deep, enchanted silt

Alice Fox Severn Estuary mud

While I was down in Gloucestershire with Tide Marks I took the limited opportunities I had to get out of town and see a bit of the area. I was particularly keen to get to the Severn and see a bit of the estuary: the closest to being by the sea I might experience for a while. During the exhibition, which I was responsible for stewarding most of the time, I got to talk to a lot of people about the work on show. Most assume I live by the sea and it always seems a bit ridiculous when I explain that I live a good two hours drive from both the east and west coasts of northern England. Following these gallery conversations I have been reflecting on what it is that draws me to the coast, physically and creatively. I can justify the starting point of much of this recent work by explaining about the Spurn residency and that makes sense, but I am aware that it really goes deeper than that. I know that much of the ideas and images of coastal detail that I have been exploring and that continue to preoccupy me come from places visited all through my life, particularly on the west coast of Scotland. I think that we all have a relationship with the sea and its edge, which stems from childhood and holiday;, the feeling of escape to such places; the ‘clean slate’ and the new possibilities that are created twice a day by the tides; the fact that standing on a beach looking out to the seeming infinity of ‘the sea’ can be restorative and settling even if the weather and water are stormy. Despite living away from the coast the images and ideas from a visit to such a place can sustain me creatively or pre-cooupy me for months or longer. Each experience is added to the memory bank and re-enforces something I’m trying to explore.

My work isn’t all tied to the coast, it is really tied to whatever place I am in at any one time: it is about my experience of landscape, whether that landscape is my garden and the streets around my home or somewhere far-flung that I’ve travelled to. We present work in distinct ‘projects’ but it is really a continuum: everything leads on to the next thing. So when people ask if i’ve ‘finished with this coastal thing?’ I certainly haven’t finished with it: I don’t think I ever will, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean that things won’t move on. I am aware that the found object has become more and more important. The connection with beach-combing is obvious, but collecting small items of importance to me is also something I’ve done all my life: as a child it was dead insects, feathers, shells. Bird skulls were a particular prize from beach holidays and I still have some of these collections. These treasures have always been part of me understanding and studying the detail of the world around me. I see the objects that find their way into our pockets as tangible links to the places we visit. Of course this is a very common practice. This extract from Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places sums it up nicely:

For as long as I could remember, we had picked things up as we walked. Humdrum, everyday rites, practised by millions of people…. Now, though, collecting offered a way both to remember and to join up my wild places…. The objects seemed to hold my landscapes together, without binding them too tightly.

It was good to be by the Severn and I would like to get to know this estuary better. After my first degree I worked for a year on a conservation project tied to the River Severn and got to know little bits of its vast catchment, although almost exclusively further upstream than where I visited this time. All through my physical geography degree and my subsequent career in nature conservation my focus was on rivers and wetlands. Wet places excite me in all sorts of ways! It was good to re-connect just a little with this mighty river. The section that is tidal is fascinating because it sits between the worlds of the river and the sea. There is the constant change of the tidal range and this amazing mud that is exposed twice a day. As Elizabeth Bishop says in her poem The Riverman:

The river breathes in salt
and breathes it out again,
and all is sweetness there
in the deep, enchanted silt.

On returning home I picked up my current bedtime reading book Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and read this passage that was, by coincidence, about the part of the Severn Estuary not far from where I had been:

Here the otter forages in the slippery inter-tidal zone. It’s not ground and not water, shining with a slow seeping that is almost impossible for humans to negotiate.

I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t scoop up a handful of the sticky stuff to have a proper play with.

Alice Fox Severn Estuary edge

21 thoughts on “deep, enchanted silt

  1. I live by the Severn, Alice, and it really is a very beautiful river. It changes radically as it flows from Gloucester and reaches the estuary. There’s a place on the estuary you would love, Bullo Pill, an old, unused port. there are beautiful, old, rusting boats and pieces of machinery. When the tide is out the river bed is stunning. If I could post you some photos I would! 😉

    • Thank you Lizzie, I did visit a boat ‘graveyard’, which was fascinating. I wonder of the place you mention is the same one?

    • I live on the other side of the river Alice, in the Forest of Dean, a beautiful part of the world which I hope you have a chance to visit some time. Have you read Sleepwalk on the Severn by Alice Oswald? A beautiful poem come play. It was commissioned by Gloucestershire County Council 4 – 5 years ago.
      Best wishes x

  2. Landscape has such a hold on us. For some, it is a particular place, for others it is the joy of discovery. I’ve lived in the tropics, in the snowy mountains, in the central part of Texas, in the greens of the Tennessee. I’m drawn to the coolness of the forest, to the whisper of the tall pines, to the green of the land so it is particularly fascinating to find that I am settled in the hot and dry high desert of New Mexico.

    What I have come to know is that each landscape offers a richness, a story, a connection in some way or another. Since 2010, I have been naturally dyeing cloth, mostly recycled white cotton from thrift stores, with the gifts of the land. The wall collages that I make from these dyed cloths tell the story of where I live, speak of place, speak of home. It has been a great lesson to come to love the differences in the land, this place of 5200 ft elevation, a landscape shaped by sand and scrub but 60 miles away, a whole other landscape in terms of foliage and color.

    As I continue to study this landscape the colors are subtle but within the desert there exists a panorama of color; the deep red of clay, the golden hues of sand, the richness of browns,, the deep green of the pinon trees, the softer shades of sagebrush, the brilliant yellow of the blossoms of the chamisa plant, equally the wonderful purples and mauve of the desert willow, the turquoise veins that can be seen in so many rocks and of course, the incredible blues of a New Mexican sky. It is all simply here to sense, to enjoy and sometimes to interpret on a piece of old cloth dyed with the gifts of the land.

    • Marti – How wonderful to have lived in so many varied places. You describe your landscape so poetically: thank you.

  3. A lovely piece of writing. I identified very much with a lot of this, and now wish to explore the estuary. Daughter has moved to Bristol so maybe there will be a chance. Best wishes to you.

  4. I live on the river Severn near the estuary my view is mainly of Wales but sometimes Devon, next time you are down in this direction I am only about half an hour away come and visit. Lovely post.

  5. Lovely post Alice – I find words to describe my coastal explorations difficult but you described it beautifully – I spent childhood years around the river Severn

  6. My childhood memories of bringing things back from walks and putting them on our ‘nature table’…an old coal bunker, have stayed with me for a lifetime and are a constant source of inspiration. Its a habit that now allows me to explore in my memory, imagination and stitch long after a walk has taken place… thanks for the memories!

    • Lots of us do it Judith and I think it is great that we don’t all lose the appreciation of such acts when we grow up!

  7. Fascinating stuff Alice. I know so many people who are drawn to the coast, and I do love the occasional visit for the vastness of the open space but still find it a little unsettling. It is woodlands that I am drawn to, personally and creatively, maybe because I grew up in the Midlands. Who knows. My mum loves open moorland and I don’t really like it at all. When I lived in Brighton I missed woodlands desperately, despite having the coast and the Sussex downs nearby. It is just not the same. On another note, I read Otter Country last year and loved it.

    • I love woodland too Ruth, I love whatever landscape I’m in for all sorts of different reasons. I think I am just surprised at how I keep coming back to certain ideas that are connected to coast and that I always will take an opportunity to get to the coast if I can, even if it isn’t a proper sea coast. I didn’t have a good start with Otter Country – my previous career was in otter conservation and I felt I was being told a lot of stuff that I already knew (I know I’m not your average reader when it comes to otters!) but when she writes descriptively about the landscapes she visits I am really enjoying it.

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