At the same time that Queer River evolves to include different wetland habitats, my garden wildlife pond, dug in early April continues to evolve, with diving beetles, pond skaters and various fly larvae arriving. Yesterday I sat by the pond to start to draw some of the plant life, and saw my first damsel fly, a Small Red.
I’m fascinated by this new community of life that I’m helping to create, and the changing shapes, colours, movements, reflections and growth that I observe from day to day, the relationship between the above and below, land and water, man-made and wild.
Multiple exposure photographs allow me to layer different imagery together, to play with the relections, depth, transparency and interbeing that I notice within different wetland habitats, to (once again) blur boundaries and remove obstacles to a more fluid way of seeing the world.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I met with the botanist Mark Spencer, at Slade Green railway station in south east London, for a walk across the Crayford Marshes (an area of grazing marsh near to Erith) down to the River Thames. I had heard Mark talking about his work on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific (listen again here), so got in touch to let him know about Queer River, and invited him to choose a location for our walk together.
‘Dr Mark Spencer is an experienced and internationally respected botanist. His expertise covers many disciplines including forensic botany, the plants of North-west Europe, invasive species and the history of botanical science. He also works globally as a seasoned writer, public speaker and television presenter. As a forensic botanist, Mark has worked on various missing person enquiries, murders and other serious crimes.‘
‘The Sisters devote ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. The Sisters believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.‘
As Mark and I walked and talked, he shared with me why he’d chosen this place for our walk, and what it meant to him. I asked him questions about the relationship between his work as a botanist, and his identity as a Queer man. We also discussed the impact that the changing climate and sea levels are having on the landscape and its biodiversity, on the value of urban biodiversity in general, and what the likely effects of climate breakdown will be in the future.
On the way, I made notes of key names, facts and quotes, and gathered different objects from along our path and down by the river’s edge. I recorded the walk using a box of pages that I had put together a couple of days previously, sheets of paper printed with maps of the site and images of previous Queer River walks, overlaid with my notes, mud from the riverbank and the objects that I collected (see the ‘The River is a Guide to the Land’ for another example of how I use Walking Pages to document Queer River walks).
We talked about the relationship between botany and colonialism, in the context of museums and collecting. I was interested in what Mark had to say about botanic terminology that enables us to understand when and how plants have arrived in this country, and whether they are seen as native, invasive etc. I was also struck by the relationship between the site’s timeline of historic changes/adaptations, its current industrial uses, and the current/coming impacts of climate breakdown – between what many might see as ‘natural’ forces and man-made development.
Plants which can tolerate salt water are becoming more common as sea levels rise, and seaweeds are gradually moving upstream as salinity increases. Dumps of domestic and industrial waste along the coast are at real risk of being submerged and leaking into the sea as the low lying land is engulfed. As Mark said: ‘This is in many ways a Queer landscape… diverse, weird and at the edges… like our community’.
Mark shared how his sense of social justice was informed by his upbringing and his queerness, including being bullied at school. His sense of what is kind and fair is profoundly intersectional and ‘frames how I position myself in terms of how I relate to biodiversity.’
I asked Mark of his thoughts on Rewilding, a useful concept we both agreed, but a word which may now be being ‘corrupted’, or morphed from its original meaning, as people use it for all kinds of acts and projects that, although coming from good intentions in the face of climate fear and grief, may do more harm than good.
For example, tree planting schemes that plant trees onto increasingly rare grassland habitats in urban areas, or too closely together and without thought for the understorey, which is necessary for a healthy, functioning woodland ecosystem. Or the scattering of wildflower seed mixes without an awareness of whether those species are suitable for where they are being scattered (or the impacts upon existing vegetation). Mark, as I understand it, champions the process of ‘minimum intervention restoration’, an approach to landscape regeneration that is sensitive to what has come before.
We talked about what it means to be an activist, and why Mark feels the work of scientists such as himself isn’t valued as activism. That his advice is often not sought or listened to when such ‘rewilding’ projects take place, and why it’s the big, visual acts that are often valued, rather than the quieter, slower processes based on research into the site’s ecology and history.
As with all my Queer River walks, there was much more than I could include here. This post is just a beginning. All of our conversation will continue to inform my work both inside and outside of Queer River, and I’m grateful to Mark for being so generous with his time and open with his reflections.
My time with Mark has strengthened my resolve to look more closely at the biodiversity of wetland sites and the relationship between Queer people and wetlands. In recent weeks I’ve been digging a wildlife pond in my garden and have been sourcing native aquatic plants to add to it. I’ve enjoyed being able to spent time focusing on a small scale, newly created, wetland habitat, and watch it change day by day as new organisms such as diving beetles and pond skaters arrive to colonise it. Habitats like marshland, ponds and riverbanks have always captured my imagination with their merging of water and land, their feeling of being on the edges.
One of the subjects that Mark and I touched on were the changes that are taking place in our landscapes due to the changing climate, including the spreading of new or previously locally rare plant species, and the influx of new bird species such as egrets and herons. (Alongside the reintroduction of Cranes,White Storks and Sea Eagles. Today it was announced that a scheme to reintroduce eagles to Norfolk has been given the go ahead).
Of course its not all about our landscapes being enriched with a new variety of bird and plant life. As our climate changes and bird species move up into the UK from the south, those species that specialise in living in colder, upland habitats to the north get pushed off of the top. Equally, it’s easy for me to lapse into thinking about new species of wetland plants colonising coastlines and estuaries, or shifting from one place to another, but the fact is that sea level rises may be too fast and too high in the future for these areas to exist above water at all, and many coastal habitats, such as Crayford Marshes, precious strips of land sandwiched between the sea and industrial or housing development, may be lost altogether.
As the waters rise, will there be anywhere for the plants and animals of coastal marshland to move to? Will we finally stop building on floodplains, and how will we manage the retreat from the edges that will be necessary? What will we do when the floodwaters reach the hundreds of coastal landfill sites, waste dumps and nuclear power stations? And how will we coexist with all the other plants and animals as the land shrinks?
I’m excited to have been invited to share some of the Queer River artwork as an installation at the Yarmouth Springs Eternal exhibition in Great Yarmouth next month.
‘Yarmouth Springs Eternal is an arts, nature and walking project based in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. It will take place from the Spring Equinox to Summer Solstice in 2021. The overall ethos of Yarmouth Springs Eternal project is about connecting with nature and seasons, with a particular focus on overlooked spaces and everyday interactions. The project will also explore the importance of this relationship on our wellbeing, the feeling of wholeness connecting with nature can bring, and the “awe” of being part of something bigger. Yarmouth Springs Eternal is also underpinned by research outlining the inequality of access to green space in the UK.’
The project has been set up by Artist Genevieve Rudd and the exhibition will be curated by Kaavous Clayton of Original Projects. The exhibition runs from 19th May until 20th June, at PrimeYarc, a former Debenhams store in the Market Gates shopping centre, with a conference on Saturday 22nd May at which I and the other artists involved will be talking about our work.
‘The Yarmouth Springs Eternal exhibition will feature artwork and a co-designed pamphlet created during a series of artist-led community walks/workshops, attended by adults in Great Yarmouth with lived experience of homelessness and migration. The exhibition will also include showcases from guest exhibitors from across UK exploring creativity and the connection to the natural world: Jacques Nimki, James Aldridge, Jason Evans Bill Vine and Company Drinks.‘
I’ll share some images of the full installation once it’s up and I’ve visited the exhibition, in the meantime I’ve included some photographs of work in progress for the exhibition, from a walk along the River Avon (Bristol Avon) near Lacock yesterday.
It’s school Easter Holidays here, and I’ve been balancing starting a new project (www.noticing-nature.com) and joining the occasional meeting, with helping our boy venture out of lockdown to meet friends and be more sociable again. I also dug myself a pond, which I have been extremely excited about planting and filling, and waiting for a community of pond-life to establish itself.
I asked our son Joseph if he’d like to join me for a river walk last week, and what he’d like to do on the walk; to collect, draw, write, make etc. He replied that he liked the river plants best and he’d like to draw those. So we created a fold out sketch book each, packed drinks and snacks, mark-making materials and a blanket, and drove to a nearby stretch of the Salisbury Avon, where you can get right down near the river and walk along its banks.
One of the first things Joseph noticed was the cracks in the dried out soil about which he said “It’s the crackly skin“. We talked about the soil as the skin of the earth, and how to me they also looked like the tributaries of a river or the branches of a tree. Our conversation took me back to my very first walk, with Claire from Wessex Archaeology with whom I discussed dendritic (tree like) patterns in and around rivers, the repeating patterns of branching connectivity that we saw in trees, bushes, river mud and on the surface of flints at the river’s edges.
As Joseph and I continued to walk, we used dandelions to make yellow marks on pages, blended felt-tip colours to record our impressions of the meandering river, and noticed the shapes that trees made on the water through their reflections. We sat and watched ewes lick their freshly born lambs clean, changing from yellow and red to white, and Joseph began to gather sticks. He’s a big fan of sticks and the possibilities that they offer for becoming other things.
While we sat and watched the lambs and ate our snacks, I asked Joseph a few questions, about rivers and what he thought or felt about them. Here’s a little of what he told me:
“I like the meandering bits and the parts that you can get right down to and have a paddle… I like feeling the water on my feet and its just very relaxing. It makes me feel happy, especially if it’s a hot day. I like the feeling of it being next to me.
Drews Pond is my favourite memory of a river – is it a river? – because Archie (a good friend of Joseph’s) fell into it (the stream) and that was very funny.I want to do some pooh sticks now, I want to find out how far they go.”
Alongside my adventures with Joseph, a new piece of work has started to feed into my Queer River research. I’m collaborating with Dr Steve Marshall and Dr Katherine Semler, faculty on the Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change (EDOC) at Ashridge College, to inform a workshop I’ve been asked to run for current students. In the workshop I’ll be sharing the role that art and making plays within my research, focusing on Queer River and its multi-layered, collaborative nature.
As Steve, Katherine and I have met over the weeks to share our individual research interests, and find the places where our separate inquiries connect to form a shared inquiry, it’s caused me to explore the relationship between the different elements of Queer River more deeply, so that I can better articulate them. Because Queer River is all about collaboration, connection, exchange and ‘becoming with’ others, as I share the process, draw and talk about it, and hear about Steve and Katherine’s methods and practices in return, rather than just talking about it as a separate piece of research, our dialogue becomes a part of Queer River itself.
Back on my walk with Joseph, I felt him start to lose interest in making marks on paper, drawn as he was to playing with his sticks. It makes complete sense, every walk we go on he picks up and uses sticks. Perhaps if I’d planned it differently it could have been me joining him in a riverside exploration of sticks rather than him joining me in using Walking Pages. So I tried to blend the two. As he collected sticks to float and race on the river, I collected sticks to make rubbings, and pierced the paper with them, weaving them into the fabric of my page.
I asked Joseph what he liked about sticks so much and he replied, “It’s like free lightsabers and pistols, everytime I go out I think about different things I want to use them for”. Next time, I told him, I’ll leave the paper at home and we can spend more time exploring with sticks.
In the drawings that I’ve created recently, to make sense of the different relationships and subjects within Queer River, I’ve used imagery of the flowing river itself, with boats to represent individual people, and the same dendritic patterns that Joseph noticed, to connect them.
In our first conversation as part of the Ashridge work, Katherine asked me how I chose the people I walk, talk and make with. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since. In many ways it’s an intuitive process, if I’m interested in their work and it connects in some way with rivers then it’s likely to be a good fit.
If I know and respect them and their work and know that they in turn will be interested in exchanging thoughts and ideas with me, then that’s a good fit too. As I become more aware of the connections within my work then I also become more aware of where I want to go next, and who might be an appropriate collaborator on that journey. And that’s where the title of this post comes in, together we are different elements of the same whole, our different paths interweaving and flowing together, and through dialogue with each other, we can catch a glimpse of that larger whole.
It matters less that I know exactly what each exchange will look like. I don’t want to overplan it, I have a methodology in place and I can trust that. I process what our exchange means for my research, by documenting it in the moment, and then reflecting on it later through writing and drawing.
As the research develops and I share it more widely, more people are getting in touch with whom it resonates, and who are carrying out their own related research, to propose walking and talking together, so sometimes it’s more about them choosing me, or choosing to become involved themselves.
I’ve three more walks planned for the next few weeks, as well as the Ashridge College Workshop. I’ll also be exhibiting/presenting at the Yarmouth Springs Eternal exhibition and conference at the end of May/beginning of June. In addition I’m waiting to hear about a DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) funding application, that I should get the response to from Arts Council England over the next couple of weeks, and which would make a huge difference to this project if I’m successful.
My first walk takes place next week and is a remote walk. It’s something I’ve been looking to develop for a while. I can’t always meet to walk with people in person, because of geographical limitations or Covid, so I’ve been keen to develop ways of walking with people when I’m by my river and they are by theirs. I’ll be walking with the artist Jacqueline Campbell who is based in Suffolk, and who has been using her arts practice to engage with her own local chalk stream. Jacquie, who I met through Instagram, will be walking and making along the River Lark near Bury St Edmunds, while I walk along my stretch of the Avon, and we will agree a shared focus or questions as a framework for our walk before we go.
My second walk will take place at the beginning of May, in the marshes close to the River Thames to the East of London, and I will be walking with the Botanist and Mycologist Dr Mark Spencer. I contacted Mark after hearing him talk about his work on this episode of The Life Scientific on Radio 4. His work includes a focus on invasive species, urban botany and forensic botany.
Thirdly I will be walking in the Salisbury area later in May with the Art Psychotherapist and Doctoral Researcher Eugene Hughes. Eugene got in touch via Twitter. His research asks the question ‘How does being alone with nature influence a sense of self?‘ Eugene will interview me, and we will discuss his research so far, as we walk.
As with each of the previous walks with project partners/collaborators, I will be documenting them and writing a blog post here, to reflect on and share what we discover together.
I’ve been planning on writing this post for a while, but it’s a massive area of interwoven threads, so I’ll just start by saying that this isn’t intended to neatly tie up all the connections between HIV/AIDS and the Earth Crisis, it’s meant as a beginning, a way of starting to track what I am learning about the relationship between viral pandemics, the Climate/Ecological Emergency, and climate justice, through the lens of the experiences of LGBTQi+ people.
This morning I dropped my son off at school and then took the dog for a walk on the way back home. After we’d been on our walk and I’d cleared my head, I got back in the car and turned on the radio.
It was Radio 4 and Start the Week was half way through, with Chris van Tulleken, infectious diseases doctor and presenter, describing how researchers had now pinpointed the time and place that HIV jumped from chimpanzees to humans.
Van Tulleken goes into more depth in ‘The Jump: HIV’, one of three episodes in the series, which explores the point at which viruses jumped from animals to humans, and what led up to/caused that to happen, including Coronavirus. With HIV, enslaved soldiers in Cameroon in the First World War were forced to kill wild animals for food with guns, and the blood from an infected chimp had entered the body of one of the soldiers.
In terms of Coronavirus, there has been increased discussion over the last year or so, about the origins of the current pandemic, and its relationship with habitat destruction, which brings humans into closer contact to wild animals. Climate Museum UK founding director Bridget McKenzie has been gathering such material together through contemporary collecting project ‘The Pandemic and the Earth Crisis’, which includes this quote from Jonathan Foley:
“Countless reports have warned us during the last thirty years…that changing environmental conditions were contributing to increasing disease threats. Numerous studies highlighted how infectious diseases could arise from deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, wildlife exploitation, the bushmeat and traditional medicine trade, confined animal agriculture, and antibiotic misuse.”
One thing that Van Tulleken is keen to point out in ‘The Jump: HIV’ is that indigenous people have been hunting wild animals for a very long time, using sustainable methods, with no ill effects. In this case, during WW1, allied forces invaded Cameroon (then a German colony) and ordered starving Congolese soldiers to go into the jungle to hunt animals for meat. To put it simply, the jump was enabled by the move from small numbers of local Cameroonian people hunting enough animals for their own needs, and not killing chimpanzees, to thousands of armed men coming into the area from outside, and killing chimpanzees and other wildlife with firearms.
Taking a big leap forwards now to the 1970s and 80s, and the HIV virus was causing men from the gay community in the US and then Europe to become ill and die. Because the new disease was seen as a ‘gay plague’ or a ‘gay cancer’, the Reagan administration in the US didn’t see a reason to take the immediate action that people desperately needed, whilst in the UK Margaret Thatcher’s government were wary of being associated with the disease or the ‘immorality’ of gay sex. Thatcher worried that educating young people about safe gay sexual practices would encourage them the try them out and somehow become gay:
‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay…’
As her press secretary Norman Fowler recalled, there was a reticence to including information on sexual practices that were unsafe in literature on HIV/AIDS because of this:
‘“Her concern was – it’s always seemed to me a bit odd – that we were teaching people, telling people things about which they didn’t know – the implication being that, once they knew it, then they would go out and experiment.”
So what has this all got to do with Queer River? Alongside a physical exploration of rivers and their futures, and the value of walking with a river as a model of ‘becoming with’ the river or sympoeisis, one of the key strands of this research project is Climate Justice and the experiences of LGBTQi+ people.
‘Climate justice” is a term, and more than that a movement, that acknowledges climate change can have differing social, economic, public health, and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations. Advocates for climate justice are striving to have these inequities addressed head-on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies.’
When the AIDS crisis hit the US, and gay men were the first to be affected, the response was slow because it didn’t appear to affect the majority, or those in power. Later, when it came to climate breakdown, the countries of the Global North (although the highest polluters) seemed to get off lightest, with the majority of extreme weather events affecting the Global South, and as with the AIDS crisis, the governments of countries such as US and the UK have been slow to act.
As the effects of climate breakdown builds and starts to be felt in different ways around the world, those that are already vulnerable because of social inequalities will face/are facing increased hardship and violence. Although in this particular project I’m particularly looking at LGBTQi+ people, the effects are born by a range of groups, as the piece in Yale Climate Connections explains:
‘Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, older or very young people, women – all can be more susceptible to risks posed by climate impacts like raging storms and floods, increasing wildfire, severe heat, poor air quality, access to food and water…’.
To use a simple example, a trans climate migrant will face increased danger, because of transphobia and the higher levels of violence that trans people, especially trans people of colour, experience, as well as the physical danger of having to leave their home country. A young Jamaican queer person may well end up living in the sewers of Kingston because of the laws and attitudes of that country. With increased extreme weather events such as cyclones, their vulnerability to the effects of climate breakdown are then also increased.
So what can we do about this, and what can we learn from LGBTQi+ people themselves? In Climate Stew Episode 16 – A Queer Response to Climate Change, the podcast explores how we can learn from the AIDS crisis to inform our response to the climate (earth) crisis, and how organisations such as ACT UP were created because ‘ the (gay) community had to educate themselves and look after each other’ because no one in power was going to:
‘(ACT UP) was founded in March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Manhattan, New York, in response to what was seen as the U.S. government’s lack of action on the growing number of deaths from HIV infection and AIDS. By 1987 AIDS had killed almost 60,000 people worldwide, and more than 40,000 were HIV-positive in the United States alone.
Through constant public protests, open forums, and information sharing, ACT UP was able to help reverse these misconceptions and stereotypes and bring attention to the inadequacies of the U.S. government’s treatment of people with AIDS.’
The Climate Stew podcast goes on to explore how an ‘ACT UP For the Climate’ organisation might work in the future, including the adoption of the ACT UP campaign slogan SILENCE = DEATH.
In another podcast, this time from the Our Climate Voices site, five queer and trans climate justice organisers come together to discuss how the connections between trans and queer liberation intersect with issues of climate justice:
‘If our analysis isn’t intersectional, then the solutions won’t be either… climate change is a symptom of not taking care… of the climate and of ourselves… the global climate crisis is made up of multiple systems of repression…’
As with my own explorations of the value of Queer perspectives on living well with the land, (see A Queer Path to Wellbeing), the contributors to this podcast explore the value of the viewpoint that their sexuality/gender identity and exclusion from mainstream society has provided them, as they seek connection and understanding beyond binaried divisions ‘…because we live outside the boxes, we care for each other in different ways.’
As I said at the beginning, its a big subject, and I’m learning as I go along, but at the heart of all this I understand the need to decolonise systems in order to see each other clearly, and to understand the value that our different viewpoints and voices can bring (on a smaller scale, my walks with others along rivers provide an opportunity for an exchange perspectives and experiences, including non-human as well as human voices).
The AIDS crisis is relevant because it was itself caused by colonial and extractivist practices, and its effects were exacerbated by the prejudices of western society towards a particular group or groups. It is a valuable lesson because it can teach us the value of caring for each other in times of crisis, and the impact of denying care to another because of difference. As many of the contributors to the articles and podcasts that I have quoted here have said, LGBTQi+ people have faced existential threats before, (as have people of colour and disabled people), and we bring skills and ways of seeing and being with the world that are of benefit to all.
‘Even in the moments when we’re in pain, when we’re uncomfortable, when the task ahead feels overwhelming, and we feel defeated by the sheer scope of everything that’s wrong in the world, we don’t have to give up on life or on humanity. Queer and trans disabled people know that, because that’s how we live. At this moment of climate chaos, we’re saying: Welcome to our world. We have some things to teach you if you’ll listen, so that we can all survive.’
Today I spoke with Timothy Allsop, founder of Turn of Phrase Theatre Company and co-lead of the Queer Rural Connections Project, with Kira Allmann and The Oxford Centre for Research in Humanities (TORCH).
‘The project collects oral testimony from rural queer people and engages them in the making process of both theatre and film. This is a participatory project and our methodology places the interviewees and communities at the heart of the storytelling process. The film and theatre piece will tour several heritage and arts venues, and will also be part of an Oxford panel day in the summer of 2021’
This video is taken from Tim’s instagram feed and will also be available on the Queer Rural Exchange website soon. In it we discuss the inspiration behind the Queer River project and its relationship to the rural landscape which I call home. Thank you to Tim for inviting me to share my practice as part of #QueerRuralX.
You can watch recordings of converstions between Tim and other ‘artists, researchers, writers, and thinkers on queer rural issues’ via the QRX Showcase page of the Queer Rural Connections website.
Earlier this week I took a longer walk, from my home in the Vale of Pewsey, along the western arm of the upper reaches of the Salisbury Avon. I printed some images onto thick cartridge paper to create some Walking Pages to record my journey, and set out with the idea that I would look at how limited access to the river is, and how my experience of it is limited to glimpses of sections of the river at certain crossing points.
I ended up walking until the western arm reaches the eastern arm at Rushall, joining forces to flow south towards Salisbury. My Walking Pages lasted for about half of my walk, as I made my way via the villages of Chirton, Patney, Marden, Wilsford, Charlton St Peter and Rushall, following public footpaths and country roads, keeping as close as I could to the path of the river.
I had realised quite early on in the developent of this project that my idea of walking along the length of the river wasn’t going to be possible. In each of my walks so far, except perhaps for the first one with Claire from Wessex Archaeology, the times when I can actually stand on the banks of the river are pretty few, generally I am looking down from a road or foot bridge.
During my talk with art.earth, artist/geographer Sage Brice asked whether my research would look into these issues of river ownership and control. This longer walk felt like the ideal opportunity to start to explore how human infastructure and the river intersect to enable or deny access, and to document the vantage points from which such glimpses were taken.
Often on these walks, what I set out to do doesn’t always translate into what happens. As with the walk to find the source of the river, the river often shows me a different way of seeing and thinking about it and the wider landscape. In this case, yes I took photographs of the different bridges, the gaps in hedges, the white highlighted wrought iron barriers, and felt frustrated at points that I couldn’t get closer, but I also started to notice the relationship between the water and the land in a different way too.
As I walked along lanes, over stiles and across fields I was very aware of whether my path echoed the path of the river, whether we moved in parallel or whether my route took me away. As I walked I recorded my thoughts and feelings onto the paper of the Walking Pages:
‘I find it really uncomfortable walking the wrong way, like going against the flow. I know the river carries on but I have to turn around, up the road, to cut across again… But then I heard the swans, heard their wings. The River came to meet me, they flew directly over me, and as I wrote this they returned, lower, circling twice, as if to land. Then lower still, behind the trees to the water.’
The experience with the swans reminded me the writing of Peter Reason in On Sentience, when he writes about his own experience with swans, this time at the place where the Bristol Avon and River Frome meet:
‘One might say, well this was something that just happened as the swans went about their daily business. Yet the unexpected quality of the event washed away any scepticism: I had no doubt that it was an intentional move, a choreographed gesture from the whole River being, a reciprocal act in response to… my invocation.’
As I continued on my walk, I was increasingly aware of the shape of the land in relationship to the river, and of the birds that I noticed (or who showed themselves to me). At the start of the walk I had seen a Barn Owl, shaking the wet from its feathers from its perch on a wooden rail, quite out of place at 10am. During the walk I talked to the swans that I saw in flight and on the swampy fields between villages. They seemed like guardians of the river, its representatives on land, and were reasurring and familiar as I made my way along pathways and through villages I’d never walked through before. Woodpeckers drummed, a Sparrowhawk flew fast from the trees, and a pair of Mallards flew nearby, unseen by me but calling as they went. And then at the end, right where I stopped and thanked the river, another Barn Owl flew across the river in front of me, up into the branches of a willow tree.
I was walking with the understanding that being alongside the river wasn’t possible all the time and I wanted to make note of when I couldn’t be and how that felt. However, as the walk went on I didn’t feel so disconnected from it after all. When I walked along a road, I found myself noticing the standing water or the trickle down a drain. When I walked along the wet margins of a field I saw the soil being carried away down the slope, Everywhere I walked I noticed the gradient of the land’s surface, and how it guided the water back down towards the path of the river.
I thought again about the word catchment, and another comment from the art.earth discussion, as we talked about not being able to tell where a river starts or ends, Richard Broadbent observed in the Zoom chat, ‘Rivers don’t start or end, they gather’.
‘Everywhere I look, I see the way that land and water work together. I can’t stop noticing the gradient of the land… reading the land, understanding its hills and dips, highs, lows and flows.’
It’s taken me a while to write this post as I wasn’t sure what to write, and in some ways its still not completely resolved, but I want to share the experience while it’s still fresh. It was a longer walk than usual and the more I walked the more I stepped out of thinking and just kept on walking. Towards the end of the walk there was a surprising amount of footpaths that followed the riverbank too, and I started to feel like we were flowing together.
Then, as I reached Rushall Church (swearing quietly to myself at the wonder that was the Barn Owl marking the end as well as the start of my walk), I sat down on my coat on the grass, and asked myself a few questions:
What have I learned today? What have I gained or let go of? To be more open… open about asking, open about receiving. Open to all of it.
The river is a guide to the whole, it’s not ‘just’ a river, not separate to the rest of the world, not just one element but a connector, a bringer and receiver. It leads and shows and teaches, and I ask for it to share its knowledge with me, to be guided, supported, enabled.
Since the First Friday event last week with art.earth, and my walk with Peter Reason before that, I’ve been thinking about the idea of a language (or many languages) of place. In the questions that came up during last Friday’s event, there were a few on sentience and panpsychism (more in relationship to Peter’s work and his collaboration with Sarah Gillespie than mine). I talked with Mark Leahy about how I am open to exploring what a response from a River or other being might look like, and with Peter about what language is/means in relationship to rivers and the communities that form them.
I could just as easily have called this post ‘Walking with… Joseph’ as during lockdown the large majority of my walking time is spent walking down to the river with my son, But I’ll come back to him in a future post, and concentrate on what I feel I am receiving from the river in this post instead, and whether that can be called language.
On our walk this morning, along the country road that we live on, with trimmed hedges on each side, rushy ditches edging the fields beyond, and a white rusted pole alongside, I started to take photos of what I noticed (or what was shown to me), and thought about the colours, textures, shapes and patterns, as the language of my local patch,
In the art.earth event several people talked about how lockdown has led them to spend more time locally, to be with their own local patches and rivers. In my practice I am always exploring ways of recording what I and others notice, and the relationship between the noticer and what is noticed. I’m interested in how/if what is noticed can be affected by the noticer’s experiences of Queerness/exclusion.
During the art.earth event I mentioned a podcast from For the Wild that has been important to me, and so am sharing it here. In ‘Reclaiming Wild safe Space’ , Queer Nature talk about how the experiences of people within the LGBTQi+ community, especially within rural spaces, are informed by historic trauma. Where rural spaces may be associated with risk and danger, it can lead to a kind of hyper-vigilance, which in turn may be made use of by the noticer to receive information. Not only information that could warn of potential danger, but information from the beings that make up their local ‘environment’ in the form of sounds, smells, tracks and signs.
So how does this inform my own receptivity to the language of a place? It’s very hard to tell. What comes from my Queerness and what comes from a lifetime of practice as an artist, or someone who has grown up with regular access to wildlife rich places, and feelings of affinity with other animals?
When I talked with Mark I spoke about watching a Buzzard fly over the river and pondering whether I can describe that as receiving a message. Not through spoken words, but in a similar way to watching a dancer perform. We also talked briefly about how our openness to the idea of sentience in other beings, and our ability to notice any communication with/from them, is informed by our beliefs. So if I don’t expect to be able to receive a message from a river then I won’t, but if I do expect it, do I read something into it that isn’t there? (this also leads me to thinking about Quatum Physics, and the observer/observed but that can wait for another post).
I don’t have clear answers to any of this right now, but am happy to be developing the language here and in my making, that I need to explore it. While I am considering what the language of a river might look/sound/smell like, I have ordered this book to read too. I will let you know what it’s like.
Yesterday I gave an informal presentation, followed by a discussion with Artist and Educator Mark Leahy, at one of the regular ‘First Friday’ events organised by art.earth. In it I talked abut Queer River, what it is, why I set it up, and what has happened so far.
Thank you to Mark and to art.earth’s Founding Director Richard Povall, for inviting me and giving me an opportunity to share the work, and explore through discussion, where Queer River might head next
‘Mark Leahy (one of art.earth’s Directors) will host artist James Aldridge. James has been our featured artist for January, and for the First Friday event he will discuss his current project Queer River. Starting with his local river, the Avon in Pewsey Vale, Wiltshire, his project has involved walks, conversations, reading, writing and making. Using the river itself and the idea of the river as prompt and impetus James has considered how queering the discourses of ecology, of environmental art, of landscape and of nature can open possibilities for a different engagement and experience of our immediate surroundings. By actively queering these contexts connections to wider situations of oppression, exclusion and difference can be brought to awareness. Following James’ presentation on the project, and a conversation with Mark Leahy, there will be time for questions from and discussion with the audience.’
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?
‘…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.’
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.
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.