so who have you hosted? Who have you had come to visit?

So this really flourished during lockdown. The first year we ran a camp for some parents and families from our old school in inner-city Bristol, which was brilliant. And then last year, we worked with Black to Nature, Mya-Rose Craig's organisation and that was again families, mainly from Bristol, people with barriers -  social, economic or cultural barriers to nature. Now we're trying to create more of a long term partnership with an organisation in Devon, where we can really link in with them and create something that can really build. So tomorrow we're meeting with a refugee charity based in Exeter and Plymouth to see how we can link in with them.

What's the plan for that?

So we've got accommodation here, and we can run residential camps and things but what we'd love to do is to have something that feels a bit more part of the pattern of their lives. They have a women's group that meets once a month and has a community garden project in Exeter as well which they do weekly. So we're developing a permaculture garden here, where we want to specialise in growing medicinal herbs and leaves, salad leaves and things like that and the group can really take ownership of that. It's not really us driving it forward. They will make the decisions about what they want to do. 

That's the next step isn't it? That sense of ownership. If you've grown something, you've planted something, you can really bind yourself to nature and feel more value from it there.

I completely agree. It has a meaning beyond a day trip, there's an end product of value. And we're not talking commercial value, but something they can take home and they can eat, and they can use and, and we can learn from each other as well. So it's back to having the space. Honestly, having all the ideas, definitely not having all the answers, but wanting to work with people where we can do some interesting things that benefits them at work benefits all of us, really.

When you get those groups when you get those inner city, kids especially I imagine, how do they respond to that change of environment? It must be incredible.

Yeah, I think it is. It's easy to forget, even where we are, that in local towns to us, say Newton Abbott, right on the edge of the moor, that there's a bunch of kids there that have never even been to the moor, so for kids that are coming from Bristol that's even more pronounced. There is this thing of nature poverty and, and even though there are little pockets of green in the city, it's very, very different to having acres to run around in and that sense of space and the peace and calmness of being in the countryside compared to the city. So it can be quite transformational. It takes them a little while to adjust. But once they're once they're in the flow, it's so amazing to see them running wild and their parents saying that their kids are able to be themselves and let loose, especially over the last couple of years, with the stress and pressures that everyone's been under. It feels really wonderful to be able to provide that.

Yeah, it must be it must be an incredible feeling to see that you can have that effect on people by something so simple as just letting them be in that space.

Yeah, hopefully it sort of tunes them in and their family, their parents to the value of that of time in nature. And it is possible to try and build that more into life in the city. A lot of this stuff is free. It's harder to access in the city, but it's free and it's really good for them and good for their kids and just makes them happier and healthier.

Night skies must be quite a thing for city people, too...

Absolutely. If you've only ever grown up in a city, even when you go on holiday, lots of places don't have this dark sky reserve status. On a clear night it's unbelievable, quite mesmerising. And I think that's one of those sort of, Wow moments. This is the universe that we're in, we're a small part of something much bigger. So that's very grounding. And that's what I love about a stroll up the hill when you get those sort of big views. It's like when you're at sea, and you're just looking at that horizon, you feel tiny. And I think that's really something that I yearn for and what I love about those big views where you just feel that sort of power and scale of nature, and that we're sort of part of it.

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