2. Testing the (bird bath) water

Deciding to attempt a task is one thing, actually carrying it out is quite another. I begin to consider the logistics of the project. In the first instance, a microscope has to be secured for long term loan, safe methods for gathering samples of water tested, locations chosen and the recording and storing of findings organised. In addition, the techniques for subsequently interpreting the findings into art works also need careful consideration,  equipment prepared, paper selected, rollers clean and ink at the ready.

The digital microscope on loan from the University of Northampton is powerful enough (x40) and simple to assemble and operate, with a screen enabling findings to be viewed in relative comfort,  photographed and recorded on video.

As a test dip, a pipette of water from the neglected bird bath in my garden yields a drop of brackish water, apparently devoid of any activity.

The bird bath

The bird bath

I begin to scan the now seemingly vast regions of this watery landscape. Suddenly out of nowhere I catch a glimpse of something skimming past my line of vision at great speed. Making further fine adjustments, I re-position the slide and lay in wait surveying the area I judge to be the tiny organism’s most probable trajectory. Whilst watching and waiting, I grow more accustomed to careful looking and slowly become aware of other still smaller moving objects, busily engaged in definite patterns of movement amongst the fragments of tangled foliage. 

Eventually my patience is rewarded, sure enough the ‘swimmer’ flashes past once more. Recording and subsequently reviewing the footage shot by shot- I distinguish a bullet shaped organism similar in appearance to a wood-louse which turns and twists, moving forwards and reversing with such alacrity as it enters and leaves pockets of weeds that it is difficult to judge precisely which end is which.

The ‘swimmer’ amongst vegetation

The ‘swimmer’ amongst vegetation

At this point I realise that my first intention of placing a single drop of water in a dish directly under the lens is unworkable since the wake left by this energetic creature bounces the other smaller inhabitants in all directions and out of my line of vision. The subject of my interest also moves vertically from the surface to the depths of the droplet, leaving me unable to adjust the focus of the lens sufficiently quickly and so is frequently lost from view.

I spend a morning with my friend and adviser Gail. We solve the problem of depth by using slide covers, and to my amazement, the tiny creatures remain active in the imperceptible gap between cover and plate. This really is an astonishingly small world!

Gail also suggests leaving the water samples to settle for a short period before attempting to view, in order to allow recovery time for the newly transported organisms to resume their activities, so rendering them more clearly visible on the microscope’s screen.

I am encouraged. These early images appear promising. Early samples include fragments of vegetation amongst which a myriad of creatures appear to forage and graze.

My intention is to use these photographs and video recordings to inform a series of mono prints – each one a visual representation of the unseen world beneath the surface of the ever surprising River Nene.