Art, Borders and Beavers

I’ve been intersted in the reintroduction of locally/nationally extinct species for a long time, visiting Cranes in Somerset and the Great Bustards just a few miles away from me on Salisbury Plain. I’ve also recently completed a short film for Wessex Museums, supporting young people to respond to the stuffed Bustards at Salisbury Museum, as part of their Wildlife in the Red exhibition, which I’ll be able to share more widely in the New Year. When it comes to Beavers I don’t know an enormous amount, so am doing what I can to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, especially now that I’ve begun this research project.

Hand Reared Great Bustards (now living wild)

Over the last week I’ve made the most of two online events from the Beaver Trust, the premiere of their new film, Beavers Without Borders, filmed and produced by Nina Constable, and last night’s panel discussion on the future of the Beaver in the UK, which has been recorded and will be available to watch online in the next few days. So I thought I’d take a little time today to write about Beavers and their relevance to my research. as an artist working with rivers.

In 2018 I wrote a blog post about the relationship between my sense of identity as someone who grew up ‘gay’ and how my arts practice offers me a way of seeing ‘Beyond Binaries’:

‘It’s all about relationship and not about boundaries and barriers… Both the barriers we see and the ones that we don’t notice, but which still influence our perception. My collaged 2D pieces that I have been making for years… (blur) the boundaries to make the whole accessible, offering up a way of seeing that I glimpse through my practice and my Queer-ness.’

I Don’t Know – from The Ash Looks Back series by James Aldridge

Both my physical making and my work within communities is about relationship, exploring who we are and our role within ecological and social systems through artful, embodied and situated (place-based) approaches. In ‘Finding the Source’ I described how ‘The penny dropped and I smiled as I realised… that the source of my river wasn’t where the blue line ended, it was the hill that funneled the rainwater down, it was the clouds in the sky that fed the hill, and the flowers and butterflies that drank from that water.’

Essentially my whole arts practice is about being able to see beyond culturally inherited boundaries that divide human from nature, body from environment, water from land and us from other animals.

I don’t have all the answers, but I am feeling my way, asking for guidance from both the human and the more than human worlds. My work is becoming more collaborative, as I open up to connecting with and responding to other artists, writers, educators and animals’

The Distance Between Us – The Dark Mountain Project

Queer River is an extension of that, an experiment in gathering together different perspectives on a single subject. I want to allow those different perspectives to inform my understanding of what rivers need from us, now and in the future, whilst sharing my own learning with others through art and writing.

Detail from Walking Pages by James Aldridge

As mentioned in the introduction to this project, I’m drawing from the experiences of humans and non-humans to understand rivers better, and it seems key to me that one of those non-humans is the Beaver.

‘Beavers build series of dams that filter out pollutants, reduce flooding, store water in pools for times of drought, and attract a huge host of other wildlife. They also bring challenges – they will change our rivers and landscapes and this can disrupt existing land use.

….beavers are more than a single creature; they are a bringer of life. We tell the stories of farmers, fishers, nature-lovers, landowners, dog walkers and citizen scientists who live alongside beavers.’

Beaver Trust

River Avon passing through Salisbury

What I’m starting to see, is that Beavers are both valuable and challenging, because they disrupt our idea of how rivers should be, and the ways that we have tried to control them over the years. Straightened, canalised rivers may be convenient for us, maintaining that idea represented by the thin blue line on the map, satisfying our impulse to control and leaving us more land to farm or develop, but they offer comparitively little in terms of biodiversity, and pass the risk of flooding on downstream. Beavers on the other hand create diverse habitats for a range of other species by coppicing trees and damming streams or rivers. They blur the boundaries between land and water, slowing water flow to reduce flooding and alleviate drought.

In the work done by the Beavers I see real similarities with that of Nick and The Water Team at Wiltshire Wildife Trust, as they fell trees into the river to interrupt its flow, returning to the river its curves and meanders. The difference being of course that the restoration work by The Water Team is planned and agreed with local stakeholders, and involves relatively large amounts of money and machinery, whereas the Beavers respond to the landscape as they find it, without a map or plan, using their own bodies to re-engineer the river according to their needs.

River Avon near Pewsey

I’m looking forward to the day when I can see the impact of Beavers for myself, using my arts practice to document their effect on rivers and the wider landscape. As I understand it there’s no current plans to bring Beavers back to The Hampshire Avon or other rivers in Wiltshire, so I’ll be looking to visit another site farther afield. When I do I’ll let you know.

If you’re interested in the role of art in learning about and taking action on biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, you can watch a recording of a panel discussion I took part in as part of the Ash Tree Stream project, on Art in Environmental Education.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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