‘On the Ness, marsh thistle, thrift, geranium, poppy, dog rose have won out’

Nature’s silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block.

Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard

But we still have to listen.

On the Ness, high winds are white noise, tailed by the chaffing of shingle underfoot in an ionised chord. We learn to listen with our eyes instead. I See a Silence, wrote Ilya Kaminsky, in the book of poetry that accompanies Afterness—a series of site-specific artworks commissioned by Art Angel at the remote shingle split of Orford Ness in Suffolk. As you approach by boat from Orford’s bucolic village quay, the topography of the land ahead stays as it is—low. Low lying and lying low was the point of The Ness, otherwise known as the Island of Secrets. From the First through to the Cold War, The Ness operated as a test site for military weapons for the War Department, later for work on the atomic bomb under the AWRE,[1] and in the seventies for the detonation of munitions by the RAF. It bares those scars in the vestiges of blown out metal tanks peeling back like rusted war wounds and flattened buckets, slowly eroding, in the traces of strange circular foundations, derelict bunkhouses piled with wind-blown shingle and blasted out buildings open to the rafters.

But let’s not be all ‘Mittel-brow miserablism’[2] about it. Despite its haunted past, Orford Ness is animated by the future. Surrounded by lagoons, salt marshes and reeds, the site, now under the jurisdiction of the National Trust, is being allowed to ‘re-wild’. Against the quiet hauntology of W.G. Sebald’s words, I seek out nature’s silent remark. The loud opium red and yellow latex of poppies, the lilac of sea lavender, the scarlet of a pimpernel—all of it pushing up between the shingle and fissures in concrete and along the seams of tar. Weeds are assigned the same language as war—of invasion and opposition and killing things off. On the Ness, marsh thistle, thrift, geranium, poppy, dog rose have won out—not as flora in neat formation but animate things growing where they decide to grow. Perhaps also emerging to bear witness—to hold us to account around the vestiges of killing.

Yellow horned poppies

I refer to my copy of Francis Rose’s 1981 Wild Flower Key and its encrypted poetry.

Dog-rose, R. canina agg, v variable, has strong arching stems to 3 m, broadbased strongly-hooked prickles; lvs with 2-3 pairs of toothed lfts, hairless or± hairy; fls 1-4 together, 4-5 cm, pink (or white), styles free; sepals (Da) spreading, falling before fr. Most c rose in S Br Isles (r N Scot). Fl 6-7.

The tracks and hedge rows are laced with wild rose, dog rose, brambles. Alice Channer’s Lethality and Vulnerability imagines a disproportionate bramble in one of the old breeze-block shelters. Made from aluminum—a property of war tested here for aircraft bodies—Channer’s work breaches the space, stretching out through the windows in long magnanimous limbs. It is oddly, perfectly metallic against the rust and chalky shingle. The ecology of the hedgerow, like the history of the site, is fragile and complex. A manifold entanglement as snare for nutrient-baring inhabitants and protection against the salt and wind. Some of this complexity is forsaken in the fluid lines and grand, gleaming proportions of Channer’s bramble.

Yellow horned-poppy, Glauciumflavum, tall (30-90 cm) branched per herb, with a waxy bloom. Basal lvs pinnately-lobed, waxy, hairy, in a rosette, overwintering; stem-lvs less divided; fls yellow, 6-9 cm; sepals hairy. Capsule (Fa} is two-celled, sickle-shaped, to 30 cm long, rough; latex yellow. Br Isles (not N Scot}, f-la on coastal shingle and o inland on wa. Fl 6-9.

Tatiana Trouvé, The Residents, 2021

I linger on the peculiar artifice of latex yellow—like the snap of a glove against skin and the stuff of domesticity in Tatiana Trouvé’s The Residents (2021). Implanted in one of the roofless buildings, and thus submerged in a few thumbs of water, are faded quilts, a suitcase sinking into a puddle, a strewn jacket, a mute radio and next to it the yellow horned-poppy playfully ‘pushing up’ through a blanket in a little pile of soil. Poppies will grow anywhere—silver hairs run along the fleshy leaves deflecting the desiccating effects of salt, sun, sea. Trouvé’s composition is generative beyond the organic. It adapts to the space in bowing branches fabricated from tarnished steel and biomorphic boulders in something other than the concrete surrounding. Sun streams through exposed rafters forming geometric pools of sky-blue on the surface of the water, mirroring the cyan of the quilts. Dislocated, these quotidian objects form a strange world somewhere between myth and familiar. Like the Ness, its evolving ecosystem and transient inhabitants, Trouvé’s proposition is a belonging beyond the native. The work is at home here—it has bedded in.

Thrift, Armeria maritima ssp maritima, cushion-forming per; woody rootstock bears rosettes of narrow-linear, ± hairless, one-veined lvs, 2-10 cm long. lnfl stalks , 5-30 cm tall, ± downy, bear no lvs but terminal rounded heads (1.5-2.5 cm across) of pink or white fls; a brown, sleeve-like sheath, toothed at lower end, extends 2-3 cm down stem from fl-head. Fis five-petalled, 8 mm across; calyx five-ribbed, hairy. Br Isles, call round coasts on cliffs and salt marshes, inl and on mt ledges. Fl 4- 10. A taller (to 50 cm) form (cR**ssp elongata) occurs inland on lowland dry gsld in Lincs, vr.

Thrift is of the sea—Armeriamaritima. It knows where it belongs. The distinction between of the sea and in it, is important. Thrift, like Trouvé and the horned poppy speak of displaced belonging.

Afterness JPG
Emma McNally, The river that flows nowhere, like a sea, 2021

In The river that flows nowhere, like a sea, 2021, Emma McNally maps subatomic particles, radar waves and patterns of migration in graphite onto an undulating, three-dimensional length of paper. Its layer of rings and lines and axis are smudged and cryptic—these maps are not for finding your way back. The dark peeling armoury becomes a cloud chamber for the untenable; and the cloud, like the graphite paper, like the building, passes through and leaves behind its own trace. Sited in a place that reverberates still with the violence and trauma of now distant war, the work intervenes, moving through that history alongside the living flora and geology, envisaging something visionary, beyond.

Marsh Thistle, C. palustre, erect bi, with continuously spiny-winged hairy stem 30-150 cm, branched above; lvs ± deeply pinnatifid, with wavy spine-tipped and edged lobes; lvs shiny, but hairy above, dark green and often purple-flushed, like stem; basal lvs lanceolate, stalked, less deeply lobed. Fl-heads in crowded clusters, each head 1.5-2.0 cm long x 1.0-1.5 cm wide; outer bracts purplish, with erect, shortly-pointed tips; florets dark red-purple or sometimes white. Br Isles, vc in marshes, mds, damp gslds, open wds, hbs. Fl 7-9.

A wiry lobe quivers on the shingle; an assemblage of metal chains in various states of erosion are coiled on a breeze-block in the sun; a cleft of cement decorated with jagged stones glistens as the waves roll in and over and back off its surface. Is this what curated degradation looks like? Orford Ness was derelict for some years before the National Trust took it on. Better, I think, to leave things this way, halfway to somewhere, than greenwash its nuclear past as a garden of Eden.

Scarlet Pimpernel, Anagalis arvensis, prostrate to ascending hairless ann; stems, to 30 cm long, four-angled, bear opp pairs of lvs, oval, pointed, stalkless, with black dots below. Fis solitary on slender stalks in If-axils; narrow, pointed calyx-teeth nearly as long as corolla; corolla 10-15 mm across, flat, wheel-shaped; usually scarlet, sometimes blue or pink; edges of oval lobes with dense fringe of tiny hairs; capsule five-veined, opening transversely by a lid. Br Isles, c (except N Scot r); on dunes, open gslds. Fl 6-8.

There are other works too, on site and online: an installation featuring sound recordings of the area made by Iain Chambers and Chris Watson over many years, Brian d’Souza’s new 24 hour radio station, on site film and recorded commissions by artists including London-based Paul Maheke and Rachel Pimm, and work by poet Ilya Kaminsky’s, audible via headphones.

It is hard to see past a place like this; and to see beyond the past. It is hard to situate work somewhere that is already so wholly animated and dedicated to its own survival, against the odds. On The Ness, the weeds become animate beyond the lexicon of war—of invasion, suffocation, blight—decorated not with medals but with scarlet, sometimes blue, dark green and often purple-flushed. Let’s call it retribution.

Afterness makes us look beyond the singularity and magnitude of a space, and perhaps also war, to the detail.

To see a silence.

The silence is all there is. [3]


Rose Higham-Stainton writes about art, literature and aesthetics, through feminist thought. Her writing is held in the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths College and has been published by PIN—UP Magazine, MAP Magazine, Ache, SPAM, Sticky Fingers Publishing, Antenne Books. Her first solo authored book Herema was published by Sticky Fingers Publishing in June 2021.

Afterness on Orford Ness, Suffolk includes work by Iain Chambers, Alice Channer, Graham Cunnington, Brian d’Souza, Axel Kacoutié, Ilya Kaminsky, Paul Maheke, Emma McNally, Rachel Pimm, Tatiana Trouvé, Chris Watson, Orford Ness, Suffolk, 01 July 2021 - 30 October 2021, Afterness is commissioned and produced by Artangel, and presented in partnership with the National Trust.


[1] Atomic Weapons Research Establishment;

[2] Mark Fisher described W.G Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, his account of travelling through Suffolk and Norfolk on foot, as ‘Mittel-brow miserabilism’.

[3] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Canongate Canons, 2017