Claire Dean

Title: Journey Words of birds and humans
Project: Multisensory multispecies storytelling to engage disadvantaged groups in changing landscape

Materials and dimensions: Mixed media: paper, thread, wire, pigment and wax. Nine 15cm x15cm box frames (with string hanging). 1x basket holding paper straws, compasses (attached to the basket with string).

Inspiration: Journey Words was inspired by time spent working with children from Royal Cross Primary School at Martin Mere in Winter 2021. At Martin Mere, there are lots of signs and activities encouraging people to listen to the birds, but the children at Royal Cross are all deaf or hard of hearing, as am I. I’m intrigued by the myriad ways we can listen and pay attention when we can’t hear.

In fact, research shows that even a person who doesn’t have hearing loss can’t come close to hearing the intricacies of bird song. How much are we missing of what birds are saying and what would we tell them if we could?

At Martin Mere, the children and I explored ideas of home and migration. We took imaginative journeys along lakeside paths that took us across seas and over mountains. We navigated barriers and bogs. The children constructed homes for birds and insects with bundles of paper sticks, leaves, and feathers. At every step, we paid attention to the birds and insects we encountered and imagined the stories they might tell us. For us, throughout the workshops communication was a negotiation. I’m a late BSL learner who relies heavily on lipreading. The children’s BSL skills far surpassed mine. If I didn’t know the sign for something they showed me. If I knew a different sign, we compared signs, and if no one knew an appropriate sign for something we made one up together – so for flamingo we signed pink swan.

This tendency towards negotiation and the ease in agreeing shared signs made me wonder what it would be like if we could work with birds in a shared language that was accessible to both us and to them. To construct a language with structure and grammar is an enormous task way beyond the scope of this short project. Instead, I’ve assembled a fragment of a possible language, with words marked out by sticks. These words relate to the journeys birds must undertake and to the human-changed world they have to navigate. The words could be laid down and read not from left to right but using cardinal directions that relate to the journey being shared. Both birds and humans can manipulate sticks. Birds navigate without need for a compass, but humans may need to brush up on their directional awareness (or find a compass to use!). For example, a Swift’s Spring story would be placed from South to North as they travelled from Africa to roost in the eaves of Lancashire homes. A Whooper swan’s story in Autumn would be placed from North to South, as they travelled from Iceland to the shores of Martin Mere. The story of a single day might be placed from East to West and of a night from West to East.

Perhaps you could come up with some other words for this shared language in sticks. What stories would you want to tell the birds? What stories do you think they could be telling us?

Artist: Claire Dean, with huge thanks to the children and staff at Royal Cross Primary School, Preston, for their inspiring responses to our adventures at
Martin Mere. / @claireddean