Researchers:

Sarah O’Brien

Following the Threads

By Sarah O’Brien

When I went travelling a few years ago, my camera was stolen. Instead of bringing back pictures with me, I brought back written descriptions of those moments when I wished I still had my camera with me. My pen became my photographic lens, recording what my senses were experiencing from the place.

Conducting fieldwork for my PhD project felt like that. I spent the better part of a year immersed in a community opposing the development of unconventional gas extraction, more particularly resisting what was until the recent moratorium, the only operational hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – site in England. I was moving through a new landscape, taking one long continuous picture of it all, recording experiences with my pen and my laptop. Yet just like photographs, notes can feel like they are not capturing what it feels like to be in a space physically. Sometimes, stories are better told through the objects created and used by people, however unconventional they may be.

Knitted artwork – one of the objects I brought back with me and that I was not expecting to encounter in the anti-fracking movement. I suppose acts of resistance are unexpected, and found in what may appear to be the most trivial of things. The blanket pictured here is the proud result of a collective labour, and certainly not a trivial endeavour. Each different section was made by a different pair of hands, and the whole colourful patchwork knitted together by one of the anti-fracking Nanas.

The anti-fracking Nanas are a group of women, mothers and grandmothers who have maintained a weekly physical presence in front of the fracking site for nearly three years, and form part of the anti-fracking resistance in Lancashire. Fracking concerned them: the development of a fossil fuel industry amidst growing climate change concerns, and the impact of leaked and released methane in the air were hard to ignore. They worried about the potential irreversible impacts on the land and water. Earthquakes triggered through the fracking process were the lynchpin of lengthy discussions around how tremors felt, how buildings cracked, and maybe more alarming for most, how the invisible underground had been impacted.

The women decided to materialise these physical fears into a knitted representation of length of the horizontal well drilled under their feet. Although the full 800 meters was never reached, a substantial joined-up line featured in an anti-fracking demonstration in Blackpool, carried along the sea front to show the physical disruption to the land occurring a few miles away.

Nanas were not the only ones to put their knitting needles to work. After launching the idea, the group receiving knitted contributions from across the UK, and from as far as Australia. Anyone in the campaign could help – people from different backgrounds gathered at the roadside, around the entrance to the fracking site, holding crochet sticks and wool bundles, and being shown how to put together a row of knots. This is how the blanket tells the story of the physical disruption to the land, and of small gestures taken against a particular form of energy extraction. 

My interlocutors would spend hours by the side of the busy A-road, scrutinising the fracking site, feeling the cars rush by, the exhaust fumes rising up in the snowy wintery months and in the scorching heatwave weeks. As protesters sat knitting there, they felt, heard, smelt what was coming from the site, discussing and researching amongst themselves. Their experiences could contradict statements from the fracking company; it was difficult for some to grapple with the resulting distrust towards the industry and regulators. When lorry convoys delivering heavy equipment arrived, stitches were dropped as people hurried to speak to delivery drivers, to take pictures and videos of the equipment, to walk defiantly in front of the vehicles or climb on them. Sometimes pushed aside and others time dragged away by the local constabulary, my interlocutors would not forget their injuries from the roadside. These memories engrained themselves in the holes and dropped stitches of knitted rows, in stains from the spilt tea and coffee keeping people going.

Eventually, finding it unpractical to hang the knitted pieces to the site entrance fences (to which banners and ribbons were already tied), the Nanas decided to put their squares of fabric to another use and make warm blankets for activists living on the protest camp, down the road from the fracking site. The camp was a constellation of humans and objects crossing paths, from dancing tents in the chilly winds to sturdy cabins, and their inhabitants learning to work and live together. An array of solar panels and a wind turbine adorned the roof of the communal space, where people would come to charge phones and lights like wild life seeking water.

I lived there myself, and was given a blanket for my first birthday spent on an anti-fracking camp; it made my cabin feel like home for a while. The camp was evicted and bulldozed, the cabins flattened to the ground and the solar panels tipped into a pile – but the blanket stayed with me. It carries this story as well, a story of a place built collectively and supported locally, made into a home until it was not anymore.

I am not trying to tell the romantic story of a blanket and the heroic resistance of activists. My interlocutors’ involvement with energy infrastructures disrupted their lives in unexpected physical and emotional ways  – shivers or sweats by the side of the road, complex legal proceedings, physical and mental stresses, tense relationships with the police force, engagement with local and national bureaucracies, and existential realisations around the nature and extent of climate change.

Yet when I am asked about energy, about fracking, about activism, my mind wonders to an unusual suspect amidst my fieldwork notes, pictures and memories: a hand knitted blanket, a patchwork of the stories from the people that I have met. Stories are often told through objects, memories and historical moments physically woven into tapestries and banners now hanging in galleries and museums. The knowledge of a space can make its way into objects; archaeologists know that well. They give insight into why people feel so strongly about the things they do, and what they are standing for.