Wild Exchanges

William Seale recording sounds in the water & map of different pitches by Cleo (age 7)
William Seale recording sounds in the water & map of different pitches by Cleo (age 7)

Children are creative and surprising thinkers – current CCI projects Artscapers, Fantastical Cambridgeshire and Animating the Archives make this richly obvious.  In our project diaries we give children’s own words, images and inventions public recognition.  We also make them visible because we believe there is fascinating material there for other people to explore.

Wild Exchanges take this advocacy one step further, formally introducing children’s ideas into the working realms of professional adults, as inspiration for new work or prompts to reflect on their own fascinations.  CCI artist Deb Wilenski is the ‘creative connector’ in these exchanges and explains how they work:

Wild exchanges began a while ago when we asked writer Rob Macfarlane to write a foreword to our Fantastical Guide to Hinchingbrooke Country Park, and when poet Jackie Kay joined primary school children in the Spinney Wild Woods to make new work together.

Our recent series of exchanges from Fantastical Cambridgeshire locations takes a more minimalist approach; I search for a key image, thought, or way of exploring that children have made or discovered, and offer this to adult professionals with whose work it seems to be connected.  I have invited a wide range of people into conversation – artists and writers, but also botanists, documentary film directors, sound specialists and research scientists.

At times I have drawn unlikely comparisons, but these have frequently turned out to be the most fascinating exchanges; we have discovered intriguing connections between a housing development in St Neots and the wilds of Antarctica, or the empathy and imagination of a 7 year old and the skills of a wildlife film maker.

Our Wild Exchanges are collected below and can be read in any order.  We are also developing a series of games which pick up threads from the exchanges.  These often form part of our workshops.  Children, families and educators took them into the Forest of Imagination in Bath earlier this year and they will also be part of our workshops in Emmanuel College gardens for the Festival of Ideas.  The games will soon be available as a resource for others to use in their own spaces too.

Wild Exchange Cabinets

The Ernest Cook Trust Logo


Fact and fiction in a garden full of stories


(by Deb Wilenski) One of our first Wild Exchanges made connections between children’s drawings in the outdoors and the work of artist Mary O’Malley, who uses meticulous botanical and zoological detail to build fantastical compositions and landscapes.  We decided to use this combination of close observation and imagination to shape two workshops in Emmanuel College Gardens for the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas

Emmanuel College GardensEmmanuel College Gardens

Mary O’Malley: Mental Map #2Mary O’Malley: Mental Map #2

The gardens were perfect for exploring ‘Truth’, the theme of this year’s festival.  A real location, in a well-known city, with a long and verifiable history, but one which also invites the mind to wander and the imagination to take flight.

Head gardener Christoph Keate is a captivating narrator of the place.  He tells true and detailed stories about many of the plants and has a fine sense of fiction’s relevance to the gardens too.  When I ask what it’s like there after dark Christoph points to a row of tall town houses at the perimeter and says they remind him of The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis; a story of strange travelling, first from attic to attic, then in and out of the wood between the worlds, through mysterious pools that are really portals.

The wood between the worlds : original illustration by Pauline Bayne

The wood between the worlds : original illustration by Pauline Bayne

All of which makes our choice of the carp pond by the Caucasian Wing-nut tree a perfect meeting place.  A tree with fantastical seeds next to a pool full of mythical fish.

As families and groups of friends begin to arrive we search for the roots of the Wing-nut which break through the ground many metres away.  Some of the children draw these when we offer black paper and chalk pastels to record details of the garden.  Other careful and delicate sketches appear alongside collections of fallen leaves, seeds and bright petals.

Black paper and chalk pastels to record details of the garden

sketches of fallen leaves, seeds and bright petals

From visible and tangible details of the gardens we invite fantastical journeying and the copper-scaled carp cruising round the pond lead the way.  The true story of the pond is that in an earlier form it predates the college and was part of a Dominican Priory more than five hundred years ago.  The carp there now are extraordinary creatures, elegant and communicative, they come to you when you stand by the edge of the pond with their great mouths open. 

I tell the story of The Carp and the Dragon Gate, an ancient Chinese tale of magical transformation:

On the Yellow River at Hunan is a waterfall called the Dragon Gate. It is said that if certain carp called Yulong can climb the cataract they will transform into dragons. Every year in the third month of spring they swim up from the sea and gather in vast numbers in the pool at the foot of the falls. It used to be said that only seventy-one could make the climb in any year. When the first succeeded, then the rains would begin to fall.

Image of the The Carp and the Dragon Gate, an ancient Chinese tale of magical transformation

We offer plasticine alongside the drawing materials used already and everyone’s observational work begins to transform.  Pond water swirls into a ravenous monster, plants grow fantastical blooms, spiked dragons appear amongst gathered leaves, and exquisite fish-skin is made by hand.

Pond water swirls into a ravenous monster

Fantastical blooms

Drawing of a rose like plant

Exquisite plasticine fish-skin is made by hand

With fantastical imaginations wide open we move into the Fellows’ Garden to meet the Oriental Plane.  A whole world in a tree, its branches disappear into the sky and climb down to the earth, where fantastically, they transform into new trunks, rooting themselves and growing upwards again.

Under the tree we hear a second fishy story, The Salmon of Knowledge

Under the tree we hear a second fishy story, The Salmon of Knowledge; an old Irish tale in which an ancient salmon containing all the knowledge of the world, is caught and cooked by Fionn mac Cumhaill, and a single drop of burning fish oil transfers the salmon’s entire knowledge to the boy. 

The children and adults in our workshop need no further invitation to begin writing and illustrating stories of their own, sitting under the branches of the Oriental Plane and the enormous Purple Beech nearby.  Stories run wild, like children discovering that one attic opens into another; they join fish to plants and plants to other worlds, life to death and back again.

Child sitting under tree

Leaves falling from a tree

Here is Noga’s story, written at the outer edge of the Oriental Plane, on the day of her eighth birthday:

After the fish died, someone took one scale and lost it in this very garden, which made something amazing happen.  It was a root.  Through the years the people watered it and cared for the root.  Until one day it was a young and healthy tree. 

A person came to it and asked: ‘What seed do you have?’ Straight away it answered: ‘I have a salmon scale.’  This day the garden still has this tree and everyone still comes here for answers. 

Noga (age 8) writing her storyNoga (age 8) writing her story

Drawing of the garden

A gallery of images from the morning is shared here.

Wild exchanges in Emmanuel College Gardens


Wild exchanges in Emmanuel College Gardens

It was wonderful to host two ‘you are where?’ workshops as part of this year’s Festival of Ideas in the Emmanuel College Gardens, led by artist Deb Wilenski.

I think this is the best time I’ve ever had out.  We made dragons for our plant collections and now we've made stories.
Nathanael (7) with Chloe (9)

People of all ages joined to us to explore and draw and imagine, taking time to look carefully and be together under these magical trees:

Who can I be now?


Children being wild eagles arrive in the Offords’ Millennium Green
Wild eagles arrive in the Offords’ Millennium Green

Children being wild eagles arrive in the Offords’ Millennium Green

(by Deb Wilenski) What do creative explorations add to the identity of a place and the people who live there?  For every location in our Fantastical Cambridgeshire projects there are already official maps, showing points of orientation, possible journeys, historic and current landmarks.  Mapping children’s imagined and newly discovered details doesn’t mean that conventional maps have no significance – but it does suggest that places and identities can also be played with and that this kind of play has value.

Looking back over the three project residencies I’m struck by the fact that a place is not just geographical or historical.  Its identity has also to do with who you can be there.  In Eynesbury, the Offords and Love’s Farm children deepened their connections to immediate locations by asking: who else can I be in this place?  what would it be like?

From hearing the story of James Toller (the ‘Eynesbury Giant’), to the Offord children’s explorations as other people and other animals and the powerful presence of Minerva and her Parliament of Owls at Love’s Farm, children have relished the adventure that other identities bring.

Children’s drawings of James Toller (Round House Academy)Children’s drawings of James Toller and Minerva (Round House Academy)

Children’s drawings of Minerva (Round House Academy)

Our current education system often puts pressure on children to pursue their individual ambitions and to be the best you can be.  There is little space for being someone else and seeing how it feels.  Yet empathy is being recognised across many fields, including education, as a vital skill for the future. 

In his reflections below Kevin Jones, who was Headmaster at St John’s College School (Cambridge) for 26 years and is a passionate advocate for creativity in education, reflects on identity, empathy and understanding, prompted by our Fantastical Cambridgeshire experiences.

Children painting Kevin Jones head
Kevin Jones and children from St John’s College School


Imagining being other (by Kevin Jones)

Of all the wonders of the Fantastical Offord project, it was Ava’s map that struck me most.

Ava’s map an aerial view of the orchard

It offered an aerial view of the orchard, complete with a key for the shapes that represented trees, my house, stones, human thing, pond and fffffox. There was the mysterious gate that monsters come through, and beyond the mysterious gate there was a mysterious world. And this mysterious world that monsters came from was the school playground, and the monsters were us, the humans. Ava had made the most wonderful leap of imagination, into the mind of a fox. This was the fox’s map. It showed the world through an animal’s eyes and in the fox’s eyes we humans were the dangerous animals. This wonderful act of imagining shifts our view and makes us empathise, as Ava does, with a different view of the world.

Of all the things our children learn, perhaps the most important for them and for our world is to be able to map the minds of others, to imagine being other, to learn to read how others might think and see.

Empathy comes to the young as naturally as the leaves come to the trees but it needs the right conditions to thrive. It needs to be fed and nurtured. It grows in the example we set to children, in kindness witnessed and received by them. But we also need to make space and time for it to blossom in our schools. Our education system often drives children to focus on their own individual attainment, usually in a narrow academic sense. We need to balance this with opportunities for them to look beyond themselves, to use their curiosity and imagination.

That is what the Fantastical Offords project offered to Ava – a space to be curious and to imagine. And with what wonderful results for her and for all of the children.

Ava and Molly getting a snake’s eye view
Ava and Molly getting a snake’s eye view

The mysterious orchard itself becomes, in their descriptions and in their art, a living being with a character – which of course it is, only we don’t usually see it so clearly or so sympathetically.

Leopard eyes in the orchard (Chelsea, age 8)
Leopard eyes in the orchard (Chelsea, age 8)

Look at the messages left for the Robin group’s visit to the Orchard by the older children – sometimes cryptic, sometimes challenging, always generous in spirit and filled with a sense of what it will be like for their younger friends to arrive with new eyes.

Fox den in the right hand corner – a message left for the 5 and 6 year old children
Fox den in the right hand corner – a message left for the 5 and 6 year old children

With their curiosity and imagination released, the children readily see through other people’s eyes. Imagining themselves inhabiting the Millennium Green as different people opens up the children’s sense of their community, their belonging, and produces wonderful writing in voices other than their own.

The children use this space for empathy to produce outstanding work. But there is more to it than this. They are seeing beyond themselves and understanding different viewpoints. And we seem to need this now more than ever in our world, to build communities, to break down barriers between people and to see beyond prejudice. That is why it is so important that children can make maps from other minds, imagine being other. What Ava is doing, what all of the children are doing, is mapping a way to a better world.

Offord community, their shadows and the enormous beetle (photo credit: Majiek Platek)
Offord community, their shadows and the enormous beetle (photo credit: Majiek Platek)

Places, names and invisible lands


Map showing the names of places in the Antarctic

Drawing the snakey snakey path

(by Deb Wilenski) How do places get their names?  How do you name a new place where nobody has lived before?  CCI’s third Fantastical Cambridgeshire project with Round House Primary Academy took place on the Love’s Farm development in St Neots.  This 160 acre new-build site has over 1400 homes, a primary school, shops, open space and community facilities and was entirely constructed and named between 2009 and 2017.  During CCI’s project the school children played with renaming their streets, landmarks and empty spaces with a strong sense of imagination and adventure. 

I wondered who we could involve in a wild exchange about naming and human habitation.  I couldn’t help thinking of a place with recent human history that on the face of it seemed as far away as you could get from a Cambridgeshire housing development.  But as you will read in the conversation below there are fascinating parallels between Love’s Farm and the continent of Antarctica; a place seen for the first time only 200 years ago making it the most recently occupied and named place on earth.

Image of Antarctica; a place seen for the first time only 200 years ago

There is another interesting comparison too.  The homogenous 21st century architecture of Love’s Farm stands on fascinating archaeological ground.  An ancient map sits beneath the new map on the surface.  Look up Antarctica on google maps and no matter how far you zoom in, the vast central ice sheets remain empty and white.  But what lies beneath?  It turns out that there is a map of invisible Antarctica which reveals a very different land.

I interviewed Dr Kevin Hughes, Environmental Research and Monitoring Manager at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) about names for new places and underground maps.  From an unlikely geographical comparison, we set off on a fascinating journey.


Q:  Does the comparison I’ve drawn between the newness of developments like Love’s Farm and the wilds of Antarctica make sense to you?  Are there similarities in how we create a human map of these places?

When I first thought about this exchange, I thought how does this work?  But actually the idea of coming to a new place in the UK, naming the streets and creating an identity, there is a comparison.  In Antarctica you’ve got a whole continent that has only had human beings fully aware that it is even there for less than 200 years.  1819 was the first time it was ever set foot on.

We produce maps of the Peninsula (the part of Antarctica claimed by the UK) at the British Antarctic Survey.  There are lots of names on the map and they have all been officially recognised by the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee.  I talked to one of the people on the committee yesterday and he pointed me towards this book (Antarctic Peninsula: A Visitor’s Guide), the last chapter of which is all about place names.

Map of the Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula

Q:  Is naming a place in Antarctica a complex procedure?  How does it work?

It’s an official meeting now but there are a discreet number of people who meet and deliver names in as consistent a way as they can.  A lot of the Antarctic Peninsula is named after the people who first went there.  The first sealers went up to King George Island, named after King George IV because they were planting the flag for Britain.  But there have been expeditions by the French, by the Belgians, more French, by the British, the Swedish, and they all stamp their own names on the different areas.  On the website of the Antarctic Place-Names Committee apc.antarctica.ac.uk you can zoom in anywhere you like, every one of the red dots is a name and it will tell you where that name has come from.

Map showing some of the themes for place names

Map showing some of the themes for place names

So that’s one way of naming.  Another way is having themes. You have to bear in mind that a lot of these areas were explored sequentially and so it depended what was prominent at the time.  Some of them are named after composers and music.  We’ve got Beethoven Peninsula, Monteverdi Peninsula, Shostokovitch Peninsula.  This season I’m going to a place called Finlandia Foothills, named after Sibelius’ Finlandia Suite.  But also there’s an area where they’ve named glaciers and mountains after Irish musical instruments or there are names from Moby Dick, Churchill’s War Cabinet, Homer’s Iliad, it can look quite random.

Q: In Love’s Farm the children named some places according to their physical appearance – a huge clearing was called The Vast Vacation or there was Hairy Swamp and Shredded Wheat Hole.  Other names were emotionally evocative; The Cornfield of Happiness, Snake Shadow, Bleeding Heart Close.  Are there names like these in Antarctica?

There’s a good example here it’s called Deception Island. It’s actually a collapsed volcanic caldera, which is still active, so you can sail through and be completely surrounded by this ring of rock.  It’s called Deception Island because you don’t know what you’re going to get until you sail inside.  In many places there are features that are named after the physical nature of the place, or things that happened on the day it was first visited; Cape Disappointment, Inexpressible Island.

Map of Deception IslandMap and aerial photograph of Deception Island

Aerial photograph of Deception Island

Q:  When you go to the Finlandia Foothills how will the naming process work, can anyone suggest a name?

We’ll spend the day on the hill doing our sampling and our remote sensing and at the end of the day we’ll be quite tired and hungry and we’ll cram into our little pyramid tent and make our dinner.  We’ll start thinking what shall we talk about tonight?  I know, let’s talk about what we’re going to name some of these features. We’ll just chat about it and see if anything comes to mind, or we’ll think up a particular theme.

And what makes something worthy of being named? 

As far as I understand we tend to give names to things that need a name.  If you’ve got a management plan or you’ve got an operational reason or it’s a prominent feature for navigation, it will get a name.  Otherwise where would you stop?  In the Finlandia Foothills we’ll probably name some of the mountains, some of the valleys, some of the ice streams.

The second comparison I drew between Love’s Farm and Antarctica was the striking contrast between the surface map and what lies underneath.  I imagined that under the Antarctic ice is another invisible land.  Do we know what is there?

Image of transantarctic mountains poking through the ice

In the centre you’re talking about up to 4 kilometres of ice on top of the landscape, this high dome of ice which covers the bottom of the world.  It’s considered there’s no life of any real substance underneath the ice.  On the surface of the ice you might have a few microorganisms that have fallen out of the sky, or been blown up into the sky and rained down and over tens of thousands of years they’ll get buried and become part of the ice but they are only a tiny fraction and they will be unviable.

Saying that, if we take Lake Vostok which is one of around 400 sub-glacial lakes (liquid lakes under up to 2.5 kilometres or more of ice) the theory is that in some cases they may have been completely isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, and there might have been independent evolution of these microbial species.

But what I can show you is this.  This map is called Bedmap 2 and the idea is to map what is underneath the ice. 

Image of Bedmap 2 map showing what is underneath the ice

These Transantarctic Mountains that just about poke through on the other map are actually a massive chain.  And the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, these are the size of the Alps, but they’re completely buried.  The only reason we know they’re there is because of ground penetrating radar.  These are the sorts of graphs they produce, that show different ice structures but also the surface of mountains, the topography under the ice.

Map showing mountains buried by ice

Q:  Do you get excited about working there still?  This is the first time I’m looking in detail at these maps and it’s amazing.

I do!  I work as a biologist in the geo-politics of environmental protection but there are people in my organisation who are absolute world experts on what’s beneath the ice, and what that tells us about the geology, what it tells us about how Antarctica came together.  Because 30 million years ago there was no ice in Antarctica.

Q:  What does it feel like when you are somewhere nobody has been before, standing on a continent which so few people have ever seen or mapped?

If you’re on a research station it can often be quite busy and cramped and actually quite claustrophobic.  The difference is, if you go deep-field, you get dropped off by your little aircraft, and you’re there with your mountaineer who’s going to help you out, and the same kit that was used by Scott 100 years ago, it hasn’t been really improved upon… then you realise I’m on an island, with someone else, and this island’s the size of Wales and we’re the only people here and we know we’re the only two people.  It’s amazing.

Kevin Hughes counting penguins in protected area called Lagotellerie Island
Kevin counting penguins on Lagotellerie Island, Antarctica

Snowdrops and superpowers


(by Deb Wilenski) For our day with the oldest children at Offord Primary School, we took real and fantastical plant life as our focus.  Both the school orchard and the Millennium Green are rich botanical environments and we had already found green walnuts to make ink, as well as gigantic thistles, a ‘pink tree my nan planted’, and tiny plants growing on molehills. 

We took as our inspiration the plant-hunters and illustrators of past centuries, who often took huge risks to obtain specimens or record them.  The children fully embraced the idea of botanical adventuring.  They climbed high in trees, explored tangled undergrowth, and crossed water in the Millennium Green by balancing along a fallen tree to get to ‘the island’.

Plant-hunters - Children in a tree

I shared some of the children’s detailed discoveries and fantastical drawings with Flis Plent, Head of Learning at Cambridge University Botanic Garden and a director of BGEN (Botanic Garden Education Network) and asked four questions to explore the connections between the children’s explorations and her own memories, experience and specialist knowledge. 

Her answers below are full of wonderful stories and observations - of seed collectors past and present, a terrible-smelling plant, snowdrops with chemical superpowers and an oak tree that smells, fantastically, of lavender.

How far have you travelled as a plant hunter and did you find what you were looking for? 

I haven’t travelled to hunt for plants but recently one of our horticulturalists travelled to Vietnam on a plant hunting expedition.  They were looking for lots of very rare plants and were lucky enough to find seeds of some of them which we will now grow back here at the Botanic Garden.  Here is a picture of the seeds they brought back drying out on sheets of newspaper in their hotel room in Vietnam.

Piles of seeds drying on newspaper
Seed drying

Hundreds of years ago plant hunters risked their lives searching for new plants all over unexplored parts of the world. They didn’t have hotel rooms to dry their plants in, and often slept in the open air or in small tents.  Some of the stories of their adventures are quite hair-raising, with tales of them being attacked by tigers, swept away by raging rivers and getting lost regularly in dense jungles and up snow-covered mountains.

What is the most other-worldly plant in the Botanic Garden and what makes it so strange?

I think the strangest plant we have here is the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) which flowered here quite recently.  This amazing plant is from Sumatra in Indonesia.  Here is a picture of it as it was opening in our Glasshouse Range in June this year.

Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)

It doesn’t flower very often, but when it does the flower structure is absolutely huge. Ours was 1.36m, but they can be as big as 3m tall.  On the first night that it opens the white structure in the middle, called the spadix, heats up and produces the most terrible, terrible smell – a bit like rotting flesh or stinky cheese.  The smell is produced to attract beetles which pollinate it.  When it flowers it also attracts huge numbers of visitors to the Garden.  We stayed open at night so people could come to visit it and smell it – even though the smell is terrible.  I love hearing what our visitors think it smelled of.  Here are some of the things they told me:  It is worse than the smelliest socks ever…It smells like my brother’s trainers… It smells like my baby sister’s nappy…It smells just like the food bin in our kitchen when nobody empties it.

Are there plants which are surprisingly strong or surprisingly delicate in the gardens?

One of my favourite plants are snowdrops.  They look really delicate and flower at the coldest time of the year.  But they have superpowers – inside the cells of the plant are chemicals which act a bit like anti-freeze (like the stuff you might spray on a car window in the winter to melt the ice).  So even when it is freezing and snowing these brave little plants can still hold their heads up high!


If you could combine any two plants which would you choose and what would their plant ‘offspring’ look like?

I love plants which smell nice, like lavender and honeysuckle and I also love old gnarled trees that live for a long time, like oak trees.  So if we could combine a huge oak tree covered with flowers with the scent of lavender that would be amazing!


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