Yesterday I took my first Queer River walk with one of my collaborators since walking with Catherine Lamont Robinson in Salisbury, and spent some time with Peter Reason, along the River Avon at Pewsey. Peter is a writer, a retired academic, and Emeritus Professor at The University of Bath.
Having originally met through our friend Chris Seeley, Peter and I had been meaning to take a walk together for a while, either along his Avon (the Bristol Avon at Bath) or mine. He had expressed an interest in making a Walking Bundle, and I was keen to find out more about his work on Pansychism and rivers.
I had brought two sets of string and twine for bundling, and Peter had come with home-made flapjacks and coffee, so with the appropriate social distancing, and hand-sanitising, we were set up for some walking, talking and making together.
We began our walk in the centre of Pewsey, a large village in the Pewsey Vale, crossing the road from the car park and entering The Scotchel, a small village centre nature reserve. There are two main branches of this upper part of the river, one that begins in the western end of the Vale of Pewsey, nearer to where I live, and the other that rises to the north east of Pewsey. They join together just south of Pewsey before the river continues on down towards Salisbury. This time we were going to follow the western arm up out of Pewsey into a second nature reserve, Jones’ Mill, which is owned and managed by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.
One of the first things we talked about was why this project is called Queer River and what the word Queer means to me. As I explained to Peter, I’m holding the focus of my research loosely, allowing the rivers to provide the structure, and the walking, talking and making with invited others to provide the methodology.
I’m open to what emerges out of these walks, and what relationship it has with my perceptions and experiences as a ‘queer’ person. The one key thing I am sure about though, is that our Queerness and the exclusion that results from it, can provide a gift of sight beyond boundaries, an awareness that is lacking from society and which impacts on our ability to live well with the earth. It’s that missing piece of the puzzle, and its potential for supporting the development of new ways of seeing and being in this time of ecological crisis that really excites me.
What we first noticed as we walked through The Scotchel was its richness. The meandering course of the river, with one main channel and a variety of other streams and channels, ran through dark sodden, peaty soil. Above our heads countless small birds called and moved through the branches, themselves rich in curving, twisting, branching shapes.
It is a small reserve and only took a few minutes to walk through, but before we got to the railway bridge that forms its boundary, and turned onto a tarmac path to head to the next accessible stretch of river, we paused to watch a young Grey Heron standing in the shallows. Stepping slowly and deliberately, placing each foot with care into the gravel-bottomed water, he paid little attention to us, focused on the world beneath the water, and what he might catch to eat.
Peter commented that the river seemed relatively unnaffected by humans. Although there were signs of management, with fences and bridges, stakes to prevent erosion to the banks and gravelled pathways to carry people through it, outside of these, the water and the woodland formed a complex tangle of life and structure, untidied and unstraightened.
A key part of our conversation related to language. With Peter chiefly focusing on writing, and me being a visual artist, I was keen to explore the relationship between the two, and between each of them and direct embodied experience. In exploring interconnection, what role does written and spoken language have to play, and what distance does it put between us and the rest of the world?
As part of this we talked about the word Nature. Together we discussed how otherwise positive work, in using the word nature (‘time in nature, going ‘back to nature’, ‘nature writing’ etc) acts from and reinforces the same distanced viewpoint that allows us to see our fellow beings as ‘other’, and inflict the kind of damage on them (and in turn on ourselves) that has got us into the crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss that we find ourselves in.
I’m not judging anyone when I’m writing this – I myself have a new project coming up that I’ve called Noticing Nature – I’m just wondering out loud how we can move beyond it . When the language we use in our speech and writing limits us to binary divisions of human and nature, how can we communicate the experiences of interconnection and belonging, that we are so keen to share?
Peter also told me about some of the conversations he’s had with artist Sarah Gillespie, with whom he has previously published an book called ‘On Prescence’ and will shortly be releasing a new one titled ‘On Sentience’,
‘…if we conceive a world of objects with no intrinsic value or meaning, mere resources for our use, then that is what we will experience; if we call to a world of sentient beings, they may grace us with a response. And since sentient beings can’t be expected to speak English, we must learn to converse metaphorically, poetically, in a language of things: invocation through symbol and ceremony on our part; synchronous gestures from the world that convey intent and meaning in response.’Peter Reason
As Peter described the way that Sarah’s drawings take form through hours of detailed observation, and how this in turn feeds into her moth mezzotints, I reflected on how my own artwork is either made through an embodied/situated experience (for instance the bundles we were binding together that drew us in closer through our eyes and hands), or informed by such experiences but created later, after reflection, reading and planning. As I have written before, the slow and focused nature of such work feels vital to me in a time of emergency, when we might otherwise feel pulled or pushed to take the action that we feel is better befitting to a climate and ecological emergency.
Moving out of the reserve, under the brick-built bridge and along a path past houses and gardens, we began to talk about Peter’s upcoming work with Schumacher College, alongside Freya Matthews, Andreas Weber and Stephan Harding. Together they will be supporting participants to bring panpsychic practices/awareness to their own local rivers.
A panpsychic view starts from the understanding that all things, including the Earth itself, are integral to the fabric of the living cosmos, all of the same sentient cloth. Mind is a fundamental aspect of matter just as matter is a fundamental aspect of mind: we are part of a world that has depth as well as structure, meaning as well as form. In Thomas Berry’s words, this is a community of subjects, not a collection of objects. We will explore this perspective through an on-line co-operative inquiry with Rivers* in the vicinity of participants: if we invoke their living presence, address them as subjective persons, what manner of response might we receive?Schumacher College website
As we continued our walk on out of the village, and through the wooden kissing gate to the boardwalks of Jone’s Mill, we paused to notice the rich reddy purple of Alder catkins and branches encrusted with blue and green lichen, and shared the books that we were reading and what they were teaching us. The impossibility of drawing clear lines between individual species (Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life), or the possibility of both remaining an individual whilst also interwoven into and inseparable from the whole (Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles).
The richness of the fenland landscape (the only area of fen in Wiltshire apparently) seemed to stem from the fact that the river wasn’t limited to a single channel or corridor, but permeated the whole landscape. It reminded me of the kinds of habitats that I’ve seen and read about that have been created with the help of beavers. The language of the river and the woods was the language of the streams that wriggled musically between tussocky grasses, of the birds that called and answered among catkins, catkins that hung and swung from dark crooked branches that drew themselves across the sky. It spoke to me of a community of interconnected individuals, interdependent and free to discover and develop their identity through relationship.
Along the way we paused to collect sticks, leaves and other materials for our bundles, and our conversation grew to explore the relationship between academic theory and artistic practice, and between qualities that Peter described as masculine and feminine. At this stage in my research I am noting what emerges from such conversations, and processing/reflecting them as I go. I know I want to return to explore why such terms, and their associations with gendered archetypes, don’t feel a good fit for me. I’m keen to explore ways of thinking and being that are freed from oppositional or binaried associations (not that Peter was putting it that way).
Which has left me with a few more questions. What happens when we Queer archetypes? Can we? Growing up without seeing myself reflected in any books, films etc has left me suspicious of anything that claims to be universal. Are archetypes universal or have we just not spent enough time looking at who was in power when they were identified, or why they are the most common/popular in each of the societies that were looked at? Just because something is dominant doesn’t mean it is universal.
There was so much that emerged from our walk, and Peter was so generous with his thinking, that I need more time to think about, look up and make sense of it all, and some of that will come further down the line as other walks and conversations intersect with this one. For now I’m sharing a few fragments here from what we noticed and what questions that triggered in me in turn.
Thank you Peter, I’m looking forward to coming to meet you at your River Avon soon.