Swiss Army Knives, Sweet Track Incisors and Simone de Beaver

Ahead of her exhibition at Threshold artspace, Perth Concert Hall, artist and activist Beatrice Searle reflects on her artist’s residency at Perthshire’s Bamff Estate and her out-of-character visit to a panto – Perth Theatre’s Sinbad.

As part of the wider 2019 Rewind/Rewild programme, my co-curator, Anna Souter, and I were leading a number of schools workshops about extinction. At the point that the Ramsays walked in to see the show, a child had just challenged me to explain how the extinction of the dinosaurs was any great loss to humans. It was a good question and one that I did not have a ready answer for.

The Ramsays took themselves around the exhibition whilst Anna and I desperately tried to keep our class of nine year olds from bouncing in and out of the plinths and licking the glass vessels on the ground containing flourishing algaes. At one point Anna made a grab for Rodrigo Arteaga’s deconstructed tree before it hit the deck. It was not the optimum time for talking to visitors but somehow, before leaving, Louise managed to find a moment to say,

“You should come and visit us in Scotland. We’ve got beavers.”

It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that, even at the point of curating an exhibition and a public forum about human and non-human co-existence, I know little about the extraordinary ecological benefits of beavers, nor their potential to sequester carbon in their ponds, filter and purify water and mitigate flooding by their dam building. I was to become very conscious very quickly. Less than a year later - a year, incidentally of torrential downpours, devastating surges of water, floods that threaten human life and almost weekly reports of accelerating sea level rise, I am banging on about the beavers and the wonders they do who anyone who will listen. Beavers, it seems, are to man-made catastrophes in nature what garlic is to the human body - the remedy for all ills. As Ben Goldfarb expounds in his 2018 book, Eager: The surprising, secret lives of beavers and why they matter, mitigating floods and rising water levels in the face of climate change, improving water quality, tackling sedimentation, boosting biodiversity, increasing fish populations and preventing soil erosion, are all done best by beavers.

“Beavers, the animal that doubles as an ecosystem, are ecological and hydrological Swiss Army knives, capable, in the right circumstances, of tackling just about any landscape-scale problem you might confront.”

Beavers strip the bark off a tree to eat it, and fell the trees to use in dam building, or to make the thinner branches accessible for dam building. The dam raises the water level behind it, thus creating a safe, underwater way for the beaver to come and go. The Eurasian beaver, native to Scotland, was hunted to extinction in Britain in the 16th century due to demand for its fur, meat and scent glands. In May of this year beavers finally received their long fought-for European protected status, making it illegal to kill beavers or remove their dams and lodges without a license. On the Bamff estate in Perthshire, a group of artists, geographers, ecologists, musicians and theatre makers, led by Jamie Lorimer of Oxford University, gather to explore the landscaping possibilities of beavers and the creative means by which we might communicate their far-reaching benefits. The National Trust announces plans to release Eurasian beavers at two sites in the south of England to help with flood management and to improve biodiversity, stating clearly that the beaver’s presence in river catchments is a sustainable way to help make our landscape more resilient to climate change and the extremes of weather it will bring. By restoring natural processes in parts of the river catchment a natural flow pattern is achieved, slowing, cleaning and storing water and developing complex river habitats. Moreover, the dams created by the beavers will hold water in dry periods, help to lessen flash-flooding downstream and reduce erosion and improve water quality by holding back silt.

 

Bamff Beavers. Image courtesy of Dave Maric

So, there is much to be hopeful about. But although public opinion is slowly but surely beginning to shift in favour of these highly cost effective and efficient engineers, at the Scottish Wild Beaver group’s emotive 2019 conference titled, “Beavers, Scotland’s Ally” I become aware of the full force of the opposition. There is a way to go it seems, but remarkably few problems that can not be solved by giving the river 10m of breathing space either side. As James Nairne sets out in his report on harmonious human and beaver cohabitation in Bavaria, tried and tested solutions already exist.

I step onto the Bamff estate on a hot May day and immediately I notice the commotion. It’s loud. The air quivers with the murmur of insect wings. Tens of tiny creatures land on my bare arms. Instinctively I brush them off, then I remember that I am a biodiversity advocate and I make an effort to stop doing that.

Bamff Beavers. Image courtesy of Dave Maric

“I’ve seen beaver habitats” a friend had warned me, “and I was shocked - all the trees were down and it looked like a war zone.” I look along the burn where wood lies saturated, where the grass either side is drowned and remaining trees rise directly out the water as though they were mimicking a tropical mangrove forest. Over the top of a substantial interlocked mesh of sticks and rocks, buttressed with mud, multiple rivulets have found their wiggling way over and into the pool below. This is my first sight of a beaver dam. Another occurs a little way downstream, and then another, a cascade of waterfalls that, taken as a whole, appear to me nothing less than a marvellous feat of engineering. Death and rot are present here, clearly visible, but still the air is diffused with flying creatures, new shoots reach from great downed tree trunks, and shelves of vivid orange and bright white fungi cling on to wet bark. Checkered sunlight filters through the birch wood that flanks the burn and falls on arrowhead shaped sculptures on the bank - the work of beaver teeth but comparable to the work of sculptor, William Turnbull. This place is evidence, if evidence were needed, that a healthy, biodiverse, life supporting forest is vertical, diagonal, even horizontal at all stages of life, death and decay. This is nature’s way of recycling and fertilising. It might not be pretty, but it is better than that - it is vibrant, alive and majestic, supporting a massive range of invertebrates, birds and mammals. Nowhere that I have known in Scotland, suffering as it is from the decimation of all but less than 5% of its ancient forests and the relentless persecution of its fauna, comes near to the wealth of life I have experienced since stepping out of the car five minutes ago.

 

Bamff Beavers. Image courtesy of Dave Maric

In the months since I have had the privilege of tiptoeing along beaver dams (guided by an expert but nevertheless frequently misjudging my steps and plunging in up to my knees); alone in the swamp I have gathered shards of wood scraped from the tree by powerful orange enamelled incisors, and felt a primordial thunderbolt of understanding that I hold magic in my palm. To be in a beaver habitat is to be in the presence of greatness. I have seen myself the coppicing effect that beavers induce in the trees they fell and sometimes, in the dusk, I see the beavers themselves, hefty and wide hipped, pulling their slick bulk up over the dam and disappearing.

In partnership with Scottish Wild Beaver group and Horsecross Arts, and informed by my ongoing research and exploration at Bamff, I have begun to develop a sculptural and performative body of work to be exhibited at Perth Concert Hall’s Threshold artspace, with particular focus on the ways that human progress has been advanced by the presence of beavers and the evolution, side by side, of Castor Fiber and Homo Sapiens. I have always been interested in human mobility - the motivation and the means for moving across landscapes - and thanks to Bryony Cole’s extraordinary book, ‘Beavers in Britain’s Past’ it now appears that beaver dams influenced, even allowed for, early human routes across marshland and smaller watercourses. With this new knowledge I plan to return to a structure that I have long been fascinated by: a Neolithic wooden trackway preserved in waterlogged peat and excavated in 1970, built to allow for the crossing of the marshy Somerset Levels (3806BC). The timber posts of the trackway, which is known commonly as The Sweet Track after the peat cutter, Ray Sweet, who discovered it, are thought to have been shaped not by humans using a stone blade but by beavers using their incisors.

Sinbad at Perth Theatre.Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

As a (possibly nebulous) aide to my beaver research, I went this week to the Perth Theatre to see Horsecross Arts’ Christmas pantomime, Sinbad, which was rumoured to have performing beavers in it. As it turned out I was totally justified to spend a Tuesday in this way! I happened to have a ticket to a matinee performance on a schools day so, apart from teachers shepherding very competently, each and every one of them clutching a single use coffee cup complete with plastic lid - irony not lost! - I am the only adult in the audience. Mine is the only audible giggle at the introduction of Simone de Beaver. Awkward. Some kids turn in their seats to stare at me.

I am not a child of panto. I have no experience and I am unprepared for how completely overstimulating and chaotic it will be, complete with screaming, booing, nosebleeds and vomiting… and yet, I completely love it. The story centres around the rescue of the beloved Tay beavers who have been beaver napped to assist a malevolent stepmother in her hunt for the fabled ‘Well of Wellbeing.’ At the close of the first half when, to the bellowing of ‘One Day More’ from Les Misérables, the character who (not so subtly) resembles climate activist Greta Thunberg, stands on a boat-barricade of recycled materials with her yellow salopette-wearing band of supporters gathered around her, waving two huge white flags with the slogan SAVE OUR BEAVERS emblazoned across them (definite echoes of the ‘Hands off our Beavers campaign’ of 2010) I think I might burst into tears. With beavers still a contentious issue in Perthshire, all credit to writer and director Barrie Hunter for nailing his colours so firmly to the mast. I couldn’t help thinking that many of the children in the audience, seemingly so besotted with the Tay beavers on the stage, might have beaver sceptic, possibly blatant anti-beaver parents. The cast take their bows dressed as beavers wearing prominent extinction rebellion medallions. It’s a supremely brave move and, although the beavers do not have an appeal to these kids that goes beyond their cute and fluffy factor, the environmental message is strong, far exceeding that of most Christmas entertainment.

Find out more about Beatrice’s artistic practice here

Join the conversation about Beatrice’s forthcoming exhibition at Threshold artspace here 

Thursday 19 December 2019