for the love of … Sphagnum!

The Stove in Dumfries had a craftivism session last weekend for the forthcoming Stop Climate Chaos March  in Edinburgh. This was a heartening session of ‘slow-activism’ – helping me decide what I care to wear as a heart on my sleeve. This was the moment to declare a growing love for mosses, and Sphagnum in particular.


Living with water is important around the Solway, and I’m learning that Sphagnum is a kind of aqueous super-hero. An individual Sphagnum moss is a strand of water-holding cells that can collectively create raised bogs many metres deep, over thousands of years.

Complete raised bogs are now rare. Dogden Moss in the Eastern Borders and Kirkconnel Flow west of Dumfries give hints of what the landscape in Southern Scotland was like before bogs were drained and dug. Beginning  a tour of mosses,  I have discovered the equivalent of mountain-top removal has been inflicted on them. My eye is getting tuned to tawny strips on the low horizon.


Dogden’s gravelly kaims make a curving ridge between two moors, debris of rivers that flowed under ice sheets.  Woodcock sheltered in the heather and the moor houses shooting butts.


I did not dare leave the footway across Kirkconnel Flow.



Sphagnum in autumn colours, with frost later in the month.



Close up, you see different shapes and colours of different sphagnum species, which in 3D stretch in watery suspension metres down to the underlying rock. A natural environmental archive of eight thousand years of watery life is underfoot.


This human-made drainage ditch has been dammed, a recent reversal of policy. Peatland Action is a restoration programme co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage: the reasons to conserve peatbogs are beautifully laid out in the National Peatland Plan. Importantly, peatbogs sequester carbon and are sinks for atmospheric carbon. This process is starting in the blocked ditch at Kirkconnel, as Sphagnum strands start a slow and steady occupation.


The Southern Upland Partnership has engineered  a “bringing together of minds” connecting those looking after trees, soils, and water quality (Peatland Action, the Forestry Commission, Galloway Fisheries Trust).



Photograph courtesy of Southern Upland Partnership

Peatland Action has also included a Bugs on the Bog training event – getting local wildlife recorders enthused about bogs.

 Photograph courtesy of Southern Upland Partnership

Across the Solway, Cumbrian Boglife is bringing raised bogs back to life.  At Wedholme Flow, moss starts to grow back over peat exposed by years of extraction.


Wedholme Flow was covered by gossamer strands, with spiders spinning above.


I will march with a Sphagnum heart on my sleeve next Saturday.  Also, I am inspired by craftivists, artists, bog enthusiasts, land managers and researchers  to look more at mossy carbon landscapes in southern Scotland.

My thanks to:  the Stove, Tabula Rasa Collaborations, Sarah Eno, Lauren Parry,  David Borthwick,  Pip Tabor.

water colours

Today, in preparation for a Flux Chamber event at EAFS (29th August – Thornhill in Dumfrieshire), I’ve dug out my brushes and used brand new earth colour watercolour pans. Not something I feel expert in, or have tackled for a while, but there is a logic to this.


The colour of riverwater is an indicator of how much carbon dioxide the river is shedding into the atmosphere. So looking at riverwater colour is one of the ways that you can see carbon landscapes. We’ll be talking about this on riverbank walks at the foot of the Lowther Hills. The idea is that walkers will get a leaflet which is a guide to seeing Carbon Riverscapes.


Last month, I took a geographers’ Munsell’s guide to Soil Colours (courtesy of the University of Glasgow) to Wolf Glen. Crayons proved a slow way of rendering stilled movement of water. Another problem with this method of staring deeply into water is that the reflections on the water are not what is important to a biogeochemist – what matters most to her is the sediment that the water is carrying.


The next step was to obtain watercolour pigment jars from Cornelissen’s Fine Art shop in London – and see how they looked. I’ll give these to the Flux Chamber biogeochemist (Susan Waldron) for her collection of samples of dissolved inorganic carbon (said to look quite like whisky).


The ambition of doing daily watercolour readings fizzled out in the face of other jobs, but here are some initial impressions from video clips of the Ale water in fast flow.


For the Guide to Carbon Riverscapes, the logic of the medium of water colour pigment was irrefutable – it is a suspension in water and comes in a range of earth colours (ochre, sienna, umber etc).  And so I am dashing off a few paintings which hopefully will dry in time for Saturday week when we meet on the riverbank of Cample Burn.

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EAFS is taking place over the weekend of 29 and 30 August. If you are able to join Flux Chamber on Saturday 29th (and are prepared for a walk on slippy muddy ground) there will be two riverbank walks along Cample Cleuch, starting out on a minibus from the EAFS basecamp at Morton Castle (book the morning walk online, or the afternoon walk at Morton Castle ‘Post Office’). We will explore Carbon Landscapes by walking along wooded sheep-paths in the company of a biogeochemist (Professor Susan Waldron), and an environmental writer (Dr David Borthwick). We will think about ways to sense and see carbon cycling, especially carbon’s movement from river-water to air, and see a demonstration of how carbon release is measured with a Flux Chamber. You are also invited to join in further exchanges (on paper and in conversation) over Saturday evening, information will available on site from the festival organisers – but do BOOK into the festival as a whole first).

Introducing ‘Flux Chamber’: pecha kucha format

This pecha kucha was given at July Green Tease run by Creative Carbon in Glasgow School of Art.

Flux Chamber is a multidisciplinary project which is finding ways to see Carbon Landscapes. We are preparing an event for the Environmental Art Festival of Scotland on Saturday August 29th. I am working on this with biogeochemist (Professor Susan Waldron) and a teacher of environmental literature (Dr David Borthwick) from the University of Glasgow.


 A Flux Chamber is also the name of a biogeochemist’s tool that shows exchanges of gas and energy as a river flows. Susan assesses scientifically how much carbon dioxide a river releases in different conditions. We will put a Flux Chamber to work to look at Carbon Landscapes in rural Dumfrieshire.


In April, I joined a field trip where Susan Waldron taught undergraduates how to use a Flux Chamber, in a river flowing out of carbon rich limestone at Malham Tarn. This is a classic Carbon Landscape where the carbon-loaded river degasses into the atmosphere.


Despite the enjoyment of paddling in a river on a sunny day, I was taken aback to find that the atmospheric baseline reading was up to 400 ppm. The students interpreted what they found in relation to river velocity and Ph readings, and found the CO2 levels on the surface of the river near the cliffs were much higher than the atmosphere – the river was shedding carbon.


Below, you see the spot we have chosen as a Demonstration Site on our riverside walk (Cample Cleuch, near Thornhill). We will take measurements – and as you see, the scene will be documented by a plein air artist. I plan to graph the Flux Chamber readings (I will need to take an easel and an umbrella). An artist of carbon landscapes, I learn, must become interested in river meanders and armoured banks.


It seems that you have to think about Carbon Landscapes before you see them. There is nothing new about these processes, but if people are to protect naturally stored carbon, we need to develop sensibility to see how carbon is gained, lost and recycled.


I use drawing to think through flows of carbon between different reservoirs – marine, terrestrial, atmospheric. I begin to understand Susan’s fascination with the influences on the release of carbon into the atmosphere – which has daily and seasonal patterns as well as human impacts.


The way that humans use land influences how much carbon the river carries, or how much is sequestered. To a biogeochemist, this landscape at Morton Castle is a register of seasonal tree growth, biomass of silage, and the transformation of carbon between different kinds of life-forms.


We did a preparatory walk on site last week. As a visual artist, I am focussing on how carbon landscapes can be seen, and David Borthwick is applying expertise about how poets work with such themes, and Claire Pençak – a choreographer – joined us in thinking how to move along a riverbank and sense how carbon moves through water.


A catchment map of Morton shows Cample Cleuch running from the reservoir (in the centre of the image). The blue lines on the map are places where, we learned, efflux of carbon into the atmosphere is constantly taking place. In other part of the map, there might be carbon gain as well as loss.


On site, we learned that the more sound a river makes, the more carbon it is losing. In other words, turbulent waters release carbon dioxide much more readily than smooth waters. This gives an additional meaning to the cascades of a waterfall.


These additional meanings (which are available via our senses) are what Susan considers to be ‘auras’ of carbon landscapes. Another ‘aura’ is conveyed by water colour, indicating the amount of organic carbon within river water. (These samples are in pigment jars from Cornellissen Fine Art Supplies).


Soil erosion is something our new Carbon Landscape school must bear in mind! Not just a source of pigment and vivid coloration – think of the carbon leaching from this exposed site, the activity of microorganisms, and the prevention of sequestration.


Within the grand sweep of global carbon cycling, microclimates can be studied such as how moss favours wetter sites, and how trees bend in relation to soil composition.

Photo © Kate Foster

Different meanings of the idea of ‘scores’ came up on our preparatory walk. Claire, a choreographer, suggested a score as a possibility of shaping movement along the riverbank. Meantime to Susan, a biogeochemist, this idea of ‘scores’ evoked possibilities of rating and measuring carbon flow.Photo © Kate Foster 2015
For me, other creatures are a proxy to understand why the details of gas exchange are important (see earlier post). On a walk near Selkirk I found caddisflies, entomological indicators of pure water. I watched them in their larval cases move slowly across the river stones. My photo sits next to a textbook illustration of varied larval cases.


Each insect stage and species has a different means of wresting oxygen from the air. Aquatic insects depend on a variety of elaborately evolved body parts to breathe, and conditions can be unfavourable, such as heat, stagnation, poor aeration.

Drawing © Kate Foster 2015
I learned that inside their larval cases, this species of caddisfly waft water over their several tufts of finger like gills. The cases use found materials – wood in this instance – bound with silk.


As well as global reservoirs of carbon, I am trying to envisage carbon landscapes in the small-scale activity of different species within microclimates. Of course carbon landscapes can be seen in urban settings too. We depend on scientific research to be clear about the ‘anthropogenic signal’ in carbon landscapes . To indicate that, here is an invasive and destructive signal crayfish…


This artist-led project is also about finding ways to work across disciplines on what could be categorised as public engagement, but at heart is an exchange of ideas, values, and impressions to create a multi-layered perception of processes occurring around us.


All images © Kate Foster 2015, with permission to use as relevant from staff at University of Glasgow 

Drawing Breath in Wolf Glen


The stream in Wolf Glen joins Glenkinnon Burn, a small piece of ancient woodland protected by Borders Forest Trust. For a while, I watched small scraps of wood move slowly across stones in a sunlit pool – sometimes turning upstream or pausing.


Back in the studio I consulted a textbook about what I had been seeing.


Different species of case-building caddisfly each have their own style of larval case, and these were carefully drawn out.


Caddisfly larvae spend their time underwater, and those in fast flowing upland rivers must prevent themselves being swept downstream. A further text on Aquatic Entomology taught me that larval cases have been investigated to find out how their shape influences the velocity of water passing over them. I should have looked more carefully, to think how fusiform larval cases might influence isovels (lines connecting points of equal velocity).

But what do the larva themselves look like, inside the case?


Looking at the textbook illustration, I realised I needed to include the insect’s gills on its abdomen. Such intricacy! Every stage of insect life has its own respiratory system, and this varies between species.

Gas Exchange is the concern of a whole chapter in Aquatic Entomology. I find this complicated. Oxygen diffuses very slowly in water, unlike in air where it diffuses fast. Insects living underwater have to extract this oxygen somehow – and cope with different conditions, such as temperature and aeration of the water, which has daily and seasonal cycles. I must get some basic facts sorted: what is the difference between a pupa and a larva? What meanings can the word plastron have? After some head scratching, I deduce that Trichoptera (caddisflies) may have closed tracheal systems, and their gills may form finger-like structures, often in tufts.


I still do not know what kind of caddisflies I was looking at, but I have a better sense of what happens inside the larval cases. I imagine water being wafted through finger-like tufts as they draw breath in Wolf Burn, grazing algae from the stones and growing.


This blogpost shows research drawings by Kate Foster for a new project ‘Flux Chamber’, which encourages exchange between biogeochemistry, environmental literature and art at the Environmental Art Festival for Scotland 2015 (29th and 30th August , Morton Castle, Dumfriesshire). More details will follow.

Paint Pots pile up in Fine Art

caldewgate1In the school of Fine Art (between the printing and sculpture workshops) some empty paint pots and used paint trays are heaped next to a rubbish bin.
Inside I notice an invitation by the City Council to ‘put our rubbish to work’.

caldewgate3The Mixed Recycling takes Paper, Card, Plastic, Cans and Glass.

But not, I learn, paint pots.

Nor are paint pots allowable in General Waste.


The paint pots lying on the ground must be locked up in the Flammable Gas shelter in the courtyard.  Their disposal is problematic, the pile grows inside the shed.

I take a few to the Project Space, considering possibilities of Re-Use.



Download this pdf for an Ivy Proposal for the Caldewgate campus garden, re-using and recycling found materials:


With appreciative thanks to staff and students at the Department of Fine Art, University of Cumbria.

Indicator Species

Tweed Creatures © Kate Foster 2013

The following was first posted on Working the Tweed as part of activities for Year of Natural Scotland 2013.

Ecologists have taken four species to act as indicators of the ecological health of the Tweed catchment: Salmon, Lamprey, Water Crowfoot and Otter. Conversations with specialists at Riverside Meetings prompted me to make a series of drawings. These were ink on perspex, and were shown in the project space at Harestanes last October.  Combined with field visits, making these drawings let me develop knowledge and become more observant. I now also understand these species better within my own life – as indications of time of year, of place, of change.

Water crowfoot


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

In summer Water Crowfoot (various species of Ranunculus – the buttercup family) can grow into great mats that include other plants. I learnt these are called ranunculion  – assemblages that can alter river flow and sedimentation pattern, sheltering the locality downstream. How had I never noticed them up till now?

I learnt the five species found in the Tweed Catchment have underwater leaves with varied branching patterns, examples below.




Details from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

These species show great plasticity – their form is very variable according to environmental conditions. Water Crowfoot readily hybridises, so its precise identification is complicated. I need to look closer to see patterns in ranunculion.


Photograph by Kate Foster 2013


Three types of Lamprey spawn in the rivers of the Tweed Catchment: Brook, River and Sea. The photo below shows electrofishing at a fish rescue by The Tweed Foundation and Tweed Forum at Eddleston Water in July 2013, where mature lamprey were found.


Photograph by Kate Foster 2013

Primitive jawless fish, that I had never before seen. Through google I learnt they sift microscopic organisms from silt in the riverbed in the larval form.


The larger two species (River and Sea Lamprey) mature and migrate to the estuary. They are parasitic and attach to fish to suck their flesh.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Each of the three species has its own characteristic mouthparts (diatoms slipped into the picture).


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

The drawing became about what lampreys eat, and what eats them.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Spawning time is when lamprey are most visible – look out for birds gathering to feast at the river’s edge in spring.



Photograph by Kate Foster 2013 with acknowledgements to The Tweed Foundation

Scientists at The Tweed Foundation explained to us what a fish-scale can reveal – you can see more here  about how the scales of Atlantic Salmon show how they move to cold northern waters to feed and grow.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

The drawing above is taken from a prediction of expanding scope for navigability, opening the arctic up for human commerce. I have learnt that the Tweed is one of the best salmon rivers anywhere – and also that researchers are speculating about future patterns of Salmon migration in a warming Arctic.

DSC05260Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

As the Arctic opens up to ships, what paths will these cold-water migrants take? Can they adapt?


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Researchers do not leap to conclusions: – they take a long view, and trust to salmon’s resilience.  I am chilled all the same.



Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Otter on the Tweed Catchment are becoming more common, but it takes skill to interpret the signs they leave.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

What for example is the difference between otter or mink scat? or dog and otter footprints?


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Infra-red videos used in camera traps give more information into how otters behave.

Findlay Ecology have made a long-term study of a natal holt, where otter cubs are nursed. It was found that that the male otter regularly stayed in the same holt as the breeding female and her cubs.


Image © Findlay Ecology Services

Now in my mind, being an otter becomes a sociable kind of thing.  I imagine the parents underground with their cubs, and traversing long sections of river to maintain territory and fishing rights.

On Passing through-places, ‘so-far stories’ and movement improvisation

This post arose from Working the Tweed project – part of Year of Natural Scotland 2013

Leah Gibbs (LG), Human Geographer at the University of Wollongong, Australia, in conversation with Working the Tweed artists, Kate Foster (KF) and Claire Pençak (CP).


In the project Working the Tweed, we set out to work with different kinds of specialist knowledge. This yields various ways to think about the Tweed Catchment, and make different artistic connections and new kinds of maps. We are thinking through what we, as artists, might offer in engaging with projects that deal with sustainable land-use and the realities of environmental change. We are delighted to be able to converse with Leah Gibbs, a human geographer at the University of Wollongong, whose work concerns the cultures and politics of water. Leah has considerable experience of multi-disciplinary work focussing on land management. She explains her concept of ‘passing-through places’. This overlaps with Kate Foster’s ideas of documenting ‘so-far stories’, and Claire Pençak’s thinking on improvisation as a way to investigate relationship to place through movement.


KF: Leah, you have written about ‘passing-through places’, which is an intriguing idea and keeps coming to mind as we plan the Working the Tweed project. Can you explain why you find the concept of ‘passing through’ helpful, and how you came to adopt the term?

LG: The idea of a ‘passing-through place’ emerged from a project I’ve been involved with over the last few years called ‘SiteWorks’. SiteWorks is an ongoing series of collaborative projects, which was initiated by arts organisation Bundanon Trust, and is based on the Shoalhaven River, just south of where I live in Wollongong (south eastern Australia). It involves a really interesting, shifting group of people: arts practitioners, scientists, other scholars, local people, including folk involved in Landcare groups, and other local organisations. The project asks participants to respond to the Bundanon sites on the river. I was thrilled to be invited to be part of it in 2010.

Image 1: Looking down the Shoalhaven River from Bundanon property ‘Riversdale’, August 2010.
Photo © Leah Gibbs 2010.

As a Human Geographer, I’m really interested in people and place, so when I first visited Bundanon I was keen to learn about people’s relationships with the site, and also how an arts-science collaboration might help us to understand place. I quickly learned that Bundanon is important to a lot of people. But it’s a place that people tend to pass through: visitors to the site, school groups, artists in residence, Bundanon employees, all pass through this place. We learn, and make connections, but we don’t dwell here. The previous owners of Bundanon were the late Australian artist Arthur Boyd and his family. Bundanon shaped a large body of Boyd’s work, and the place is strongly associated with him. But he and his family lived here for a relatively short time. Learning from the archive, it seems earlier settler families also passed through this place.
There has been some recent work done on the Indigenous heritage and history of the Bundanon properties, and this work finds that the main population centre prior to European colonisation was downstream, near the estuary. But the site was still important: people passed through here, often travelling on the river, to get to food and hunting sites, and to ceremony sites.
So what I’m trying to get at with the idea of a ‘passing-through place’ is that some places may not be permanently dwelt in, but are extremely significant, vital places none-the-less. Permanent dwelling, fixity, longevity, are not the only ways of forming meaningful relationships with places.

Image 2: Across the floodplain, March 2011. Photo © Leah Gibbs 2011.

In addition, in Australia – as in other parts of the world – the idea of ‘belonging’ is highly political. It feeds into thinking about ‘native’ and ‘introduced’, ‘invasive’ or ‘feral’ species of plants and animals, and it goes on to inform management and decision-making about these things. Ideas about belonging also influence thinking and action towards people, particularly in the context of indigenous relations, ethnicity and migration. But belonging is highly complex in a settler-dominated society. Concepts of belonging that are based on fixed notions of permanence or longevity in a place can lead to some very troublesome, racist attitudes and even policy.
So I like the concept of a ‘passing-through place’ for a couple of reasons. First because it highlights the significance of places that may not be permanently dwelt in, but are vital none-the-less; and second, because it unsettles fixed notions of belonging. And it strikes me that challenging fixed ideas of belonging is incredibly important in the context of contemporary environmental change. It’s in this context that we need to learn how to better live with other humans and a more-than-human world under changing conditions.
I’ve written more extensively about the idea of a ‘passing-through place’ and my experiences as a SiteWorks participant in a recent article published in the journal ‘Cultural Geographies’.

KF: What you have said shows how ‘unsettling’ a fixed idea can be a constructive step to take. I am wary when I hear ‘The Story of X, Y, Z’ – all in capitals. Intellectually we might know that many different stories can be told but they do still jostle for position. We seem to shy away from complexity. Happy-endings can appeal – but for whom, where, and in what timescale?
I used a prompt from political ecology to work out how making ‘so-far stories’ can expand my human viewpoint. I borrowed this from the work of geographer Doreen Massey who asks us to think of landscape as an event, as a simultaneity of ‘stories-so-far’.  This is a sketchbook extract, written when drawing a thistle being blown in the wind.

Image 3: sketchbook extract © Kate Foster 2011

I know that geographical theory takes time and work to absorb, and believe that a rigorous and self-disciplined approach, learning from shared experience, is important. The idea of simultaneity (at different timescales) by-passes anthropocentrism. I set out artistically to attaining ‘ecocentrism’ but I am re-thinking this. I realise that learning about human environmental impact – and degradation – has also taught me more about what it is to be human. This is what I wrote in that article:

Unfinishable as they are, so-far stories may afford possibilities and juxtapositions that escape an aesthetic of despair. Of course the prompt might be anguish or anger, but fury and grief should not overwhelm quieter voices and tender ways of working, in order to acknowledge complexity.

KF: Claire, can you say more about how you use movement improvisation to explore place? Perhaps it’s best to be there with you to find out for ourselves! Does it help to document this kind of exploration? If so, how?

CP: There are several things here.
There is movement improvisation as a way of working that encourages an open, responsive and playful approach and doesn’t require that you follow a series of set steps. There is also the dancer whose body is a passing through place, a transformative place and place of flux. And there is the witness.
For me improvisation encourages thinking on your feet.  It is about responding to and being in relationship to – a person or a place or an object or an idea – at a given time, season and place.
It is a process towards finding ways to traverse, to move around, over, under and through that might offer opportunities to be in a slightly different relationship to place.  By not having to follow proscribed procedures and pathways it permits us to wander off the beaten track.
This way of working could suggest other ways to understand what place might or could be. It would certainly suggest that place is neither static nor singular but is in a state of becoming and is shaped by the interactions that take place there. If the dancer shifts – does the place not shift too?
For me this is a performative relationship.
Dancers are trained for years to literally place themselves and also to traverse, to pass through.
A dancer brings a different way of paying attention, an under_standing* that is corporeal, terrestrial and aerial.  Flux is where they are most at home.
Improvisation isn’t really something to be captured through documentation – it can be experienced, recalled and discussed but doesn’t take well to being fixed as it is thinking in action. The body ‘thinking’ through action.
It can though stimulate images, dialogue, writing.
I like the idea of a companion or witness, as their presence brings a creative eye to the process.
Improvisation is not a spectator sport but collaboration. The witness is there to look closely. They bring their eyes and ears and their presence. They are viewing points and can chose to shift their point of view and their focus of attention and so contribute to the improvisation.
The documentation lies somewhere in the dialogue between the dancer and the witness.

Image 4: Participants at Working the Tweed Riverside Meeting, August 2013. We were looking under a bridge to find traces of otters using the river and marking territory. Photo © Kate Foster 2013.

This conversation has begun to show how human geography, visual art and dance can interweave. Having glimpsed the insights that geographers can offer, our next discussion will be about why ‘more-than-human’ might be a helpful term that expands on traditional ideas of Nature.

• Gibbs L In Press Arts-science collaboration, embodied research methods, and the politics of belonging: ‘SiteWorks’ and the Shoalhaven River, Australia. cultural geographies doi: 10.1177/1474474013487484 (published online 17 May 2013).

• Massey, D. 2006. ‘Landscapes as a Provocation: reflections on moving mountains. Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2), pp. 33–48.


* When Claire Pençak speaks about under_standing, she gives it a certain emphasis. Translated into text, using the underscore intends to convey the idea that we stand from underneath – that standing is ‘feet up knowledge’.

Rights: Text © authors, Leah Gibbs, Claire Pençak, Kate Foster, unless otherwise stated. Images credited individually.

listening upriver, downriver

Yesterday’s mission was to walk to my nearest tributary junction, and join World Listening Day by paying attention to sounds. I had an equidistant choice of going upriver and downriver. I walked upstream late morning, and downstream in the early evening.

Going along the riverside road became part of the listening. There were signs of heat – grasshoppers, flies buzzing, swallows chattering.


Cattle are noisy eaters I learn –  a bullock catches my ears, grazing and wading in the burn (appreciating the coolness I assume).


My attention brings quiet, as the herd pauses to look at me.

Through the gate to the next holding, I am wished Good Listening by the neighbour who farms there. She tells me of a band of thirsty scouts, concerned for them in this heat as they walk down this reiver’s valley to the Borders Abbey Way.


I meet the Scouts and we look at the map of their walk. I suggest which houses they can get water from. A mix of adolescent voices drift away: tired, broken and half-broken tones.

Now close to the burn, a skin-slap against a horsefly, the dog slumping in the river.  I stop in tree-shade and listen to water flowing: noticing that a fish-ripple is soundless but that a crow caw has two-beats.  I learn that few of the things I look at yield sound, and I see little of what I hear.

The particular chink of a gate; the stridulation of a cricket; a ewe moving through a wire fence (metallic string tone), cool wind in my ears – all can be heard.

The open thistle, bone dry grass, distant forming clouds – all quiet.


At the farm-bridge at the river intersection, I remember falling off, into the river, last summer. With children’s laughs ringing alongside my shock as the plank broke.

I realise my intersection map should have been of sounds not sight, but the allocated hour is up.

The evening mission starts with a swim in the loch and from there to the road-bridge, where the burn meets the river. The moon is visible – is it always silent?
Shoes giving a rubbery flap on dry grass. There is a nettle wall between the road and my chosen point. I manage through to see, on the opposite bank, a woman watering her garden in a bikini. She might take my watchful presence amiss.  My mistake: to consider visual rather than aural access. Hidden in bracken, I start to listen and things rapidly become more abstract.


I find I can’t listen well with my eyes open


I draw birdsong from above, mistakenly using pink (not exactly a flutey hue)


Drawing sounds becomes a movement. I compromise with half-closed eyes, but the midges have found me.


This post is part of the project Working the Tweed (Year of Natural Scotland 2013).

Click here for a thought-provoking TED talk by Bernie Krause on ‘The Voice of the Natural World’ that motivates me to keep listening.

scaling the Tweed

In the burn, salmon eggs could be hatching just now. I learn that pimples on the fish’s skin become scales with marks that register their growth pattern, like tree rings. In actuality, these are in life tiny and transparent, but to understand them I draw them large and salmon coloured.


The Tweed Foundation collects scales from anglers, and accumulates data that helps interpret seasonal changes in the fishing catch. With a microscope, an expert eye might see that a salmon lived for two winters in the river, with a further winter at sea before returning to the Tweed to spawn. The wider separated bands in the blue drawing (a detail) suggest that this fish made a rapid transition to sea and began to feed well.


Sometime, there are checks in the usual pattern of faster summer growth, where the circuli stay tight and close.


Very rarely, a female salmon manages to return to sea after spawning, and runs upriver a second time. The Tweed is a long river, and perhaps only one in a hundred manage this. These fish have scales with spawning marks developing from interrupted growth where scales were consumed, reabsorbed for energy to swim upstream.


Typically a spawned salmon, a kelt, will die in the river and the eroded scales will document the exhaustion of the fish’s reserves.


Having learnt something of what can be seen close-up, I needed to take a step back to take this in. A textbook informs me how they deserve their name, ‘Atlantic Salmon’: they are a species who use ocean currents to drift to cold subarctic waters. Rich feeding to the west of Greenland allows them to mature before returning to their home river in mating mood.


Towards the end of this first lesson in scale-reading, our careful tutors say that there is currently speculation about future patterns that will be read in salmon scales. Within ten years perhaps, the north pole will be a navigable ocean, allowing passage to the Pacific.


To reflect on this, I look at recently published papers. With anxiety, I start to draw icebergs on perspex – dotting out the zone that was navigable to ice-hardy ships in 1970. In my drawing the icebergs lessen over time, and tail off at 2100. I wish it was the other way up, and I could draw them more concentrated at the pole, like this:


Scaling the Tweed started with a close-up view, but also is making me look further away.


Acknowledgements and thanks to Tweed Foundation. The text and drawings, and any errors, are my responsibility. This research drawing was undertaken as collaborative work with tabula rasa, in a project Working the Tweed, part of Year of Natural Scotland 2013.

Dora’s significant arrival

Last wet May, Leah and I decided to walk upriver to find the source of the burn that flows past the house.



At the head of the valley, in a dip under the ridge, I realised we would not find a point, but instead terrain with pools and trickles. Leah, a geographer, was less surprised.


We looked around, adjusting raingear and snacking, thinking how wind turbines would change the sense of place.


We started back, towards the head of the valley and something caught our eye. Moving closer, we found another visitor to the valley between the tussocks.

dora1SLeah again immediately apprehends the situation (Dora the Explorer, an eight year old Mexican, is much loved by her nephew). I learn that in every episode of her adventures, Dora sets out to help someone – dealing calmly with adversity. We pick Dora up and stretch her out, taking her home to consider her. On further sheep-walks, I add to the collection and mention these finds to the farmer. He explained he sometimes finds other characters in his shepherding duties, mistaking them for lambs, possibly in trouble from foxes. I move my collection to the Sculpture Studios and amongst my finds, Dora’s presence is most commanding.



On closer inspection, she is older than her years, becoming grey in her travels. I wonder, perhaps it is timely to consider material remains – there are several directions my enquiry might go.

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