Explain Yourself


Explain Yourself

Conversations with a Place

Deborah Aguirre Jones

with residents of Severn Beach and surrounding villages


During summer 2017, people in Severn Beach and surrounding villages spoke

to this landscape about themselves and the human world. This is a book of

their words, sculptures, drawings and other actions which led to the creation

of three stone carvings.

You can find the sculptures in the park alongside Beach Road between Severn

Beach shops and allotments.

‘Explain Yourself’ was devised and carried out by artists Deborah Aguirre Jones

and Caroline Stealey in collaboration with residents, art groups, families and

individuals in the area. It was commissioned by A Forgotten Landscape, a

Heritage Lottery Funded landscape partnership scheme which ran from 2015

to 2018, with the aim of conserving and enhancing the natural and cultural

heritage of the Lower Severn Vale Levels.




How we explained…

… ourselves to the water in the estuary

To communicate with something so different to us, we started

with common ground. Reminding us that humans are 50–78%

water, Ann invited the group to make miniature figures in ice

and personalise each one before offering them to the estuary.

The frozen people containing stones, feathers, flowers, tea

leaves and bubbles melted together on the seaweed and mud.



… me to the water

Words full of energy and feeling, written in soluble ink, dispersed

as they were submerged. The poem drifted off the paper,

becoming water.


… dancing to the estuary

Why do we dance? Do dolphins dance?

Peter remembered the painting of a couple dancing on a beach,

with an accommodating butler and maid in attendance, which

we reconstructed.

Imagining the beach as a ballroom felt right; it is expansive

and joyous.


… our lives to the estuary

Caroline loves reinventing mapping to record the journeys of

our lives which are so often different to what we had planned.

We each drew a map which became a flag for the beach.

… compulsory purchase orders to the estuary

Manuella’s home village in Mexico once had a small river, but

a company bought rights to the water through a compulsory

purchase order and replaced the river with a tap supply. The

whole shape and lifestyle of the village was changed as they lost

their ability to grow vegetables easily, children could no longer

play and swim, the sound was gone and the landscape dry.


… despots to the Duke

Lucy decided she should explain Donald Trump’s hair to her

horse, Duke. She felt Duke probably knows quite a lot about hair,

but the president’s quiff is a special situation which really needs

to be understood. As horses are sensitive and responsive to their

riders’ moods, most of the explaining happened through silent



… movement to trees

Trees stay in one place, rooted to the ground. Emma’s life

involves a lot of travelling, slowly or at speed, between places

and across landscapes. She explained this feeling of freedom

and movement by riding her bike through one of the levels’

historic orchards while it was abundantly fruiting.


… allotments to the estuary

David asked us to explain his allotment to the estuary through

the medium of drawing. Our art group happily took this challenge

on, creating all sorts of plants, vegetables and gardens in the mud.


Explain Yourself

People talk to cats, I curse at the telly and ‘gee-up’ our little car on steep

hills. An artist I know natters quietly while she’s making and there was an

endless, formless song I’d sing to my toys in childhood. This is not to say

such things hear or understand us, only that we cannot help but voice our

interactions with the world around us.

Asked to create a sculpture for Severn Beach, I wanted it to be an artwork

about the connections individual people of that place have with the landscape

and wondered how it would be to play with this habit of talking to the world.

Would creatures, places or things be changed by a deliberate communication?

How might we be affected? And could this form the basis for a permanent

artwork for the village?

Over the course of a year meeting with groups, families and individuals from

Severn Beach and surrounding villages, I asked the question:

‘How would you explain yourself, or the human world, to this place?’

As it turned out, it was easier to ask the question in small chunks:

› What do you feel closest to, when you’re in this landscape? It could be

anything; a particular place, the light, a memory or feeling.

› Is there one tiny thing which gives a flavour of your life, perhaps because

it’s funny or important, or simply because you love it?

› How would you go about trying to communicate with this place?

During our get-togethers we talked about all of

this while walking through the landscape, playing

games and making art. Often we simply chatted

over tea and cake while I scribbled notes on

massive sheets of paper. The various groups enjoyed

spending time together, figuring out responses to

the question between themselves and experimenting

with ways of addressing the landscape.

In the summer months twenty different ‘actions’

were carried out, each explaining a part of

someone’s life, or the human world, to the


Memorably, the art group in Severn Beach spent a long time wondering how

they could explain the royal family. We talked about historical figures; what

must it be like to spend your whole life being obeyed and at the same time

how would it feel to have so few choices, day to day? There was discussion

about big castles, boned corsets, battles and heirs. Then someone told the

story of when the nearby second Severn bridge was formally opened by

Prince Charles and security was so high that frogmen were in the rhines*

looking out for snipers. Everyone chuckled. It was a snippet of local folklore

that made people smile. So, as an explanation of the royal family, we invited

Bristol scuba-diver Carmen Zahra to visit the village and be photographed

looking somewhat out of place.

* Rhines are drainage ditches

throughout the Lower Severn Vale

Levels, a distinctive feature of how

this land was reclaimed from the sea.

Based on these actions I produced a series of drawings with a view to

transforming three into stone carvings to be installed along Severn Beach.

In January 2018, the drawings were presented back to the community

through an online vote, school visits and a public event. People were then

able to vote for their favourite drawings and actions to be made permanent.

The final selection has resulted in sculptures being created which can now

be found along Severn Beach, each illustrating How we explained…

… the affect of music to the tides

You know that feeling, when you hear a really good piece of music?

… different travellers to the Estuary

Over the centuries so many people have passed through here on their

journeys as traders, migrants and holiday-makers.


… my mother to the birds

A memory of her mother who, while hanging washing on the line, would

stand on one leg and whistle to the birds.


The sculptures were carved out of Portland stone with the assistance of artist

Caroline Stealey, then installed on grassland between the village shops and

estuary walkway. At a procession with hundreds of people, fire sculptures,

flags and Bristol’s Ambling Band, local children unveiled each of the sculptures.

This book tells the story of all the actions that people generously imagined

and performed, resulting in a trio of sculptures I would never have thought of

on my own. Together, they are a testament to people’s creativity, willingness

to take part and distinctive connections to this place.

Deborah Aguirre Jones, Summer 2018



… myself to a Black Poplar

Myself = scale / life-span / time

By = hugging (contact / meditation)

What = a large tree, such as a Black Poplar (with something

larger than me / us with its own much slower bio-rhythm)


… feelings and emotions to the estuary

This group did a ritual and a dance, then wrote their feelings in

sand and enjoyed the calming effect of washing the words away

with water.

… Harry Potter to a tree

‘We read sections of Harry Potter to the tree. We told the tree

that books are made of paper. We assured the tree that when

a tree was cut down a new one was planted. The information

was passed from tree to tree as long as they were touching.’

… Hallowe’en to the night sky

‘Trick or treat?

Izzy wrote a rhyme, we acted out a dark story of Halloween.

Phoebe was a witch and killed Georgia, Erin and Emily the

children. It was creepy.’

… potatoes to our ancestors

‘Our ancestors never had the chance to taste or meet these

incredible things that are such a success of evolution.’

1st Olveston Guides




… creativity to the estuary

Melanie is a maker; she’s always learning new techniques and

getting to know how materials behave. Walking regularly along

and around Severn Beach, there are particular places she knows

and loves well. Bringing both these passions together, a series of

small ‘jumpers’ were made for the sea wall fence which show the

stones on the mud, the water and the sky.


Welcoming the Tide to Our Estuary

Which came first, the earth or the sky?

I think the sky, but, I don’t know why.

What brings the rain, that gives life to the earth?

It comes from the sky; ah! … perhaps that’s why!?

Was it just rain, that filled up the seas

Creating our channels, and rivers and streams?

But which came first, the seas or earth?

I think the earth … for what that’s worth!

We’ve forgo tten the moon, which we need for the tides

The twice daily surge that controls working lives.

Where does that fit in this list, if you please?

Sky, earth, seas, moon or sky, earth, moon seas?

… the affect of music to the tides

You know that feeling, when you hear a really good piece of

music? It makes Miriam smile a warm smile of friendship.

Her poem is an imagined conversation which puzzles over

unanswerable questions and, in the end, simply feels happily


I don’t think it matters as long as it’s there

This tide is our lifeline which makes us aware that

This estuary lives by its tides, with its bores,

So thank you and welcome, once more to these shores.

Miriam Barnes


… different travellers to the estuary

Severn Beach is a place of journeys; crossings, arrivals and

departures. Over the centuries, so many people have passed

through here on their varied journeys; traders, migrants and

holiday-makers. Peter imagined three figures from across time

alongside each other, each with distinctive luggage holding

their identities, their stories.


… a family ritual to the village

Families often have their own rituals which accumulate shared

memories. Birthdays in Sally’s family are always celebrated with

a full-on party tea. The table is decorated with balloons, cake,

hats, candles, glitter, party poppers and an abundance of food.

It’s what they always have done, and always will.


… the royal family to the estuary

What is royalty? What must it be like to spend your whole life

being obeyed and at the same time how would it feel to have

so few choices, day to day?

Part of Severn Beach’s folkloric history is that, when Prince

Charles came to formally open the second bridge, security

was so high that there were frogmen in the rhines. This story

is remembered with a smile.


… my mother to the birds

A memory of her mother Concita who, while hanging washing

on the line, would stand on one leg and whistle to the birds.

It may be that she stood on one leg simply to rest her other leg,

she was such a busy woman.


Becoming stone

When I was about ten, the elm trees began to die. Warwickshire is undramatic

country, once known for its lovely Dutch elms. Within a few years, they had

all been felled. Half a century later I still see their ghosts when I find myself in

the landscape of my childhood. By that crossroads, at the cattle grid, behind

the farm: their rangy, open silhouettes stand in my mind’s eye. Those born

after 1970, those who have moved to this small village later in life, see nothing

amiss. For me, the land will always carry the scars of its lost beauty.

That’s the essence of landscape. It’s a human creation, meaning made

from feeling, knowledge and memory. Land is a scientific concept. A great

aunt spent 20 years mapping the geology of her Northamptonshire home,

producing a scholarly treatise that, apart from its colourful soil maps, was

incomprehensible to me. Land changes slowly and in understandable ways.

We know how ancient forests become coal, or animal bones limestone.

Knowing such things, we use or exploit land, applying our science to extract

value from its soil and rocks.

But landscape is not so easily capitalised. Landscape is a story, a telling of

what we see—or once saw—and what it means to us. Where land is fixed and

knowable, tradable even, landscape is fluid. We each have our own point of

view, our private maps of the places we live. This is where we used to play

hide and seek. That’s the tree my brother fell from. The woman who lives

there never speaks to anyone.

The archaeologist, Matthew Johnson, writes that

‘the governing metaphor for this movement from the observation of the

landscape to the printed page is one of reading. The Ordnance Survey

map is a document in a foreign language, which at least in the early stages

of his life Hoskins did not feel he knew how to translate; the landscape

needs to be “read” or decoded.’ 1


But before landscape can be read, it must be written. And it is written by

people, not nature. It is people who named this river ‘Severn’ and who

launched a flotilla of myths about its character and history to drift out to

sea. It is people who marked its surface with paths and bridges, shelters,

tombs and temples, boundaries, hedges, halls and homes. The reason for the

track or landing place may have gone; even the memory of those who made

them may be lost. But their inscription on the land remains. It is the stuff

of human life and feeds new imaginations. Every child who walks that way

is writing into her own memory. Her feet retrace those of unknown others,

simultaneously writing on the land and her self.

The sculptures being installed at Severn Beach are the result of a similar

process of dialogue between the people who lived here before and those

who do today. All have marked the land in using it, and their marks invest

it with meaning. The meanings get lost in translation, from one person to

another, from one era to the next, but it is not their personal specificity that

matters. It is the place that endures. For millennia, people have found this

place important. Their reasons for doing so decay and are forgotten but

they accumulate and are transformed into coal and limestone, the geological

essence of place: land.

In the sculptures, memories and ideas have become stone, which has always

been humanity’s way of saying this is the most important thing. Stone is

permanence, in human if not in geological terms, so we carve our feelings

into eternity. Music, that intangible emotion inspired by sound, gets a stone

marker. So does the journey, the space between leaving and arriving when we

are carried across the land on hopes or fears. And the memory of a mother,

the universal human relationship, paused to recognise the natural world of

which she is a part.

Those stone sculptures have come from conversations between people

who live near the Severn or who like to come here. They mark a huge

range of ideas, memories and dreams – far more than could ever have

been transformed into objects. But that was never the point. The shared

moments, creative discoveries and improvised rituals that happened during

the exploration process remain in the memories of those who took part.

Like my elms, they stay in the mind’s eye, naturally recalled when people

walk that way, or stand again beside the tree they once embraced.

And the sculptures themselves will float away, unmoored from their original

intentions as those meanings are adapted, remade and overlain with new ones

created by new generations that each passing year will bring this way. Stones

in the land, they will become part of the landscape, marks on a new map that

is over-written each day by each person, inscribed with incalculable human

connections but always affirming that this place and its people matter.

1. Johnson, M., 2007, Ideas of Landscape, Oxford, p. 44

François Matarasso, 2019


The Sky Looks On

The waves are pounding the shore,

As the sky looks on.

They grab greedily at the cliffs,

Still the sky looks on.

Pulling, grasping, yet eroding,

And the sky looked on.

… human negligence to the natural world

A stormy sky takes no notice of the wild, eroding sea. Just like

us, living with indifference while our greedy and destructive

behaviours destroy the natural world. We read Anne’s poem

to the Estuary.

Spume surging up in anger

As the sky looks on.

Move out of the way I need your space,

Still the sky looked on.

The tide recedes, murmuring

‘I’ll be back for more’

Still yet the sky looks on.

Come sun or wind or rain,

The sky just looks on.

Anne Harrison 40



So we’re standing here on this wide edge, a rim between two countries; on

the verge of moving land at the mouth of all these rivers where boats have

come and gone, come and gone (and sunk), come and gone again. This is a

good place to recall histories.

And where does the Dunlin’s estuary meet ours? If we play in the mud, can

we see the lugworms’ point of view? Littleton’s whale mis-swam but the birds

and elvers know their ways. There’s such riches. If we playfully, imaginatively,

gently inhabit the estuary alongside such wonderful beasts, can we recollect

cohabitation and tend it well?

Mud between our toes, briny wind and light that’s doubled by the wetness.

Being here in a place of saltmarsh, turbines and seagrass; half-seen, visible

and forgotten, distance is opened up by passing bird call. Here’s a stretch

of land where we can be ourselves, come into our senses.


With thanks to

Photo credits

1st Olveston Guides

Avonmouth Community Centre Art Group

Miriam Barnes

David and Margaret Bull

Lucy Bywater

Gill Cox

Emma Cross

Eleanor Davis

Meredith Freeman

Jennifer Gathercole

Anne Harrison

Manuella King

Sally Kitching

Melanie Knight

Latham-Roberts fami ly

Jo-Anne McAllister

Ann Newman

Pilning & Severn Beach Parish Council

Pruett family

Roving Art Group

St Helen’s Church Art Group, Alveston

Nigel Talbot

Peter Tyzack

Vick and Becky

Barry Watson

Carmen Zahra

Special thanks to Caroline Stealey

Designed by City Edition Studio

Cover: photojB

p.23: photojB

p.2–3: photojB

p.25: photojB

p.4: Stephen Judd

p.26–27: Eleanor Davis

p.7: James Flynn ©

p.28–29: Emma Pritchard

p.8–11: Alamy Stock Photo

p.30–31: Deborah Aguirre Jones

p.13: James Flynn ©

p.32–33: Eleanor Davis

p.14–15: Michal Iwanowski

p.34: Michal Iwanowski

p.16: Eleanor Davis

p.35: Eleanor Davis

p.17: Michal Iwanowski

p.36: Jennifer Gathercole

p.18: Eleanor Davis

p.39: James Flynn ©

p.19: Jennifer Gathercole

p.40–41: Jennifer Gathercole

p.20: Jp.Event Photography

p.42: Michal Iwanowski

p.21: Deborah Aguirre Jones p.45–47: photojB

p.22: Eleanor Davis

p.48: James Flynn ©

Matarasso, F., 2019, ‘Becoming Stone’; this text, written for

Deborah Aguirre Jones, is licensed under Creative Commons

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.

You are free to copy, distribute, or display the digital version on

condition that: you attribute the work to the author; the work is

not used for commercial purposes; you do not alter, transform,

or add to it; and that you impose no legal or technological

restrictions that limit these terms http://parliamentfdreams.com

Estuary text written by Deborah Aguirre Jones, Spring 2015.

© A Forgotten Landscape / Deborah Jones 2019



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