“The world went out like a candle” – a husky voice and yellow subtitles open up George Finlay-Ramsay’s film poem CASTOROCENE. Although “the world went out like a cockerel”, the name suggests that one furry dweller is now left in peace to live his life and maybe even reign supreme. The 16mm camera mutes and blurs colours of the verdant environment just enough to allow the richness of Finlay-Ramsay’s language to blossom. And in the end, nobody really reigns supreme, as CASTOROCENE playfully tells a story of a world, where the tip of a tongue tickles and a dainty rodent wiggles.
An article I had published earlier this year opens with the line “Performance as an art form is live, ephemeral, and of the moment” (Cultural Geographies, April 2020). Are these words still relevant in the context of this global pandemic?
As a performance-researcher I am keen to examine the way in which contemporary performance-making responds to social, political, ecological and cultural events. I have previously written about the flurry of creative activity which was provoked by the Scottish Referendum in 2014 (Bissell and Overend, 2015) and the way in which performance became a site for debate and dialogue alongside various political events including the EU referendum and a General Election (Bissell, 2019).
The article I cited from initially uses case studies of live performances which happen on tidal spaces to explore ideas of memorialising. Since the government guidelines for quarantine started on the 23rd March, I haven’t been to a coastline or seen a live performance. What I have witnessed is performance-makers responding to the challenge of how to make art in a pandemic, both practically, since the “art of assembly” discussed by Nicholas Berger is no longer possible, and also conceptually, as themes of isolation, connection, communication and community permeate the work.
I may not have travelled beyond my own home and certainly not to a coastline, but the site-responsive nature of my enquiries is not completely redundant. I have come to know my own home very intimately and in different guises. It is now my workplace, my daughter’s nursery, my bar, my restaurant, my social space, sleeping space and performance space. It is a place where I am audience now.
If performance is “live, ephemeral, and of the moment” as I confidently claimed a few months ago, how do each of those defining terms stand up to scrutiny in this current context? Firstly, there is no “live”, or certainly not as we understood it previously. What there is instead is the mediated live, a performer, in their space, while I watch them remotely in my space in real time. The invitation to watch their live action remains the same, however, physical proximity and a sense of shared physical space is impossible. With this, the complex transaction of audience and performer must be reconfigured, the subtle shifts in body language and the lingering eye-contact which has been so vital to nurturing connection, intimacy and trust, has been disrupted by the screen.
When I called performance ephemeral, I was thinking of Peggy Phelan and Philip Auslander’s debate about whether live performance is a fleeting, once-in-a-moment experience, “its only life is in the present” or if mediation can also be considered a part of the live; and, as Auslander claimed “live forms have become mediatized.”
I said that performance was “of the moment”. This concept moves away from having temporal significance and can be considered literally. The performances being developed over digital platforms just now are of the moment in fact, they are distinctively and uniquely of this moment. The context of quarantine and self-isolation is demanding that performance changes, in some ways quite radically, in order to exist. It is of the moment because unlike previous social or political situations that might shape content of work, the global pandemic has completely shifted the context, forms and mediums in which we can work.
Seminal companies such as Forced Entertainment, largely theatre-based, have moved to the digital platform of choice, Zoom, to critique and question how we connect in this new online forum in their three part series End Meeting for All. Artistic Director of Gateshead International Festival of Theatre (GIFT), Kate Craddock, took the bold decision to move the entire festival online (1-3rd May). One of the stand-out performances of the festival was Icelandic artist (and CPP directing mentor) Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir’s live performance Elision, amended for a digital platform. Its themes of isolation and division originally responding to her experience of living in the UK during Brexit took on an added resonance in this time of isolation.
I argued in my doctoral thesis, that, as artistic director of Belgian company CREW Eric Joris claimed, technology can be a way to regress rather than progress. He uses the term regression without negative connotations, instead implying that technology’s greatest gift might be its capacity to remind us of a more embodied way of being, a means of heightening the senses so we can return to a recognition and an awareness of our corporeal being. It has not always felt like this in these months of constant screen time, but there is a lot we can take from this current moment in terms of our understanding and appreciation of the live. The definition of “contemporary” is “existing or happening now”, and in my capacity as a scholar of contemporary performance I will interrogate the impossibility of the live, the differently live, the new demands of audiences and performers as we navigate this moment. What will performance be after this? What will it look like? How will it feel?
These questions offered a framework for the Contemporary Performance Practice Propel festival which took place from 3-12 June 2020. Propel showcases work from all levels of the BA (Hons) Contemporary Performance Practice and is the culmination of all of the performance-making processes of the academic year. In 2020, for the first time, due to the lockdown restrictions, the Propel festival was presented as a festival of digital performance and was performed over various online platforms including Zoom, Zoom Webinar, YouTube Live, Instagram, a website, chatroom, and even a live performance over the phone. Final assessments for modules such as Re-Imagining Classic Text, Choreography, Performance Writing and Artist Commissions in Directing, Site-specific Practice and Arts in Inclusive Practice were shared online over two weeks, supplemented with artist talks and a final Contemporary Performance Critical Encounters event. The student (and staff) learning this term has been not only how to offer our curriculum online, but actually how artistically we can create new work online. The platforms available are not designed for creating performance, but students quickly adapted them and used them for this purpose. Did the festival feel “live”? I hope so. It was ephemeral as it is now over (although we do have documentation of the work) and Propel was certainly of this moment. The global response to George Floyd’s murder meant we opened the festival a day late and many of the events suggested ways of donating to anti-racist causes in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Oh, and I also “visited” a coastline via Maddie Granlund’s Further Down the Beach, part of a diptych of site-specific works called A Site Seen From Within and Without alongside Craig McCorquodale’s Intervals. While there is a sense of grief and anxiety for what is being lost at this moment, I am also immensely energised and excited about what a new generation of artists can do to respond to what is happening in the world and to help us understand it, question it, mourn it, celebrate it, and learn from it. What else is art for?
This blog post originally appeared in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's Research Knowledge Exchange The Green Room in June 2020.
Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 2008).
Bissell, Laura. “Early Days: Reflections on the Performance of a Referendum” co-authored with David Overend, Contemporary Theatre Review Volume 25, Issue 2, May 2015.
Bissell, Laura “There Is Such a Thing: Feminist Mimesis in Contemporary Performance in the UK” Contemporary Theatre Review Volume 28 Number 4, 522-536, January 2019.
Berger, Nicholas. “The Forgotten Art of Assembly” April 3rd 2020
Forced Entertainment End Meeting for All 2020
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked (London: Routledge, 1993)
Sigurdardottir, Gudrun Soley, Elision Gateshead International Festival of Theatre 2020
Over the last two years we have been investigating an inexorable web of entanglement between story and place that has emerged during creative research projects. In the following essay we will recount how our experiences working on two such projects during the time of Covid have informed our understanding of the nature of this entanglement and reflect on their significance for re-wilding projects.
We will recount how we gathered material from a series of lockdown walks around the Tamar River system that connects Devon and Cornwall to create a handbook, Skulk & Guiser’s End Game, and five micro-films for a subsequent commission, End Game, during the first lockdown. This is then followed by a discussion of the challenges involved in placing a story of human/unhuman relationships within the community of a ‘forgotten corner’ of Plymouth for the Being Human Festival 2020, at a time when embodied contact with humans was increasingly difficult to negotiate due to relaxing and re-tightening of Covid restrictions during Autumn, 2020.
At the moment we are still in the middle of the first project; the primary two phases of which consisted of a time of wandering and gathering information, and then writing this material up into the handbook: Skulk & Guiser's End Game (2020), a short and slightly 'unhinged' assemblage of games, paintings, stories and journeys intended 'for a time of virus'. We are just completing the third phase having distributed the handbook (with a list of questions to answer) to fifty volunteers for testing out and we have collected almost all the responses. The four and fifth phases are to come: our analysis of the responses and then writing up of our findings in a case study.
At the ‘Performing Wild Geographies’ weekend in Knepp back in 2017, we responded to a landscape in the process of rewilding by various agents; from aristocrats to pigs and seed-shitting flocks of birds. This year, in lockdown, we have been wandering a landscape, that was briefly being re-wilded by a virus, and in much longer-term processes of turbation, ruin and redundancy; its landscape worked over by oysters, worms, and other agents. The Tamar River system – that includes the rivers Tavy, Tamar, Lynher and Hamoaze – connects South Devon to South Cornwall. The Hamoaze is a ten minute walk away from both our homes in Plymouth.
Shortly before the first lockdown, under dark February skies we drove narrow, winding lanes to the North of the city and parked by a woodland. On foot we followed a path through trees, alongside a small river that snaked through and around the isolated muddy flats of Blaxton Quay, where it joined with the Tavy. Despite Blaxton’s now desolate inaccessibility, we noted rotting remnants of a once-busy trading quayside. Lines of wooden posts poking from the mud indicated what was once a jetty, the dark chambers of a large Lime Kiln are covered in brambles and ivy: elements of a pattern of abandoned, once connected centres of exchange, that we repeatedly explored along the water-fronts during lockdown walks.
While the former tin mining industry of Cornwall is well known, along the Tamar, on both banks and under the river bed itself, there was extensive mining for lead, copper, arsenic and silver. Add this to the extensive quarrying for limestone and the movement of granite from quarries on the two abutting moors, Bodmin in Cornwall and Dartmoor in Devon. We have been surprised, even shocked, by just how intensive was this industry; every little creek along the rivers Tamar and Lyhner has the remains of a quayside and stories of arrival and departure; just inland, strange and rather grand stone buildings that have now been redeployed for agricultural use (barns or cattle sheds) have the look of counting houses and customs offices.
The large properties and estates of the area, as well as ornate family tombs in the churches, are testimony to where, and with whom, much of the profits from these enterprises ended up. There is an intense weave of hollow lanes, sunken into the terrain and often passing unnoticed between fields and estates. These days they are washed by the rains; unrepaired, many have lost any paving long ago and are down to a treacherously slippery limestone or slate bedrock when wet or frosty; yet they are mostly still open and uninterrupted, the odd one or two grown over or ending mysteriously at some private wall. But for the most part the sunken local paths remain, maybe much older than even the first mining, for they connect communities and waterway in a logic that is not entirely determined by mineral extraction.
The paths are not simply historical; they serve to lead the curious to frost pockets, old wells, and deep riverbed pools. They manifest a geographical logic that makes sense of many of the local folkloric stories; such as the monk Dando who is caught hunting on the Sabbath by an antlered devil on horseback and sent racing down George’s Lane pursued by his own hounds until driven into the Dandy Pool beneath the Lynher. Modern river charts are testimony to the physical accuracy of the tale; while in its different tellings ‘Dandy’ and ‘Dando’ are applied sometimes to the monk and sometimes to the mounted demon.
Paths, rivers, tunnels and webs of local story form a complex latticework of exchange that can still be traced when walking the old routes repeatedly as we did. Sometimes reconfigured as ‘miracles’ or cautionary tales, the stories – with their smugglers, saints, sacred springs, holy wells, worms, charms, chapels, devilish dando-dogs, transforming staffs, and corrupt lords (a glass of sherry at their side) convinced of their own immortality – speak of something older than the theological or the medieval. Even those tales that cite historical events or figures often include elements that suggest an interweaving of ‘earthly’ (materials, trade, transport) and ‘unearthly’. So, a clearly historical figure like Sir Francis Drake often features locally as more of a magician than a privateer and slaver, while tales of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century smuggling include unreal elements like walking skeletons who carry lamps and white horses leading streams from moor to city.
This ‘magic realism’ fits aptly with some of the contemporary landscape. It was on the beach beside Wearde Quay that we made one of five one-minute films as a Lockdown micro-commission for The Box (the latest manifestation of the city’s museum and art gallery)in Plymouth: https://www.theboxplymouth.com/state-of-emergency-micro-commissions/crab-and-bee . Sitting on Wearde Quay, on the Cornish side of the meeting of Tamar and Lynher, we gaze across Looking Glass Waters to the Dockyard, where hulks of nuclear submarines (their reactors still in place) are left to rot. Also visible from there is Bull Point, where the Navy game-play various disasters (tsunami, chemical plant explosion and so on) to rehearse their emergency response. Meanwhile from Plymouth, the weird wailing of sirens sound out across the apocalyptic waters every Monday morning at 11.30am, announcing the ever-present imagined nuclear accident.
Perhaps then it is not so surprising, given the weirdness of this place and the oddness of the time of Covid, that our short pamphlet Dr Skulk & Dr Guiser’s End Game, is slippery and strange; an oddness interwoven with startling and direct material conditions and contexts, which has reappeared in our most recent practice-as-research in this time of virus: the equally watery Coxside Smoke Signal.
During the summer, as the first lockdown was relaxing, we participated in a series of Zoom conversations (facilitated by arts organisation Take A Part and by the University of Plymouth) between local residents and artists to explore shifts in the ways we make art in the community in response to challenges posed by Covid. We learnt of a general agreement amongst the four Coxside residents who participated that online activity was a poor replacement for live events and workshops. There was enthusiasm for exploring ways of facilitating hands-on, material engagement even if embodied contact was not possible: local publications (zines and newsletters), use of local residents’ windows and noticeboards as exhibition/display space, and deploying community amenities (when not locked down) such as local shops and cafés as drop off/pick up points and supplying creative activity packs to locked down residents were all discussed as potential ways forward.
Discussing good models for socially-engaged art-practice, one theme that emerged from these research conversations was the importance of dreams, the dreamlives of residents, but also the virtues of helping to articulate the hopes and dreams of local residents for the future, particularly at a time when, for many, expectations and ambitions had been postponed indefinitely.
Informed by the findings emerging from these discussions, in September 2020, Crab & Bee began to work with the waterside community of Coxside, Plymouth, towards a project for the Being Human Festival 2020 in November. Due to the perpetual loosening and re-tightening of lockdown restrictions over the following period, planning for this event continued to shift and adapt. From plans for an outside participatory procession and ritual burning, the project morphed to a series of workshops with limited participant numbers, and finally to the delivery of materials and instructions in activity-packs for Coxside families, with 'drop-off' points for completed artworks in local cafés and shops.
This project was informed by an understanding that had been growing as we wandered around during our permitted lockdown ‘exercise’ (deploying some trixxy, while responsible, interpretation of the rules); we had become increasingly aware of how the landscapes and the stories told about them and associated with them, were in a very close relationship with each other. The landscapes told and retold their stories. The evolving and eroding and disrupted terrain was all the time changing the reading of the texts sited there, while the texts were simultaneously and continuously eroded by and transformed by their associations with the places. The terrain was never just a backdrop or setting, but places with personality that were characters in and authors of the tales told about them.
We were not new to Coxside, Plymouth’s ‘forgotten corner’. In 2019 we became aware that the well-known Plymouth story of Gogmagog – the mythical giant whose demise is sited on Plymouth Hoe in view across Cattewater from Coxside – has a late-medieval prequel: the story of the arrival from Greece or Syria of Gogmagog’s mother Albina (and her 33 sisters), set adrift as patriarchal punishment for resisting arranged marriages. During a two week residency at Teats Hill in 2019 we had worked with this heterogenous origin story at the Teats Hill beach in Coxside. We told of how Albina and her sisters had washed up on the slipway (the site of our residency), how they hunted and tended gardens there at Coxside, and coupled with genii loci to produce a race of giants; the first inhabitants of ‘Albion’, a non-Anglo-Saxon origin-story of ‘England’. With local children, we drew pictures of the baby Gogs and folded paper boats to remember the thirty three princesses. To celebrate Albina as Magog (mother of Gog), we painted the slipway with ‘milk’ made from local china clay, and handed out copies of a sixteenth century map of Coxside showing two prominent hills, ‘Teats’, that have subsequently been quarried away.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, we returned to this story of Albina, as a way to look forward and backwards simultaneously, to draw hope for the future from unexpected and multiplicitous origins, from perilous and unchosen journeys, from transgressive relations with animal others, and with materials – milk, water, limestone, paper, white china clay – in a ‘healing’-burning ritual and storytelling in which we have sought to engage not just the people of Coxside and their dreams, but also the materials of their living place, in the actions.
At times we chose to operate in a playful, skulking manner, partly in response to the limitations of embodied human interaction in lockdown, but partly to flatten our presence into the site itself: leaving small, enigmatic constructs and ‘offerings’ of ash, china clay ‘milk’ and paper boats on the beach. We leafleted door to door with the story of Albina and Gogmagog, put posters in windows and post boxes in the shop and café. We distributed workpacks, on request, to individuals and via small community groups; with these the residents could write or draw their hopes and dreams, both for themselves and for Coxside, onto paper and then fold them into boats. The first of these written and drawn hopes and dreams were 'sent to the future on the winds' in a recorded but necessarily ‘secret’ burning ritual on the 21st November: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sglPepDdwa4 and then an account of the burning was distributed in leaflet form door to door. A second, hopefully more public, boat-burning is due in January during ‘Café Accoustica’, a regular outside event held by the local Barbican Theatre on the slipway at Teats Hill beach.
The strangeness of the present circumstances has helped to throw into sharp focus for us certain fundamental questions about the nature of this research and the engagement of artists with communities in a research context (as at Coxside, in contrast to the working with individual volunteers invited for the ‘Endgame’ testing), which otherwise might have remained as assumptions. This has included ways that practice-as-researchers are expected to engage in quantitative and qualitative assessments of impact, and how those procedures may be looping back into disempowering assumptions about those we engage with, while at the same time privileging human actors over unhuman collaborators. All of which begs, at least for us, a radical rethinking of accepted practices of engagement and assessment in both research and community arts through a prism of unhuman agency.
Our visit to Knepp in 2017 and our introduction to the rewilding project there has continued to play into our subsequent art making and research; adding an increased sensitivity to depredations upon the geology and the local extermination of species (red deer, wolves). At Coxside, we were quickly sensitised to the quarrying away of the ‘Teats’, to the decay of the concrete slipway (constructed by the US Army for the D-Day Landings) and the abject state of the little beach, ironically sandwiched between the National Aquarium and the University’s Marine Station, strewn with recent plastic trash, and tiny metal detritus from decades, if not centuries, of ship building, trade and fishing. By introducing the story of the 33 Syrian or Greek sisters, we have been experimenting with how the residents might respond to a story that puts their ‘forgotten corner’ at the heart of an origin-story for the whole country; a story that is diverse in its characters (crossing nationalities, species and human/magical boundaries), places human/unhuman relationships as central to the history of the area, and implicitly proposes that a remaking of the area may not best be done wholly rationally, planned generally, or its future defined anthropocentrically, but at least partly incrementally, cross-species, unhumanly and by fictioning.
While we are far from being ready to present anything close to findings or conclusions from either the ‘Endgame’ or the ‘Smoke Signal’ projects, what has emerged from them is a hypothesis: if we fail to tell the stories of places of rewilding, or fail to allow those stories to retell us, we will always be in danger of disenchanting and dislocating both the places and the process. If we allow that, we may risk subjecting rewilding to the same logics of anthropocentric efficiency and exploitation that have created the climate crisis in the first place. If those two propositions are correct, then, alongside scientific assessments of both the human and environmental advantages of rewilding, there is a crucial role for the connective, entangled place-story to play in making rewilding common, widespread and effective.
My name’s Sarah, I am 32 years old, and I am in companionship with pain . . .
I am trying to listen to you.
To get to know your qualities, character and atmosphere.
To mark you.
To see what you have to say.
And let you take centre stage.
I have lived with chronic back and neurological pain for over 18 years. Until recently I viewed my pain solely as a barrier to my life and work. During the last two years I have been exploring how to turn towards my pain differently and how to work creatively with it through my arts practice. I am a performance-maker, and I devise movement based live art performances in response to my experiences of being alive in the world today. Through working with, rather than against or in spite of, my pain I am realising that living with pain can provide ongoing lessons in vulnerability, unpredictability, openness and precarity. Arguably, these are key lessons when it comes to the various crises we are living in – the pandemic, the ecological crisis, and more. Many disabled artists and activists have reflected that the realisations many are having during the pandemic are lessons that sick and disabled people have (out of necessity) known about for a long time – for example, how to navigate limitations and unpredictability, and what it means to live in a vulnerable body.
Through reframing living with chronic pain as an experience that has validity and knowledge, what can pain teach us? What kinds of knowledges do people with chronic pain have, where these knowledges might provide particular insights into, and lessons about, what it means to live with, and relate and respond to, wider ecological pain and the pandemic crises? What follows is a critical-creative response to these questions, which includes performance text from a solo performance I created and presented in 2020 at The Work Room (Tramway, Glasgow), Pain and I, which explored my relationship to my pain, autoethnographic accounts of my experiences of chronic pain, and wider critical thinking in relation to pain, ecology and precarity.
I am scared of this body.
I am scared of its unpleasant ways,
of its threatening, dizzying, draining and unpredictable ways,
its depleted and loss-of-life ways,
of its troubling and weaker-than-it-was ways.
Donna Haraway argues for the need to ‘stay with the trouble of damaged worlds’ (2016, p. 150). She proposes that ‘all of us on Terra - live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times’, where the task is to become capable of relating and responding to a damaged and wounded earth (2016, p. 1).
I am scared of what has been worn away and is unrecoverable.
I am scared of this damage .
Haraway explores radical methods, from human-pigeon collaborations to science fiction, for humans to learn to ‘inhabit . . . [the] vulnerable and wounded earth’ (2016, p. 10). Haraway argues that it is necessary and ethical to ‘stay with the trouble’ of the damaged Earth and with human and nonhuman suffering, where staying with the trouble is how we can become capable of responding to ‘devastating’ environmental events (2016, p. 150; p. 1). Haraway implies that turning towards (as opposed to ignoring, denying or being nihilistic about) the painful realities of widespread ecological suffering is the most realistic way to develop radical methods for contributing to environmental ‘recuperation’ (2016, p. 7). Haraway implies how it is necessary to find ways of being, as it were, ‘truly present’ with the damaged world and ecological suffering.
I am scared that I am to blame and that I could have done more to help before it got so bad.
I am scared that I have pushed this body too far.
That this body forgets about its possibilities, enthusiasm and alive-ness.
I am scared of being stuck in the past, and yearning for how it used to be.
Of being attached to an ideal of this body and wishing it would return to it’s former glory.
I am scared of living with too much regret.
Furthermore, for Haraway recuperation is not about recovering ecologies to an idealised ‘natural’ state but about the possibilities for ‘finite flourishing’ within a damaged earth (2016, p. 10). For me, finite flourishing is the condition of living with chronic pain – there is an ongoing process of loss, and of acceptance that my body is finite in its capacities and possibilities.
I’ve spent a lot of time hating you and a lot of energy to carry on hating you. I’ve hidden you, ignored you, played you down and planned many times that this time you will disappear for good. But you’ve hung around. You’ve stayed with me for 18 years - you’ve seen me grow into an adult, study, make friends, fall in love, fall out of love, work hard, be sure of myself, lose my confidence, grieve, become an aunty, welcome in a new sexuality and start to grow grey hair.
Even when you’re not loud, not making yourself so known, I think about you every day. You’re never not here. You are so committed to me.
You have a pattern that you don’t stick to.
You are ever so present and ever so ungraspable.
You are too real and you are not always believed.
I feel as though I know you very well and that I don’t know you at all.
Living with chronic pain can be an experience of everyday precarity, where stability – if it exists at all – is a kind of constantly crumbling bridge. Anna Tsing explores ‘the conditions of precarity, that is, life without the promise of stability’ (2016: 2), where she proposes that it is ‘only an appreciation of current precarity as an earthwide condition [that] allows us to notice . . . the situation of our world’ (2016: 4). Can chronic pain experience involve the development of skills in living with precarity where this might lead to skills in noticing the precarity of the world that we live in?
You might never leave me.
You are my intimate companion.
My unwanted lover.
You know about rage, shame, anxiety, panic and overwhelm.
You know about kindness, fragility and calm.
You know about those lines that go ‘ring the bells that still can ring, ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack a crack in everything, there is a crack a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in’.
You contain power.
You contain love.
Because of you I care more.
I respect you.
Perhaps what is needed when it comes to engaging with, and responding to, the crises of the pandemic, of wider ecological pain, is an art of ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway 2016), where what artistic practice might offer is the exploration of creative methods for acknowledging and relating to pain?
Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press: Durham and London.
Tsing, A. l. (2013) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruin. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
 My personal and performative reflections on living with pain are written in italics and indented.
Days before the lockdown began, we made it back to Bamff Estate in Perthshire - the site of Scotland's first reintroduced beavers. Moving on from our usual walking methods, we donned neoprene and attempted some creative swimming experiments. While our usual writing and research is curtailed, here are some images and a couple of short texts from Lewis Hetherington.
Also see Laura Bissell's 'Landscaping with beavers' just published in RUUKKU: Studies in Artistic Research, special edition on 'Ecologies of practice'.
Swimming With Beavers, Bamff Estate. March 2020
- Song to a Beaver
How I long to see ya.
I’d like us to be friends,
maybe that is impossible,
I, a human,
You, a beaver.
I marvel at your work, dams, sculptures, waterways, all,
but I fear that you may be indifferent to my writing
both broadly but also specifically this poem,
yes, even this poem,
which I have written for you
(who is the you? Who is this generic beaver? anyway...).
I also accept that it’s fine and indifferent,
or more precisely,
of my poem,
for you have already given me gifts,
for example, the inspiration to write this poem.
Thank you beaver. And Goodnight.
- Traces of Beavers, Bamff Estate, 14th March 2020.
- gnawed chips of wood
- fallen trees
- caves made of fallen tree roots
- us, trudging through the rain looking for beavers
- sculptures of broken trees
- fallen boughs
- upturned roots
- boggy spread where land and water co-mingle
- spikes of tree stump chewed to a point
- stripped bark leaving trees of gold reclining luxuriously across the soft green banks of moss
- each individual twig, branch, log and trunk which make up the dams
- the pictures I have taken of all these things
- the list I am making now
- the imagination of beavers which I had in my head this morning
- the imagination of beavers which I have in my head now I have been here and seen their engineering
- the WhatsApp message I sent to Iain with a photo of a beaver gnawed tree trunk
- the individual teeth marks on each individual tree trunk
- the many WhatsApp messages I sent to friendsto say ‘I’m swimming with beavers!’ when they asked me what I was doing this weekend
- the tracks, almost like chutes, down to the waters edge, made by beavers
- our footprints on the water’s edge, and in the water, how we disturbed the silky sludge and weeds on the bottom of the water, and whatever traces of dirt and microbes from the cities we came from as we waded into the water
- the log fire and its smoke that burns as I write this
- the hope that I will see a beaver tonight
- these, amongst many others that I have thought, and not thought about, are the traces of beavers that I have encountered today.
We gathered in Bamff in March to continue our wild experiments in the company of beavers and their terraqueous (or land and water) landscapes. Our primary aim was to develop a creative swimming methodology to address the following questions:
- How do beavers sense and inhabit their watery environment?
- How can wild swimming facilitate a creative engagement with non-human others?
- How can creative walking practices be modified and applied to this specific site, and what can this tell us about multispecies collaboration?
Bamff in March is coming out of a Scottish winter. Although this winter has been mild the water temperature is cold, at about 12 degrees. The day was grey and wet. A moderate drizzle and a cold wind. The landscape looks bleak, Spring is yet to start, and the impact of the beavers is stark. Plenty of fallen trees, raw stumps and vivid pale wood chips. Little is growing.
After lunch in the warmth of the cottage we put on our wetsuits, gloves and boots, under jumpers and jackets. We leave the house and walk the half mile to the beaver pond. Sheltering under trees we pause, eager to enter the water, but apprehensive as to what was in store. Awkward, alien in neon neoprene amidst the forest; like Golems at a triathlon. David has us each remove a boot and place a naked foot on the soil, feeling amongst the pine needles and beaver chips for the ground and a still moment of grounding. He read us Phil Smith on the terrestrial practice of drifting: an attentive curation of distraction, making space for suppressed marks of difference, and a purposeful collecting of experience.
We don headwear, goggles. Our hearing deadened, our vision blurred, and our skin buffered from the cold by 5mm of rubber. We enter the water. The bottom is soft, feet sink into silt. The steading is unfaithful and our gait unsteady. We stagger and waddle drunkenly until deep enough to float. The cold water enters through seams and at cuffs. We gasp and seek to acclimatise. I swim strokes I know that keep my head above water. Initially, aimless I make circles in the pond. I strike out for the opposing shore, get close and ground myself in the mud. Great bubbles of methane are released from decomposing vegetation. A smell of rot, distinct, yet buffered by the rubber. I float toes up, surprised by the buoyancy of the rubber.
Striving to become comfortable in the cold I seek to appreciate the watery nature of my new existence. How should I orientate myself in this landscape? What would be my purpose now if I were a beaver? To start with I reckon I would need to orientate myself in relation to the sensory cues given by the pond and what they tell me about the environment. Deaf to the world and with an untrained and dull nose I decided I would look. I get down to pond level and scan like a crocodile. Then I plunge my head under water. The vision is striking, bewitching and somehow familiar from film footage seen in Laura Ogden’s collaborative film and on the BBC. But this small comfort was undone by the shock of the cold water on my face, the only naked part of my body. I gasped. I ducked again, caught masochistically between an embrace of the pain and the security of warm air. I felt I should dive, duck under and swim lithesome through the weeds, sliding over the mud with my belly. But my bodily thermostat screamed no, stay up, keep the mind removed from sensory immersion and potential overload.
What then in the absence of sensory affinity? Think about the beaver’s purposeful nature. What would a beaver do, here and now? My caricatured book knowledge of beavers suggests they would forage and collect materials for making. I reach down to grab sticks and mud, but the water was too deep to avoid submersion. I experiment with my feet, which, like the beavers, are unaided by opposable thumbs and forefingers. Clad in thick rubber they serve as blunt shovels, stirring up mud but no good for carrying and dam building. I slap the water, remembering the beaver’s alarm call: but this is a crass form of communication.
In many ways this experiment was an abject failure to become-beaver. And yet it helps us to calibrate the background conditions required to conduct such an experiment in the future. It offers a first attempt. It tells us a lot about the elemental difference between water and land and about the phenomenology of cold.
Although I am a confident and experienced swimmer and can feel at home in the water, I was lost and confused in the pond. I was reminded of the terrestrial nature of my being. I can walk and breathe, walk and talk, walk and think, walk and not even know I am walking. On a good day, in a warm bath, I can float and do all of these. Sometimes floating even helps. But swimming in a cold pond at Bamff in March is much more of a challenge than walking the same landscape. I suspect this is not true for beavers: equally at home in one or the other.
I do not know how the beaver senses the world through its fur and skin. I can only assume it has a more nuanced haptic experience than I gained in the pond. The wetsuit rubber made a barrier with the environment. It was snug, but then leaky. And the leakiness bore no direct sensible relationship with the water I was seeing around me, or what my movements through the water suggested the water was like. I could not trust touch as a medium to engage with the water, in the way I could when naked. The rubber also diminished my already diminished senses of smell and hearing, fumes of new wetsuit and ear coverings overwhelmed efforts at multisensory attunement.
The leakiness also introduced the cold. And the cold was uncomfortable, bordering on fearful. In accumulated in the peripheries: the fingers, the nose, the toes. It began to chill the core. It distracted from the cerebral aim to think my way towards beaver. It overrode experimental projects to dive, to forage, or just to float and think. Cold (and pain in general), without training, is a profound barrier to multispecies ethnography. Though perhaps it might enable us to understands animals’ experience of environmental disconcertion, of being too hot, too cold, or otherwise in distress.
To become beaver and to understand the elemental characteristics of its terraqueous world I would suggest the following experimental conditions:
- Water warm enough to permit protracted, naked swimming, unrestricted hearing and smelling;
- Flippers or other modes of beaverly propulsion;
- A snorkel to permit extended submersion;
- Darkness or an eye mask to incentivise the other senses;
- A flowing water course to offer audible cues to the passage of water, and the nature and distribution of leaks
None of these prostheses will make me a beaver. Future experiments will also fail. But they will tell us more about the embodied experience of aquatic mammalian being.
Figure 1: A beaver on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.
Gift giving may be the most basic form of exchange, though hardly simple. In our hearts, we like to imagine that gifts are given with “no strings attached.” Of course, this is rarely the case. Instead, gift exchange is weighted by complex, rarely articulated social expectations. I am reminded of these expectations whenever I find myself staring at a distant relative’s wedding registry, calculating how much I should spend so I don’t appear uncaring or cheap. Yet, as anthropologists have shown us, a gift is more than a gift. Gifts circulate through practices of reciprocal obligation. When we give a gift, we get something back in return – whether it is an actual gift, social recognition, or just a good feeling. When we receive a gift, we are obliged to reciprocate in some way. I fret over distant relatives’ wedding registries because twenty years ago I received wedding gifts from relatives I barely knew. Gifts bind us to others and honor those obligations.
Here, I consider what I learned about our obligations to beavers, while participating in the Landscaping with Beavers Workshop, held at the Bamff Beaver Project on the Ramsay family estate in Perthshire, Scotland.
Figure 2: Beaver sculpture, with additional offerings by Laura Bissell, Laura Ogden and Jamie Lorimer.
Beavers transform their worlds by chewing, felling and dragging the trunks and branches of their favorite trees around. In their wake, they leave woody debris, often crafted into fantastic and awe-inspiring forms: hour-glass shaped stumps, curiously upright and balanced, though nearly gnawed through at the middle; pointy spears, honed to a sharp edge; horizontal logs marked by a tracery of teeth. In Scotland, while spending time at Bamff, I began to think of these forms as artistic offerings – a beaver’s version of a sculpture garden.
At the Bamff Beaver Project, I watched tourists photograph each other while standing in front of a fantastic example of beaver art (seen in figure 2). Watching the tourists, I was reminded of Paul Nadasdy’s brilliant essay entitled “The Gift in the Animal.” In it, Nadasdy asks us to take seriously widespread practices of animal-human reciprocity that occur within Indigenous North American hunting societies. In these societies, animals give themselves to hunters as gifts. In exchange, hunters are obliged to perform specific ritual practices. Anthropology’s theories of exchange, Nadasdy argues, have been limited by Euro-centric ontologies that treat the gift of the animal as an Indigenous “belief” rather than a social relationship bound by human-animal reciprocal obligations.
We are so used to viewing beavers as utilitarian workers, the epitome of industry (“busy as a beaver”). Yet, as a thought experiment, what happens if we think of beavers as artists and their statuary as gifts? Taking this a step farther: If beavers are gifting us their art, then what are our obligations to them?
This proposition, in part, led Laura Bissell, Jamie Lorimer and I to imagine ways of offering reciprocal gifts to Bamff’s beavers. Doing so forced us to consider what would please the beavers. Gift exchange, as a social practice, requires us to be empathetic and open to another’s needs and desires. One would never bring a copy of Moby Dick to a child’s birthday party, for example. What we know from beaver behavior and physiology led us to stage several edible offerings to the Bamff beavers. These beaver offerings had the feel of temple shrines, composed of fresh tree limbs, apples and flowers. We assembled the offerings along the river, with the hope that they would cheer and sustain the beavers as they travelled beyond their homes at the Ramsay estate.
We completed our beaver offerings on the last evening at Bamff. The next morning, knowing our time together was ending, we awoke and wandered off to the river as a group. As we walked, I was nervous to discover if the beavers had accepted our gifts. It turns out, most of the offerings remained undisturbed, like gifts that didn’t quite hit their mark. Then, a sweet surprise at our last offering. This one, which Jamie built, was composed of several bendable sticks, like child-sized fishing rods, that arched toward the river bank. At the end of each stick, Jamie affixed a piece of apple (figure 3). Beavers love apples! It would be hard to overestimate the giddy joy I felt when we figured out that a beaver had nibbled on the sticks and apples. This was a little success, a bright moment of multispecies reciprocity. And that joy was the real gift in the beaver.
“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.
We have just returned from a wild weekend at the Bamff beaver project in Perthshire. Bamff hosts the longest established population of reintroduced beavers in Scotland and is located amidst the growing population of beavers in the Tay valley. The Ramsay family, who own the estate, are key players in current debates about beaver reintroduction in Scotland. Over three days at Bamff we learned about the beavers and their landscape, and participated in a set of creative experiments in landscaping with beavers, which we will soon be documenting here. For now, here is a brief insight into our beaver watching, courtesy of Dave Maric.
On 14th– 17th September 2018, I returned to Knepp Castle Estate for a third time with Jamie Lorimer, along with three new visitors: Sofie Narbed, Jenny Swingler and Scott Twynholm. On previous trips we had scoped out, explored and experimented with this complicated site; learning to read, interpret and work with the wild processes and inhabitants of the Wildland Project (Overend and Lorimer 2018). This time, we planned to make something: to create a text that tangled together our artistic responses to Knepp with its existing narratives and ecologies. The piece that emerged from this weekend in West Sussex takes several forms, including an audio track and a written document, as well as a podcast about the site and our project. This blog entry gathers together some images and reflections, recording another productive and revealing encounter with this endlessly enchanting environment.
Working with wildness at Knepp (JL)
Working with our team at Knepp over the last few days has made me think differently about rewilding. It has given me scope to think philosophically about the wild ways of the site; or the different topologies through which we might conceive of the oak. Learning together about the tree, its landscape, and its history open up to a musical understanding of ecologies. We learnt of worlds marked by discordant harmonies: tangled lives, with multiple trajectories and shifting intensities. The oak become more than a simple tree. It was a bending, moving body. It was on the march, surging out of linear hedges to take over abandoned fields. It also became a refugia for myriad oak loving life forms. The tree was also a node of dissemination – spreading countless acorns. Last time at Knepp we were all taken by the acorn symphony, as nuts pinged off the tin roof and plopped into the pond. This time we saw acorns on the move, carried by jays under scrub and into the rootings of pigs. Oaks opened us to the histories of the site – human and nonhuman. They told us of hunting, of industry and of war. They tell and foretell of climatic fluctuations, storms and diseases, and the intensities of ecological disturbance.
Being amongst those attuned to sound taught me to listen. It helped me to sense absences. The roars of the rutting deer were striking, but would have once been subsumed by the bellowing of elephants, the howls of sabre-toothed tigers, and the general chorus of insect and bird abundance. We learned to listen to individual birds and their calls, to try and strike up conversations by mimicry. Tapping stones or cupping hands to simulate alarms or flirtation. Mist nets raised to catch birds drawn by recorded calls also gave notice to the perils of attraction. Caught birds left unharmed, save for the chunky jewellery of a new ring. The layering of sound files revealed the creative potential of dissonance. Synchronous readings of our lists of highlights made clear common moments of wonder, shock and comedy. The murder of a rabbit by a stoat, signalled by a horrific scream as it was dragged by the throat and asphyxiated, marked us all.
This collaboration has revealed the creative potential of well-choreographed collaboration. David has directed us like a pro, drawing out our strengths, offering sound advice, and making a weekend of work a lot of fun. We hope our leftfield take on rewilding provokes curious encounters with oaks all over the country. Go find yourself some acorns.
Vera Oaks (DO)
Frans Vera is a Dutch paleoecologist. His influential book, Grazing Ecology and Forest History, responds to a prevalent belief that prior to human intervention, Central Europe would have been largely covered with closed canopy forest (Vera 2000). Vera argues against this view, instead offering the hypothesis that the grazing behaviour of large, undomesticated herbivores would have created a ‘park-like landscape consisting of grasslands, scrub, solitary trees and groves bordered by a mantle and fringe vegetation’. Vera’s thinking has been extremely influential at Knepp. As a scientific advisor to the project, his theories are put to the test at the site. One of Vera’s most important – and contested – ideas concerns the mechanisms through which forest regeneration takes place. This is the argument that oak saplings (and those of other hardwood trees) are able to withstand the grazing pressures of large herbivores when acorns fall and germinate in thickets of thorny scrub.
The Vera Oaks are distinctive in that they can only grow in places where gorse and thorns take root, creating an exclosure that prevents grazing destroying new shoots. In this rewilded landscape, which is enclosed from the roads and neighbouring farms beyond the Knepp Estate, there are multiple boundaries – both natural and artificial – that allow wildness to take place. The processes of rewilding play out within carefully protected zones.
The Vera Oaks offered us inspiration and challenge. Literally inaccessible and guarded by unruly, tangled flora, our concern with boundaries and exclusory zones materialised around these trees. There were parts of this site that were inaccessible in all senses of the word. At the same time, they hinted at multiple spheres of influence and connection: reaching out to the interconnected components of the ecosystem; resonating deep into the past and out into the futures; shifting scales and setting off new trajectories. We set out to follow these wild ways, and to attend to the lessons that the oaks might teach us.
Overend, D. & Lorimer, J. (2018). 'Wild Performatives: Experiments in Rewilding at the Knepp Wildland Project', GeoHumanities
Vera, F. (2000). Grazing Ecology and Forest History. Wallingford: CAB
An audio essay by Jamie Lorimer, Sofie Narbed, David Overend, Jenny Swingler and Scott Twynholm. Written at Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex.
The Six Wild Ways of the Oak is a creative response to the wild ways of Knepp Castle Estate, focussing on the different topologies through which we might conceive of the oak.
This project was funded as part of Jamie Lorimer’s British Academy Fellowship at the University of Oxford. Thanks to Penny Green, Tom Forward, Rina Quinlan and all the staff at Knepp.
Over the past few years I have undertaken numerous creative residential retreats. This prompted me to think about the benefits of these processes for artists, writers, thinkers and performance makers. All images are the author's own from the Performing Wild Geographies event at the Knepp Estate in October 2017.
Retreating: Thinking, Making, Being
The word retreat implicitly has the promise of a “treat” within it, referring to the notion of a treat as "anything that affords pleasure." Treat comes from the Latin trahere (to draw or pull), through resonances of the Middle English “negotiate” (for example treatise) and retreat as a pull away from something. From these etymological roots, we can see some of the ways in which the word “retreat” has come to have its current meanings. If we are to retreat, the word suggests that we are moving away, we are withdrawing, recoiling or fleeing something or someone. Antithetically, a retreat (or more recently to be on retreat) holds connotations of a place that offers seclusion, withdrawal, solitude, isolation, privacy, and sanctuary (to move away from something to find peace, space and time). “Retreating” explores the ways in which retreating from our everyday lives can have profound benefits in terms of what Cal Newport calls “deep work”, and how these practices can improve thinking, writing and being.
Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (Newport, 2016:3). He uses the example of Carl Jung retreating to Bollingen, a tower in the woods, “not to escape his professional; life, but instead to advance it” (ibid: 2) and argues that many great thinkers and writers such as sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne and writer Mark Twain all removed themselves from their everyday, urban lives and retreated to a more rural, natural environment, in order to undertake deep work, thinking and writing. Newport’s hypothesis can be applied to a range of fields and these processes of retreating, of withdrawing from our technological and (largely) urban lives, in order to find solitude and sanctuary, can be of particular relevance and interest to artists and creative practitioners.
What are we retreating from?
[withdraw, retire, draw back, give way, give ground, recoil, flee, take flight, beat a retreat]
Newport argues that our contemporary lives and constant need for connectivity is eroding our ability to think deeply. He argues that deep work is necessary in order to fulfil human intellectual capacity and that “this state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking” (Newport, 2016: 6). Author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Nicholas Carr agrees: “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (2008). Newport’s Deep Work Hypothesis is as follows:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive (Newport, 2016: 14).
How can we think deeply about the issues facing our lives and our planet if we are perpetually distracted, engaging in superficial and self-generating tasks such as emails and social media? How can we find time and space for contemplation and deep thought? We must retreat.
How to retreat
[seclusion, withdrawal, retirement, solitude, isolation, ebb, recede, privacy, sanctuary]
A retreat can happen in many ways. For most people, it is difficult to justify long periods of time away from work, family or study, but there are some small changes in focus and attention that can allow for a deepening of your life (and as a consequence, your work). The first (and most desirable) is a literal removal from your “usual” life to another environment, in natural surroundings, where you can be alone (or with a group of like-minded others) away from the anxieties and demands of everyday life. This withdrawal from your usual routine and immersion in natural surroundings is perceived to be the best way to embark on a period of deep work. As this is not always practical, Newport and others suggest strategies for retreating to a state of deep work within existing patterns of labour. An internet “Sabbath” (one day of no internet connection) or an internet “sabbatical” (abstaining from the internet for periods of time – only checking at assigned times if you need to do this for your job or practice) are some of the options that Newport suggests. What these strategies do not offer that a physical retreat does is the experience of being outdoors, and recent evidence suggests that this is a vital part of deep work, thinking and being.
What are we drawn to?
Newport argues that in a post-Enlightenment world, we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, “an exercise which can seem arbitrary and can induce a creeping nihilism” (2016: 87). How do we decide what is meaningful for our lives? What has value? What should we focus our attention on to think deeply about? What can deep work philosophies offer artistic practices and processes? Behavioural scientist Winifred Gallagher argues that it is focusing our attention on something (anything we choose) that is the key to a happy life: “Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioural economics to family counselling, similarly suggest that the skilful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience”. As she summarises: “Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on” (Ibid: 77). By paying absolute attention to the thing that we are doing at any given moment; cooking a meal, taking a walk, writing a poem, creating a performance, spending time with a friend; the focus of this allows us a mental retreat from the distractions of our everyday lives. That focus and attention can be achieved more fully out with usual patterns of work/family life and in a natural environment is supported by numerous studies.
This intense focus and concentration on thinking, making, writing and being cultivate a “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems” (Newport, 2016: 79). This may be more difficult in practice than in theory, however, like everything in life, deep work is a practice that must be nurtured and maintained throughout a lifetime. As the yogi Pattabhi Jois said to his students at Mysore: “practice and all is coming”. Writer Dani Shapiro agrees: “When it comes to the practice of writing, it cannot be distraction that propels us but rather the patience – the openness, the willingness – to meet ourselves” (Shapiro, 2013: 132). We meet ourselves when we are immersed in natural environments, when we have time and space to think and to engage with our natural surroundings and to consider our mirror in the landscape (Natural Change, 2010).
Retreat into Nature
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in” (Muir, 1938).
While the benefits of pressing “pause” on our normal, busy lives might be evident, recent studies indicate that in order to make the most out of a period of deep work, a natural environment is the most suitable, and as well as being devoid of the usual distractions (assuming we disconnect from the internet) has other effects in terms of health and wellbeing. Payam Dadvand et al. explore the benefits of green spaces to improving the attention spans of children:
Natural environments provide children with unique opportunities for engagement, discovery, risk-taking, creativity, mastery, and control, and for strengthening the child’s sense of self; in addition, they also may inspire basic emotional states (including a sense of wonder) and enhance psychological restoration, all of which may positively influence cognitive development and attention (2017).
As well as the positive effect on attention described here, discovery, risk-taking and creativity are all essential to developing a creative practice. The benefits of being outdoors are evidenced in recent studies exploring all age ranges. Kuhn et al’s 2017 study found healthy brain changes to older residents of urban environments who live near forests and further studies show that even small and brief encounters with something natural can improve overall mood.
As Kathleen Jamie says in her essay Into the Dark (2003), it can be easier said than done to remove ourselves from humankind-built structures, buildings, and spaces, and sometimes difficult to find a natural or wild place to be. I am reluctant to use the phrase “being in nature” as it implies that we “go out” into nature, that it is something outside of us and our normal lives. The binary between natural, rural environments and built-up, unnatural urban ones feels like an unhelpful dichotomy and perpetuates ideas that we are other than, or even against nature. Admittedly, we have become very disconnected from our natural world and environments in most aspects of our lives and most of the working age population have few regular encounters with natural environments beyond their urban place of work and home. Kayleigh J. Wyles et al’s 2017 study also indicates that wild natural spaces such as rural areas or coastlines are seen to be more beneficial than urban greenspaces, gardens and parks. To retreat further away from urban centres and more deeply into a natural environment has potentially more benefit to a period of deep work than an urban retreat, for example.
The benefits for all are evidenced, however, particularly for artists, writers and creative practitioners, walking through nature exposes you to what author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” which “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.” (Newport, 2016: 147-8). The process of walking outdoors, particularly in rural and coastal areas allows your directed attention resources time to replenish and can be of benefit to a creative practice. The majority of the writers I have mentioned have advocated intense periods of retreating from the chaos of our daily working lives in order to have intense concentration and focus on whatever it is they are doing. They also insist that relaxation and time away from work is also as vital. When retreating to his stone tower in Bollingen, Jung would work, deeply, alone in a room every morning without interruption. He would then meditate and walk in the woods in the afternoon to clarify his thinking in preparation for the next day’s writing. This break from work, this time being in a nature environment was able to support his thinking and writing practice.
When you are on retreat, think about the following questions:
- What are you retreating from?
- What are you drawn to?
- What has value to you?
- What will you focus on, deeply?
Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (2009) says: “I’ll live the focused life, because it is the best life there is”. What kind of life do you want? Is it a deep life?
I offer Wendall Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” as a final thought:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Berry Wendell. 2012. “The Peace of Wild Things” from New Collected Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint).
Carr, Nicholas. 2009. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ accessed 03/01/18.
Cimons, Marlene. 2017. “Connecting With Nature Improves Minds and Moods” https://www.ecowatch.com/nature-minds-moods-2511641154.html accessed 03/01/18.
Dadvand, Payam et al. (2017) “Lifelong Residential Exposure to Green Space and Attention: A Population-based Prospective Study” Environmental Health Perspectives; 097016-1 https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp694/ accessed 04/01/18.
Gallagher, Winifred. 2009. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. (New York: The Penguin Press).
Jamie, Kathleen. 2003. “Into the Dark”. London Review of Books. Vol. 25 No. 24 · 18, pp. 29-33.
Muir, John. 1938. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir
Linnie Marsh Wolfe ed. 1978. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press).
Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work. (London: Piatkus).
Shapiro, Dani. 2013. Still Writing. The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. (New York: Grove Press).
Kuhn, Simone et al. (2017). “In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure”. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 11920 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-12046-7 accessed 04/01/18.
Wyles, Kayleigh, J. et al. (2017). “Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration”, Environment and Behaviour.
Performing Wild Geographies, a two-day creative workshop, took place at Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex (2nd-4th October 2017). Focused on collaborative performance-making strategies between artists and academics from disparate disciplines, the event aimed to be a cross-disciplinary experiment around wild(er)ness and rewilding, drawing in particular on the Knepp’s Wildland Project case, in the southern block of the estate.
The event was led by Jamie Lorimer (Geography, University of Oxford), David Overend (Drama, Theatre and Dance, Royal Holloway, University of London), and Danielle Schreve (Quaternary Science, Royal Holloway, University of London), and brought together a transdisciplinary group of sixteen participants. This group included theatre practitioners and scholars, human geographers, paleo-ecologists, conservationists, visual artists, and journalists, and was joined by the estate’s landowners, Sir Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree, and Knepp’s Resident Ecologist, Penny Green. As will be described in detail below, the workshop involved a series of presentations, creative walks, workshops and discussions around the meanings and practices of rewilding, as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations and entanglements. All participants stayed at Knepp’s campsite for the two nights, which created a stimulating atmosphere for rewilding discussions.
After all participants arrived, we gathered at Cow Barn, by the campsite, and David Overend briefly introduced the workshop. Drawing on the idea of “learning to be affected,” David mentioned that in this workshop we would explore the links between performance and rewilding – not only what the first could offer the latter, but also vice versa. For him, the workshop was also an “unknowable and unpredictable encounter with the other,” with scope for disappointments, similar to the rewilding ethos. Afterwards, Charlie Burrell made a presentation about Knepp Wildland Project, a large-scale conservation initiative established in 2002, in the southern block of the estate, where free-roaming herbivores (Old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, and red and fallow deer) have been the main drivers of physical disturbance and habitat change. He focused on the history of the fields, from intensive arable-farming to rewilding. This shift towards “work with the land, rather than battling against it”, was highly inspired by Frans Vera’s theory of succession, according to which temperate Europe would have been characterised by open wood-pasture driven by grazing animals, and not by closed canopy forest. According to Charlie: “what you will see is Vera’s theory in practice.” He mentioned how since the beginning of the project terminology has been a constant challenge, as concepts can mean different things for different people, and how important it is to learn a language that enables talking among each other. Before the concept of rewilding was in use, for instance, the project was called a “long-term minimum intervention natural process-led area.” When talking about the successes of the project, which nevertheless is focused more on processes and open to surprises, rather than on targets, as opposed to mainstream conservation, Charlie mentioned that “life is poured back in here.” Due to the constant and dynamic interaction between large herbivores and vegetation, landscape is in constant transformation – more than a mosaic, it is a kaleidoscope. He also mentioned the “pop-up Knepps” that the project has inspired and ended up by underlying how rewilding is about scale and perpetuity.
At the end of the night, after dinner, David Overend, Jamie Lorimer and Danielle Schreve led one-to-one meetings with all participants, using objects (tree trunk, beaver bark, and elephant figures) to either talk about their work or tell a story related to wild(er)ness and rewilding.
Back in our tents, yurts, and alike, naturally illuminated by the bright moon, deer roaring and acorns falling over the metallic roof were the wild soundscape to me remembered by all the next day. More-than-human collaborations.
The second day started with a series of presentations and Q&A. Jamie Lorimer focused his presentation on the ontologies, epistemologies and politics of rewilding. Drawing on the example of the Heck Cattle, he addressed the three main questions around which social sciences can contribute to discussions on rewilding: What is the wild? Who knows the wild? Who decides? Exploring the links between rewilding and temporalities, Danielle Schreve’s presentation focused on the contributions of paleoecology to conservation and rewildling, namely in terms of reconstructing (imagining?) past environments. She focused in particular on issues around baselines and nativeness, emphasising how fauna and flora are in constant flux. Baz Kershaw closed this series of presentations by bringing performance into the discussion and proposing meandering as research through the example of “meadow meanders”. As a form of systemic performance of ecology, these allow sensing “the pathway’s agencies and energies – like gravitation waves – [that] may be flowing through us.”
After these presentations, the group was divided in two: one went with Penny, Knepp’s ecologist, on a safari; the other with Phil Smith, whose approach to creative walking resonated with Baz’s presentation. The groups would later switch. The group I followed was first guided by Penny, who introduced the project as she drove the safari vehicle. As the car was going through some of the fields on the south block, Penny explained how these are transitionary, ever-changing, ever-moving fields, using the metaphor of kaleidoscope, which was mentioned by Charlie Burrel the night before. It is, she mentions, a “moving feast”, where no two consecutive years look alike. After some discussions about non-native species, we stopped at a tree-platform, with panoramic view, where we had the opportunity to talk about rewilding and the broader landscape, provided with binoculars. After a series of Q&A about the rewilding project and animal species, either present or absent (e.g. beaver), Penny showed an example that proved Vera’s theory (wood-pasture system): an oak surrounded by holly. This, we were told, would serve as proof of the centrality of grazing animals, as holly would protect the growing oaks from being nibbled. She said: “This is a Vera’s landscape.” On this note, there were some questions about the density of large herbivores and how to assess it. Without much detail, Penny mentioned that the assessment rests on three surveys of available fodder conducted every year, and regular checks of herbivores’ health condition. As the animals go back into the food chain, through consumption, they must follow welfare and food regulations. While some participants were paying attention to the explanation, others were “exploring” the site, either walking around the platform, picking acorns, looking through binoculars or taking pictures.
Still in the tree-platform, we spotted two white storks flying. Penny asked how this encounter made us feel, as they are rarely seen in the British Isles. Some said it was a special and unexpected sighting. She then talked about the white stork reintroduction project, which is a joint venture between a number of private landowners in Sussex and surrounding counties (https://knepp.co.uk/white-storks). For Penny, the stork provides a good example of thinking big and rewilding: big animal, big landscape, etc. Back in the car, we passed by a “stork farm”, which consists on a fox- and mink-proof pen inside which storks are held, bred, and fed. These storks were provided by Warsaw Zoo. This captive-bred population of storks raised some interesting comments amongst participants about the meaning of wild and rewilding.
As we continued the safari, which as any wildlife safari is open to unexpected and uncertain encounters with the wild, we saw two Tamworth pigs resting. Penny stopped the car and we all left. She explained how this breed is similar to the wild boar, in terms of behaviour, but less aggressive, and how visitors seem to particularly like the pigs. She also pointed out how different it is to have them acting in a wild place, in comparison with a concrete area. When asked if she has noticed any behavioural changes through the years, she mentioned that, as opportunistic species, when the pond becomes filled, they start to dive and search for mussels, which they open with their tusks. While we stood in front of them watching or taking pictures, the pigs stayed in the same place for a while, almost without noticing us. They only left when a noisy truck approached. Without more wildlife spectacle to witness, we continued the safari in the car. As the car approached another field, a red deer stag was spotted. Penny stopped again the car for us to see and take pictures. She explained that Autumn is the time of deer rut, or mating season, where males (fallow bucks and red deer stags) battle and display for females, through roaring, clashing antlers, and releasing pungent pheromones. All the participants recalled the previous night, when deer were howling very close to the campsite.
At the end of the safari, and before we switched groups, Phil encouraged everyone to “listen to the ground,” by choosing a place on the floor and approaching it with the ear, as he started to talk about the “cosmic microwave background” and the existence of a map of the universe inside us. Everybody was either laying or with the knees on the floor, with the ear by the grass or concrete, in silence. The group then split and the creative walking started, with a series of exercises, each of which began with a story told by Phil.
To begin with, each of us was given a different “persona” (mine was cow with missing calf). Without the need to perform or mimic, we were asked to experience and interpret the landscape through its eyes, while walking in silence. Some of us kept following the path after Phil, others slightly deviated. As we approached the camping reception, we gathered by the butterfly made of wood pieces and Phil told another story, related to the following exercise. This time, we were asked to imagine the “God of rewilding”, thinking about the respective characteristics and how it would physically manifest, either through movement, posture, etc. After a brief discussion amongst us, where disparate but interrelated themes emerge (such as “butterfly effect”, resistance to fixity, baseline, constant movement, hybridity, or role of humans), we agreed on interconnectedness or entanglement as the main characteristic. To perform it, used the image and metaphor of an entangled knot, made out of our hands and arms. To this end, each of us gathered in a circle, put the two arms in the middle and hold someone else’s hands. We then tried to undo the human knot, using body, arms and legs, until being unable to unknot. Phil called it “God of entanglement”. One of the participants said she would consider it more as a “God of interconnected systems”, which recalls the idea of different perspectives and terminologies about the same thing.
After this exercise, we walked towards the arch made of antlers, which marks the entrance to the campsite. Standing in front of it, we were asked to imagine an animal walking through the port, such as an extinct animal that would return. Afterwards, we were divided in two groups, each of which was given a can that would act as a pinhole camera, combining all the animals that the group has imagined. After holding it for 30 seconds, we opened the can and found a photography of a wolf coming from the port. We laughed and mentioned that the wolf would be the obvious one. The next exercise consisted on using modelling clay to create three figures: a water prey, a predator for that prey, and a new sense or organ to protect the prey from the predator or to help the predator get the prey. We did that by the lake, standing in the bridge in silence and looking at the water, instead of looking at the clay. The sound of oaks popping in the water served as the background noise of the exercise.
As we walked in the direction of the campsite through the bridge, we were given a bit of soil to walk with. As we followed the path that would lead us to the campsite kitchen, we slightly deviated and stopped in a patch of grass. Phil mentioned the dystopic idea that soil could disappear in the future and encouraged us to feel the “threat of that coming void”, by feeling the soil with one barefoot. Afterwards, we walked in the direction of the woodland at the edge of the open campsite, spatially (and metaphorically) demarcated by trees, vegetation and a bridge. Standing on the latter, Phil talked about liminality and cryptic creatures – the so-called Abnormally Big Cats (ABCs). These concern reports of sightings of silhouettes of black cats, even if it is something else, such as a combination of shapes, a movement that might trigger that idea. Divided in two groups, we were asked to perform/recreate a ABC to each other. One of the groups used sound to recreate a landscape instigating fear and the unknown, while the other recreated a hunting scene. Back in the campsite, the last exercises were focused on sight and the different layers and scales of looking: from a satellite and detached perspective to the fine detail, without removing ourselves from the landscape, in line with Tim Ingold’s ideas. From “blowing the horizon”, where we were asked to look at a particular place in the horizon, take a deep breath, then exhale and move to another piece, 10 times, we were asked to focus the attention our a specific area in the grass, with hands around the eyes, as a binocular, and experience how colour intensifies as we move closer. We were then encouraged to switch between these two “ways of looking” as we walked back to the Cow Barn, in silence. After gathering for lunch in one of the fields, we shared experiences of the animals each group saw during the safari and discussed some of this ideas around walking and looking.
After lunch, we gathered back at Cow Barn for a workshop led by Karen Christopher. In the beginning, almost as a meditation exercise, she asked us to remember the beginning of the day and think about, first, where we set that beginning, and then what happened from then until the present moment, sitting in the table. After identifying five or six moments, we then added a descriptive element to each, either a sound, an image, a movement, an idea. Afterwards, Karen distributed the images that she has ripped in half and talked about metaphor of pollution/contamination – when, for instance, one does a movement without explaining (eg. moving only body to imitate grass with wind), it can stick in someone else’s memory and could later be understood or made sense of, in another circumstance; or when one does a movement and the other imitates. Following this explanation, we were asked to stand in front of someone else at the other side of the table. Each of us would start by making a gesture related to the image we got, and then switch and imitate the movement that the other has been doing at the same time.
With these two ideas in mind (memory and “contamination”), we gathered in pairs. After choosing one of the moments each of us wrote down in the beginning of the workshop, we were asked to think about how we could perform it, to show it to our pair, who would then imitate it. The duets were then aggregated in two or three, to create a “performance fragment”, around the idea of rewilding and tangling, in a short period of time. As background idea for the fragments, Karen focused on tangle and tangling, presenting some definitions and using two quotes, one from a Japanese architect (book called Tangling), the other from Ingold’s Lines. Organised in 3 groups, we were asked to do the performance fragments. Starting with the individual/duet performances, we were asked to aggregate them as a collective, with a transition in between (Duet/transition/duet; duet/duet/transition/duet).
At the end of the workshop, all participants were encouraged to reflect upon the performative experience. For some, it provided a new way of structuring things, beyond only one intellect or discipline, a conscious way to play around things, between artists and scientists, where the individual becomes a group. Besides people, it was also a tangling of ideas and materials, following or breaking rules. Other participants also mentioned the idea of movement (“you set things in motion and let it go”), the importance of non-verbal, embodied clues to communicate as a group, without instructions to work together, which might help to overcome the verbal difficulties to understand each other. The idea of soundscapes and sound as another way to reach out to broader audiences was also mentioned.
After an hour for personal exploration, the day and workshop were drawn to a close by a discussion facilitated by Laura Bissell and Sarah Hopfinger. Using Haraway’s metaphor of “staying with the trouble”, staying aligned towards the present, Laura asked: What can this moment and what can this configuration of people and practices offer to this discussion? She also underlined the idea of considering “the more-than-human as a collaborator in creating that performance moment”. Sarah, in turn, reflected upon the interconnectedness between rewilding and theatre-making, “as a medium, in its liveness”, as a collaboration “with the unintended, with the unpredictable”, an in-between “the intended and unintended, the managing and unmanaging, not necessarily knowing which one we’re doing.”
All participants were then prompted to talk about what to take from the workshop. The most consensual themes pertained to the ideas of lack of control and rules, uncertainty, constant movement and mutability of timespaces, and how they can be positive, contrary to the prevailing epistemologies of scientific knowledge, for instance. An increasing consciousness about body and senses was also referred to, namely in terms of sounds, rhythms, literal and metaphorical listening, and also attentiveness to uncanny elements in a familiar landscape. A last point focused on transdisciplinarity and what it may entail to blur the boundaries.
We were then asked to discuss in small groups about the affinities/points of connection and shared themes, which might be to do with reimagining collaborative methodologies, reimagining some of this terminology, like transdisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. After drawing some themes together, we would think about some of the tension points and come up with questions to share between the groups, as we gathered around the fire. Some of the questions presented were:
- How do you sell rewilding? How do you make people want it? Now that the world largely accepts rewilding as a good development, what made everyone want rewilding?
- What aspects of the past do we want to restore (and why)?
- Where does the design come from? How do we get people to see what is not “right” in front of them? Specially because many of the things that we need to do will take decades to see the benefit of it…
- How can we productively work at the edges of our disciplines and meet each other at the boundaries? [Boundaries as paths] might be a useful way of thinking about how we bring our disciplines together - that we might be walking together around the edges. In a way, it allows us to bring in things from both sides.
These question served as a motto for a more generalised discussions about connection between scientists and artists or performers. This discussion touched upon various themes, such as: fieldwork as a “performance practice”, playfulness or “exposing each other to the different languages” as a way to “erode boundaries, resistances and all type of difficulties”, willingly “putting yourself at that position of risk”, performance actors (humans and nonhumans) and places, or the role of witnessing.
With these ideas in mind, we went for dinner, where the discussion continued. After that, we all went to the campsite. Deer were silent this time, replaced by owls, and the acorns kept falling in the roof, ground and possibly in the pond further away – “the acorns are falling in the pond!”
Performing Wild Geographies brought together artists and academics working in the fields of rewilding, human geography, paleoecology, conservation, performance studies, theatre, visual arts and journalism, in order to explore the potential for transdisciplinary collaboration in rewilding. The two day research event took place at a pioneering rewilding project: Knepp Estate in West Sussex. It involved presentations and workshops from leading academics in rewilding and leading scholars and artists in performance and ecology, guided walks and explorations of Knepp led by the resident ecologist Penny Green, group discussions, eating together and camping on site.
This piece of documentation is a creative response to my experience as a participant at Performing Wild Geographies. It is an exploratory, experimental, partial and subjective account of the event. The two sections - Words and Movements - are intended to contemplate the question: what creative sensibilities might contemporary performance practices offer to rewilding and wildlife conservation? This document is not a full or ‘pure’ account of what what was said, experienced and discussed, rather it is a kaleidoscope of tangled memories, movements and ideas. I hope this tangle can lean the reader productively into some of the possibilities of transdisciplinary collaboration between performance and rewilding: in particular, the potential for performance to enable meaningful and ethical public engagement with concepts of rewilding, wilderness and wildness.
These are reformulated, reconstructed, (mis)remembered and (mis)interpreted words from the opening presentations, guided walks, snippets of overheard conversations, performance workshops and final group discussions.
What is wild in the Anthropocene? Who knows? Who decides? How do we know when we find wildness in the field? Who gets to speak for wildness? (Jamie Lorimer)
Who or what is doing the rewilding? (Danielle Schreve)
When and how much do we intervene, and when do we wait to see what happens? (Penny Green)
I found myself today wanting to go out into the site, to wander, to see what the site has to communicate. (Baz Kershaw)
Oh and then the land did it itself. (Charles Burrell)
I feel aware of my body and its part in the bigger body of land here. (Helen Billinghurst)
I am struck again by what was here - the alien, the breadth and scope of it. (Samuel Turvey)
The landscape is uncanny. (Phil Smith)
Not having rules. (Harriet Hawkins)
We didn’t have personal control when we were led with our eyes closed by a partner. (Danielle Shreve)
Surprise is more compelling than what was thought of. (Jamie Lorimer)
Performance can be a creative way of confounding human intentionality and rewilding has an ethos of letting go of control. (Sarah Hopfinger)
We do not have full control of these spaces - for example, animals escape. (Danielle Shreve)
Openness to unpredictability. (Filipa Soares)
It’s an attitude of being open and responsive to unpredictability, to working in the ‘betweens’ of control and uncontrollability, predicted and unpredictability? (Sarah Hopfinger)
Performance is often about putting ourselves in risk. (Laura Bissel)
Why am I throwing acorns into the water? (Jamie Lorimer)
The design of rewilding can happen by accident. (Penny Green)
The playfulness of this event. (Antony Lyons)
Danielle, I could have watched you move your arms up and down for a long time. (Karen Christopher)
It feels important not to make conclusions. (David Overend)
Land as ‘unreadable’. How did animals make this land? How do we make sense of it? Transdisciplinarity as a case of blurring the boundaries so much that there is an ‘un-knowledge’. Perhaps we need a manufacturing of un-knowledge and ignorance. (Baz Kershaw)
What are the ‘inters’ and ‘betweens’ of this project - the interfaces between the human and nonhuman, the different disciplines, the physical spaces, the people? (Laura Bissell)
Wildness as a type of process. (Jamie Lorimer)
How can we look at or see an ecological process? How do we know when we see it? (Danielle Shreve)
There is always already so much going on, so we might not need to do much to draw attention to what is already happening. (Karen Christopher)
We are in a unique site. Performance that addresses this site will be a particular kind of performance. What are the specific aesthetics at play here, what are the ethics here? (Baz Kershaw)
The many rhythms passing through the Knepp landscape at different moments - rhythms of harmony, tipping points, conflict. (Jamie Lorimer)
Knepp is not a mosaic of different sites but a kaleidoscope of tangling areas. (Charles Burrell)
There is an element of risk: the real or imagined potential for danger. We don’t know these beasts at all, we don’t know what they will do, and how they might respond to us. (David Overend)
What do we value in witnessing performance? Can we value a tree, an atmosphere, through performance? What can theatre do? (Laura Bissell)
There were different forms and modes of attention in the group performances. What (performance) methods enable different modes of attention? (Baz Kershaw)
What can performance offer conservation? What can conservation offer performance? (David Overend)
During Phil Smith’s workshop, we collaboratively created outdoor performances in response to the idea that wild animals are often thought to have been sited in places where they feasibly could not have been. Below is my response to one of those performances.
Baz Kershaw lies face down in a woodland, his head between two sticking-out-slanting branches. He seems oddly comfortable. His bodily position is bold yet at ease. Straight arms and legs with subtle bumps of torso and angled feet and hands are all held uniquely by the shape of the earth-stones-sticks-and-other-things-that-I-do-not-know-are-there. The movements of the trees around him, of myself and the others walking past him, are made more certain by his odd-at-ease-antler-human-face-down-stillness.
This image moves me, I am not sure why. It requests my attention. It does not ask for me to make meaning of it as an image of ‘an antler man’ but asks for a quality of attention. I am not Sarah watching another human being ‘a stag’: rather, I am part of a performance of attentiveness. This attentiveness is not merely mine nor the ‘antler man’s’ but seems to be an attentiveness that belongs to the ecology of here, of bodies-stillness-sticks-watchers-wood-wind-air-performers-and-more. However fleetingly, this more-than-human performance has opened up a mode of attention - of attending - that is somehow slow, soft, curious, surprising, vulnerable, alert, and, perhaps, wild.
During Karen Christopher’s performance workshop, we created collaborative pieces inspired by movements, sounds, images and ideas from our time so far at Knepp.
In one of the group performances Danielle Shreve walks, and at the same time she moves her arms. Her arms are a waving-curving-up-and-down-preciseness. There is an everyday-ness to this performance: she walks on concrete, she is wearing boots, her expression is unforced and open, her walk is certain and relaxed. Yet this is an unusual performance: her arms are moving up and down and there is something more-than this movement in this movement. Her swooshing curvature of bending arms is neat, satisfying, definite. It seems less that she does this movement and more that she takes part in it: as if the movement is moving her.
The evening before I had listened to Danielle’s presentation on her specialism - paleoecology. She spoke of ancient ecologies, of the noisy place that the United Kingdom would have been due to the intensity of its species. She explored how we might ‘see’ ecological processes and how do we know when we ‘see’ them. She talked about how species’ behaviour does not get neatly fossilised and she gleefully discussed how hippo remains were found at Trafalgar Square in the 1950s.
Danielle’s words and energies that I encountered during her presentation now merge into these walking-arm-wavering movements. Her way of moving seems to be full of a deep history: a paleoecological knowledge expressing and speaking itself through the simplicity of two arms going up and down. I do not think she could do these movements without the specifics of her embodied intellectual understanding of paleolithic animals and ecosystems. Earlier on in the workshop, Karen Christopher had said something along the lines of: we cannot fully know what we are doing, what the effect of something we do might have, what knowledge is carried in the movements of our bodies.
In another group performance, David Overend is sitting on a chair at a distance from us (the ‘audience’). He is out there towards the field where there are grasses-hedges-horizon-and-what-I-cannot-fully-see. His far away-ness feels important. David, sitting on his chair, faces us with a stare that arrests me closely, yet I cannot make out his expression or bodily position: he is not fully clear. I am drawn to this far-away-close-David-chair. He watches us watching him. After some time, he slowly brings his arms up towards his head, his hands carrying two long sticks that end up resting on his head and protruding out-upward into the sky, echoing a knowledge of long antlers. He does not change his continued looking at us, even as he is changed by this simple movement and collaboration with two sticks.
I overhear a conversation later and I learn that David was attempting, in this performance, to recreate the experience he had had of watching a half-hidden stag watching him. Later in that performance, David walks towards us, lessening the distance between us, coming into view more and more. Yet even as I see him more fully, I cannot help but feel that he is not fully see-able, and neither is the ‘stag’ that he was performing. I sense something worthwhile in this not-fully-knowable-not-fully-graspable way of experiencing things. There is an openness to partiality in this David-stag performance: I experience a sense that it is OK not to view things in full. David’s physical distance from us spoke to me of a significant partiality, a half-hidden and not-fully-see-able wildness. Perhaps animals, environments, people and ecosystems need to not be fully seen, grasped, understood, in order for them to be what they are, where what they are always contains something unknowable. This brings me to the thought that if we are part of environmental ecologies, as opposed to somehow separated or separable from them, then we cannot ever see them in full view, we can only ever participate in ecologies and ‘see’ and ‘do’ from the partiality of our entangled perspectives. What matters, then, is how we participate in environmental ecologies: what our ethics, aesthetics and practices are of participation. Experimental performance practice, with its methods of openness to the unpredicted and unknown, may be a particularly unique way in which to not only communicate but to phenomenologically experience rewilding processes.
Under the Surface of Knepp
(This was written as a response to the Performing Wild Geographies event which took place at Knepp Estate on the 2-4th October 2017).
An arch of ghostly manta rays
Entrance to a wild place
Petrified and stacked
Bleached brown coral reef
Signalling death and end
Although the Knepp Estate is around fifteen miles from the sea, with no coast visible, under the surface of this wild place I could feel the sea. Not only through water which I encountered at times, on the dawn walk by the Millpond and at the Oak-lined stream, but also in flashes of images, fragments of conversations, and through the experiences of my body. As oceanographer Rachel Carson reminds us, our bodies hold ancestral residues: “our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea” (Carson, 2014: 20).
Penny Green, Knepp’s conservationist, told our group when we were on a wildlife safari that there was a hope to connect Knepp to the sea in the future. This made me think about how the acres of wild, green space, bustling with wildlife, provide clear, visual evidence of the success of Knepp’s rewilding programme. The ecology of the sea and its decline, however, seems invisible to us, the collapse happening under the surface of the water. Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything (2014), writes that unlike the visible damage of pollution to species such as sea-birds and mammals, the effect on larvae and aquatic eggs are unseen: “Rather than some camera-ready mass die-off, there would just be… nothing. An absence. A hole in the life-cycle” (Klein, 2014:426). This damage to sea environments after a large-scale pollution event might not be perceptible in marine life until two or three years after the episode, when, instead of usual volumes of fish and aquatic wildlife, a “handful of nothing” will be the only evidence of the harm that has been done (ibid: 431). Rather than a mass-extinction event, or a decline of species over time, some of the human-caused stresses to marine environments can result in swift, huge depletions in sea-life with little media coverage or most people even realising. My time at Knepp made me consider how approaches to rewilding could be translated to other environments. How could the successful rewilding processes used at Knepp be applied to other (potentially more expansive, difficult and unwieldy) spaces? What does an underwater Knepp look like? How do we rewild the sea?
The predominant Western view of the sea might be characterised as that of a quintessential wilderness, according to John Mack: “the sea… was empty: a space not a place. The sea is not somewhere with ‘history’, at least not recorded history. There are no footprints left upon it” (Mack, 2011:16). The sea differs from other landscapes due to its expansiveness (70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water) but also due to its materiality: humans cannot access ocean landscapes in the same way that they might a field, mountain, or forest, and the wetness and depth of the seas allow for human engagement only from its edges or its surface. Mack says there are two alternative cultural views of the sea: “one which constructs it as an unwelcome and unwelcoming wilderness where the land is a reassuring point of reference; the other which sees it as entirely familiar and unthreatening. These are, however, only characterisations of two extremes” (Mack, 2011:74). Our inability to reach ocean environments has exacerbated a reluctance to care for or conserve them. While there are some Marine Protected Areas and marine conservation areas, across the world the health of our seas is in crisis. In 2017 global warming caused the worst coral bleaching to date, and overfishing and marine pollution (both plastic and chemical) is devastating marine species.
Sam Trubridge states that humans “may require a boat, a swimmer or a figure of some kind in order to encompass its vastness, to provide human scale or to somehow traverse it conceptually or geographically“ (Trubridge, 2016:1). As well as the physical engagement with the sea that shapes our experience and relationship with it, there are also emotional or metaphysical aspects and frequently the sea has been portrayed as a mirror to human consciousness (as depicted in Joseph Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea, 1906). Is it only through self-identification and “mirroring” that we can care for the sea, or can humans begin to consider it as a more-than-human environment in itself? Not “as alien ‘other’; as featureless wilderness” (Brown and Humberstone, 2015:188) but as Anderson and Peters claim, “our world is a water world. The oceans and seas are intertwined, often invisibly but nonetheless importantly, with our everyday lives.’ (2016:3). Can we care for it as a “vital space” itself as opposed to an anthropomorphised entity?
Knepp seemed to me to be a liminal space, a place of possibility, an edgeland. I was reminded of Carson’s thoughts on tidal areas in the second book of her Sea Trilogy, The Edge of the Sea: “The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life” (Carson, 2014: 8). Clearly before we attempt to rewild marine environments we need to urgently put in place measures to stop unwilding them through plastic/chemical pollution and overfishing. Some of the earth’s most ancient living inhabitants are sea-dwellers with species of clams, molluscs and turtles dating back millions of years..
Carson says that in the sea nothing lives “to itself”, that the sea water itself is changing due to the creatures that inhabit it: “the present lined with past and future, and each living thing with all that surrounds it” (Carson: 2014:42). My time at Knepp reinforced and reinvigorated my feeling of kinship and collaboration with our more-than-human world. Under the surface of my time at Knepp I felt sympoiesis – “collective creation” or “making with” (Haraway, 2016: 5) - my environment; as Haraway says: “we become with each other or not at all” (2016: 4).
In the archway of bone and antlers I saw a dead coral reef, an exposed monolith, a warning. I saw the sea in the fields. I saw the struggle of ancient species to survive in this modern world. I saw one environment as a palimpsest of many environments, and I saw myself in it too. I saw this under the surface of the green, wild meadows of Knepp. We need to look under the surface of our seas to see what life is struggling to be witnessed as we inadvertently unwild it. How do we rewild the sea?
Anderson, Jon and Kimberley Peters. 2016. Water Worlds: Human Geographies of the Ocean. Oxon: Taylor and Francis.
Brown, Mike and Barbara Humberstone eds. (2015). Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea. London: Ashgate.
Carson, Rachel. 2014. The Sea Around Us. London: Unicorn Press.
Carson, Rachel. 2014. The Edge of the Sea. London: Unicorn Press.
Conrad, Joseph. 1988. The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gough, Richard and Sam Trubridge, eds. 2016. At Sea/ On Sea. Performance Research Journal, Volume 21: Issue 2.
Haraway: Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. London, Duke University Press.
Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything. London: Penguin Random House.
Mack, John. 2011. The Sea: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion Books.
Some images and maps by Helen Billinghurst, from a creative retreat at Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex
A selection of images from a two-day creative workshop that took place at Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex in October 2017. The Estate is home to Knepp Wildland Project, a large-scale conservation initiative established in 2002 by the landowners, Sir Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree. Adopting a model for grazing ecology promoted by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, the Estate’s fields have been gradually taken out of arable farming production in favour of ‘a “process-led”, non-goal-orientated project where, as far as possible, nature takes the driving seat’ (knepp.co.uk). In place of traditional human-led systems of land use, free-roaming herbivores such as old English long-horn cattle, and Tamworth pigs, have been introduced to drive habitat change. This approach is now commonly referred to as ‘rewilding’.
This event aimed to explore this complex and dynamic site through a transdisciplinary collaboration on site at Knepp. Bringing together a disparate group of artists and academics the project involved a series of presentations, walks, workshops and discussions between sixteen participants, joined at various points by Burrell and Tree, along with Knepp’s Resident Ecologist, Penny Green. This event was intended as the starting point of an ongoing project led by Jamie Lorimer (Geography, University of Oxford)); David Overend (Drama, Theatre and Dance, Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL)); and Danielle Schreve (Quaternary Science, RHUL). We were joined by a group of theatre practitioners and scholars, human geographers, paleo-ecologists, conservationists, visual artists, and journalists. The project aims to combine specialist knowledge of Quaternary history (the last 2.6 million years), with a creative sensibility to possible futures in wildlife conservation, in order to inform the way that present publics engage with concepts of wildness and wilderness. More documentation from the event will appear on this site over the next few weeks and months.
9 February 2017
I have been spending a lot of time on my own recently, taking a regular journey by air between my home in Glasgow and my workplace in Surrey. This hasn’t been entirely unpleasant. Suspended miles above the landscape, or responding to emails in the reassuring universality of airport lounges, it has been easy to detach myself from the succession of personal crises that I am struggling with just now. Nonetheless, I am heartened to receive an invitation from Jamie Lorimer to join him for a morning walking in the Chilterns. We will discuss our new project as we explore the area around Christmas Common, followed by lunch at The Fox and Hounds. We are looking for elephants in birch trees and hedgerow.
We have been thinking about the ghostly presence of past inhabitants of the British countryside. If you know where to look, and what to seek out, there are myriad traces in the fields and woods. Signs of species that are no longer with us. They are there in certain bark colours and features, patterns and fissures that would break off if a large herbivore attempted to remove a strip. They are there in the tough wiriness of smaller trees, resistant to uprooting and snapping. And they are there in the impenetrable tangle of flexible shoots that comprise the quintessential English hedgerow. I first learnt of these hidden clues on reading George Monbiot’s work on rewilding. Monbiot reminds us that ‘wherever we go, we walk in the shadows of the past’.[i]
One of the most successful rewilding projects in this country was the reintroduction of the red kite to this area in the early 90s. Apart from a small pocket of survivors in Wales, these magnificent raptors were hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century, and it took a foreign delegation to re-establish regional populations. Quarter of a century later, these European immigrants, released for several years across this hilly area of Southern England, are thriving. We are walking through red kite country and as we set off from our meeting place in the pub car park, Jamie recounts the brazen theft of his wife’s sandwich by one of these majestic opportunists. The intrusion of unpredictable wildness into an innocent family picnic. Today, they are a constant presence on our walk, circling and swooping through the wide-open skies, stirring up the smaller birds to frantic alarm calls, and occasionally dipping below the tree line, perhaps in search of carrion.
Weaving around the theme of our walk, the kites send potential victims diving into the cover of the surrounding woodland, and as we follow roads and pathways into the trees, we note the otherworldly lustre of the silver birch guarding the way into the beechwoods. As we walk we move through places and subjects. A theatre maker and a geographer, searching for parallels and convergences in our fields. We want to explore the potential of creative practice to contribute to rewilding; and to find out what theatre and performance might learn from contemporary approaches to conservation. We will start slowly, inviting a disparate group of artists, scientists and conservationists to think and create together. And in time, we will plan a larger scale project. It will be called The Elephant in the Hedge.
Walking gives way to talking and on several occasions, I realise that I have stopped looking around me, lost in trains of thought about cultural geography, performance theory and natural history. Most contemporary walkers claim their practice as a way of relating more closely and attentively to the landscape, but I wonder how honest they are about those moments when, walking with a companion (or indeed alone), they tune out and follow some conceptual tangent, periodically travelling inwards rather than gazing outwards. It takes a particular feature of the route to jolt me back into the world again, usually prompted by Jamie’s attentive navigation and guidance.
We reach a borderline, where the beech clash with another interloper: the conifer. Planted for timber and spreading quickly throughout the twentieth century, these fast-growing conical trees serve a functional role, but drive back native species such as oak, ash and cherry. A project is now underway to remove conifer from ancient woodland, opening up areas for wildflower growth and encouraging greater biodiversity across the Chilterns. At every turn, I see that wildness is a human decision, and that it is only one possible option. We could walk through annexed monodominant forests, our sandwiches intact, but our lives would be lesser for it.
As we complete our loop, we pause briefly to investigate a circle of chalky mounds, which Jamie suspects may be the work of badgers. Then back to the pub, which is now open and warmed by a welcoming log fire stoked by a friendly proprietor who we had passed earlier, walking his dog in the opposite direction. Here, we eat well and quickly and capture some of our thoughts and plans on paper. Then we bid farewell and leave this remarkable patch of countryside to the collaborative ecologies of the kites, the beechwoods, and the walkers.
I park my car outside my office later that day and as I gather my bags, out of the small strip of protected woodland that borders the carpark, a couple of small skittish deer cautiously watch me from the shade of the collection of rare trees that the University has gathered from all over the world. The rest of the day seems to have been intentionally preparing me to find profundity in this encounter and for several minutes, we simply watch each other. I will a vestigial wildness from my being, and it might be a vast Mesolithic elephant staring back at me from the undergrowth for all the meaning that it conveys.
[i] George Monbiot, ‘Thinking Like an Elephant’, June 2015. http://www.monbiot.com/2015/06/15/thinking-like-an-elephant/ (accessed 11/01/17)
At the end of 2015 I interviewed residents of Dunoon and the surrounding areas asking them questions about their experiences of living by the sea, what “the sea” means to them and what part it plays in their life to create a short video called The Sea, The Sea, The Sea. The video includes contributions from pupils of Toward Primary School (which is situated right on the water, looking out to Bute), students at Dunoon Grammar School, a sea captain, a naval engineer, an artist, a geologist, employees at local businesses as well as residents who practice open water swimming, who boat and sail for leisure and who have lived on the water for all or part of their lives.
I hope that the film will show a snapshot of how people of a range of ages and experiences from a seaside community of the West Coast of Scotland speak about the sea and the part it plays in their life. It has been really enjoyable to speak to people in the community about the sea that we share and I have been struck by some of the common elements that people refer to: the smell, the ever-changing colours and moods, the memories and the enjoyment of walking by the sea. I asked people for their own “sea-words” and these have been really valuable as part of my enquiry about the sea and language. Thank you to everyone who has given up their time to be interviewed for this project, it is very much appreciated.
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