The warming climate is strongly linked to changes in ecology and ecosystems. Different flora and fauna may have different ways to adapt to climate change, and those that are unable to adapt may become extinct or migrate to different areas. Increased freshwater runoff in recent years from melting ice and increasing rainfall alters the salinity of the ocean, making it less salty. In the Severn Estuary, the seagrass species Zostera noltii prefers a low salinity environment for germination. As such, Welsh seagrass beds have seen increased productivity in recent years. (Severn Estuary Partnership website )
Until today, I have been looking into how the area near my home will flood within the next 20 or 30 years. The landscape will change completely and hills will become islands. I have been looking into this from the human perspective, how it will affect daily lives of people living here. Reflecting on the body of the water, not the banks.
Today I have turned my attention to the marginal plants that will be affected by what is termed ‘coastal squeeze’. The Environment Agency conducted a two year research project that explored the impacts and provided this definition of what coastal squeeze is:
Coastal squeeze is now defined as ‘the loss of natural habitats or deterioration of their quality arising from anthropogenic structures or actions, preventing the landward transgression of those habitats that would otherwise naturally occur in response to sea level rise in conjunction with other coastal processes. Coastal squeeze affects habitat on the seaward side of existing structures.
According to SEP:
The sea level is rising at a current rate of 3.2 mm per year4, up from 1.7mm per year for 1901-20105. This means that as time goes on, more of the coastline will become inundated with water. This can cause increased coastal erosion rates, as well as flooding areas which were previously land. This increase in sea level is due to a number of factors, including melting of terrestrial (land-based) ice caps and thermal expansion of the ocean. Thermal expansion is estimated to contribute up to 40% of the increase in sea level. Upon excess heating, the ocean gains energy and expands (see Figure 2).
The image shows what causes the sea level to swell in response to rising temperatures.
When I first began to explore the Severn, I recall asking a botanist how I can find out where the river is freshwater and where it is saline. The Severn Bore forms here, seawater mingles with freshwater and carries on upriver, before returning to the estuary. He told me that the only way to do that is to look at the plants on the riverbanks. Some plants grow fine in saline water, others don’t. As I read about coastal squeeze I began to wonder about which plants will be affected. This is a whole new learning curve for me, I am just beginning to explore it.
The first thing I did was go down to the riverbank and look for plants that survive just on, or above, the tideline. At this time of the year, there aren’t many.
I gently dug out a few with a kitchen fork, handling their roots carefully and washed the river silt off them when I got home. Then made some monoprints with them.
I haven’t identified them yet – one is chickweed and another looks like it belongs to the dandelion family. The prints are beautiful, but they come with a barb. They may be the equivalent of death masks, of final traces of a species under threat. I am pretty sure these ones are very common. And of course I can’t seek out the rarer species and dig them up. So these can only be metaphorical. They can tell the story, but only so far.
They have made me think too about other non-human victims of sea levels rising, and temperatures getting higher too. The Bewick swans that frequent Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre downriver may not come any more, needing to seek colder waters in northern climes.
I have a lot to learn. I find through making images I can begin to understand the complexity. There is a long way to go. But just flagging up the risks is not enough, there need to be solutions. We can’t wear blinkers and hope it goes away.
I learned that in Australia they use the term ‘banker’ when a river overflows its sides/banks.
That made me think of other similar terms, such as banking on something happening; banking as in trade. Both have a level of negotiation and gambling. You bank a motorbike/plane to tilt on corners and retain balance. Tilt too far and you will roll over. We bank on something happening – when we do we usually take a risk, because the trust is not based on facts but on habit. We bet on it.
A bank can be a building, where we deposit money, and take it out in a tidal way. Cashflow.
Are we banking on climate change? Or gambling with climate change? Think of fossil fuels – we have constantly taken out from the earth, but are we putting enough back fast enough? Fishing and bad agricultural practises that operate only for profit, but not for the environment.
What if the tide changes?
If sea levels rise, tides will be affected.
We can’t bank on finding a solution, but we should at least tilt and try and see things differently. It is the least we can do.
The above image is based on projections for future flooding provided by this organisation. They describe themselves as “An independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.”
The Environment Agency also provides flood forecasting, where you check the long term flood risk for any area in England. Check your area on both – have a look at the difference, to try and get some sense of what might happen near you.
I based the level of flooding around the Arlingham Peninsula, but it may not be accurate. Finding the science is challenging as at present we are in constant flux weather-wise allover the world. I am looking locally, trying to understand one small area, to raise awareness and encourage others to do the same. Because if we can envisage what it MIGHT be like, near our homes, we will maybe start putting in place preventative measures.
On Friday 4th February I went on a Walking the Land First Friday walk in the local woodlands. It reminded me of this piece of writing which took a bit of digging to find. I didn’t know the word Komorebi until last week. As I edited my film I thought about Escher’s tessellated shapes, which took me back to this text. I may write a new piece about the woodland experience, but meanwhile do have a look at the new film.
I’m on the banks of the Severn, just before sunrise. I know it’s coming very soon, as above the Cotswold skyline there is a small row of eight or nine clouds just above the horizon. They look like fragments of torn paper, maybe from a to-do list, all of similar width and height, separated by tiny bits of sky. They are up-lit by the sun below and as it rises it frames them with a subtle, red, glowing edge. Each piece becomes more vividly defined before the power of the sun overcomes my retina’s and the tiny clouds fade away in the glare.
I’m standing precisely opposite this imminent sunrise and the wildlife around the river is responding to its arrival too. Crows and gulls spiral above my head, calling, whilst on the watery stage characters enter from both left and right. On my left, a sole duck floats silently towards the centre of the stage, anticipating the arrival of it’s spotlight. It is a little early really, but that’s fine, it will learn.
On my right three ducks slip out from behind the cliff, chattering together.
Above my head, the world of business is approaching another Monday morning. Transatlantic planes fly toward the sun, European ones too, but lower in the sky. None of them are much more than tiny white arrows high above, leaving chalky tails in the pale blue sky. I wonder, when we have gone through Brexit, will this lessen? Will the sky become hauntingly quiet, as it did in 2010 when the volcanic Icelandic dust forced the closure of the UK airspace?
I think about M.C. Escher’s patterns of black and white birds. Today the sky is like that, the white ‘birds’ are planes, the black one’s are crows and gulls. The scale changes, as it does in his drawings, those flying lowest are closer, more vivid, those in the distance more abstract and vague. I recall Norman Ackroyd and Robert McFarlane discussing the white birds in Ackroyd’s paintings, on Radio 4 last week. How the little egret is now the whitest bird we see on our rivers. There are none here today, sadly. They will have flown off with the herons earlier, before the tide rolled in.
As I absorb all these activities, a circle of ripples appears in the water. A number of other concentric rings roll up out of the water, then disappear. They are moving closer to centre stage, they know that, very soon, the sun will rise in full glory. The lone duck is now joined by two other pairs, all moving determinedly towards the golden rippled area that is appearing on the surface of the water. The fish underwater do the same.
The shimmering lines of light come closer to me, creeping over the lapping tidal waves as the sea flows upriver, as it always does, on the Severn.
We reach the crescendo, the great ball of fire rises up and the ducks are silhouetted by its brightness, bobbing about on the highlights of the folds in the water. I stare in wonder at this red mass and take a deep breath – the day has begun. I turn away to walk home and see vibrant acid green sunspots peppering the ground. I watch them as I move back up to the path. As I walk up the street I notice they are now red blurs.
Eyes are amazing, complimentary colours vying for attention, just as the skyborn objects were, the fish in the water, the ducks on the waves.
I have just put 4 reduction linocut prints up for sale on Instagram, from an edition of 6 under #artistsupportpledge. I had a work selected for the Hastings Contemporary #asp show.
My research into the future flooding of the Severn, close to where I live, has resulted in me using a wide range of materials to try and capture, visually, how the change will take place. I don’t have scientific facts, but there are several data outputs and guesstimates.
When it comes to depicting slow, subtle but significant landscape change, moving images are useful. I have made several film shorts exploring different viewpoints and perspectives depending on camera sightline and distance. Last night there was a programme on TV using time lapse film to capture melting glaciers which was fascinating.
These reduction linocuts were preceded with diagrams, sketches, contours and even some rough model making. I looked at mud patterns and archipelagos. I found the cutting process gave a lovely flow, my cuts move through just as the river water would. It is a map, but not a map. The flow follows contours that also describe rising land.
Doing a reduction cut requires planning, concentration and calmness, yet it is also quite nerve wracking because it could be ruined at any of the steps. I assure you this was not my first attempt.
Visit my instagram profile @severnsideartist to buy. And if you do, a big THANK YOU – it will pay for a course for me.
Here’s how Blackbird and I developed our relationship and how she passed on that knowledge to her fledglings. I can only imagine, through human eyes, how the conversations went. I sometimes listen to the chattering of birds, the clicking, the tweeting and whistling noises they make, and I mimic them.
Unlike starlings, blackbirds are very tuneful. They have an elegant presence in the garden, and even in open spaces they don’t seem to be too nervous around humans. They are similar to robins in this respect. Both birds soon learn that gardeners digging the earth means worms for tea.
Things to ponder, thoughts to incubate and consider, while I tell the story of getting to know Blackbird.
This summer I believe the birds and I have learned from each other. How rude we humans are about our feathered friends sometimes, in our flippant use of language. We use the term ‘bird brain’ as a derogatory remark, yet on observation they are hugely intelligent and learn very quickly. To have ‘gone cuckoo’ refers to someone who has lost their mind, a cuckoo human is a drug dealer nesting in other people’s homes. Someone who is ‘flighty’ is inconsistent and unreliable. Yet the owl is imbued with being ‘wise.’
Blackbird built her nest in a large, deep bush safely hidden from cats, in a huge garden, at the top of a hill that leads down to a big river. No dogs or cats spend time in the garden and in all the time she has been nesting, there she will rarely have seen a human. Neither in the garden nor the house. The house is up for sale.
Very occasionally, she will have seen humans wander around inside and step into the garden. Then they go and all is quiet again. It provides a very safe space for her, but there has been very little gardening done, so not a lot of grubs or worms to feed on. Last year the owner used to put out bird food, but she is rarely there these days.
On her search for nourishment for her brood in the spring, she began to visit the gardens of the houses across the road where I live. The long Victorian terrace of tiny houses was constructed tightly in a line, swooping down to the Severn. Newnham was once a bustling port.
She flew up from her garden, over the high wall and perched on rooftops, watching what was happening below. She rarely saw anyone in the garden of no.1, though she knew people live there as she occasionally heard a young woman singing. The people in No.2 very rarely go into their garden. But the woman in no.3 (me) has been busy outside this year. For a while, there was someone here removing the wooden floor and gravelly surface, then turning the soil. Blackbird kept her eye on that and popped in for the odd worm when he had gone.
Eventually the work was finished and I started to plant things in the ground. Blackbird learned the sound of the back door opening and quickly flew down and crept up behind me, close to my feet. She tried to keep out of sight, hopping about like a shadow, because she needed to take every opportunity to grab worms for her fast growing fledglings in her nest. Sometimes I alarmed her.
“Ooo! You made me jump, hello little bird!”
She has never been scared by me, maybe because I sometimes passed a worm her way. I learned to recognise her as she has a thin line of white feathers around her neck. I’ve seen other birds bully her for this difference, so she is cautious about keeping a low profile. But she’s definitely not hiding from me.
Blackbird visited regularly as I replanted the garden. I brought in some well rotted horse manure, a perfect worm factory as all birds know. She enjoyed digging them out, alongside small plants, scratching out the soil with her feet, and kicking it, and the seedlings, out onto the slabs.
Her sleuthing skills developed well too. Every morning she listened at my window, and when she heard me visit the bathroom she dropped down onto the wall outside the window and called – ‘tut tut tut’. I replied from the window, looking down at her, “tut tut tut, good morning little bird, I won’t be long”.
Then one day I went into the shed near her back door, to fetch something. She hopped across the corrugated roof, making a loud pitter patter sound, and peered down at the entrance, waiting for me to emerge. I looked up at her and said ‘tut tut tut’. She cocked her head in wonder and responded ‘tut tut tut’. After we had repeated this exchange several times I scattered a handful of mealworms on the ground and went back into the house, closing the door behind me.
My first job of the day was always to go down and throw some mealworms out for her. She crunched and munched making a loud tip-tap noise with her beak on the concrete ground. She could hear my routine too – the loud clicking noise of the kettle, the clank of me washing up, water running, music and singing.
Once Blackbird was full herself, she gathered rows of mealworms, holding them across her beak and clamping them firmly in place. She then hopped up the twelve concrete steps one by one until she got to the top, where there was a clear flight path to her nest.
Up into the air, over the other gardens, high over a rooftop, then back down into the garden across the road. She did this round trip about four or five times a day, until either the mealworms ran out, or she was too exhausted to return. Her well fed fledglings got bigger and bigger until one day, the strongest was ready to learn to fly. After a few trips in the nest garden, she brought them to the feeding ground on a hunting trip. It’s easy pickings and the young need to learn not to depend on humans, but it is a safe place to start. They also need to navigate the predators and bullies.
Blackbird knows she is safe here, because I have been a reliable source of food for weeks. There have been a few days without, when I have been away, but rarely long until they are delivered again. She trusts me.
We have worked together to develop a safe space for her to eat. Throughout the summer the backdoor is left open. If there is no food outside, Blackbird hops into the house to remind me. I sense her arrival. When I look up from my book or computer I smile and talk to her in a sing-song way. She pauses and listens, then I stand up and go to fetch the mealworms. I usually feed her immediately, but sometimes if I was busy on a phone call I chased her out. Once she began to go upstairs, felt nervous when I caught her, pooed on the carpet, and nonchalantly went down again and casually hopped outside.
Things were going along fine, apart from Blackbird being occasionally attacked by other female blackbirds trying to get a look in, or males playing power games with her. I came up with a plan to help. When I put the food out we chatted a while before she ate. I leant against the doorway and watched her eating and occasionally the predators would hop into the area. I would call ’tut tut tut’ and talk to Blackbird in a reassuring way. The other birds were terrified by me and flew off rapidly. I watched over me until she had finished.
We must retain some boundaries.
The starling family presented more of a problem to her mealworm munching routine. They are raucous annoying birds that are pretty neurotic too. They act as one, a cloud of noise and aggression flying in all at once, scattering the mealworms with their crazy flapping wings. The wind they produce sends the food to the edges of the feeding area, underneath plant pots, trays and buckets. Stupid birds. They land and look baffled by the disappearance of the food. And the noise! Clicking, screeching and scrapping!
They are scared of me, I just have to clap my hands, or look out of the window and whoosh, off they go, bumping into each other, panicking. Blackbird stays put and eats calmly, knowing that I will keep the starlings at bay.
This sounds like a one-way deal, but it isn’t. She makes me happy. She chatters to me and tut tut tut’s. I always respond. Sometimes I sit down on the ground close to the mealworms and take photos, make films. Occasionally, when she enters the feeding area there is what must look like a one-eyed thing in the middle of the feed. It is my 360 camera. It makes no noise, doesn’t move at all, just sits there. There is a tiny light on its side that flashes, but it doesn’t worry her. Because I am nearby. And it is never there for long. Blackbird does look a bit baffled when she hears the videos on playback, relistening to our conversation.
It’s been a long summer and Blackbird successfully produced several fledglings. I didn’t see her for sometime, but the youngsters carried on visiting. From plump fluffballs to almost adult blackbirds, their feathers changed colour and became more glossy. Some have fine patterns in pale gold, others more orangey and bold. They all have just a few white feathers, some on their neck, like their mother, others just under one wing. One black male who has gained his deep black sheen quite early, has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing – very distinguished!
I wrote this in September, today is 24th December 2021. There has been a male blackbird visiting this week. I have restarted the mealworm ritual.
He isn’t scared of me and comes closer when I tut-tut-tut.
He has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing.
Credit to Martin Creed – his work made an empty room into a place to inhabit and be aware of one’s own presence in the world.
My thinking around lights on and lights off has not come from an indoor lightbulb moment, but rather a streetlight one. And its relationship with sunrise and sunset.
My short film Pecking Order is a sunrise moment, when the birds announce their arrival and territorial scraps breakout as they shout and posture. Their concerns with presence are not about individuals, they are tribal, about occupation and dominance. And the volume of voices.
The only singular presence is me, with my iphone in hand.
A few days ago I went out to stalk the birds at dusk. As I filmed a street light came on behind me, making me very aware that I was present in a liminal moment of time. Significant for human safety on the street and an indicator of nest-time for the birds.
For 15 winters I have delighted in the jackdaw gatherings. I don’t use an alarm clock, I just leave the window open a little. This year there are more than ever before and I am leaving this house soon. So I relish every early morning call. I even get out of my cosy bed to see them now.
Today I went out at 7am today into a lowlight and mist, I could feel it gently landing on my face as I went quietly down the street to the riverside. I stood watching huge rafts of branches and twigs being carried upriver, appearing from nowhere to my right and very slowly passing by and disappearing again into the fog. Mesmerising.
As I walked towards home my heart lifted as a cloud of jackdaws flew above me. I stood still to watch them and they began to gather in the tall trees next to the river. Behind me, a street light switched off.
I filmed the bird’s arrival, clusters settled onto branches, silhouetted against the sunrise, which wasn’t quite making it through the low fog. They chattered away happily, the noise like children at a busy school assembly. Then a loud “caw! caw!” penetrated the air. The jackdaws noise stopped immediately. The birds took off as one, the sound of their wings deafening as the trees emptied rapidly. Only seconds later, as I resumed my walk home, did the crows begin to come down and meet in the trees. Louder and bigger they reminded me of the importance of pecking orders. And how they so often seem unfair.
I read recently that jackdaws mate for life, and like most birds who follow this custom become engaged early in life, long before sexual maturity.
“First the young males of a new brood struggle among themselves to decide their individual status, and then pairing with females begins. The jackdaw female promptly upon pairing assumes the same social position of her male. His rights and restraints become her rights and restraints.
Should a female not secure a mate, then she remains the lowest ranked member of the flock in all social things. She is last to the food and last to the shelter. She is pecked by the lowliest, and snubbed by the least. Nor are there any lesser jackdaws on whom she can vent her frustration. As Lorenz related, it was one of these lowliest females that gave him much insight into jackdaw social behaviour. When a strong male returned to the flock, absent during the time of dominance struggles and male-female pairings, he quickly became the number one dominant male. He was forced to choose one of two unmated females for his mate. Instantly his new mate rocketed up the jackdaw social ladder and was able to peck others as much as she wanted, and she did. It took her a year to settle down. According to Lorenz the most significant factor of social behaviour was the immediate and intuitive grasp of the new hierarchy by each and every jackdaw. From the hour of her ascendancy, every jackdaw by oldest instinct knew his new place, and hers. She was “number one”.
In spring 2020 Carolyn tracked Eva down in Sweden and asked permission to use her kulning song on her film “When You Call I Shall Come“. Eva said yes, and their friendship grew from there.
They have continued to work together remotely. One way that has happened is by Eva joining the Stroud based Walking the Land Group. Meeting online, the group expanded from local to international quite quickly.
We agreed that for the December 2021 walk we would both walk up hills near our homes. We exchanged ideas and content and found we have both been reflecting on a game ‘scissors, paper, stone’ or, as it is in Sweden, ‘scissors, stone, bag’ ( paper bag). Eva adapted a traditional children’s song for the sound track, mixing her voice in layers. Whilst Carolyn created layers of footage.
Working together has becoming increasingly interesting over time. We would both like to work in each others countries, develop films and songs and projects in the real world, physically. There have been many synchronicities in our lives since Covid began. It is as if our paths have crossed in films, not in fields. Online not in cafes. Through messages, emails and collaboration where conversations are open and honest.
We hope one day we will secure funding to visit each other, until we do, together apart is a good term to use.
Thanks go to Kel and Richard of Walking The Land for creating these monthly opportunities for us to gather, talk and grow.
We will submit this film for exhibitions and screenings so it may not be online for very long. If you are interested in including it in an event you are running do get in touch.