Explain Yourself Conversations with a Place
Deborah Aguirre Jones with residents of Severn Beach and surrounding villages
During summer 2017, people in Severn Beach and surrounding villages spoke to this landscape about themselves and the human world. This is a book of their words, sculptures, drawings and other actions which led to the creation of three stone carvings. You can find the sculptures in the park alongside Beach Road between Severn Beach shops and allotments. â€˜Explain Yourselfâ€™ was devised and carried out by artists Deborah Aguirre Jones and Caroline Stealey in collaboration with residents, art groups, families and individuals in the area. It was commissioned by A Forgotten Landscape, a Heritage Lottery Funded landscape partnership scheme which ran from 2015 to 2018, with the aim of conserving and enhancing the natural and cultural heritage of the Lower Severn Vale Levels.
How we explainedâ€¦
â€Ś ourselves to the water in the estuary To communicate with something so different to us, we started with common ground. Reminding us that humans are 50â€“78% water, Ann invited the group to make miniature figures in ice and personalise each one before offering them to the estuary. The frozen people containing stones, feathers, flowers, tea leaves and bubbles melted together on the seaweed and mud.
â€Ś me to the water Words full of energy and feeling, written in soluble ink, dispersed as they were submerged. The poem drifted off the paper, becoming water. 16
â€Ś dancing to the estuary Why do we dance? Do dolphins dance? Peter remembered the painting of a couple dancing on a beach, with an accommodating butler and maid in attendance, which we reconstructed. Imagining the beach as a ballroom felt right; it is expansive and joyous.
â€Ś our lives to the estuary Caroline loves reinventing mapping to record the journeys of our lives which are so often different to what we had planned. We each drew a map which became a flag for the beach.
â€Ś compulsory purchase orders to the estuary Manuellaâ€™s home village in Mexico once had a small river, but a company bought rights to the water through a compulsory purchase order and replaced the river with a tap supply. The whole shape and lifestyle of the village was changed as they lost their ability to grow vegetables easily, children could no longer play and swim, the sound was gone and the landscape dry.
… despots to the Duke Lucy decided she should explain Donald Trump’s hair to her horse, Duke. She felt Duke probably knows quite a lot about hair, but the president’s quiff is a special situation which really needs to be understood. As horses are sensitive and responsive to their riders’ moods, most of the explaining happened through silent communication.
… movement to trees Trees stay in one place, rooted to the ground. Emma’s life involves a lot of travelling, slowly or at speed, between places and across landscapes. She explained this feeling of freedom and movement by riding her bike through one of the levels’ historic orchards while it was abundantly fruiting.
â€Ś allotments to the estuary David asked us to explain his allotment to the estuary through the medium of drawing. Our art group happily took this challenge on, creating all sorts of plants, vegetables and gardens in the mud.
People talk to cats, I curse at the telly and ‘gee-up’ our little car on steep hills. An artist I know natters quietly while she’s making and there was an endless, formless song I’d sing to my toys in childhood. This is not to say such things hear or understand us, only that we cannot help but voice our interactions with the world around us. Asked to create a sculpture for Severn Beach, I wanted it to be an artwork about the connections individual people of that place have with the landscape and wondered how it would be to play with this habit of talking to the world. Would creatures, places or things be changed by a deliberate communication? How might we be affected? And could this form the basis for a permanent artwork for the village? Over the course of a year meeting with groups, families and individuals from Severn Beach and surrounding villages, I asked the question: ‘How would you explain yourself, or the human world, to this place?’ As it turned out, it was easier to ask the question in small chunks:
› What do you feel closest to, when you’re in this landscape? It could be anything; a particular place, the light, a memory or feeling.
› Is there one tiny thing which gives a flavour of your life, perhaps because it’s funny or important, or simply because you love it?
› How would you go about trying to communicate with this place? During our get-togethers we talked about all of this while walking through the landscape, playing games and making art. Often we simply chatted over tea and cake while I scribbled notes on massive sheets of paper. The various groups enjoyed spending time together, figuring out responses to the question between themselves and experimenting with ways of addressing the landscape. In the summer months twenty different ‘actions’ were carried out, each explaining a part of someone’s life, or the human world, to the landscape.
Memorably, the art group in Severn Beach spent a long time wondering how they could explain the royal family. We talked about historical figures; what must it be like to spend your whole life being obeyed and at the same time how would it feel to have so few choices, day to day? There was discussion about big castles, boned corsets, battles and heirs. Then someone told the story of when the nearby second Severn bridge was formally opened by Prince Charles and security was so high that frogmen were in the rhines* looking out for snipers. Everyone chuckled. It was a snippet of local folklore that made people smile. So, as an explanation of the royal family, we invited Bristol scuba-diver Carmen Zahra to visit the village and be photographed
* Rhines are drainage ditches throughout the Lower Severn Vale Levels, a distinctive feature of how this land was reclaimed from the sea.
looking somewhat out of place. Based on these actions I produced a series of drawings with a view to transforming three into stone carvings to be installed along Severn Beach. In January 2018, the drawings were presented back to the community through an online vote, school visits and a public event. People were then able to vote for their favourite drawings and actions to be made permanent. The final selection has resulted in sculptures being created which can now be found along Severn Beach, each illustrating How we explained… … the affect of music to the tides You know that feeling, when you hear a really good piece of music? … different travellers to the Estuary Over the centuries so many people have passed through here on their journeys as traders, migrants and holiday-makers. and … my mother to the birds A memory of her mother who, while hanging washing on the line, would stand on one leg and whistle to the birds. 24
The sculptures were carved out of Portland stone with the assistance of artist Caroline Stealey, then installed on grassland between the village shops and estuary walkway. At a procession with hundreds of people, fire sculptures, flags and Bristolâ€™s Ambling Band, local children unveiled each of the sculptures. This book tells the story of all the actions that people generously imagined and performed, resulting in a trio of sculptures I would never have thought of on my own. Together, they are a testament to peopleâ€™s creativity, willingness to take part and distinctive connections to this place. Deborah Aguirre Jones, Summer 2018
… myself to a Black Poplar Myself = scale / life-span / time By = hugging (contact / meditation) What = a large tree, such as a Black Poplar (with something larger than me / us with its own much slower bio-rhythm)
… feelings and emotions to the estuary This group did a ritual and a dance, then wrote their feelings in sand and enjoyed the calming effect of washing the words away with water.
… Harry Potter to a tree ‘We read sections of Harry Potter to the tree. We told the tree that books are made of paper. We assured the tree that when a tree was cut down a new one was planted. The information was passed from tree to tree as long as they were touching.’
… Hallowe’en to the night sky ‘Trick or treat? Izzy wrote a rhyme, we acted out a dark story of Halloween. Phoebe was a witch and killed Georgia, Erin and Emily the children. It was creepy.’
… potatoes to our ancestors ‘Our ancestors never had the chance to taste or meet these incredible things that are such a success of evolution.’ 1st Olveston Guides
… creativity to the estuary Melanie is a maker; she’s always learning new techniques and getting to know how materials behave. Walking regularly along and around Severn Beach, there are particular places she knows and loves well. Bringing both these passions together, a series of small ‘jumpers’ were made for the sea wall fence which show the stones on the mud, the water and the sky.
Welcoming the Tide to Our Estuary
Which came first, the earth or the sky? I think the sky, but, I don’t know why. What brings the rain, that gives life to the earth? It comes from the sky; ah! … perhaps that’s why!? Was it just rain, that filled up the seas Creating our channels, and rivers and streams? But which came first, the seas or earth? I think the earth … for what that’s worth! We’ve forgotten the moon, which we need for the tides The twice daily surge that controls working lives. Where does that fit in this list, if you please? Sky, earth, seas, moon or sky, earth, moon seas? I don’t think it matters as long as it’s there This tide is our lifeline which makes us aware that This estuary lives by its tides, with its bores, So thank you and welcome, once more to these shores.
… the affect of music to the tides You know that feeling, when you hear a really good piece of
music? It makes Miriam smile a warm smile of friendship. Her poem is an imagined conversation which puzzles over unanswerable questions and, in the end, simply feels happily companionable.
â€Ś different travellers to the estuary Severn Beach is a place of journeys; crossings, arrivals and departures. Over the centuries, so many people have passed through here on their varied journeys; traders, migrants and holiday-makers. Peter imagined three figures from across time alongside each other, each with distinctive luggage holding their identities, their stories.
… a family ritual to the village Families often have their own rituals which accumulate shared memories. Birthdays in Sally’s family are always celebrated with a full-on party tea. The table is decorated with balloons, cake, hats, candles, glitter, party poppers and an abundance of food. It’s what they always have done, and always will. 34
â€Ś the royal family to the estuary What is royalty? What must it be like to spend your whole life being obeyed and at the same time how would it feel to have so few choices, day to day? Part of Severn Beachâ€™s folkloric history is that, when Prince Charles came to formally open the second bridge, security was so high that there were frogmen in the rhines. This story is remembered with a smile.
â€Ś my mother to the birds A memory of her mother Concita who, while hanging washing on the line, would stand on one leg and whistle to the birds. It may be that she stood on one leg simply to rest her other leg, she was such a busy woman.
When I was about ten, the elm trees began to die. Warwickshire is undramatic country, once known for its lovely Dutch elms. Within a few years, they had all been felled. Half a century later I still see their ghosts when I find myself in the landscape of my childhood. By that crossroads, at the cattle grid, behind the farm: their rangy, open silhouettes stand in my mind’s eye. Those born after 1970, those who have moved to this small village later in life, see nothing amiss. For me, the land will always carry the scars of its lost beauty. That’s the essence of landscape. It’s a human creation, meaning made from feeling, knowledge and memory. Land is a scientific concept. A great aunt spent 20 years mapping the geology of her Northamptonshire home, producing a scholarly treatise that, apart from its colourful soil maps, was incomprehensible to me. Land changes slowly and in understandable ways. We know how ancient forests become coal, or animal bones limestone. Knowing such things, we use or exploit land, applying our science to extract value from its soil and rocks. But landscape is not so easily capitalised. Landscape is a story, a telling of what we see—or once saw—and what it means to us. Where land is fixed and knowable, tradable even, landscape is fluid. We each have our own point of view, our private maps of the places we live. This is where we used to play hide and seek. That’s the tree my brother fell from. The woman who lives there never speaks to anyone. The archaeologist, Matthew Johnson, writes that ‘the governing metaphor for this movement from the observation of the landscape to the printed page is one of reading. The Ordnance Survey map is a document in a foreign language, which at least in the early stages of his life Hoskins did not feel he knew how to translate; the landscape needs to be “read” or decoded.’ 1 But before landscape can be read, it must be written. And it is written by people, not nature. It is people who named this river ‘Severn’ and who launched a flotilla of myths about its character and history to drift out to sea. It is people who marked its surface with paths and bridges, shelters, tombs and temples, boundaries, hedges, halls and homes. The reason for the 37
track or landing place may have gone; even the memory of those who made them may be lost. But their inscription on the land remains. It is the stuff of human life and feeds new imaginations. Every child who walks that way is writing into her own memory. Her feet retrace those of unknown others, simultaneously writing on the land and her self. The sculptures being installed at Severn Beach are the result of a similar process of dialogue between the people who lived here before and those who do today. All have marked the land in using it, and their marks invest it with meaning. The meanings get lost in translation, from one person to another, from one era to the next, but it is not their personal specificity that matters. It is the place that endures. For millennia, people have found this place important. Their reasons for doing so decay and are forgotten but they accumulate and are transformed into coal and limestone, the geological essence of place: land. In the sculptures, memories and ideas have become stone, which has always been humanity’s way of saying this is the most important thing. Stone is permanence, in human if not in geological terms, so we carve our feelings into eternity. Music, that intangible emotion inspired by sound, gets a stone marker. So does the journey, the space between leaving and arriving when we are carried across the land on hopes or fears. And the memory of a mother, the universal human relationship, paused to recognise the natural world of which she is a part. Those stone sculptures have come from conversations between people who live near the Severn or who like to come here. They mark a huge range of ideas, memories and dreams – far more than could ever have been transformed into objects. But that was never the point. The shared moments, creative discoveries and improvised rituals that happened during the exploration process remain in the memories of those who took part. Like my elms, they stay in the mind’s eye, naturally recalled when people walk that way, or stand again beside the tree they once embraced. And the sculptures themselves will float away, unmoored from their original intentions as those meanings are adapted, remade and overlain with new ones created by new generations that each passing year will bring this way. Stones in the land, they will become part of the landscape, marks on a new map that is over-written each day by each person, inscribed with incalculable human connections but always affirming that this place and its people matter.
1. Johnson, M., 2007, Ideas of Landscape, Oxford, p. 44
François Matarasso, 2019 38
The Sky Looks On
The waves are pounding the shore,
… human negligence to the natural world
As the sky looks on.
A stormy sky takes no notice of the wild, eroding sea. Just like They grab greedily at the cliffs,
us, living with indifference while our greedy and destructive
Still the sky looks on.
behaviours destroy the natural world. We read Anne’s poem to the Estuary.
Pulling, grasping, yet eroding, And the sky looked on. Spume surging up in anger As the sky looks on. Move out of the way I need your space, Still the sky looked on. The tide recedes, murmuring ‘I’ll be back for more’ Still yet the sky looks on. Come sun or wind or rain, The sky just looks on. Anne Harrison
So we’re standing here on this wide edge, a rim between two countries; on the verge of moving land at the mouth of all these rivers where boats have come and gone, come and gone (and sunk), come and gone again. This is a good place to recall histories. And where does the Dunlin’s estuary meet ours? If we play in the mud, can we see the lugworms’ point of view? Littleton’s whale mis-swam but the birds and elvers know their ways. There’s such riches. If we playfully, imaginatively, gently inhabit the estuary alongside such wonderful beasts, can we recollect cohabitation and tend it well? Mud between our toes, briny wind and light that’s doubled by the wetness. Being here in a place of saltmarsh, turbines and seagrass; half-seen, visible and forgotten, distance is opened up by passing bird call. Here’s a stretch of land where we can be ourselves, come into our senses.
With thanks to
1st Olveston Guides
Avonmouth Community Centre Art Group
p.4: Stephen Judd
p.26–27: Eleanor Davis
David and Margaret Bull
p.7: James Flynn ©
p.28–29: Emma Pritchard
p.8–11: Alamy Stock Photo
p.30–31: Deborah Aguirre Jones
p.13: James Flynn ©
p.32–33: Eleanor Davis
p.14–15: Michal Iwanowski
p.34: Michal Iwanowski
p.16: Eleanor Davis
p.35: Eleanor Davis
p.17: Michal Iwanowski
p.36: Jennifer Gathercole
p.18: Eleanor Davis
p.39: James Flynn ©
p.19: Jennifer Gathercole
p.40–41: Jennifer Gathercole
p.20: Jp.Event Photography
p.42: Michal Iwanowski
p.21: Deborah Aguirre Jones
p.22: Eleanor Davis
p.48: James Flynn ©
Latham-Roberts family Jo-Anne McAllister Ann Newman Pilning & Severn Beach Parish Council
Matarasso, F., 2019, ‘Becoming Stone’; this text, written for
Deborah Aguirre Jones, is licensed under Creative Commons
Roving Art Group
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St Helen’s Church Art Group, Alveston
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Carmen Zahra Estuary text written by Deborah Aguirre Jones, Spring 2015. Special thanks to Caroline Stealey Designed by City Edition Studio
© A Forgotten Landscape / Deborah Jones 2019
Conversations with a Place By Deborah Aguirre Jones with residents of Severn Beach and surrounding villages