The River Dart, which gives Dartmoor its name, begins with two primary tributaries up on the high moor: the East Dart, with its source at Cranmere Pool, and the West Dart, starting north of Rough Tor. They join at Dartmeet, then the river flows south past Buckfast Abbey, Dartington and Totnes, turning tidal as it runs to the sea through the estuary at Kingswear and Dartmouth.
The name of the river most likely derives from the old Celtic Devonian language, possibly meaning "river of oaks," "oak stream," or "the sacred place of oak" ... and indeed, stretches of the the Dart still twist through low hills of ancient oak woodland.
I love the Dart...as does Alice Oswald, a widely acclaimed poet (the first woman to serve as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in the position's 300 year history), and a family friend (her husband and mine run a theatre company together). Some years ago, when Alice was still living on Dartmoor, she walked the river from moorland to estuary to create a book-length poem titled Dart: a gorgeous evocation of the river's history, mythology, and shape-shifting presence in the life of the land.
At the start of the book Alice notes that the poem "is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I've been recording conversations with people who know the river. I've used these records as life-models from which to sketch a series of characters -- linking their voice into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margins where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river's mutterings."
The poem begins with the river's source at Cranmere Pool, seven miles from the nearest road:
And old man seeking and find a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders
and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?
Tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots
He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?
The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking ...
The walker replies:
An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out,
so now I've taken to the moors. I've done all the walks, the Two
Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart
this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart
I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red
where the peat passes are the the good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts.
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I
I don't know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military
track from Oakehampton and head down into Cranmere pool.
It's dawn, it a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear
plovers whistling, your feet sink right in, it's like walking on the
bottom of a lake.
What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and
down the countours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White
Horse Hill into a bowl of moor where echoes can't get out
and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal
of a river
From here the "muttering voices" include a fisherman, a forester, a water nymph, the King of the Oak Woods, a tin-extracter, a woolen mill worker, a swimmer, a boatbuilder and many others.
"I'm very interested in water," Alice says. "I'm interested in the way that it is a natural art form -- it actually pictures the world for you. You walk outside, and you are suddenly able to see a flat world reflected in the river. It's almost like nature's way of representing the world to you. But I think perhaps more than that, I'm an incredibly restless person, and I really admire the way water sheds itself all the time. I learn a lot from that. I aim to be as fluid as water if I can be. I don't like settling into one kind of character -- I like to shed myself as I go along."
Dart is a gorgeous book that seems to bubble out of the peat of Dartmoor itself. I urge you to seek it out.
About the imagery in this post:
The first picture above shows the tidal portion of the River Dart after it comes off the high moor, running through the south Devon countryside to the sea. (It's a Wikipedia/Creative Commons photograph.)
The other pictures, also of the tidal Dart, were taken by me a few years ago, during a solitary writing retreat at a waterside cabin loaned to me by good friends.
I lost my heart to the river during those long, quiet days, and the Dart has it still.
The passage quoted above is from Dart by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2002), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. All rights reserved by the author.