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.

Walking with… Artist Jonathan Mansfield

This morning I went on a walk with the artist Jonathan Mansfield. We began our walk at the All Saints Church car park in Enford. According to the book of the Pewsey Avon Trail, Enford means the ‘ford of the ducks’.

On the drive to Enford, Jonathan expained to me that his whole painting process starts in the car on the way there:

I’ve started. I’m choosing music to get me ready. I’m noticing the colours of the leaves, the lines in the field, the big bright sun. I can feel the sunshine in my hand. It (the track we are listening to) is the first one of the album and the one I like most – I like what this music does to me, I’ve got goosebumps.’

Jonathan Driving Along the Edge of Salisbury Plain

The track was ‘O vis aeternitatis‘ written and composed by Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegarde was a pretty amazing woman, and an inspiration for me in my time at art college, so here’s a little information on her before we carry on:

‘Hildegard of Bingen (also known as Hildegarde von Bingen, l. 1098-1179 CE) was a Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, and polymath proficient in philosophy, musical composition, herbology, medieval literature, cosmology, medicine, biology, theology, and natural history. She refused to be defined by the patriarchal hierarchy of the church and, although she abided by its strictures, pushed the established boundaries for women almost past their limits.’

Ancient History Encyclopaedia

Arriving at the church car park, Jonathan explained his feeling of connection to the music and what it does for him:

‘The song connects you to the past. It’s not necessarily about religion… when I look out of the window now I’m imagining that tree, but 600 years ago – trying to imagine living in that world.’

Beautiful Big Old Sycamore

Stepping out of the car, we began our walk into the village of Enford and had our first glimpse of the River Avon. Jonathan described how he starts to settle into a place after being in the car:

‘This is where the mindful walking starts – just close your eyes and listen for a moment.’

As we closed our eyes and stood still in the low, warm, Autumn sunshine I could hear a flock of Rooks calling across the valley to the front of us, and road noise coming from behind. On openng our eyes Jon pointed out a Jay’s bouncing flight across the field, whilst a Red Kite flew high above us.

Our First Sight of the River Avon

We carried on walking over a bridge and through the village, noticing references to the river although for much of the time it was hidden behind houses.

Walking along the road towards Coombe, the next village along the valley to the South, I remembered how in my previous walk with Nick we had discussed how limited access to the River is in Wiltshire, controlled by Fishing Clubs and private house owners. The Water Team work with both in their restoration wor,k which is brilliant, but it’s still frustrating that access is so limited for people like us.

Walking Along the Lane to Coombe

At Coombe, we finally managed to access the river and found a space on the riverbank to sit and draw/paint. Jonathan gathered some water from the river to use in his painting and offered me paper, paints and various drawing materials.

It was a strange feeling to be giving control of my experience up, by being led in terms of the materials we were using and our starting point. It’s exactly what I wanted and what I had asked Jon to do, and it still felt strange after so many years of walking and making in ways that I have developed myself.

But an integral part of this research for me is learning from others, allowing their knowledge and practices to wash over me. To see how they fit with my own, and each others. As the walks continue I see myself noticing patterns of similarity and difference between the different perspectives that each individual brings to the same River Avon.

Jonathan poured water onto 3 new sheets of paper and began to make marks in response to the colours, shapes and movements around him. I followed his lead and did the same with one large and one smaller sheet of bright whte, empty paper. As he did, he talked about his interest in rivers as a gateway to another dimension, and wondered aloud how this river would have been seen by our distant ancestors.

Starting onto Fresh White Paper with River Water and Pencil

Would they have travelled far to collect its water? Would they been swimming here? What significance would water have had for them as a way of seeing themselves reflected in a time before glass and mirrors?

I tried to work intuitively, to let the pace wash over me, but felt a little constrained by the edges of the paper. The feeling that I got from the river was one of continuous movement, a constant momentum of pushing, pressing and flowing. Always moving, never ending. I took my smaller piece of paper and tore it down the middle, joing them end to end, and reached down into the water to scrape some soft silt from the bottom, smearing it with wet fingers on top of the paint.

Jonathan would work on one piece and then the other, adding and changing. ‘I always work on three pieces at the same time, and then keep one…’

Working onto Three Pieces

We heard the piping call of a Kingfisher and a Mute Swan went gliding by on the flowing water, so much a part of the river, leaving me feeling like an outsider, stuck on dry land, peering over into the water. One day I want to be in the river and under the water too.

Jonathan’s focus seemed to me to be on using his arts practice as a way of experiencing connection with the river both in the moment and with what might have been the experience of others in that same place in the past The connection he seeks is both a bodily and a spiritual one. He talked about the theory that water has a memory, and mentioned that science may not agree but that doesn’t matter to him, the possibility is enough.

‘In the Bible they tell you that people were brought down to the River Jordan to be baptised, but the trouble with the Bible is that a lot of its stories are based on a lot older stories, Jewish or Egyptian. Egyptians worshipped the River Nile as the life blood of their whole country. people (in different cultures) threw objects into rivers, into lakes, into ‘that other world’. That’s what interests me most (about rivers), this magical, mystical, elemental water that has all of this rich mystical history to it.’

As time went on, I tore my larger painting into strips too, and attached them together to echo the flow and shape of the river. Jon’s engagement with his painting seemed to have changed somehow, his level of concentration and his attitude towards it. In my work within learning we might say that he had reached a state of ‘flow’:

‘I’ve done the connection, the being here, the listening, the noticing. I’m at the point now where the painting has taken over, the painting has become ‘the thing’…. you have to work through the blockages (to get there).’

Before we packed up and started our walk back to the car, we talked about what Queer River is, and what my intention was in setting it up, and Jon told he about an experience of his from when he was a teenager:

‘One of my memories (of rivers) is swimming in the River Kennet in Marlborough with a friend of mine. We were in our pants, some people saw us and they started calling us Gay. We were two boys, we were in our pants, and so we were ‘Gay’…. I think it just makes you insular when the world laughs at you, tells you you’re a fake, or a weirdo, or somehow sick. Why would you tell someone that?’

Detail of James’s Artwork

As usual after one of these walks, I feel like I have so much to process, and yet don’t want to unpick the experience too much, at least not yet. I saw similarities in Jon’s interests, in terms of the river’s history and associated cultural practices, and the conversations that I had with Claire from Wessex Archaeology, and I also noticed the differences in their approach to exploring these, one very science based in the western sense of the word, the other coming from a place of imagination and intuition. I also noticed structures built into the river just as Nick had shown me on my last walk. As time goes by other connections will be made, and I’m letting these bubble up when the time is right.

Jonathan Carrying Artwork and Dry Rushes Back to the Car

Walking with… The WWT Water Team

The second in my series of my Queer River walks and talks was with Nick Wilson, Project Officer at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Water Team.

Nick and I met up near Netheravon in Wiltshire and visited three different sites along the River Avon, steadily moving up the river towards Upavon. The 3 sites had been restored by The Water Team at different point in the past, from 3 weeks to 3 years ago, with corresponding levels of growth in vegetation and adaptation by the river. Nick described the aim of the work as being to undo the damage that had been done to the river previously, and to work with the river’s natural processes.

My conversation with Nick mainly consisted of his showing me the sites that had been restored, and of me asking him a lot of questions. The language and the techniques of river restoration fascinate me, and I can see that as this research project develops, the connections between the different ways of seeing and talking about the same river are going to develop in my mind and my artwork, into an excitingly entangled web.

My next walk willI be with Artist Jonathan Mansfield. Jonathan describes his work as follows:

My work focuses on colour, surface and pattern, and I like to represent the physical environment as energised by using lines and marks that show themselves to me during my ‘mindful walking’ and quiet meditation before I begin to paint... I grew up in Wiltshire surrounded by the undulating chalk downs, forests and wide open skies that make this county special. I have always felt it to be a mysterious place, where ancient ancestors appear to emerge from the hills, stones and trees to join me as I walk through the landscape.’

Jonathan also happens to be my husband, which is pretty handy as we are now in lockdown again, and some of the other partners/collaborators won’t be able to join me for a while.

I will come back to my experience with Nick as the project continues, but for now wanted to share some of the language and terminology that he used:

Hinge Cut – cutting a tree at the river’s edge part of the way through its trunk, so that it both lays in the water and is still attached to its roots.

Bed level raising – adding gravel to a river bed to raise it back up to were it would have been before dredging

Habitat enhancement (as opposed to Rewilding) – due to the small scale

Deflector – structure that sticks out in the river and deflects the current

Meander – returning meanders to a river by use of deflectors

We also discussed…

Rising water temperatures – due to climate breakdown

River fly sampling – measuring the health of a chalk stream by the level of/number of fly larvae living in it

Too wide, too deep, too slow – this is what the work is intended to counteract, a river that has been straightened, widened and dredged

Online and Offline ponds – ponds dug on the path of the river, or to the side but within the floodplain (see the third image).

Some of the animals we saw on our walks – Red Kites, Roe Deer, Mallards, Heron

Walking with… Wessex Archaeology

Throughout the Queer River research project I’m going to be taking a series of walks with others along the Hampshire Avon. The first of these took place a couple of weeks ago in Salisbury, as part of the Wessex Archaeology project Ebb and Flow.

This first walk was a wonderful way for me to begin Queer River, with the structure of the Ebb and Flow walk echoing the methodology that I have developed for Queer River walks. Namely that I will walk, talk and make with key people (human and non-human) along different stretches of the Hampshire Avon, as a form of exchange between my place-based practice and their own perceptions/experiences of the River.

For Ebb and Flow I walked with Geoarchaeologist Dr Claire Mellett, supported by Leigh Chalmers, Wessex Achaeology’s Heritage Inclusion Specialist, and filmed by Photographer and Videographer Tom Westhead.

I made Claire and myself a simple fold out sketchbook to map our experiences of our walk, whilst she shared with me her knowledge of how rivers and landscapes change over time. We began our walk at the Avon Valley Nature Reserve to the North East of Salisbury and walked through the city centre to the Harnham Water Meadows.

The Ebb and Flow project was developed by Leigh Chalmers as part of the Festival of Archaeology, whose theme this year is Climate and Environment. The film made by Tom to document our walk will be premiered on the Festival’s YouTube channel on Saturday 24th at 11.00am, with a live Q&A afterwards with Claire and myself.

We hope that the film will inspire people to get out and explore their own local river, and experience the benefit to their wellbeing.

I was also filmed suggesting some creative activities that viewers of the main film can try out. These short clips will be released one at a time during Half Term week.

I’m not going to go into more detail on the film and the content of my conversations with Claire, as I’d really love you to watch it and let us know what you think. But I did want to mention that it was a fascinating experience for me, in that I felt like our different perspectives on the river, coming as we do from different backgrounds and subject areas, were really complementary, especially in relationship to the subject of climate change.

If you watch the Ebb and Flow film and end up outside exploring your local river, please do share images with us on social media, using the #EbbAndFlow2020 hashtag.

Tomorrow I’m going to be visiting a stretch of the River Avon above Salisbury towards Figheldean, with Nick Wilson from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Water Team, to look together at some of the restoration work they’ve carried out there. I’ll be posting on here about that soon.

Introducing River

Before this all gets too confusing, I should say that this River is our new dog, named after we spent a holiday by/in the River Dart in Devon.

I wrote a post on my general blog in July, which shared how my dog Moshi had passed on after 16 years of being a much loved famiy pet and walking companion. I’ve missed having a canine collaborator and am looking forward to River being able to join me on my Queer River walks.

At the moment she’s only 10 weeks old, so we have 3 more weeks of her being carried rather than walking, but before long we will be exploring new stretches of the River Avon together.

Finding The Source

As I start this new research project drawing on my experiences of the Hampshire Avon, both walking alone and with others, I am also drawing on previous work carried out in collaboration with US based artist Kathy Skerritt.

Please take a look at this earlier post from my general arts blog, ‘Finding The Source’, written about a walk that I took as part of my ongoing collaboration with Kathy, with the intention of finding the source of the River Avon, and my gradual realisation that there was/is no fixed beginning or end.

‘How to Queer Ecology…’

How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time by Alex Johnson

‘Where is the line between what is Nature and what is Human? Do I spend equal times in the parking lot and the forest? Can I really say the parking lot is separate from the forest? What if I end up staying in the parking lot the whole time? What if it has been a long drive and I really have to pee?

The problem is, the Nature/Human split is not a split. It is a dualism. It is false.

I propose messing it up. I propose queering Nature…

A queer ecology is a liberatory ecology. It is the acknowledgment of the numberless relations between all things alive, once alive, and alive once again. No man can categorize those relations without lying. Categories offer us a way of organizing our world. They are tools. They are power.’

Why Queer?

In my naming of this piece of research, it’s not so much that I am calling the river itself Queer, but my orientation towards it:

‘To queer something is to take a look at its foundations and question them…’

Charlie Glickman- Queer is a Verb

I want to explore how we can alter our perceptions of and relationship to rivers, through dialogical, visual arts practice. By walking with the river, including the organisms that live within it and the people that live and work along it, I aim to inform my understanding of the role that we can play (both humans and non-humans) within the riverine ecosystems of the future.

My thinking about and relationship to the word Queer is further explored in a recent article that I wrote for the Climate Cultures blog. Please follow the link below the quote to read the full article:

‘What I have come to realise is that being Queer is not about being defined by others as Other, but refusing to be colonised or domesticated. It is about being yourself in spite of the restrictions you may face, a self that you discover through relationship with others. In this way I see it as closely related to (Re)wilding, whereby if the right conditions are put in place, the land begins to heal itself, bringing health to it and to us.’

A Queer Path to Wellbeing – James Aldridge, July 2020