Jo Dacombe – Litmus

‘The chameleon leaves are litmus to the chemical changes going on inside them… The leaves of different species contain distinctive pigments: the yellow arotenoids of willow, poplar or hazel; the red anthocyanins of maple or dogwood (the same pigment you encounter on the rosy side of the apple where it faces the sun); or the earthy tannins of oak leaves…This is the natural chemistry that paints the woodland colours.’

Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

I will be running a series of workshops for people local to, and visiting, the woodlands to engage them with some of the themes of the Duke’s Wood Project. I want to find a way to engage people more deeply, get beyond the surface of things and find the many layers of Dukes Wood. Not just the physical layers too, I wonder how the stories of Duke’s Wood, its layers of history, can be made visible; how can the unseen be seen?

I searched the woodlands for evidence of the unseen: measuring the contours of the land to try to spot where the earth had been shifted for drilling and piping underground; pressing my ear up against tree trunks, trying to imagine the sound of the sap rising inside; looking up at breaks in the canopy to see where sunlight might reach through to create warm spots on the earth; glaring at rock samples in the Duke’s Wood Museum and searching the contours of ancient bedrock shifts on geological maps.

rock samples

I started testing soil in response to a passage I read in one of the many pamphlets dotted around the museum. It stated that the cleared areas around the oil well sites were abundant with cowslips in the spring, and this was a result of the lime in the concrete that was used to line the drill holes, causing an alkaline seep into the soil. I wondered if this was true and how many other subtle chemical alterations had affected the woodlands over the course of its varied history.

ph paper


When I lined up the indicator papers I’d used for soil testing to compare their colours, a range of oranges, greens and yellows, responding to the composition in the soil, I felt they made visible the interconnectedness of the chemicals running through the woods and everything in it, responding to these environmental subtleties and in turn creating the colours of the woodland that Deakin’s beautiful book describes. Testing the soil made me aware of the make up of things, the inner life and the composition of the earth beneath me, chemical reactions that generate and regenerate the woodlands in a constantly evolving and adapting lifecycle.

Having an interest in foraging I am keenly aware of the chemicals of certain plants, with the often precarious balance between the nutritious and the poisonous. Duke’s Wood in the spring was a carpet of Wood Anemones, their pretty allure hiding their toxicity which can itch and burn. It often seems to me that the chemicals hidden behind the appearance of the woodland is part of the element of enchantment that woodlands hold for us, the magical element that can be delightful or deadly, nature’s double-sided face.

wood anemones


Through the workshops I hope that the participants and I will continue these explorations beyond the surface and discover what makes up Duke’s Wood, not just in the chemicals but in the many other layers that affect this sense of place.


by Joanna Dacombe


One thought on “Jo Dacombe – Litmus

  1. The image of the three litmus papers is striking, a great piece of artistic expression even without the well wrought words. The white ‘globes’ at the top of the pins (and the shadows of each paper) add depth and luminosity. Enjoyed this piece immensely.

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