Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Making Space For Water

Some of the following is re-published from

Some context for Sabrina Dreaming:

Undeniably - in the case of England - the predominant theme, to date, in 2014 has been water/flooding/storms. There are strong indications that climate instability is ushering in periods of global extreme weather, with potentially very significant social and landscape implications...
Coastal landscape change, and adaptation, are themes explored in my new film-poem, Transgression (Rising Waters), derived from a series of walks at the Severn Estuary Coast with Iain Biggs. After a long gestation, this work will be shown publicly in May, and marks the first completed element of my longer-term Submerged (Drowned Lands) project. With all and sundry now wading in to the subject of watery inundations, inevitably one has to ask the question 'What could an eco-arts-based approach bring to the (water)table?'

What especially interests me is the potential to investigate and help reframe some of our current  - and complex - eco-social concerns; the 'super wicked problems' of the Anthropocene. An example is the recent flooding situation in the Somerset Levels and on the Severn Estuary. These areas are intimately connected of course, as the Levels were once tidal/salt marshland and, in effect, formed the wider floodplain of the Severn. A major causative factor of the Somerset flooding - along with extreme rainfall - was the Severn tidal flow (or surge) which pushed up the River Parrett (and Tone) and spilled over into the lower-lying lands of the Levels. There are now new proposals to construct a barrage at the mouth of the Parrett, in Bridgwater Bay, to try to prevent re-occurrances. Such a structure would however be an ineffective defence against a huge storm-surges, as evidenced along this coast in 1607.

The Long View: An imaginative - and deep-time - perspective on this would examine long-term scenarios and conjectures, including the need to accommodate events potentially as extreme as the 1607 flood, and to adapt to the increasing presence of the sea. Either we make space for water...or it takes the space anyway? In the case of the River Parrett and other rivers such as the Bristol Avon, keeping the sea at bay (barrages, channel-dredging etc) promise to provide maybe simply a temporary fix. As artist-in-residence at the CCRI in Gloucester, I've had some opportunity to observe, at close hand, some of the impacts of flooding in the upper reaches of the Severn Estuary. My sense - from visiting, and from the media reporting - is that these areas (Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Worcester etc), having experienced many bouts of flooding in recent years, now meet their re-occurrence with a mix of preparedness and calm resignation?
[see this research-blog for in-depth documentation and oral histories of flooding this area]

The reports of a Gloucester family who have raised their house on stilts caught my attention, as it resonates strongly with one of the themes of my film, Transgression (Rising Waters)which also has a connection to the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild, set on the Gulf Coast of the USA. For me, these films both embrace geopoetic qualities, in their engagement with landscapes and their acceptance of surreal/dream intrusions or eruptions (of deep-time) that disrupt the everyday experience. This juxtaposition of the facts (rational, objective) with personal truths (subjective, subconscious) can help communicate a more holistic, rounded expression of place.

Sabrina Dreaming is concerned with the Severn Estuary Coast, and some of its many, ever-shifting, environmental and ecological issues - including adaptations to increasing coastal flooding, and even the idea of a shifting coastline. I'm now in the scoping stage of the residency project, and starting to make interesting links both within and beyond the university. As ever, it is the encounters at the printer/water-cooler that offer the most promising, unpredictable possibilities for involvement and co-operation. Recently, I had a chat with Rob Jarman, who I'd first met years ago when he was sustainability director at the National Trust. Rob is now conducting a Phd at the University of Gloucestershire's Centre for Environmental Change and Quaternary Research (CECQR), investigating the genetics and palaeoecology of sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) in the Forest of Dean. He is using soil pollen and tree genetics to date and give provenance, and is also seeking archaeological and historical evidence. Rob also has a keen professional interest in all aspects of water environments, and especially relating to the Severn Estuary.

Other conversations with the CCRI academic group have included the topic of indigenous attitudes and relationships to rivers (such as at the Whanganui River in New Zealand). A recent legal ruling (part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process for claims by the Atihaunui-ā-Pāpārangi iwi) represents a shift towards recognition of Māori understandings of relationships between people and the natural environment. It positions “the Whanganui river as an indivisible and living whole, from the mountains to the sea, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements”, uniting the areas below, above and including the riverbed. The Whanganui River will be declared a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” Given that the river be unable to protect its own rights, the legislation will regulate the appointment of river guardians , one by the Crown, one by iwi, to protect and promote its status and wellbeing. The Whanganui case sets a precedent for future Treaty settlements and internationally, the agreement has been held up as an important achievement for environmental protection more generally.
Link to detailed legal assessment

Returning now to the Severn; with the resurgence of building of nuclear power stations on the estuary (at the existing Hinkley Point and Oldbury sites), a related strand of interest to me is the monthly biological sampling which commenced at Hinkley Point B in 1980, and is still ongoing. Fish and macro-crustaceans are monitored on the power station filter screens and plankton nets are placed in the intake. The data reveals, for example that the eel, Anguilla anguilla, has experienced exponential decline between the years 1980 and 2011, in the Severn Estuary. The decline has averaged 15% per year, and the abundance of eel in 2009 was estimated at only 1% of that in 1980.

Thirst drove me down to the water where I drank the moon’s reflection.

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