Different Parts of the Same Whole

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.

River relaxing by the pond

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.

Making our Walking Pages

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.

Cracked earth

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.”

Focusing on the reflections after playing Pooh Sticks

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.

Stick rubbings and weaving

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.

Queer River drawing using Alder Cone Ink

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.

One last rubbing on the way back to the car

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.

HIV/AIDS and the Earth Crisis

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.

Pewsey Downs

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.

River Body Drawing

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.”

Jonathan Foley, After the Storm

Ice and Algae

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.’

What is Climate Justice? – Yale Climate Connections

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.

Exploring Symbiosis

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.

Boats and Bodies Drawing

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.’

Collecting Alder Cones for Ink

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.’

To Survive Climate Catastrophe, Look to Queer and Disabled Folks

Talking with… Timothy Allsop of Queer Rural Connections

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.

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 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.

Thinking About ‘The Language of Place’

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.

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 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.

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 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.’

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.