Stone Lives




The above images are available as a postcard © Tabula Rasa 2014

Stone Lives is an artwork that developed from an investigation of riverbank ecology at the meeting point of the Ettrick and Yarrow, at Philliphaugh near Selkirk.


Our arrival at the riverbank in an afternoon in late May coincided with a hatch of Stone Flies – aquatic insects emerging from the water to find a stone to air themselves, and shed their final larval form.


Drawing © Kate Foster 2014

We were there to explore the river junction through movement improvisation, to understand it better as a complex place and to pay attention to more-than-human aspects. We were three dancers  – Merav Israel, Claire Pençak, and Tim Rubidge – and myself as recorder.  The river was low and we could walk on the smoothed rock, ancient mudstones shaped and sifted by ice and water.


Image © Tabula Rasa 2014

We had in mind the idea of a ‘passing-through-place’, a concept developed by an Australian cultural geographer, Leah Gibbs:

“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.” (Leah Gibbs, reference 1,  see previous post)

As a newcomer to dance improvisation, I was entranced by the dancers’ swift and playful development of ideas. We all followed suit, when Tim placed a stone on his head.


Drawing © Kate Foster 2014

As Merav said, placing a stone on your head is a way to know the shape of your skull. What shape of stone fits you best – flat, hollowed, rounded, long?


Drawing © Kate Foster 2014


And how do you walk? My sense was of becoming a taut and aware line, a line moving between the shapes under my feet and the touch of the stone on my head. Attention is drawn to what is above and below. Tim described needing to adopt ‘a lightness of touch – otherwise the rocks got too rocky!’  With great balance, the dancers developed the possibilities of a stone minuet by circling in the forms of an early and stately dance.

Meanwhile Stone Flies were passing through their own sequences, taking flight after many larval forms. They left husks of themselves on the stones, an abandonment to life. Females were flying upriver, dipping into the water to lay eggs.


Photo © Tabula Rasa 2014


Merav was the first to see them, and puzzle over their presence. She described this later:

I was going in a direction no-one else was, I was skipping over stones for a long time … trying to see how far into the river I could go and still be on land. One of my jumps, was so! that I had to bend over because I lost my balance, then I realised there was lots of stuff clinging to the stone I was standing on. Something I have never seen before, so I had to squat down to have a good look at them. They blended into the stone quite well so I had to try to figure out: what is it I am seeing? There was an interesting shape, I couldn’t figure out what was the head and what was the tail so I had to investigate the structure. I imagined there was a bit of a split somewhere, that could be the tail – though the head did not really look like a head, on the other side. The colours – there was a nice pattern of lines, greys, lighter greys, and blacks, almost like a tiger. It really was the colours of the stone itself, and it did not seem like they were moving at all.  So I wondered if they were alive.  And I saw they were everywhere, everywhere on the stones around me.


Photograph © Tabula Rasa 2014

This set me on a trail, I collected husks for some days after – keen to find them before river levels rose. I searched online too, learning that of all the insects that live in water, Stone Flies need the cleanest water. They are ecological indicators of healthy streams, flattened and adapted to be able to cling to stones in rapid currents.  Apart from Trout who devour them, they are best known to fishermen, river ecologists and entomologists.  As one source remarks: “they are rather endearing little creatures once you get to know them”.

The fossil record of Stone Flies stretches far back to the Permian, but their adult life is brief.  A juxtaposition of Stone and Fly offers simultaneity at different timescales – a ‘so-far story’ (see earlier post here).

Stone Lives became an artwork inviting anthropologists at an international conference to share a sense of stone, and life supported.


Stone Lives Installation at Speculative Ground, 2014 (detail, tactile element). Tabula Rasa, 2014


Stone Lives Installation at Speculative Ground, 2014 (detail, audio and drawing elements). Tabula Rasa, 2014



Stone Lives Installation at Speculative Ground, 2014 (detail, drawing). Tabula Rasa, 2014


This work will be documented further. Support from the University of Aberdeen (Knowing From Inside project) allowed presentation at the Anthropological Association Decennial Conference, in Edinburgh June 2014, as part of a collaborative Speculative Ground Project with anthropologists Jen Clarke and Rachel Harkness.  The conference theme was Enlightenment. Stone Lives assisted an artistic exploration of Land Use. Our contribution  re-works anthropocentirc perspectives with an exploration of multiple aspects of place, articulated through Claire Pençak’s new text on Approaching Choreography.

Reference: Gibbs L 2014,  Arts-science collaboration, embodied research methods, and the politics of belonging: ‘SiteWorks’ and the Shoalhaven River, Australia. cultural geographies 21(2) 206-226

 Grateful thanks to support from the funders and conference organisers:






Report on Biodiversity and Leader conference, Vienna April 2014

As already reported  three of the Working the Tweed team were able to attend the Biodiversity and Leader conference earlier this month. This report was compiled by Kate Foster, Claire Pençak and Jules Horne.

Leader is an EU fund designed to help rural actors consider the long-term potential of their local region (more about Leader here).

Leader funds are administered by Local Action Groups (LAGs), who choose priorities and select projects proposed by community groups.

The reason behind this conference was that Biodiversity is a relatively low priority, and at risk of being overlooked when the targets are set in the 2014-2020 round.


The conference arose from real commitment to working together across the EU, supporting local initiatives, facilitating exchange and drawing inspiration for existing projects. The conference was the culmination of ‘Biodiversity and LEADER’ – a project led by Austrian organisation Umweltdachverband in cooperation with OAR Regionalberatung GmbH.

Several approaches to the implementation of biodiversity projects into LEADER were presented and discussed. Experts provided insights into the current status of the LEADER approach with respect to the new financing period 2014 – 2020 and informed the audience about important biodiversity topics of relevance to LAGs and local development strategies.

110 delegates attended the conference to listen to talks and to gather ideas for their own projects in three parallel poster sessions where 13 projects from 9 different countries were presented. Working the Tweed was the only UK representative and the only artist led project.

The conference was specifically directed at Austrian context where most delegates came from, but hearing about other projects gave points of comparison.

Power point presentations from the morning sessions , posters from the afternoon sessions and photographs of the event are available online – CLICK HERE.

The proceedings of the conference will be posted shortly on the same site.
All the projects presented at the conference will be featured in an illustrated printed publication which will be available by the end of May 2014.

Some specific points

A small portion of Leader funding goes to environment projects – and only a portion of this supports biodiversity. The reality of the competition between intensive agriculture and biodiversity was recognised. Relentless pressure from developments was understood to be usually given priority over conservation, with too little regard for environmental costs and limits.

It was clear that overall we should expect less EU money for rural funding – but surprising to know that significant amount of budgets never leave Brussels, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining match funding. It was universally agreed that funds are difficult to access and to administer, but hopefully improvements will be made in the new round. Changes were recommended to make it easier for smaller projects to access funds, and also to make LAGs representative of wider population. The way LAGs operate varies in each region.

The presentation by Magnus Wessel from Bund (Friends of the Earth) Germany was particularly  helpful. He reminded us the role biodiversity plays in our lives, and that matters are urgent. He cautioned us to concentrate on what was possible and to expect to deal with conflict (appropriate for the conference location – the Diplomatic Academy). Magnus pointed out the uneasy fit between LEADER competition and sustainability, and between conservation projects and the need to illustrate innovation. He drew out the need to make an emotional connection, suggesting the need for strategies for connecting with a wide public and not just specialists (particularly with young people who may go on to sustain projects).

Vienna slide 3

Image: slide from Magnus Wessel presentation “Local benefits of nature conservation“ vs. “Biodiversity is not for sale“ ?

Vienna slide 4

Image: slide from Magnus Wessel presentation “Local benefits of nature conservation“ vs. “Biodiversity is not for sale“ ?


 Presentation of individual projects

Parallel poster sessions allowed discussion of details that make a project distinctive, albeit within a short ten minute slot.

Highlights brought out included bringing people together, and an emphasis on ‘biocultural’ landscapes. This word represents a shift towards celebrating landscapes that are culturally valued- such as cherry trees, apple orchards, meadows, and of course river-ways.

Challenges identified revolved around maintaining the project over long term, and dependence on voluntary input. It was a shared experience that Leader applications and accounting were laborious – but this was a chance to congratulate those who had persisted in order to make an impact, and had found an activity that was achievable  within the programme.

The posters give overviews and online are a useful resource.

Two projects used ‘Animal Ambassadors’. “WOLF” brings together farmers and ecologists in north-west Spain where wolves are reintroducing themselves. It seems wolves are becoming ‘fashionable’ through their efforts, and a motor for tourism and the economy. Another project from Flanders named high quality beer after Little Owls, giving them a cultural presence in an area where they are in decline. A Slovenian project raised the profile and enjoyment of traditional fruit orchards. We realised the extent of ingenuity and commitment, in finding ways for people to experience and engage with biodiversity. Harnessing local pride and connection makes things feel more relevant.

This process did provide ideas and encouragement. As an artist led project, Working the Tweed was seen to offer a different strategy by forming collaborative partnerships between artists and those concerned with sustainable rural development. We reminded people that we were not involved as artists to make individual artworks, but to facilitate a broader understanding of specialist knowledge that can now be integrated into creative approaches. There was interest in the idea of adopting a catchment approach, and also in the idea of a River Festival to celebrate the return of migrating salmon.

vienna slide 6

Claire Pençak presenting Working the Tweed © Working the Tweed 2014

Catchment Conversations

Catchment Conversations Photo Kate Foster

Catchment Conversations Photo Kate Foster

In early February 2014, Catchment Conversations took place – the concluding event of the Working the Tweed programme. It was a gathering of people with different interests and connections to the Tweed Catchment. We shared views about the Tweed Rivers and discussed how we would like to imagine the future of the Catchment. The event took place in the inspiring studio at Hundalee Mill, the workplace for furniture maker Thomas Hawson on the Jed Water and we were well nourished during the day with  homemade soup , bread and cakes by Jenny Ozwell. Discussion revolved around what was working well on the river and what needed to be improved. We asked people to bring a photograph or image to illustrate both pf these and also an object that represented something about their particular connection to the Tweed rivers by way of an introduction. From the morning discussions, three topics were explored further in the afternoon : • Action towards creating a healthier ecosystem • Actions towards improving renewables in the Catchment • Action towards a better human appreciation of the river Catchment Conversations were framed at the start and end of the day by short presentations by the Working the Tweed artists. We explored what role art projects might play in catchment management and what the lead artists had experienced, working in different artforms. A full summary is available as a pdf by clicking HERE

Presentation at International Biodiversity and LEADER Conference in Vienna, April 3rd.

Two of the four artists from Working the Tweed – Claire Pençak and Kate Foster – are attending the International Biodiversity and LEADER Conference. We will present the project to delegates from across the EU at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna on April 3rd.

This is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the innovative and diverse work that takes place on the rivers of the Tweed Catchment within an international context and to hear about and learn from other European projects exploring issues around biodiversity. We are delighted to have been selected and to be able to showcase the project activities more widely.

Our project is one of several approaches to the implementation of biodiversity projects into LEADER that will be presented and discussed, alongside other projects from Slovenia, Spain Germany France, Belgium, Poland, Austria and Ireland. The conference aims to provide expert insight into the current status of the LEADER approach at different levels with respect to the new financing period 2014-2020, and also information about important biodiversity topics of relevance to Local Action Groups and local development strategies. The organisers state that this will be an opportunity for an international exchange of ideas and experiences as well as for the promotion of best-practice examples from all over Europe. The aim of this conference is to encourage networking and the implementation of biodiversity-related LEADER projects.

Further information (in German) can be seen here and you can download this conference programme (in English) as a pdf:


Conference proceedings will be collated shortly after the meeting (we will post that link in due course).  We will be summarising the project activities and some of the activities on the Tweed, using the poster below.


Summary collated by Kate Foster with images courtesy of Working the Tweed artists, SBEC, Scottish Borders Council and David Kilpatrick.

Involvement in the conference has been made possible by support from Scottish Borders LEADER and Creative Scotland. So thank you to both organisations.


Working the Tweed is delivered by arts organisation Tabula Rasa in partnership with environmental organisations Tweed Forum and Southern Uplands Partnership. The project to date has directly engaged with 1,350 people.
The lead artists are exploring the contemporary river culture of the Tweed Catchment through human and other influences, bringing to the surface some of the less-known worlds, maps, voices and languages of the Tweed. The project creates awareness of the river ways and helps us re-imagine our relationship to the rivers, considering our environmental responsibility as one of the species inhabiting it.

The themes of the Tweed Catchment Management Plan – e.g. Habitats and Species, River Works and Tourism – provided foci for a series of Riverside Meetings and public events, concluding with Catchment Conversations. We held Knowing Your River events at agricultural shows, had a project exhibition, celebrated the tunes of the river through Tweed Sessions and listening projects, inspired reflections on the ecological indicator species via drawing and performance, and documented our partners’ work through interviews and sound mapping.

Social media and a website create a wider community for the project nationally and internationally. The project has been summarised as a DVD, with reflection about collaborative practice and how arts practitioners can contribute to shaping the future of the catchment. We are seeking to continue the work through individual creative projects and community involvement.

Riverside Meeting 6: Water Resources / Land Use

The theme for our sixth and final Riverside Meeting was Water Resources / Land Use. It took place at at Lees Fishing Shiel, Coldstream on January 21st 2014, and the speakers were Dr David Welsh (Historian); Derek Robeson (Senior Project Officer, Tweed Forum); Mary Morrison (Creative Leader, CABN).
The Lees Fishing Shiel provided welcome warmth and shelter, and our project tables were unfolded for books, papers and refreshments.  The view over the river towards England gave plenty to think about, from riparian boundaries to debatable territory. A goosander, a cormorant, and a flock of guinea fowl were feeding along the river, where a salmon leapt, with intermittent shots from a goose scarer. This final Riverside Meeting focussed on strategies currently being developed in the Scottish Borders for both land use and culture. The session as a whole provided a challenge to how artists can work with complex histories and geographies, and engage with uncertain futures.

Dr David Welsh opened with a review of how the Tweed has been represented historically. Accounts such as Herbert Maxwell’s ( The Story of the Tweed), or WS Crocket, (In Praise of the Tweed); in poetry, by Scott and Will Ogilvie, and in painting, eg by Scott, Kerr and the Glasgow Boys. But what of contemporary representations? These do include of course taxidermy, as illustrated by the walls of the bothy displaying a trophy. Teasingly, David suggested that the fishing pool map could benefit from artistic accuracy. It takes a specialist eye to know what needs to be corrected.

Dr David Welsh, Lees Fishing Shiel, photo Kate Foster

Dr David Welsh, Lees Fishing Shiel (photo Kate Foster)

The border between Scotland and England was often portrayed as being created as a result of wars between these two entities, but David pointed out that the current border had much earlier roots, largely having been established by the 12th century as a result of disputes between much earlier kingdoms and power blocks, including the monastic communities at Lindisfarne, the kingdom of Strathclyde and even Welsh kingdoms.  So, a bit like the landscape itself, the way history is presented is itself subject to cultural vagaries.

David posed a question: where are there contemporary artistic renderings of the border between Scotland and England?

His wealth of detailed local knowledge of river and field told of flux and flow, for example the field name of Dry Tweed (East, Mid and West) marks a changing river course, and helps explain anomalies, such  as why plots of land to the south of the river are Scottish. Possession of the river banks can be traced in records, and far from smoothing out anomalies, the border has the capacity to become more complex, and remain debatable. He pointed out how difficult it had been to resolve land ownership disputes, with England and Scotland having different legal systems.  Thus, if a case were to be heard in the Court of Session in Edinburgh the automatic presumption would be that, since the court there could only rule on matters pertaining to Scotland, that the ownership was Scottish, and if the case were to be heard in an English court the ownership would be presumed to be English. There was a great history of debatable lands.

Developing a Land Use Strategy is a daunting task, given the scale of the problems. Derek Robeson of Tweed Forum is Project leader, piloting this for the Scottish Government in partnership with Scottish Borders Council. Convincing people of the need to change habits of land management is the main tool, and Derek’s experience of working with farmers on integrated land management for over 20 years gives him great authority. A sustainable Land Use Strategy means dealing with wider issues (including climate change – more extreme weather events; food scarcity; biodiversity loss) within the very varied localities of the Scottish Borders. The Land Use Strategy is one of only two pilots in Scotland, and Scotland is almost unique in the world in developing a Land Use Strategy, with only two other countries in the world having done this. The strategy is largely map-based, and Derek presented a number of maps, such as maps of biodiversity hotspots and current farming use of the land.



Derek Robeson at Lees Fishing Shiel (photo by Kate Foster)

The strategy needs to be supported by those who manage large parcels of land, but Derek pointed out how everyone is implicated, as decisions made affect all in the area. Subsequent discussion included how the idea of ecosystem services underpins the process, which means that (for example) a deciduous woodland might become more ‘economic’ if the full value of its ecological contribution is recognised.

On our walk along the river bank, Derek encouraged the idea of 100 year planning (at least!) for woodland is to take shape, but the political reality is that 5 years is as far as policy can often manage. Field and river margins offer a study in how people shape land, and make choices for aesthetic as well as economic reasons that have wider impacts. Copses of trees were originally planted to provide fox coverts for hunting and as shelter belts, but now provide cover for pheasant shooting and,with the recent changes in the weather patterns in the Borders to much wetter winters, help prevent soil erosion – especially helpful on the steepest slopes which are more prone to soil erosion secondary to water run-off.

Working the Tweed Coldstream Lees 4 photos J Horne

Riverbank Walk at Lees Fishing Shiel (photo by Jules Horne)

Mary Morrison of CABN provided an overview and a commentary on the draft Cultural Strategy (link) for the Scottish Borders. This new venture should act as a basis for supporting the cultural sector development. Recognising that creativity is (and should be) unruly, what can be said about the strategy overall? Mary noted that it took place-making as a creative task, and also that there was mention of ecology and land use, though this had been developed in isolation from the land use strategy.

Working the Tweed Coldstream Lees 2 Photo J Horne

Mary Morrison talking at Lees Fishing Shiel (photo by Jules Horne)

Claire Pençak suggested discussion could tease at the idea of cultural landscape, and the idea of a land ethic (as articulated by Aldo Leopold – quote in box) ran through the points we covered.

James Wyness pointed out how the Borders region is not a homogeneous cultural entity, and how folk from the coast identified themselves with other coastal communities rather than with ‘the interior’.

James Wyness spoke about how not all art results in a material product, and how one strand of current arts practice looks at processes between people, so that an outcome might be a meeting or a performance.

Jules Horne reflected on the term ’Land Use’ and its implication of who Land is used by – People. Claire reflected on the possibility of mapping from other perspectives – Otter for example.

Maps as used by the Land Use Strategy attracted interest. Firstly the one about Place seemed to have a very restricted scope. It locates places visited, constructed as tourist sites, protected or designed. Not even wildlife reserves or walks (Abbeys Way for example) were represented. Secondly, Claire said she found them too static. However Derek assured her in combination they can show change.

Mike Scott commented that if one issue stood out to bring people together to consider land use, it would be flooding.

What follows are further points in the discussion Kate picked up on (comments welcome – this is not intended as a complete record).

Land Use and Land Reform are separate in ongoing political processes. But, we realised how large estates do play a large part in shaping land use and can take the long view, but breaking them up might not have positives in terms of sustainable land use, as forcing landowners to sell might result in land being  traded as an international commodity and managed by people with no interest in the life of people in the Borders. I learnt from this line of thinking, and also Derek’s description of the ‘taste’ of the Tweed being sugar, and slavery’s role in developing large country estates, whose design is an aesthetic standard to this day.

Aesthetics play a large part in shaping decisions about Land Use, but neither strategies articulate this very specifically (though Social is included in Land use). Derek’s comment that what looks good is often good is fascinating. How do we learn to see? to see differently than received ideas? What allows people to see process, to understand abstract shaping influences? How can this be reflected in art practice?

Anthropocentrism means, for example, that place can be constructed as entirely for humans, which closes down insight into people within environment, with tangled and complex interactions. Following on from this, what happens in the Borders should be placed within wider social and ecological contexts that take the debate beyond just the Borders region and narrowly human concerns. We need conceptual and poetic tools to allow us to engage with such complexity.

Perhaps artists in rural areas have a tacit knowledge about people within environment, and being assertive about the value of this knowledge is important. This is undermined If values of success are imported from conventional art world that bases it’s notions of worth on an urban sensibility. This leads on to thinking of the arts community in the Borders as having a distinctive competence that is different, but no less valuable, from those who work in a largely urban setting. An example would be the project of ‘Working the Tweed’ that allowed for  productive and sustained conversations between artists and a wide variety of land users.

Ecosystem services contains idea of exchange and value, and this could be a vein for artistic production.

Symbolic action, the notion of process and also exploration of sensory experience through moving, are expected outcomes for performance and dance, but not necessarily part of a visual artist repertoire. Working across art-forms in the project Working the Tweed has allowed public engagement to include visual props with performance, or listening in abstract to exist alongside detailed attention to words used. River culture should inhibit fixed viewpoints, but help make suggestions about aesthetic choices and possibilities of ecological action.

Indicator species

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.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

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.


Detail 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 a promise: Riverside Meeting at Paxton


field drawing © Kate Foster

We watched the nets being laid out across the tide, learning that some fish ‘cheat the net’.


field drawing © Kate Foster


What, I wonder is the N for, on the coble’s stern?


field drawing © Kate Foster

N … for Norham? The coble’s fishing port?We talk to a bailiff.

The possibility is raised that it is labelled N because the boat always swings North – just like a magnet.

We talk to the boat owner.

N, for Ned. No, NET.

That’s to say it’s registered to fish, in legal hours


photo © Kate Foster

Another boat arrives, I am excited: we will sail with the falling tide, on brine, to Berwick-upon-Tweed.


field drawing © Kate Foster

I can’t help noticing how big the sheep are, in England.


field drawing © Kate Foster

Sport not Profit, a notice on our vessel remarks. Swans, herons, cormorants. Our youngest crew member is disappointed that nothing pink is visible on the banks.


field drawing © Kate Foster


field drawing © Kate Foster

So many shiels that need saving! Ninety six altogether on the river we are told: some are just a pile of stones though.We also learn about the bridges: the by-pass bridge built in 1885. The concrete cast bridge from 1935. The railway bridge, the longest in its day in 1850 – opened by Queen Victoria. She thereafter closed the curtains in Newcastle as she travelled by (because refreshments at that station made her late for her Berwick bridge appointment).  And a much much older bridge, built by an early King, who was afraid that the tide and wind would prevent his return to London.

We ourselves land, in sunshine and calm seas.

listening upriver, downriver

Last Thursday’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.


field drawing © Kate Foster


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


photo © Kate Foster


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.


field drawing © Kate Foster


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.


field drawing © Kate Foster


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.


field drawing © Kate Foster


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


field drawing © Kate Foster


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


field drawing © Kate Foster


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

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

Scaling the Tweed: research drawing by Kate Foster

Upriver, 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.


drawing © Kate Foster

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.


drawing © Kate Foster

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


drawing © Kate Foster

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.


drawing © Kate Foster

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


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

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.


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

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.


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

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:


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

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


detail of research drawing © Kate Foster

Acknowledgements and thanks to Tweed Foundation. Any errors text and drawings are my responsibility. The research drawing can be seen in the Robson Gallery in Selkirk (see previous post) until mid May.