Journeys in Performance
We gathered in Bamff in March to continue our wild experiments in the company of beavers and their terraqueous (or land and water) landscapes. Our primary aim was to develop a creative swimming methodology to address the following questions:
Bamff in March is coming out of a Scottish winter. Although this winter has been mild the water temperature is cold, at about 12 degrees. The day was grey and wet. A moderate drizzle and a cold wind. The landscape looks bleak, Spring is yet to start, and the impact of the beavers is stark. Plenty of fallen trees, raw stumps and vivid pale wood chips. Little is growing.
After lunch in the warmth of the cottage we put on our wetsuits, gloves and boots, under jumpers and jackets. We leave the house and walk the half mile to the beaver pond. Sheltering under trees we pause, eager to enter the water, but apprehensive as to what was in store. Awkward, alien in neon neoprene amidst the forest; like Golems at a triathlon. David has us each remove a boot and place a naked foot on the soil, feeling amongst the pine needles and beaver chips for the ground and a still moment of grounding. He read us Phil Smith on the terrestrial practice of drifting: an attentive curation of distraction, making space for suppressed marks of difference, and a purposeful collecting of experience.
We don headwear, goggles. Our hearing deadened, our vision blurred, and our skin buffered from the cold by 5mm of rubber. We enter the water. The bottom is soft, feet sink into silt. The steading is unfaithful and our gait unsteady. We stagger and waddle drunkenly until deep enough to float. The cold water enters through seams and at cuffs. We gasp and seek to acclimatise. I swim strokes I know that keep my head above water. Initially, aimless I make circles in the pond. I strike out for the opposing shore, get close and ground myself in the mud. Great bubbles of methane are released from decomposing vegetation. A smell of rot, distinct, yet buffered by the rubber. I float toes up, surprised by the buoyancy of the rubber.
Striving to become comfortable in the cold I seek to appreciate the watery nature of my new existence. How should I orientate myself in this landscape? What would be my purpose now if I were a beaver? To start with I reckon I would need to orientate myself in relation to the sensory cues given by the pond and what they tell me about the environment. Deaf to the world and with an untrained and dull nose I decided I would look. I get down to pond level and scan like a crocodile. Then I plunge my head under water. The vision is striking, bewitching and somehow familiar from film footage seen in Laura Ogden’s collaborative film and on the BBC. But this small comfort was undone by the shock of the cold water on my face, the only naked part of my body. I gasped. I ducked again, caught masochistically between an embrace of the pain and the security of warm air. I felt I should dive, duck under and swim lithesome through the weeds, sliding over the mud with my belly. But my bodily thermostat screamed no, stay up, keep the mind removed from sensory immersion and potential overload.
What then in the absence of sensory affinity? Think about the beaver’s purposeful nature. What would a beaver do, here and now? My caricatured book knowledge of beavers suggests they would forage and collect materials for making. I reach down to grab sticks and mud, but the water was too deep to avoid submersion. I experiment with my feet, which, like the beavers, are unaided by opposable thumbs and forefingers. Clad in thick rubber they serve as blunt shovels, stirring up mud but no good for carrying and dam building. I slap the water, remembering the beaver’s alarm call: but this is a crass form of communication.
In many ways this experiment was an abject failure to become-beaver. And yet it helps us to calibrate the background conditions required to conduct such an experiment in the future. It offers a first attempt. It tells us a lot about the elemental difference between water and land and about the phenomenology of cold.
Although I am a confident and experienced swimmer and can feel at home in the water, I was lost and confused in the pond. I was reminded of the terrestrial nature of my being. I can walk and breathe, walk and talk, walk and think, walk and not even know I am walking. On a good day, in a warm bath, I can float and do all of these. Sometimes floating even helps. But swimming in a cold pond at Bamff in March is much more of a challenge than walking the same landscape. I suspect this is not true for beavers: equally at home in one or the other.
I do not know how the beaver senses the world through its fur and skin. I can only assume it has a more nuanced haptic experience than I gained in the pond. The wetsuit rubber made a barrier with the environment. It was snug, but then leaky. And the leakiness bore no direct sensible relationship with the water I was seeing around me, or what my movements through the water suggested the water was like. I could not trust touch as a medium to engage with the water, in the way I could when naked. The rubber also diminished my already diminished senses of smell and hearing, fumes of new wetsuit and ear coverings overwhelmed efforts at multisensory attunement.
The leakiness also introduced the cold. And the cold was uncomfortable, bordering on fearful. In accumulated in the peripheries: the fingers, the nose, the toes. It began to chill the core. It distracted from the cerebral aim to think my way towards beaver. It overrode experimental projects to dive, to forage, or just to float and think. Cold (and pain in general), without training, is a profound barrier to multispecies ethnography. Though perhaps it might enable us to understands animals’ experience of environmental disconcertion, of being too hot, too cold, or otherwise in distress.
To become beaver and to understand the elemental characteristics of its terraqueous world I would suggest the following experimental conditions:
None of these prostheses will make me a beaver. Future experiments will also fail. But they will tell us more about the embodied experience of aquatic mammalian being.
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