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Tuesday 3 January 2023

Young people and schools explore their local environment

In January 2023 we will be opening our new exhibition SupermarketForest. In the lead-up, throughout October and November 2022, we worked with schools and young people to explore the themes of the show and to look at how we can reconnect with nature.  

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), ethnobotanist Dr Sarah Edwards and poet Arji Manuelpillai have been working with the following groups:  

  • Young people at Heatham House Youth Club  
  • Year 6 students at St Edmund’s Catholic Primary School  
  • Year 6 students at St John the Baptist Junior School  

In the sessions students have explored their experiences of nature, written poems, visited outside spaces and created some visual responses too. The overarching theme of the sessions has been the SupermarketForest exhibition, where artist Andrew Merritt is exploring agriculture and how we grow food. Young people have looked at seeds and where they come from and explored the plants in their local environment.  From tomatoes belonging to the same family as Deadly Nightshade to veteran oak trees housing 3,000 different plant species, groups learnt about the plants around them and about ethnobotany as the study of the relationship between people and plants.  

Inspired by Matthew Sweeney’s Fishbones Dreaming here is a example of the poems created:  

Paper by Max and Eleanor at St Edmund’s Primary  

I wasn’t always like this, I used to be a tree as green as an apple. After that, I was shredded to pieces. That terrible experience carried on, I was turned into a white sheet, shinier than gold.  I was put in a package and sent to school, I was scratched and pulled until this poem was implanted onto me.  


Inspired by trees, here is another poem by young people from the Culture 4 Keeps programme: 

Who is this tree for?   

It’s medicine not strong enough for the blindness we spoon  

For the writers who craft a violin out of a body, making beautiful sand when I’m gone   

For those traditional healers and shamans who gather my leaves to embrace the spirits   

For good people, people huge as the world   

For people who don’t see beauty   

For people who have nowhere to go in the afternoons   

For people who give themselves away forgetting   

For those looking for ideas or some time away  

For those who are afraid not to be loved and love  

For people who cannot help being kind   

To the hand bunched in terror against them   

For people who need to shelter from the rain   

Its beauty disguised by its children’s demolition 


Images of work made by young people at Heatham House:

With special thanks to NERC for their support of this project and to Arji and Sarah.  Thanks also to the class teachers and Gwen Ramsay at Achieving for Children. 

About Sarah and Arji: 

Sarah is an ethnobotanist with an interdisciplinary background straddling the life and social sciences. Her career has included working as a freelance consultant and as an employee of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UCL and Oxford University – where she currently teaches ethnobiology and biological conservation. Much of Sarah’s teaching is based on insights gleaned from working on collaborative ethnobiology projects with First Nation communities in northern Australia. Outside of academia, Sarah sits on the Board of the British Herbal Medicine Association and is a Trustee of the charity London Gypsies and Travellers.  

Through her work, Sarah has striven to gain an understanding of how culture mediates our relationship with the natural world. Sarah firmly believes that plants are our allies, not only vital to our health, but in redressing the ecological crisis that our planet currently faces in the Anthropocene. 

For over 15 years Arji has worked with community arts projects nationally and internationally. This has given him the privilege of working with some of the world’s most interesting people. In everywhere from prisons and Immigration Removal centres to schools and youth clubs Arji has continued to push creativity and self-expression.   

In recent years he has worked for organisations including The Young Vic, The Southbank Centre, The Barbican and The Roundhouse. Arji’s strengths lie in his ability to connect with people from all walks of life, to empathise and build lasting bonds.   

Arji prides himself on his ability to inspire and encourage self-expression using an array of games and exercises built up over years working with Drama, Storytelling, Music and Creative writing.   

He believes every art form has its benefits and advocates for the power of the arts to strengthen relationships in communities across the world.  

As well as being a passionate creative facilitator Arji is a published poet. Recently, he was awarded the Jerwood Arvon Prize which meant mentorship from the award winning writer and poet Hannah Lowe.   

In 2021, following the release of his first book ‘Mutton Rolls’, Arji was awarded a Develop Your Creative Practice Grant from Arts Council England and he used it to research and develop a new book discussing extremism and radicalisation in its many forms. This book was released in October 2022 under the publisher Penned in the Margins.  


Visit here for more information about Something & Son: Something & Son

Visit here for information on the exhibition: Exhibition Information