“The more beavery the landscape is, the harder it is to find them.” This is what Laura Ogden, an environmental anthropologist from the US told us on our first evening in Bamff in Perthshire as we took an evening walk around the land to try to spot some beavers. An interdisciplinary group of ten researchers including artists, cultural geographers, and anthropologists visited the estate for four days to explore “landscaping with beavers”, and the possibility of multispecies collaboration. Building on previous visits to the Knepp Estate in West Sussex (an ongoing project of rewilding discussed by one of the owners of the estate, Isabella Tree, in her book Wilding ), we hope to find out what has happened in in Bamff since a keystone species has been introduced, and how we might learn from the ecological processes that are taking place here.
Our hosts were Paul and Louise Ramsay who own and run the estate in North-East Perthshire; 1300 acres of land made up of farmland, woodland, wetland and hills, including some ecotourism accommodation open to the public. For the past thirty years they have strived to restore a more natural environment to the estate and have welcomed the arrival of various species of birds and mammals, most notoriously perhaps the return of the Eurasian beaver, which disappeared from Scotland in the 16th Century due to hunting and was reintroduced to the river in Bamff in 2002. Despite only being given protected status by the Scottish government in May of this year, the beavers have been breeding at the site since 2005 and as the community has grown they have extended their territory creating wetlands in between the fields and woodlands. The traces of the beavers’ activity are visible as soon as we arrive at the Bamff estate on a warm evening in June; capsized trees with disks of roots exposed evidence how the beaver’s dams cause flooding which undermines the root structure of the trees. We experience the longest day of the year while we are there, the light, warm evenings allowing for late night encounters with the beavers as they go about their business of swimming, building, playing and eating.
I carried Donna J. Haraway’s ideas of sympoiesis – of “making with” - more-than-human others with me throughout the weekend. What are we doing when we “make with” beavers? In viewing them as potential creative collaborators are we simply anthropomorphising them, this time as performance artists rather than architects, water managers or workers of the land? Do they want to “make with” us? What might the first steps in “making kin” (Haraway, 2016) be?
Attending: “to be present at”
Some of us stay in the family home of the Ramsays (and are made to feel very much at home by their warm welcome and the sharing of food) and others take turns to stay solo in the “Hideaway”, a wooden building situated across from the beaver’s lodge where the beavers’ nocturnal activity can be witnessed. Those of us attending this research trip are here to explore the possibilities of collaborating with the beavers through interdisciplinary processes. I think of the word “attend”, meaning to apply one’s mind or energies to, “to be present at”. It reminds me of Haraway’s contention: “staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings (2016:1).” This focus on present-ness, not just of being in attendance but attending to these questions of how to be truly present, how to stay with the trouble, not run from it or ignore it or deny it but to sit with it and to live with it feel urgent during our time at Bamff. One of the participants, cultural geographer Clemens Driessen, tells us that “for the animal, only the present exists”. As a performance-researcher, I hope that performance-making processes can explore these ideas of present-ness and play a part in research creation in order to more fully understand this site, its landscape and our relationships with more-than-human beings.
Another definition of “attend” is to deal with, cope with, or see to. This other meaning of attend also feels relevant to our time in Bamff as we try to find ways to take care of and give our attention to the beavers. Staying with the trouble is about attending to where we are now, taking responsibility for it and thinking about our role in “response-ibility” (i.e. how we respond to what Tim Morton defines as a period of mass extinction ).
On our second day in Bamff I lead the group in some exercises which I hope will help us arrive at this site, attend to our senses and allow for an opening up to this place and what it might have to offer. I ask people to use their animal instinct to find a spot they want to respond to. We start with a very human activity, writing, and from this we abstract a haiku, a short imagistic poem which takes place in the present, originally defined by Japanese poet Shiki as a “sketch from nature” (Ross, 2002: 12). These haikus are then translated into a live action, an embodied fragment of performance sited in our chosen spot. I ask people not to view performance as a way of pretending or creating an artifice, instead I ask them to invest in the real time/real effort mode of performance-making.
As the afternoon moves into early evening, theatre director David Overend invites us to think like beavers and to explore the landscape from a beaver’s perspective. I sit by the beaver pools for a while and try to get into a beavery frame of mind. I take off my hiking boots and dip my toes in the still water. I feel repelled by the stagnant smell. My hand touches the bark of a tree and I am coated in a sticky resin. I like the smell of this, deep and foresty, but not the feel of it and I place my hands in the water to try to wash it off. We meet back at the hideaway and David returns dripping water from his body after a swim in the beaver pools. He tells us how he lay in the grass and followed a beaver path down to the water before slipping in, his body submerged among the water weeds. As David relayed his aquatic adventures, I felt disappointed that I had let my human sensibilities keep me on dry land. I hadn’t been able to put aside my revulsion of the brown brackish water, its icey-coldness, but I was glad to live vicariously through his telling of becoming beaver in those moments. As we share our explorations I have to confess that in my attempts to be beavery, I did have a little nibble of the furled back bark of a tree. It was horrible. Like the stagnant water, I could not move away enough from my human-ness to become beaver and to find it anything other than unpleasant. I am not a beaver. But in attempting some beavery behaviour I do feel I have a different understanding of my own body in relation to theirs, of my own behaviours and drives alongside their activities and the way they have transformed this countryside. I see them everywhere now, not the beavers themselves, but their traces, marked indelibly in the landscape.
On the third day we spend the morning thinking about mapping as we explore the landscape of Bamff in more depth. Further traces of the beavers’ activity become apparent as do the presence of other mammals, insects and birds. At one point we walk along the road between Bamff and its neighbouring farm. The road acts as a visual divide between two opposing ideas of land management, on the left, the neat, flat, familiar fields of green and yellow of a traditional agricultural farm. To the right of the road, the tall, leafy, dark green trees of the Bamff estate loom above the road, swaying in the wind. The buzzards flying overhead seem to favour the airspace over Bamff.
For the afternoon session on “Making” we split into groups of three. I worked with human geographer Jamie Lorimer and environmental anthropologist Laura Ogden and we began by talking about building a dam. It was very tempting, but we came to the conclusion that attempting to imitate the beavers in this task was doomed to fail. When it comes to dam-building the beavers know best and who is to say that we wouldn’t end up disrupting their landscape or diverting water away from where they intended it to go? Was this genuinely “making with”? Who says the beavers even want to make with us anyway? In our midsummer late night glimpses of them they had seemed ambivalent towards us at best.
We started thinking about how we might go about “making kin” with the beavers. On the first trip we had made to the beaver pools we had noticed beaver “artworks” around the site. These sculptural forms gnawed from tree trunks and the intricate interweaving of different natural materials within of the structures of the dams had made us consider the beavers’ endeavours not only as practical, but as creative and aesthetic too. Perhaps we could collaborate with these existing artworks to “make with” the beavers, to respond to something they had already produced. Working with Laura for this task provided some context of the idea of gift-giving through the lens of anthropology. We thought that perhaps the first step to making kin could be offering some kind of gift to the beavers to help them with their endeavours. We returned to the path by the beaver pools and realised that a small waterway at the end of the river which ran under the forest was the point of departure for beavers leaving the Bamff estate before moving out into the landscape beyond. We decided to mark this point of transition and decorated this passageway with an arch-shaped garland of the same pink flowers as the rhododendron bush that the beavers' lodge was sited under. Jamie scratched on a slate the message “GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY” as we hoped the beavers would continue to thrive and breed beyond this boundary line which demarcated the safety of Bamff. We decided to frame these performative gifts as “OFFERINGS” and created a range of sited gifts for the beavers to encounter along the waterway. These included: a toolkit of materials that might be used to make a dam (which we called “DIY”); some apple attached to various lengths of sticks hanging over the water for beavers to try to reach (“PLAY”); and some slices of apple arranged on a dock leaf under one of the beaver sculptures which we called “NIBBLES”. These small offerings to our beaver “oddkin” (Haraway, 2016) were placed along the river leading to the transition point and we thought of these as gifts they would receive as they made their way towards the passageway which led via water out of the Bamff estate. The signs that accompanied the stations were there for humans, to signify our intention with the specific gift, but the gifts themselves were designed with the beavers in mind (our hosts informed us that apples were a treat for beavers).
Other performances devised during this “Making” session included: a film of humans building a dam played on a laptop which was viewed through binoculars from the stairway of the hall in the Ramsay home; a one-to-one sound piece inviting audiences to sing a song to remember the dead; a live performance installation sited in the Steading and a solo guitar performance using a log to hit the strings as an audience member read out a recipe for beaver soup from an ancient tome. Our hosts accompanied us on a promenade performance of these works traversing the estate on our final evening at Bamff. The route ended at the boundary of Bamff with our sign reading GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY. Louise explains to us that this is contentious in this context, local farmers don’t want the beavers to go forth and multiply and the Ramsays themselves fear for the beaver’s safety once they are beyond the boundary of the estate. The beavers have no sense of the human division of land or the politics of land management but will instead move dependant on resources, environment and the presence of water. As we return to the house for a final dinner I feel closer to the beavers than I have before. I haven’t been physically closer to one than the width of the river, but I feel like I can sense their way of being, their beavery-ness in a more intimate way by spending time in their home.
We began our journey at Bamff by noticing the impact of the beavers' behaviours and the traces of their actions in the landscape. Mathew Reason in his article “Archive or Memory? The Detritus of Live Performance” (2003) asks how we can create an archive for performance, something that is so ephemeral and live and which exists only in the moment. He says that all that is left behind are “husks” and proposes a theatrical archive of detritus. Inspired by this, and by the natural materials people had used in their performances, after our first day of making short performances in response to place, I asked participants to create a small archive of the “husks” that our actions have left behind. This little archive existed for the duration of our time in Bamff then the materials were returned to the site. While the beaver’s traces are clear to see, it felt important that the traces we left on this place were not damaging or permanent. On the final morning in Bamff when the group returned to the “OFFERINGS” installed the night before, some of the apple was gone from one of the lengths of stick hanging over the water. Our nocturnal kin had (perhaps unknowingly, reluctantly or ambivalently) accepted one of our invitations to play.
Haraway, Donna, J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Morton, Timothy. 2018. Being Ecological. London: Penguin Random House.
Reason, Matthew. 2003. “Archive or Memory? The Detritus of Live Performance” New Theatre Quarterly, 19:1, Cambridge University Press.
Ross, Bruce. 2002. How to Haiku: A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms. Boston, Tuttle Publishing.
Tree, Isabella. 2018. Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm. London, Picador.