Art, Ecology and Autism

I’m reposting this blog post that I originally published on the Art, Ecology and Learning site, ahead of planned Queer River walks which will explore Neurodivergent perspectives:

James Aldridge - Art, Ecology and Learning

In case it hasn’t become clear through my recent posts Neuroqueer and Shedding Skin on the Queer River site, and Masking on here, I’ve recently discovered that I’m Autistic.

It’s been a massive thing to process. I haven’t had an official ‘diagnosis’ yet as I write this, as I wanted to write a post about my own thoughts and feelings before I deal with the ‘medicalised’ version. I’m expecting the assessment/diagnosis process (update on that at the end) to focus on disorders, delays and abnormalities, but I don’t see it that way.

So how do I see it? Well that’s a work in progress. To discover you are autistic at almost 50 is pretty mind-blowing. Looking back at your life and realising why you are the way that you are – the good bits and the more challenging times. But basically if I wasn’t autistic I wouldn’t be me, and…

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Shedding Skin

Here are some photographs that I took last summer using algae and plants from my pond. These followed on from the chalk and water experiments that I’ve written about previously.

I’m looking at these images again as I explore masking and neurodivergence (see Masking a recent post on my artist’s blog), and start to plan a thread of Queer River work/walks that focus on neurodivergent perspectives on/experiences of place (also see my previous Queer River post Neuroqueer).


I’m beginning to explore the significance of neurodivergence to me and my work. Thank you to Rachel Clive for introducing me to the phrase/concept of neuroqueer during my time in Glasgow. Here’s a few images and quotes, to gently start the ball rolling on this exploration, in the context of Queer River.

‘I coined the term neuroqueer in a paper I wrote for a grad school class in the Spring of 2008. Over the next several years, I played with it in further grad school papers, in private conversations, and in the ongoing development of my own thoughts and practices. The concept of neuroqueer, or of neuroqueering (I’ve always seen it as a verb first and an adjective second), increasingly came to inform my thinking, my embodiment, and my approach to life. …just like queer, the adjective form of neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity. One can neuroqueer, and one can be neuroqueer.

Nick Walker

Untitled Drawing – 2021

Neuroqueer is both an identity and an ethos, an adjective and a verb. It’s meanings are varied, but all converge around an intersection of neurodivergent theory and queer theory. In the same ways that queer theory is opposed to cisheteronormativity, neuroqueer theory appears to oppose neuronormativity (the societal forces that privilege neurotypicality over neurodivergence).

Beyond Binary Wiki

Untitled Drawing – 2021

‘The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity – a perspective or approach that boils down to these fundamental principles:

1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.

2.) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.

3.) The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.

Planet Neurodivergent

Queer River, Wet Land – Recording of Online Sharing Event

I’m glad to be able to share this recording for those of you that were unable to make the Queer River, Wet Land sharing event last month, which took place as part of The Dear Green Bothy, with The University of Glasgow,

What can queer perspectives bring to creative explorations of river health and river futures in a time of climate breakdown?

Join this special sharing event to explore the learning that has emerged from the Queer River, Wet Land collaboration, and to deepen your own creative engagement with rivers.

The Dear Green Bothy

As well as my own reflections, the event featured presentations and discussions from Professor of Performance Practice Minty Donald, artist/geographer Sage Brice, theatre practitioner Rachel Clive, and Madrid-based landscape architect Malú Cayetano.

Please follow this link for the full recording:

Our Animal Bodies

After spending a while focusing on other rivers and people’s experiences of them, I felt the need to spend time with my own local river again this week, the River Avon as it passes out of the Vale of Pewsey and starts heading down towards Salisbury.

I decided to focus my walk on the other animals that I’d see or find evidence of there, the river of non-human life that flows with the water. I wanted to exolore how I sense their presence through my body, as my legs carry me past them and the signs that they have left behind.

Here’s a little taste of the path I followed and what showed itself to me along the way…

Queer River, Wet Land – Performance Score Responses

I’m glad to be able to share these first few responses to the Queer River Wet Land performance score, written with Minty Donald, ahead of the Queer River Wet Land Sharing Event this coming Thursday, 25th November from 5 to 6.30 pm.

In addition to the responses included below, Minty, Rachel Clive, Sage Brice and Malú Cayetano will be sharing their own creative responses, live at the online event on Thursday.

Carolyn Black – Rising Tides

‘The banks of the Severn contain, and succumb to, the tides. As the moon circles the earth oceans bulge forcing riverways to press up against their edges, overflow, then spread. When it breaks its banks it seeps along pathways and puddles in hollows. It races inland looking for routes to travel, or soft earth to sink into, weaving between rocks and walls, ignoring roads and railways. Humans can only stand and stare, from high on a hilltop.

Manmade barriers resist the river water and divert it to more gullible places, like fields and ditches. When the flash floods come in, fast and furious, they spread across the landscape, where the earth soaks it up to level the land. When the water recedes and the grass grows back, the field is like a billiard table – smooth, green, fertile and luscious.

The Severn has gendered mythologies ascribed to it of Sabrina and Hafren. Now, with climate change causing more flooding than ever, there is a tautness at the edges of the river. A tension not unlike the skin of a woman stretched over an unborn child. The edges are becoming blurred, strained until the waters break. Pregnant with what is to come.

In twenty years time this river I know so well will no longer be a river. It will be underwater, bar a few hills protruding above sea level. Islands. A river reborn, reconstructed. It is queer to think about this nearby future, but think, we must. To make us act. Now.’

Gerry O’Brien – Water Way

‘My name is Gerard O’Brien (known mostly as Gerry) and I’m a landscape architect by trade, but work for Architecture & Design Scotland at the moment. When not in that world I engage in a lot of creative endeavours. 

I’ve responded to your score which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a basic written film in a sense. The piece I’ve sent you is based on an encounter with the burn (stream) that flows at the bottom of our communal gardencalled Burdiehouse Burn, to the best of my knowledge. It is within Burdiehouse Burn Valley Park.

Susan Merrick – Muddiness (Blackwater River)

‘I wanted to accept the invitation to respond to the Queer River performance score as a chance to consider my own longstanding connection to river edges, but also to explore my own queerness and what that means to me right now in my life. ‘Muddiness’ considers the ever changing relationship we have with ourselves and others, and connects it to the ever changing relationship that the river has within it’s environment, how it both shapes and is shaped.’

Susan Merrick is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Hampshire, she hosts a podcast called ‘Woman Up!’ and runs a project called Conversations with Aldershot, exploring the voices of her local town and how art can be the tool to share these stories.

Dr Helen Clarke and Dr Sharon Witt (Attention2Place) – Becoming Lost With Meon

Working with feminist, posthumanist, and new materialist perspectives we were keen to respond to the Queer River performance score as it provided an opportunity to explore the wateriness of a local Hampshire river and experiment with the language of animacy. Water has been a constant refrain in our research within educational contexts. As educators, we come from science and geography disciplines but work in transdisciplinary ways, increasingly informed by arts-based practices. Our film celebrates how pedagogical encounters that are sensory, embodied and practice-led, can disrupt and break boundaries by deepening engagement, developing response-ability (Haraway, 2016) and considering nature/culture relations.’

Teresa Humphrey (via Twitter)

Walking with… Queer Geographer Joe Jukes

Joe Jukes is a Queer Geographer and a PHd Researcher with The University of Brighton. Joe also curated the Queer Constellations exhibition that I was involved in at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading earlier this year. Currently based in rural Somerset, Joe is researching the experiences of queer people living in the area:

‘The countryside is often seen as a place that lacks queerness, or at least opportunities through which to live queerly. Even so, many queer people continue to live in rural areas. In fact, non-metropolitan space plays host to some very deviant and dissident sexualities and experiences, whose queerness remains underappreciated.

I’m currently researching how one can respond to this tendency, and am doing so by studying queer relations, affects and identities in one rural area in SW England. I question the dominance of ‘lack’ and ‘absence’ in defining rural queer space, and am working towards new ways on conceptualising ‘rural queer’.’

Joe Jukes

Joe and I met to start our walk in Frome Town Centre, and took a walk out of town following the path of the River Frome, a tributary of the Bristol Avon. It was afternoon and the low Autumn sunshine was shining through the trees. We chose the River Frome because of its geographical location between our homes, its link with the Bristol Avon which I’m keen to get to know better, and because beavers are now living wild on the Frome.

I was particularly interested in visiting the Rodden Nature Reserve, because of its history, and because a family of beavers have made it their home. I’m fascinated by the role that beavers can play in ‘wilding’ or queering rivers, giving them back their free flowing nature after being straightened and constrained by humans, and how many wetland reserves exist as the result of gravel extraction or other industrial processes.

Rodden Nature Reserve was created from an area of previously agricultural land adjacent to the A362 Warminster Road by the supermarket chain ASDA Stores Ltd in 2004. Extensive work included reprofiling a hill, diverting the Rodden Brook, rerouting a private road and creating two main lake areas. This resulted in an 8.7 hectare wetland habitat which is part of the flood amelioration strategy for Frome. The reserve remains the property of ASDA and is open to the public from September to February, although it can be viewed from the road at all times…’

The day before we met I had put together a couple of simple pads of paper, clipped together between a sheet of card together with a clear plastic bag. I wasn’t sure if Joe would want to draw/write/collect or if we would focus on talking as we walked, but I like to offer some way to document and reflect on our Queer River walks.

I had also thought a little about what I’d like to cover in our conversation, a few loose ideas. I’d written in my skectchbook ‘Beavers, Boundaries and Binaries‘. I don’t like to plan the walks too rigidly, but to let the conversation to flow wherever it needs to, but I also like to make the most of the time with each collaborator and their specific skills/knowledge.

First page of my Walking Pages

As we walked I told Joe about a conversation that I’d had with Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, earlier in the week. Nick had contacted me to interview me for his follow up book and we had talked a little about trespass means to different groups of people, including people from the LGBTQi+ community.

The Book of Trespass takes us on a journey over the walls of England, into the thousands of square miles of rivers, woodland, lakes and meadows that are blocked from public access. By trespassing the land of the media magnates, Lords, politicians and private corporations that own England, Nick Hayes argues that the root of social inequality is the uneven distribution of land.

Good Reads – The Book of Trespass

Nick’s follow up book, The Trespassers’ Companion, which is due to be published in April 2022, ‘shows how we can reclaim our lost connection to the land‘ through contributions from a range of people with different perspectives on the UK countryside and the Right to Roam campaign which Nick co-founded.

Joe and I talked about how queer people make everyday transgressive actions, everyday trespasses across gender divides. We talked about the relationship between queer and non-binary identities, how boundaries and binaries of sexuality and gender identity can restrict and constrain in similar ways to our canalisation of rivers. How beavers can unlock a river’s true identity by enabling it to flood and to flow, bringing greater diversity of life to the area, as the boundary between land and water blurs.

Along the river banks someone had set up a story trail with signs and markers that told a story of a beaver and their animal friends. It felt exciting for me to see how the presence of beavers was starting to permeate people’s awareness and alter their relationship with the river. When elsewhere legal battles are continuing, to enable beavers to be released into the wild, these beavers were already making their presence known within local popular culture.

As we reached the area of the Rodden Nature Reserve, where I’d read the family of beavers were living, we looked down over a bridge and watched for signs of movement, or evidence of beaver teeth on tree stumps. This southern area of the reserve is surrounded by roads and the Asda car park. A ‘wild’ (unofficially reintroduced) animal has chosen the reedy, swampy, scrubby area created by a supermarket chain to make its return.

Our conversation and walk was accompanied by the noticing of different sizes and colours of leaves or the wording on signs, discussions on the approach and image of different ‘nature writers’ or artists, and the role of arts-based methods in research. I was happy to watch the way Joe used the walking pages, squashing and rubbing berries, drawing in response to surrounding features, and to listen to their thoughts on water and memory.

As rivers pass through rock, eroding and carving pathways (as through the limestone caves of Somerset) do they remember the paths they have created? Do our memories of times spent in/by rivers flow away with them? Is a river ever the same as the one we have experienced before?

We continued on to end our walk (before a return trip to the car park) in the area of the reserve that is accessible to the public, stopping to look for footprints and to dip our own fingers into the clay scraped by a digger to open up the water, blowing at floaty reed mace seeds, and working into our pages as we followed a path around the lake.

Before we left to head back to our cars, Joe poked at a chunk of wood with their foot which was floating at the edge of the water. Picking it up we realised that is had been cut and shaped by beavers, the marks left by their chisel-like incisors clear in the surface. I won’t go into too much detail on how exciting I found this, except to say that touching these marks and carrying the wood home in my bag came a close second to an actual sighting of a beaver.

Beaver treasure

The wood, which I’ve washed and dried, will now come round with me to different groups and individuals that I work with, helping to tell the story of beavers’ place in our rivers and to spark new Queer River conversations.

I’ve started to draw to make sense of my thoughts on beavers, boundaries and binaries, and on trespass too. I’ll keep returning to these same themes, as they connect and interweave with previous Queer River conversations, and plan to keep investigating beavers as connectors of land/water, above/below, past and future, through walking with the rivers where they live, and researching their place in stories and mythology.

As always, I have so much left to process from our walk, and I’m grateful to Joe for sharing their throughts and experiences with me.

Queer River, Wet Land – Sharing Event, Thursday 25th November

What can queer perspectives bring to creative explorations of river health and river futures, in a time of climate breakdown? Join this special sharing event to explore the learning that has emerged from the Queer River, Wet Land collaboration, and to deepen your own creative engagement with rivers.

The sharing event will tak place on Thursday 25th November from 17:00 – 18:30 GMT. You can book your free tickets here.

Led by artists James Aldridge and Minty Donald, Queer River, Wet Land documented their experiences of the Rivers Clyde and Kelvin, in Glasgow. Focussing on the interrelationship between the water and the land, this exchange of practices drew on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The work resulted in a Performance Score, made publicly available as a way of supporting others to get involved in the project, and to encourage others to engage creatively with their local rivers.

James and Minty will also be joined for this online sharing event by artist/geographer Sage Brice (University of Durham), theatre practitioner Rachel Clive, and Madrid-based landscape architect Malú Cayetano.

Queer River, Wet Land Performance Score: an invitation to collaborate

As a result of my work with Minty Donald last month, on the Queer River Wet Land project with The University of Glasgow, we have put together a performance score to invite others to get involved remotely.

The score, available to download below, invites people to engage with their local river and consider the relationship between the water and the land. We are asking people to share their responses with us via social media using the #QueerRiverWetLand hashtag, or send them via email, for inclusion in this blog.

We will also be running an online event at 5pm on Thursday 25th November, where we will share the outcomes of the Queer River Wet Land project in more depth, with input from invited speakers and a range of responses to the score. As soon as the booking details for this free event have been confirmed I will add them here.

We are really looking forward to you sharing your responses, however playful or simple they may be. So please download the score, take a walk with your river, and see what happens.

Thank you.

Queer River Wet Land Part 1 – Walking with Rachel Clive, Minty Donald, Ingrid Shearer and Cecilia Tortajada

My second day in Glasgow as part of The Dear Green Bothy took me back to The Snow Bridge, with Minty and three more collaborators: Artist and Researcher Dr Rachel Clive, Archaeologist and Heritage Engagement Officer Ingrid Shearer and Professor in Practice – Environmental Innovation, Cecilia Tortajada.

We were to follow the same route that Minty and I walked the day before, in order to expand our understanding of the rivers, through the experiences of this larger, more diverse group.

Meeting on The Snow Bridge

I summarised the Queer River Wet Land project for Rachel, Ingrid and Cecilia, and invited them to introduce themselves to the group, and then handed out a small cloth bag of resources that I’d put together for each of us. Each bag contained some paper, card and stickers, a pencil and pen, and some small lidded collecting pots. They were an offering to enable each collaborator to document their journey in a way that worked for them, or alternatively, they could concentrate on conversation and photographs.

One of the first conversations that I had as we walked along the banks of the Kelvin, was with Cecilia, who was keen to understand the relationship between climate justice and the experiences of LGBTQi+ people, so we talked about the increased vulnerabilities that many queer people are facing/will face as the effects of climate breakdown worsen and spread.

I explained to Cecilia that I was keen to include voices which may not usually be heard in climate discussions, exploring why they aren’t included and what might change in the future if they are. Cecilia suggested that ‘we are all people’ and that she might prefer to relate to each individual as a person first, rather than label them, and I respect the intention behind that.

In my experience though, mainstream society tends to prioritise the needs of certain groups of ‘people’, whose voices are privileged over others. If we are to get to the stage where we can treat each person as an individual, then those of us that don’t fit into that mainstream, who don’t feel seen and heard, need to be given opportunities to explore and explain why.

As we talked we paused at different points along the rivers. Ingrid identified old mill workings, and talked with us about her work on a boathouse restoration project on the Clyde, and the relationship between local football teams and rowing clubs. Rachel picked up on the subject of unheard voices, by talking with me about her research interests, discussing what the word queer means to her, including why she prefers to identify as neuro-queer:

‘(Rachel’s) research seeks to question and unsettle the structural inequalities expressed through the climate crisis through a disability studies lens. It is developing processes and performances which are informed and led by people who are either diagnosed or who identify as being neurodivegent or ‘normally different’, which focus on rivers and disability, specifically neurodivergent perspectives and the relationship between neurodiversity and geodiversity.

Rachel Clive, Performance, Ecology, Heritage

These definitions of neurodiversity and geodiversity are taken from Rachel’s website:

Neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions. (Silberman, 2015)

Geodiversity: the natural range of geological (rocks, minerals, fossils), geomorphological (landform and processes), and soil features. It includes their assemblages, relationships, properties, interpretations and systems. (Gray 2004)

As our walk continued on to where the Kelvin meets the Clyde, where previously Minty and I had played with chalk and the incoming tide, we walked down towards the water’s edge. Our chalk marks were still there, but we decided to hang back from the edge this time, and give a pair of Mute Swans and their cygnets some space.

Looking across to Govan, Ingrid and I discussed Neolithic and Bronze Age mounds and their relationship with water, from Silbury Hill near me in Wiltshire, to Doomster Hill across the river in Govan, which was demolished in the 1860s. Ingrid suggested that the earth mound/water combination might have served to explore and celebrate their relationship between earth, water and sky through their reflection. You can read more about Doomster Hill, its place in Govan’s history and comparisons with Silbury Hill here

Cecilia Tortajada – ‘I liked the place because it shows how the river was traditionally used: for people and by people.’

Ingrid also shared with me how there was a fording point across to Govan in the past where the Clyde could be waded across. Now the two sides are divided by the river, although a new bridge is planned. We touched on the issue of inequality between the two sides, and the need to ensure that any development/regeneration work benefits the people of Govan equally.

The history and heritage of the area was a key part of our conversations as to why the Clyde in particular feels so unloved and uncared for along this stretch (see my previous post). Although as Ingid mentioned, the percentage of the local population directly involved in shipbuilding was relatively small, it still looms large over the area. We discussed how the loss of shipbuilding to the area (with one shipbuilding company remaining) has led to a sense of collective trauma or shame being experienced by the people of Glasgow, and whether this is impacting on the city’s ability to see the future of the river more clearly, and a willingness to invest in the river’s health.

Of course economic considerations are a key barrier to river care and restoration, for example the cost of updating the sewage system, ‘Scottish Water has estimated that to upgrade all of these unsatisfactory overflow outlets would cost at least £650m’ (Scotland’s Growing Sewage Spill Problem’). But with the big changes to come due to climate breakdown, the economic impact of not prioritising Glasgow’s rivers’ health and their need to flood and flow, are likely to be a lot higher.

As with my first walk with Minty, we followed the riverbank along past the Riverside Museum and down to the construction site for the COP26 talks, where our discussions around whose voices are included in climate talks continued. The relevance of watching the construction of these (temporary) buildings within which certain people’s and countries voices will help decide the future of the rest of us, wasn’t lost on us. The subject of economics arose again, and climate justice, and the perceived value of the sciences versus the arts.

Cecilia and I talked about how awareness of climate breakdown has increased whilst action lags behind. The average person is now much more aware of what is going on, but the average person isn’t included in the COP26 talks, in governments or boardrooms. As our understanding of what is happening develops, so does our awareness of the gap between what needs to be done and what governments and big corporations are actually doing, and so our anxiety increases. Meanwhile we are told that our individual actions matter, to recycle our crisp packets and drive/fly less, and many of us do, but without the action of the priviliged few in power, our actions can feel meaningless.

Moving on past the COP construction site and the huge old Lobston (aka Finnieston) Crane on the riverbank, the future and past sitting alongside each other, we came across the flood wall that was constructed to protect the local area from rising water levels. Construction continues on the banks of the river, with little sign of making space for future river movement. Rachel’s work includes an exploration of the need for ‘Freedom Space for Rivers’, looking at the need to allow rivers to rise, fall and flood, and considering how we are going to keep each other safe in the future as extreme weather events increase and sea levels rise.

The relationship between disability and climate justice here is clear to me. In essence, who has the ability (economically or otherwise) to choose to move out of the path of a river which rises and floods homes, and who doesn’t? Whose opinions and views are likely to be listened to and who is likely to be excluded from the conversation?

I’m keen to reference popular media as well as academic sources in my Queer River research, and this Teen Vogue article links nicely:

If we persist in framing disability and climate change as a problem of physical vulnerability, we miss the underlying realities of structural violence: how ableism, racism, class inequality and other forms of oppression work together to compound and intensify risk…

“From homeless encampments to local jail cells, the social, political, and economic disparities among disabled queer and trans people of color put our communities at the frontlines of ecological disaster.”

Disabled People Cannot Be “Expected Losses” in the Climate Crisis

When the river floods and the impacts are felt by the people of Glasgow (and this can be translated to any coastal or riverside community) will we care for each other or will we deny care to those that we see as other, and instead look after ‘our own’? We don’t have to look far to see how refugees fleeing across the English Channel are vilified by right wing media and governments as competitors for ‘our’ resources. Rachel’s work interweaves a concern for and awareness of the wellbeing of rivers and their human/non-human communities, that is inspirational to me, and which I’m glad to be learning from.

Rachel also wrote a poem, Familiar and Strange, based on her experiences of our walk which I’d encourage you to read and which I’ve published in its own post, rather than squeezing it in among my reflections.

Flood defense wall

The whole walk was so rich, and the research/knowledge of my collaborators so relevant to my own research, that I am taking my time to let it all sink in. I have started to make drawings in response and of course to write about the walks here. As with all my Queer River walks I’m not rushing to unpick what took place, but allowing everythingtime for to settle and for connections to emerge between these walks and others. I’m incredibly grateful to Minty, Rachel, Ingrid and Cecilia for their generosity in sharing their experiences with me. I’ll keep sharing my thoughts and artwork as they emerge.

Queer River Wet Land Part 2 will be underway next. Minty and I are planning an online event, probably taking place in November, but I’ll update you on that soon, with details also being shared via the Dear Green Bothy site. We will be creating a performance score based on Queer River Wet Land Part 1, and sharing it with interested colleagues around the world, inviting them to take part remotely, and share their reflections with us at the planned event.