The River is a Guide to the Land

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, 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 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.

Thinking About ‘The Language of Place’

Since the First Friday event last week with, 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.

Looking down from the bridge

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.

Almost at the river

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,

Dried twists in the ditch

In the 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 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.

Frozen footprints

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.

Talking with… Mark Leahy and Art.Earth

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 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’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’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.’

Art.Earth website

First Friday event with Art.Earth, Feb 5th 2021

Walking with… Writer and Researcher Peter Reason

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.

Peter in The Scotchell

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.

The Scotchell Sign

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.

River Avon at The Scotchell

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.

Scarlet Elf Cap Fungus

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.

Dried reeds at the margins

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).

Jones Mill Boardwalk
An icy, fallen branch

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.

Jones Mill. Photo: Peter Reason

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).

James photographing th final Walking Bundles. Photo: Peter Reason

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.

Two Walking Bundles at the end of our walk (James left, Peter, right)

Drawing the Parts Together

When we ‘know’ that the world is interconnected, that no one part can be detached from another, and yet our language and culture keeps telling us otherwise, what are the ways that we can create models of interbeing, reminders of the underlying reality?

Multiple Exposure Image using Drawing – 20/01/21

My artwork has tended to combine different materials and processes together to reveal the interconnectedness beneath the surface. Collage, layered sound and video, woven structures, multiple exposure photographs, all ways of taking the parts and bringing them back together again perceptually.

Multiple Exposure Image using Drawing – 20/01/21

Recently I’ve enjoyed using drawing as a simple way to connect elements of my life together that might otherwise seem separate. Bodies and rivers for example.

This morning (at breakfast time – this seems the best time for an uninterrupted period of making during lockdown, before the home schooling begins) I took some of these drawings on to the next stage, using multiple exposure photographs to layer them with the fleshy, hairy real-ness of my own body. There’s something ‘right’ and satisfying for me, when I can draw the parts together in a piece of artwork, and create something that speaks of the interconnected reality that sits beneath it all.

Multiple Exposure Image using Drawing – 20/01/21

Water Bodies – Inside and Out

I was at the hospital yesterday, after a trip to A&E on Sunday. It turns out I have a neat little row of four kidney stones stuck in my ureter. If this seems like a little too much information, bear with me, it is relevant.

Before leaving for hospital I was looking at the anatomy of kidneys and printing off scans/photos and artwork relating to them and their internal structure to add to my Queer River sketchbook. As binaries and boundaries separating gay from straight, land from water, and human from ‘Nature’ are there to be crossed and blurred by this research, so is the line that marks the separation between the inside and the outside of the (my) human body, and between each individual body and the wider planetary body on which we live.

Sketchbook Page at Breakast (inc images of artwork by Hey Paul Studio & Trisha Thompson Adams)

Later, while waiting in the Urology waiting room at the hospital, I received a text from my friend Bella telling me that it was the feast day for St Aelred of Rievaulx, patron saint of kidney stones. This all seemed very synchronous, so as the clinic was understandably busy, it being in the middle of a pandemic, and I had a bit of a wait, I did some more research on my phone.

Apparently St Aelred was a Cistercian monk, and Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in the 12th Century, with Rievaulx meaning something like ‘River Valley’. Some historians have described him as ‘homosexual’, others say that such a distinction was not relevant to concepts of sexuality of the time, and still more say that his writings on ‘spiritual friendship’ have been misinterpreted as homosexual desire. Whichever is true, he’s been adopted by several gay-friendly churches, particulary in the US, as their patron saint.

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love…. the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”

St Aelred of Rievaulx

Kidney stones, rivers, spirituality and a Queer monk… for a trip to the hospital, my morning was proving pretty rich for my research.

I asked my consultant if I could take a copy of my scan, but apparently it’s not allowed. I can contact the hospital to ask for a cd-rom or similar, but I think the NHS have enough to think about at the moment, without me adding to their workload. So I don’t have image of my kidneys sadly, but am enjoying the beginning of a journey into the flowing streams, pools and rivers of the inside of my body, and am excited to explore this further with artist and researcher in the medical humanities, Catherine Lamont-Robinson.

In the meantime I’m waiting to see if the stones will unwedge themselves and emerge in the next few weeks (reminds me of the talk of dams, weirs and woody debris with Nick from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust), and if so whether I can manage to hang onto one and like my consultant suggested, have it tested to find out its mineral composition (which also reminds me of my conversation with Claire from Wessex Archaeology on chalk streams, flint, gravel and erosion).

I’m taking it easy work-wise right now, but did manage to get my DYCP grant application off to Arts Council England this morning, which if successful would enable me to develop this research into a year-long piece of dedicated research and development for me – keep everything crossed!

Beyond Rivers

As the Christmas holidays merge into lockdown here in the UK, I have started to return to making as a way of making-sense of where I am with this research. I’ve had a nagging feeling that sticking with ‘my’ River Avon is too restrictive, and another one tapping me on the shoulder to tell me that focusing on rivers themselves is too narrow. When you’ve spent time setting up a research project focused on rivers, these kinds of thoughts are unsettling.

So, first of all I gave myself permission to deviate from my original plan to stick with the Salisbury Avon, and to include the other Avon too (there’s several other Avons but in this case I mean the Bristol one). And secondly I turned to my Queer River sketchbook, to consider why I chose rivers and what they can teach me about connection and relationship in general. Here’s a page from that sketchbook:

Sketchbook Page

‘Queer River isn’t just about Rivers, the methodology and the learning are transferable – it will flow where it needs to. Multiple perspectives – beyond binaries, intersection/intersectionality on multiple levels, coalescing around my experiences – FLOW.’

And then on the next page – ‘I need to start making… making to release myself from the limits of QR and reintroduce play and wonder’.

So after a couple of weeks of rest and Christmas films, walks and chocolate, I started making and drawing again. It was still the school holidays so I squeezed the drawing in alongside breakfast this time. This is one of the drawings that emerged:

Breakfast Drawing

My son, who was eating his Cheerios at the time was interested in what my drawing was ‘of’ or ‘about’. Our conversation went something like this:

Joseph – Is it a tree?

Me – It looks a bit like a tree doesn’t it, but I was thinking about rivers.

Joseph – So the leaves are floating down the river?

Me – I was thinking about them being boats, but they could be leaves, And I was thinking about bodies, which is why I chose a colour that reminded me of people’s bodies.

Joseph – Are they sore? They look sore.

Me – I think they are soft and warm. Like the insides of bodies.

As well as reminding me of Gregory Bateson’s writing on The Pattern that Connects, this conversation helped to bring into the open for me something that is at the heart of Queer River, that it isn’t about connecting with rivers, but exploring the connection that already exists. Not inter-connection but intra-action. And that it can’t just be about rivers, whatever that word means, and the more I say or write it the stranger a word it seems to get, but about anything that arises during the walks with others, and anything that a river reminds me of. That’s the beauty of setting up your own project – it can flow and change with you as you go on your journey.

Playing with Bodies and Boats

So in case I’ve confused everyone, Queer River will still be directly informed by walks and exchanges that take place along rivers, will still look at river restoration, river cultures etc, will be closely linked to where I live in Wiltshire, and the two Avons that flow out from here, AND the research will flow out into other areas as it needs to, wherever that may be. For me that’s what Queerness is all about, the ability to both be embedded within something, and to see beyond it. To be in both and not restricted by either.

At this time of lockdowns, a fluidity of practice is very useful, and although this morning I’ve escaped to the computer for a while I’ll soon be drawn back to family life for the start of home-schooling. But for now I’m dipping into Nature’s Queer Performativity by Karen Barad:

‘What if Queerness were understood to reside not in the breech of nature/culture but in the very nature of spacetimemattering.’

In other words ( this is my take on Barad’s writing as it connects with my research) what if the Queer perspective was the real one (or at least the closer fit to the underlying reality), that by being casting out, in straddling boundaries and divides, in not belonging anywhere in particular you end up belonging everywhere, experiencing the reality of intra-action, of everything as entangled, with the visible, nameable parts (River for instance) emerging from and receding into the mesh of life:

‘Phenomena are entanglements of spacetimemattering, not in the colloquial sense of a connection or intertwining of individual entities, but rather in the technical sense of quantum ‘entanglements.

I’ll be back soon with updates on my ‘Walking with…’ series, once the situation with Covid is clearer. In the meantime, as Art.Earth Artist of the Month for January 2021 (see my interview here), I will be talking about my Queer River Research as part of their regular First Friday events, on Friday February 5th from 1-2.30pm. You can find more information on previous First Friday events here.

Walking with… Artist and Researcher Catherine Lamont-Robinson

Dr Catherine Lamont-Robinson is an Artist/Educator and a researcher in the Medical Humanities (see here for a taste of her work in the Catch Your Breath and Stories of Dementia projects). Catherine is also a good friend of mine who I have worked with a lot over the years on various participatory arts projects. Based in Salisbury, Catherine met me this morning for a rainy walk along the Avon. I had originally thought we could walk along the stretch that makes its way out of Salisbury to the South, but with heavy rain forecast we decided on a town centre location within reach of shelter and take away coffee!

As we walked along the river we talked about Catherine’s work in Arts and Health, working creatively to collaborate with medical students, patient groups and people affected by stroke, cancer and other conditions. Our conversation flowed as we walked, from the river beside us, to embodied experience, to how the Queer River research seeks to enable the coexistence of different perspectives on a single subject, blurring the boundary between disciplines.

This time `I had brought along some resources (cards, luggage tags, collectings bags etc) for us to share as we walked. But with the rain, we mainly focused on walking and talking, with some quick drawing and notetaking. Catherine shared her favourite places along the river and we each pointed out the details that we noticed.

My attention was called to structures that diverted and channelled the water as it passed through the city centre, the pure white Little Egrets fishing amongst the plantlife of the river margins, and yellowing leaves scattered across pavements. At times I stopped to collected leaves and other objects that caught my eye, and added them to a small bamboo boat that I had brought along with me.

Catherine shared some writing with me from Spiritual Compass by Satish Kumar and we discussed the research of Peter Reason, who is currently exploring pansychism and rivers and with whom I’m hoping to walk with in the New Year.

‘All the big problems of the world today are routed in the philosophy of separateness and dualism’

Satish Kumar

Thoughts on edges, boundaries and the abiity to live and work across them kept emerging, as we noticed branches reaching down to pierce the surface of the water, and discussed films that focus on the edgelands of estuaries and marshes, or spiritual traditions that draw from interspecies relationships (e.g. Jainism).

Catherine also raised the subject of pilgrimage in connection with Satish and Peter’s writing, which for some reason I hadn’t connected with Queer River, but am now keen to explore as an element of the project. We talked about the two-spirit tradition of some First Nation peoples in the US, and of water ceremonies carried out by figures such as Sharon Day, a Water Walker and friend of my collaborator the US based artist Kathy Mead Skerrit.

‘Two-Spirit, an umbrella term for non-binary definitions of gender and sexuality from Native American traditions, takes inspiration from terminology in the Ojibwe language for men who filled women’s roles in society, or women who took on men’s roles. Many of North America’s indigenous traditions include more than just male and female understandings of gender, but hundreds of years of forced assimilation stamped out many tribes’ customs and oral traditions.’

Two-Spirit: Meet the Native Americans Embracing Their LGBT+ tribe Members

The Nibi (Water) Walks are Indigenous-led, extended ceremonies to pray for the water. Every step is taken in prayer and gratitude for water, our life giving force. We walk for the water, and as we heal the water we heal all of life. We are not a protest. We are a prayer for the water.

Nibi Walk – Every Step is a Prayer

As with my walk with Jonathan, my time with Catherine, although we already know each other well, was a chance to dig deeper into each others’ practices. I realised through talking with her and asking her about her approach to working within a health context, that what she is doing within her work goes well beyond what I would have usually thought of as ‘Arts and Health’.

Catherine’s work often takes place within a medical context, working with people that we might describe as either patients or doctors. But her practice is about enabling people to use creative ways to access and share their full selves, beyond those labels/divisions. As she said today ‘I’m expected to think broadly (with medical students) about entering others’ worlds’.

These creative collaborations are about supporting connections to be made between doctor and patient, or parent and child. By listening to people’s stories, and providing them with artful ways to share them, she helps them, in her words, to ‘remove blocks to (ways of) seeing and being with others.’

This is my take on what Catherine does, I’m sure she would put it differently, but from my perspective it’s not all that different to what I do, and that’s probably why we get on so well. My work is about the interrelationship of human and non-human life, between people and places, and the ‘removal of blocks’ to interspecies understanding, resulting in the the realisation (as Kathy Skerrit would put it) of our indivisibility. With that comes benefits for health and wellbeing, and a realisation that human health depends on the health of the whole ecosystem.

I’m looking forward to more walking and talking with Catherine along the Salisbury Avon. One thing we both want to explore in more depth is Blue Health – the study of the health benefits of spending time by or in water. But for now I’ve lots of links to follow up.

To be alive is to be in perpetual metamorphosis. The borders of ourseves are porous – shaped and recomposed by elements of our environment. River water was once sea spray; next year it could flow in your neighbour’s blood. The water in your brain once fell as rain in ancient landscapes, and surged in long-gone oceans. From this perspective, the body is itself a flowing stream…

Gavin Francis, Shapeshifters


This week I bought myself a waterproof phone case and a small GoPro type camera, to start experimenting with filming at and below the river’s surface. The camera isn’t quite up and running yet (I’m waiting for the memory card to arrive) but I have been dangling my phone into the river off of bridges today, like crabbing off of a harbour wall on a seaside holiday,

It was exciting to lower the phone down into the water and steer it around water plants, moving from the silvered, reflective surface to the silty bottom, before lifting it out again and seeing what the phone and river had got up to. It reminded me of the feeling of using a camera trap for my film The Ash Looks Back, not knowing what I had recorded until a week had passed and I returned to collect the camera fom the tree where it had been set up.

I also took a couple of printed photographs along with me today, that I originally took in Salisbury during my walk with Claire Mellet as part of the Ebb and Flow project. I like the idea of bringing images from an urban stretch of the River Avon, back upstream to meet itself near where the river starts in the Vale of Pewsey, blurring the urban/rural divide (see Urban Rural Exchange).

As with my usual Walking Pages, these River Pages give me a chance to respond directly to my experience of the river, layering drawing, writing and rubbings with photographs and found materials. Noticing the shape of the river as it meanders through beds of dried iris, before hitting the metal siding and swerving under the bridge.

I’d like to see what results I get on a day when the river water is clearer, and when I can get down closer to the surface, to stop it swinging like a pendulum. That way I can have greater control over the camera and focus on really investigating the surface, that point at which the air seems to suddenly become water. I’ve also been looking into ways of attaching the GoPro to my dog so that I can get a feel for her perspective too.

Of course the whole above/below division is another divide that the Queer lens questions. Is the river only below? Is there actually a clear divide between air/sky and river/water? It is this partly this mystery of what lies beneath the water, a sense of it being a gateway or portal to another world, that has led to the development of ritual practices which focus on giving offerings to rivers and lakes, as mentioned in my last Walking with… post, featuring the artist Jonathan Mansfield. I’ll be returning to ths in more depth another time.

Next week, once the lockdown lifts, I will be returning to Salisbury to walk along the the stretch of the Avon on the Southern side of the city, with Artist/Educator and Medical Humanities Researcher Dr Catherine Lamont Robinson, during which we will be discussing (among other things) rivers and health.

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.