Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Bores, Roars and Boars

My early fossicking (and noodling) activities related to this Gloucester-based residency have lured me further upstream, away from my more familiar haunts near Avonmouth and to the south along the Severn Estuary. The coastal landscape here has a very different quality. There is a strangeness, compounded no doubt by the presence of the looming bulks of the two nuclear power stations, within view of each other (Oldbury and Berkeley). But here too is an extensive remnant coastal salt-marsh zone, and the gradual transition from estuary to river waterscape. The opposite bank is now close enough to easily make out individual buildings, vehicles, even people. There are remains of jetties scattered on both sides, marking the once busy river-crossing points...

Early on a March morning, I journey to one such former ferry-landing - at Arlingham - on a special trip to experience the renowned Severn Bore. There was a hushed calm amongst the small throng of spectators, who were possibly outnumbered by a very different biped species - the Bore Surfers. A rising air of expectancy; a dash across the mudflats by the stragglers of the surfer crew. The 8am church bell of Newnham on the opposite bank fortuitously signals the arrival of the approaching wave. This morning's event has been flagged as a '5 Star' bore - a big one. For me, this force of nature was made all the more impressive by the dramatic piggy-backing band of creature-like surf riders.

When it came, the transformation was rapid - the empty expanse of mudflats overrun and engulfed in seconds by the thundering, roaring wave; a micro-tsunami. (I'd had some foretaste of the sound of the bore through experiencing Louisa Fairclough's sonic artwork Bore Song, involving recordings of the Severn Bore...possibly even from this spot?). I lingered long after the small crowd ebbed away, held there by the swirling, turbulent eddies activated in the wake of the wave-front, with their unpredictably alternating flow directions.

In 577, the Saxon leader Cealwin defeated the Britons at Dyrham. The retreating Britons are rumoured to have been engaged again near Frethern (near Arlingham) whilst heading for a river crossing. "On this day Unla Water probably received its name from the Saxons, for Unla is a contraction of the Saxon word for misfortune. Here many a Saxon saw the river for the first time and plunged in only to be drowned. As they saw the Britons running across Priding's Point to the safety of the Silurian shore, it must have seemed a simple matter to the Saxons to cut off this retreat by swimming the narrow main channel of the river. But Unla Water as it runs under the north bank of Arlingham is the most dangerous reach of the Severn and even at low tide is a maze of currents and whirlpools." LINK

In a deep-time mood - facing across to the Triassic desert-deposited red sandstones cliffs, I considered that - potentially - over 100,000 such bores have run up the Severn since the last ice-age, for the most part unobserved by humans? In another deep-time link, the opposite shore runs back to the hills of the Forest of Dean, where now roam small, but ever growing, herds of wild boar re-introduced accidentally or surreptitiously? In a way this is rewilding... or at least the first steps towards it. The wolf next?, beaver?, bear? Many in the 'rewilding movement' point out that it is the re-introduction of large herbivores (megafauna: ancient cattle breeds, bison etc) that will truly mark the step-change to a rewilded state. In a related vein, this short film, narrated by George Monbiot, is astonishing, and reminds me of some writings of Derek Jensen (and here).

The challenge (possibly also the creative challenge?) is to combine a rewilding aim with extant 'ecologies of place'  - social, personal/mind, environmental - Guattari's 'Three Ecologies': "Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations."

When our existing industrial train has hit the buffers (which it surely has?), the creation of new mixes and re-mixes is needed.

Next on my meandering coastal quest was Frampton-on-Severn, where I encountered this eel-related sign (below), and two local men rueing the near disappearance of the Twaite (Shad), the Salmon and Congor Eel as well as the once abundant elvers. They didn't have too many compliments for the Lamprey, with "those horrible a creature from the dark lagoon" The sense is of an ecological system utterly out of balance and even in free-fall.

mouth of a lamprey
Despite the poor references from the the Frampton men, it seems that "lampreys have long been used as food for humans. They were highly appreciated by ancient Romans. During the Middle Ages, they were widely eaten by the upper classes throughout Europe, especially during fasting periods, since their taste is much meatier than that of most other fish. King Henry I of England is said to have died from eating "a surfeit of lampreys." wikipedia

And a fascinating close study from Ireland:

Mud, mud, everywhere.
[mental note 1: wellingtons next time]
[mental note 2: bring radiation detector next time?]
Radionuclides adhere to clay particles, and will accumulate on muddy, silty coastlines. From my position, I can see the two local nuclear power stations; neither still operating, but a new one is planned for the Oldbury site. My tramp on the footpath around the Berkeley Station site was uneventful, and conjured up the memory of a similar walk around the Hinckley Point nuclear power station in 2008 - on a very different, rockier part of the Severn coast - whilst in search of material for the Quantock Dreaming installation. Site-specific materials can be presented in such a way as to form repositories or portals to deep-time and eco/cultural stories. In my installation works, I tend to feature these 'eco-symbolic materials', and previously have incorporated peat, bog-oak, flowers, fishing-line and other materials). Here "on gentle Severn's sedgy bank", the choice may appear to be limited to mud! (and maybe anchors?, driftwood?)...but perhaps the radiation detector will suggest something else, in time? (Further south, at the Aust cliffs, the eco-symbolic materials palette does broaden, for me, to include desert-deposited crystalline gypsum).

Loss, disappearance and concealment are some of the resonances along this coast - and not just the non-human life-forms, but the river crossings and working/trading histories too. (A major new heritage-related project - A Forgotten Landscape - will hopefully be celebrating this distinctive landscape over the next four years). After Arlingham, I visited the old ferry point at Framilode (meaning 'Frome crossing point'), and then on to Sharpness to see the remnant of the former rail link over the Severn, demolished after an accident in 1970. The aforementioned Aust is the site of a defunct, but very significant, ferry crossing that has strong links to Bob Dylan.

Gable end of house at Lower Framilode
It is somewhat serendipitous to unexpectedly find myself in Sharpness. Two days previously, I had been introduced to creative practitioners, Tara Downs and Bart Sabel who have produced a fascinating 'miniature museum' and oral history-based artwork here. The dock area is surprisingly busy, with cargos of fertiliser, bricks and scrap metal in transit. I take a photo of the ship Tanja - the figurehead image for this blog post, echoing the Matilda of the very first Sabrina blog-post. The beginnings of a collection? I see from tracking her subsequent movements that Tanja sailed from here to pass by the Waddensee coast of Netherlands/Germany. Currently I am part of a creative exchange project linking these two tidal coasts areas.
Another link: the bridge in this photo at the top is an echo of some bridges that are very familiar to me from the inner harbour area in Bristol.

Sabrina in Bristol
At the Sharpness dockside, I chat at length with Colin, an ex TV-cameraman, and a font of information on the history of the film technology. He kindly contributes some sound-bites that may find their way into the next edit of my new coastal film Transgression (Rising Waters). The first edit of this film was shown to two audiences in November last year, but even over this short space of time, public interest in the topic - drowned/flooded lands - has rocketed. Parts of the Somerset Levels are still underwater, and are the site of much gritty debate about the 'solutions', and the need perhaps to accommodate a new reality.
e.g. this tidal barrier plan/idea has emerged again. And this from a ‘Rockefeller Resilient City’ workshop in Bristol a week ago:
"We need to start thinking seriously about whether the Somerset Levels are viable as a land mass", said one policymaker, understandably requesting anonymity

Notwithstanding the loud calls for much more channel-dredging, pumping and 'levee'-raising, one of the themes addressed in Transgression (Rising Waters) is that of designed adaptations to marsh/swamp-living (Stilt Life) - is now on the table for discussion. As an alternative to abandonment and re-location of communities, the prospect of some form of stilt-dwellings in this marsh landscape is worthy of consideration, and - unlike maybe 2 months ago - is viewed as a potentially viable, even vital, approach. To this end, I have recently been fascinated by contemporary examples of relevant architectural solutions. Out of the entangled mesh of polar ice, climate change and sea-level-rise come these images of autonomous raised 'dwellings' in the Antarctic:

Avalon Marshes
Returning to an area in which I worked for the Environment Agency during the 1990s, I have begun a period of dedicated creative investigation in the Somerset Levels, as part of the on-going Submerged (Drowned Lands) project begun in early 2013, and funded through Arts Council England. This is being conducted with Professor Steve Poole who, as a historian, is drawn to the map archives of the past drainings/floodings of this landscape. Conversely, in the role of 'imaginaire', I will be casting my mind beyond the past and present, and into possible futures. There is potential for some exciting outputs, with ingredients that include some exquisite historical maps and cross-sections, photography, sound and film. When involved with pollution control issues here in the 90s, I initiated a plan to install an ecologically designed 'reed-bed sewage treatment works' (STW) for the village of East Lyng. This is one of the recently flooded villages. Whilst certainly not immune to disruption from flooding, such eco-designed infrastructure has the ability to very quickly bounce back into operation - much more so than a 'conventional' treatment works. Reed-bed filtration can also be effective as part of autonomous raised/stilt dwellings, or even floating ones. An example of such an approach is the 'Green Machine' experiment that I conducted some years ago, in the Floating Harbour in Bristol - a continuation of an on-going investigation strand I initiated as a student in the mid 1980s, in part inspired at the time by NASA's experiments with using aquatic macrophytes (water hyacinths) for waste-water cleansing, both on the ground and on space stations. (shades of Silent Running?)

to be continued...

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