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August 2021

To the River

Cuckmere Haven by Eric Ravilious

Chalk Paths by by Eric Ravilious

Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:

In To the River, Olivia Laing walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea, mediating on its flora, fauna, mythology, history and literary associations along the way. Chief among the latter is Virginia Woolf, who lived near the river, walked by the river, wrote about the river, and died in the river. Laing's text meanders like the Ouse itself, but keeps bending back to Woolf and her work, and while every part of the book is engrossing her writing on Woolf is particularly captivating and insightful. (There is also very good chapter on Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows...but I digress.)

In the book's introductory chapter Laing notes:

"That spring I was reading Woolf obsessively, for she shared my preoccupation with water and its metaphors.Virginia Woolf has gained a reputation as a doleful writer, a bloodless neurasthenic, or again as a spiteful, rarefied creature, the doyenne of airless Bloomsbury chat. I suspect the people who hold this view of not having read her diaries, for they are filled with humour and an infectious love for the natural world.

"Virginia first came to the Ouse in 1912, renting a house set high above the marshes. She spent the first night of her marriage to Leonard Woolf there and later stayed at the house to recover from her third in a succession of serious breakdowns. In 1919, sane again, she switched to the other side of the river, buying a cold bluish cottage beneath Rodmell's church tower. It was very primitive when they first arrived, with no hot water and a dank earth closet furnished with a cane chair above a bucket. But Leonard and Virginia both loved Monks House, and its peace and isolation proved conducive to work. Much of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts was written there, along with hundreds of reviews, short stories and essays.

Shepher's Cottage Firle by Eric Ravilious

"She was acutely sensitive to landscape, and her impressions of this chalky, watery valley pervade her work. Her solitary, often daily, excursions seemed to have formed an essential part of the writing process. During the Asham breakdown, when she was banned from the over-stimulations of either walking or writing, she confided longingly to her diary:

"'What I wouldn't give to be coming through Firle woods, the brain laid up in sweet lavendar, so sane & cool, & ripe for the morrow's task. How I should notice everything, the phrase for it coming the moment after & fitting like a glove; & then on the dusty road, as I ground my pedals, so my story would begin telling itself; & then the sun would be done, & home, & some bout of poetry after dinner, half read, half lived, as if the flesh were dissolved & through it the flowers burst red & white.'

" 'As if the flesh where dissolved' is a characteristic phrase. Woolf's metaphors for the process of writing, for entering the dream world in which she thrived, are fluid: she writes of plunging, flooding, going under, being submerged. This desire to enter the depths is what drew me to her, for though she eventually foundered, for a time it seemed she possessed, like some freedivers, a gift for descending beneath the surface of the world."

Windmill by by Eric Ravilious

Laing begins her long walk at the source of the Ouse, near the village of Slaugham. 

"I'd looked at this square of the High Weald on maps for months, tracing the blue lines as they tangled through the hedges, plaiting eastward into a wavering stream. I thought I knew exactly where the water started, but I had not bargained for the summer's swift uprush of growth. At the edge of the field there was a hawthorn hedge and beside it, where I thought the stream would be, was a waist-high wall of nettles and hemlock water dropwort, its poisonous white umbels tilted to the sky. It was impossible to tell whether the water was flowing or whether the ditch was dry, its moisture sucked into the drunken green. I hovered for a minute, havering. It was a Sunday, hardly a car passing. Unless they were watching with binoculars from East End Farm there was no one to see me slip illegally across the field to where the river was marked to start. To hell with it, I thought, and ducked the fence.

Wilmington Giant by Eric Ravilious

"The choked ditch led to a copse of hazel and stunted oak. Here the trees had shaded out the nettles and the stream could be seen, a brown whisper, hoof-stippled, that petered out at the wood's far edge. There was no spring. The water didn't bubble from the ground, rust-tinted, as I have seen it do at Balcombe, ten miles east of here. The source sounded a grand name for this clammy runnel, carrying the runoff from the last field before the catchment shifted toward the Adur. It was nothing more than the furthest tributary from the river's end, its longest arm, a half-arbitrary way of mapping what is a constant movement of water through air and earth and sea.

"It's not always possible to plot where something starts. If I went down on my knees amid the fallen leaves, I would not find the exact spot where the Ouse began, where a trickle of rain gathered sufficient momentum to make it to the coast. This muddy, muddled birth seemed pleasingly appropriate considering the origins of the river's name. There are many Ouses in England, and consequently much debate about the word. The source is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but I favoured the argument, this being a region of Anglo-Saxon settlement, that it was drawn from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze, meaning soft mud or slime; earth so wet as to flow gently. Listen: oooze. It trickles along almost silently, sucking at your shoes. An ooze is a marsh or swampy ground, and to ooze is to dribble or slither. I liked the slippery way it caught at both earth's facility for holding water and water's knack for working through soil: a flexive, doubling word. You could hear the river in it, ooozing up through the Weald and snaking its way down valleys to where it once formed a lethal marsh."

Floods at Lewes by Eric Ravilious

As Laing follows the thickening stream, then the river proper, from the High Weald to the Low, through the South Downs to the coast at Newhaven, she reflects on the land's long history, on writers from Shakespeare to Iris Murdoch, and on the crisis in her own life that propelled her onto her journey. She weaves many stories together, but it is Woolf's, most of all, that pulls her on. 

It pulled me on too. I loved To the River, and didn't want it to end.

Lighthouse at Beachy Head by Eric Ravilious

The art today is by the great English painter, designer, illustrator, and wood-engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). He grew up in Sussex, and is now best known for his luminous paintings of the South Downs, but he also found inspiration in urban London, rural Essex, and other corners of England, Wales, and Scotland. Ravilious studied at the Eastbourne School of Art and the Royal Collage of Art, and went on to teach at both of these schools. He married fellow-artist Tirzah Garwood, and the couple raised three children (one of whom was the Devon-based photographer James Ravilious).

Ravilious served as an official War Artist during World War II, chronicling the war at home and abroad. He died while doing this work on an RAF mission in Iceland. His body was never recovered. 

Please visit the Eric Ravilious site to learn more about the artist, and to see more of his work.

Westbury Horse by Eric Ravilious

To the River


Drifting away in the current

From Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham

I've been called away from the studio this morning, so I'm afraid there will be no post today. I'll be back tomorrow, bright and early, with more stories and books around the theme of water.  

"Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does."

- Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad)

The art above is by Arthur Rackham, from his classic illustrations for J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.


The Secret Knowledge of Water

Hoodoo Gap, Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Last week's posts, from Tuesday onward, were all connected to the theme of water in one way or another: Mr. Punch by the seaside; a riverside walk with Ursula Le Guin; the folklore of wells and springs; and the lush green riverbank of Wind in the Willows. We started this week with water music, and I'd like to carry on by recommending some favourite books containing water in its various forms -- beginning with one from the deserts of the American south-west, where water is scarce, precious, and sacred.

The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Child was one of handful of books that sat permanently on my desk when I lived in Arizona: books that served as talismans of all that I loved best about life in the Sonoran desert, and that I would carry with me when I crossed the sea to the wet, green hills of Dartmoor. Child's book begins in the vast wilderness of the Cabeza Prieta on the Arizona-Mexico border -- a place I also had the great good fortune to spend time in over the years -- and then moves through a wide variety of desert terrains in northern and southern Arizona, Mexico, and Utah. What I love about the book is not only the author's deep knowledge of and passion for the land, but the way he writes about it in prose that is as poetic as it is instructive. For example, Childs begins his text with this arresting passage:

Shiprock at Sunset,  Navajo Reservation by Stu Jenks"My mother was born beside a spring in the high desert, just north of where West Texas and Mexico meet along the River Grande. Born three months premature, she was kept alive in an incubator heated with household lightbulbs. And eyedropper was used for feeding. The water from the spring bathed her and filled her body, tightening each of her cells. It filled the hollow of her bones. Years later, as the water passed from mother to child like fine hair or blue eyes, I grew up thinking that water and the desert were the same.

"Beyond the spring grew piñon and juniper trees, their wood grossly twisted from years of drought, while here, where my mother was born, cress and moss grew from the spring. A weeping willow, imported from an unfamiliar place, dusted the surface with seeds. I traveled there once, walking up and pushing away the downy willow seeds with the edge of my hand. I dipped two film canisters below the surface. I capped these, and walked back to my truck, and drove away before a stranger could appear from a nearby house to run me off the property.

"I figured the water might come in handy someday. If my mother ever grew ill and her death were near, I would bring this water to her. The spring had kept many people alive before her. It was an essential stopover for Spanish explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries and for whomever traveled the desert for the previous millennia. I would slip its water between her lips, tilting her head up with my palms. Her body might recognize it, the way salmon make sudden turns to follow obscure creeks, the way dragonflies work back to the one water hole held between desert mesas.

"An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember three things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of cliffs and boulders. The second is tadpoles worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything."

Seven Saguaros, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Hoop Dancing With Ghosts, Coalmine Canyon, Navajo:Hopi Joint Use Area, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Later in the book, Childs describes the miracle of water in a dry terrain like this:

"Parched land wrinkles to the horizon and in one place, a rock outcrop, a seep emits a drop every minute, a light tap on the rocks below. The drop is sacred. Doled in such apothecary increments, this scarce water is almost deafening, surrounded by total silence, by hot sand fine as confectioners' sugar. It is a single word, a mantra.

"In places it gathers speed, finding pathways, turning from seeps to springs to streams to rivers. To be near such moving water in the desert is like being a vacant concert hall with a solo cellist, like standing on tundra with a grizzly bear. You must listen. You must make eye contact. The water cannot be resisted. Drops become elaborate cadence. The flow becomes song. It burbles from the ground, tumbling down hallways of isolated canyons. Life bends into preposterous shapes to fit inside, plying the narrow thread between drought and flood. Orders are given: you must live a certain way, and do it swiftly, elegantly, because this is a desert, this water is only here, and then a hundred miles of nothing.

Molino Falls, Arizona by Stu Jenks"In the Kama Sutra, erotic sounds are said to come in seven categories: the Himkāra, a light, nasal sound; the Stanita, described as a "roll of thunder"; the hissing Kūjita; the weeping Rudita; the Sūtkrita, which is a gentle sigh; the painful cry of Dutkrita; and finally the Phutkrita, a violent burst of breath. I have heard all of these in water, and then a hundred others, none of which have been offered titles besides plunk, plash, swish, or splash. I have heard the Phutkrita in the snapping of a tree limb during the sudden upwelling of a flood, and the Sūtkrita sigh as that same water slowly spun itself into a downstream eddy. Horse trainers have so many names for horse breeds and colors, and Arctic dwellers have entire dialects for the nature of snow, yet few names have been given specifically to the sound of water. It may be that water is too commonplace. Since it must pass your lips every day, and you wash your hands with it as a habit, it might seem too pedestrian for study. If this is true, if water is so prosaic, come to the desert and listen to moving water. I have been held for days in a single place not because I needed the water, but because I had to listen."

This is a writer after my own heart. I, too, have sat beside water in the desert, unable to tear myself away. Needing to listen. To hear its stories. Like my life depended on it. 

Navajo Horseman by Stu Jenks

The art today is by my friend Stu Jenks, a Virginia-born photographer who has spent many years in southern Arizona. We've known each other for a long time now, ever since we had neighbouring studio spaces in the old Toole Shed art building in downtown Tucson; and to my mind, there's no one who captures the elusive magic of the desert better.

To learn more about his work, please visit Stu's Fezziwig Press and blog Fezziwig Press.  You'll also find it here in previous posts, including The Borders of Language and Days of the Dead.

Catalina State Park, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Words: The passages above are from The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs (Little, Brown & Co, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The photographs above are by Stu Jenks; all rights reserved by the artist. Titles can be found in the picture caption. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Down to the water

Down by the river, down by the shore....

Above: "Rivermouth" by Rising Appalachia (sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith), who draw inspiration from the folk, bluegrass, and blues of their native Georgia and New Orleans. "We've been working with Mississippi River, Gulf, and Klamath water protectors for years," they say, "and have branched out to form alliance with Waterkeepers around the world working towards preserving drinkable, fishable, swimmable water everywhere. We hope this song and this collaboration with WaterKeeper Alliance will strengthen awareness of water protection efforts worldwide and encourage us all to speak for the wild inside and out."

Below: "The Mississippi Woman" by Maz O'Conner, a singer/songwriter with Irish roots who grew up in the wilds of the English Lake District. The song, a waterside creation story, appeared on O'Conner's early album This Willowed Light (2014).

Above: "Riverside" by Agnes Obel, a Danish singer/songwriter based in Berlin. It appeared on her first album, Philharmonics (2010).

Below: "Swimming the Longest River" by singer/songwriter Olivia Chaney, who was born in Italy and grew up in Oxfordshire. The song appeared on her EP of the same name (2015). Her most recent solo album is Shelter (2018), and it's a beauty.

Above: "Blackwaterside," a traditional song with complicated roots, containing elements from Irish traveller songs, the English ballad "The False Young Man," and 19th century broadside ballads, popularised in the 20th century folk revival by Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs. It's sung here by Irish musician Cara Dillon, who has loved the song since she was young.

Below: "Clyde Water" (Child Ballad #216) performed by American singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell. This dark ballad originated in Scotland -- but it is part of the American folk tradition too, having been carried across the Atlantic by Scottish immigrants. The song appeared on Mitchell's fine album Child Ballads (2013), created with Jefferson Hammer. This performance was filmed for the Live From Here program in 2016.

Abobe: "Blue Heron" by American singer/songwriter and bluegrass musician Sarah Jarosz, performed on the Live from Here program in 2017. The song appeares on her new album The Blue Heron Suite (2021).

Below, to end with: "Rivers Run," an old favourite by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, filmed in an improptu backstage performance with Steven Powart and Inge Thomson. The song appeared on her album This Earthly Spell (2008).

My Soul is an Enchanted Boat by Walter Crane

Painting above: "My Soul is an Enchanted Boat" by Walter Crane (1845-1915).


Alberto Manguel on The Wind in the Willows

River 1

From "Return to Arcadia" by Alberto Manguel:

Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore"Several times, during a long life of reading, I’ve been tempted to write an autobiography based solely on the books that have counted for me. Someone once told me that it was customary for a Spanish nobleman to have his coat of arms engraved on his bedhead so that visitors might know who it was who lay in a sleep that might always be his last. Why then not be identified by my bedside favourites, which define and represent me better than any symbolic shield? If I ever indulged in such a vainglorious undertaking, a chapter, an early chapter, would be given over to The Wind in the Willows. I can’t remember when I first read The Wind in the Willows, since it is one of those books that seem to have been with me always, but it must have been very early on, when my room was in a cool, dark basement and the garden I played in boasted four tall palm trees and an old tortoise as their tutelary spirit. The geography of our books blends with the geography of our lives, and so, from the very beginning, Mole’s meadows and Rat’s river bank and Badger’s woods seeped into my private landscapes, imbuing the cities I lived in and the places I visited with the same feelings of delight and comfort and adventure that sprang from those much-turned pages. In this sense, the books we love become our cartography.

Mole by Ernest Shepard"In 1888, John Ruskin gave a name to the casual conjunction between physical nature and strong human emotions. ‘All violent feelings’, he wrote, ‘produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the “Pathetic Fallacy”.’ Kenneth Grahame magnificently ignored the warning. The landscape of Cookham Dene on the Thames (where he lived and which he translated into the world of Mole and Rat, Badger and Toad) is, emotionally, the source and not the result of a view of the world that cannot be distinguished from the world itself. There may have been a time when the bucolic English landscape lay ignored and untouched by words, but since the earliest English poets the reality of it lies to a far greater extent in the ways in which it has been described than in its mere material existence. No reader of The Wind in the Willows can ever see Cookham Dene for the first time. After the last page, we are all old inhabitants for whom every nook and cranny is as familiar as the stains and cracks on our bedroom ceiling. There is nothing false in these impressions.

River 2

Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

River 3

"...The Wind in the Willows begins with a departure, and with a search and a discovery, but it soon achieves an overwhelming sense of peace and happy satisfaction, of untroubled familiarity. We are at home in Grahame’s book. But Grahame’s universe is not one of retirement or seclusion, of withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, it is one of time and space shared, of mirrored experience.

Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore"From the very first pages, the reader discovers that The Wind in the Willows is a book about friendship, one of those English friendships that Borges once described by saying that they ‘begin by precluding confidences and end by forgoing dialogue’. The theme of friendship runs through all our literatures. Like Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Rat and Mole reflect for each other discovered identities and contrasting views of the world. Each one asserts for the other the better, livelier part of his character; each encourages the other to be his finer, brighter self. Mole may be lost without Rat’s guidance but, without Mole’s adventurous spirit, Rat would remain withdrawn and far too removed from the world. Together they build Arcadia out of their common surroundings; pace Ruskin, their friendship defines the place that has defined them. 

River 4

Riverbank Picnic by Arthur Rackham

If The Wind in the Willows was a sounding-board for the places I lived in, it became, during my adolescence, also one for my relationships, and I remember wanting to live in a world with absolute friends like Rat and Mole. Not all friendships, I discovered, are of the same kind. While Rat and Mole’s bonds are unimpeachably solid, their relationship equally balanced and unquestioned (and I was fortunate enough to have a couple of friendships of that particular kind), their relationship with Badger is more formal, more distanced – since we are in England, land of castes and classes, and Badger holds a social position that requires a respectful deference from others. (Of the Badger sort, too, I found friends whom I loved dearly but with whom I always had to tread carefully, not wanting to be considered overbearing or unworthy.)

River 5

River 6

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Chris Dunn"With Toad, the relationship is more troubling. Rat and Mole love Toad and care for him, and assist him almost beyond the obligations of affection, in spite of the justified exasperation he provokes in them. He, on the other hand, is far less generous and obliging, calling on them only when in need or merely to show off. (Friends like Toad I also had, and these were the most difficult to please, the hardest to keep on loving, the ones that, over and over again, made me want to break up the relationship; but then they’d ask for help once more and once more I’d forgive them.)

"Toad is the reckless adventurer, the loner, the eternal adolescent. Mole and Rat begin the book in an adolescent spirit but grow in wisdom as they grow in experience; for Toad every outing is a never-ending return to the same whimsical deeds and the same irresponsible exploits. If we, the readers, love Toad (though I don’t) we love him as spectators; we love his clownish performance on a stage of his own devising and follow his misadventures as we follow those of a charming rogue.

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Chris Dunn

"But Mole and Rat, and even Badger, we love as our fellow creatures, equal to us in joy and in suffering. Badger is everyone’s older brother; Rat and Mole, the friends who walk together and mature together in their friendship. They are our contemporaries, reborn with every new generation. We feel for their misfortunes and rejoice in their triumphs as we feel and rejoice for our nearest and dearest. During my late childhood and adolescence, their companionship was for me the model relationship, and I longed to share their déjeuners sur l’herbe, and to be part of their easy complicité as other readers long for the love of Mathilde or the adventurous travels of Sinbad.

River 7

River 8

"The Wind in the Willows cannot be classed as a work of pure fantasy. Grahame succeeds in making his creatures utterly believable to us. The menageries of Aesop or La Fontaine, Günter Grass or Colette, Orwell or Kipling, have at least one paw in a symbolic (or worse, allegorical) world; Grahame’s beasts are of flesh, fur and blood, and their human qualities mysteriously do not diminish, but enhance, their animal natures. As I’ve already said, with every rereading The Wind in the Willows lends texture and meaning to my experience of life; with each familiar unfolding of its story, I experience a new happiness. This is because The Wind in the Willows is a magical book. Something in its pages re-enchants the world, makes it once again wonderfully mysterious."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

River 9

River 10

Words: The passage quoted above is from "Return to Arcadia" by Alberto Manguel, published in Slightly Foxed (Issue 34, Summer 2012), a quarterly journal I love and highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (July/August 2009). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The art above (from top to bottom) is "Ratty and Mole" by Inga Moore, "Mole" by Ernest Shepard, "Ratty and Mole on the River" and "The Picnic Basket" by Inga Moore, "The Riverside Picnic" by Arthur Rackham, "Toad and Mole" by Chris Dunn, "Mole's House" and "Lounging About" by Chris Dunn, and "The Riverbank" by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the artists. The photograph are of the River Teign where it runs through Chagford on its way from Dartmoor to the sea.