The voices of the River Dart

The River Dart running to the sea

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.

Dawn from window

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:

Dart by Alice OswaldWho's this moving alive over the moor?

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

listen
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal
of a river

The little cabin on the River Dart

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.

Writing on the river

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. 

Water, light, and solitude

I lost my heart to the river during those long, quiet days, and the Dart has it still.

My river home

Misty morning

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.


The urban wild

Nocturne in Silver and Blue by James McNeill Whistler

After Long Covid, veterinary and family-life interruptions, I'd like to return to my series of posts recommending favourite books on the subject of water. We've had a similar series on sea and coastal tales a while back, so this time the focus is on rivers and other inland waters.

All of the texts discussed so far have been set, largely, in the countryside or the desert wilderness, so today let's look at two interesting books dedicated to urban waterways: Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, set on the banks of the River Thames as it passes through London, and Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, set among the canals of Birmingham.

Hidden Nature and Mudlarking

A mudlark, the Cambridge Dictionary explains, is "someone who searches the mud near rivers trying to find valuable or interesting objects." Although we tend to think of mudlarks as figures out of the 18th and 19th centuries, there are still dedicated mudlarks today, and Lara Maiklem is one of them: irresistibly drawn to the tidal portion of the Thames, scouring the mud to find treasures, curiosities, and cast-offs full of stories about the past. Maiklem explains her unusual vocation like this:

Nocturne in Blue and Gold by James McNeill Whistler"It amazes me how many people don't realise the river in central London is tidal. I  hear them comment on it as they pause at the river wall above me while I am mudlarking below. Even friends who have lived in the city for years are oblivious to the high and low tides that chase each other around the clock, inching forward every twenty-four hours, one tide gradually creeping through the day while the other takes the night shift. They have no idea that the height between low and high water at London Bridge varies from fifteen to twenty-two feet or that it takes six hours to come upriver and six and a half for it to flow back out to sea.

"I am obsessed with the incessant rise and fall of the water. For years my spare time has been controlled by the river's ebb and flow, and the consequent covering and uncovering of the foreshore. I know where the river allows me access early and where I can stay for the longest time before I am gently, but firmly, shooed away. I have learned to read the water and catch it as it turns, to recognise the almost imperceptible moment when it stops flowing seawards and currents churn together briefly as the balance tips and the river is once more pulled inland, the anticipation of the receding water replaced by a sense of loss, like saying goodbye to an old friend after a long-awaited visit.

Drawing of the old Battersea Bridge by James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Brown and Silver (Old Battersea Bridge) by James McNeill Whistler

"Tide tables commit the river's movements to paper, predict its future and record its past. I use these complex lines of numbers, dates, times and water heights to fill my diary, temptations to weave my life around, but it is the river that decides when I can search it, and tides have no respect for sleep or commitments. I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it's flowed out. I've kept people waiting, bringing in a trail of mud and apologies in my wake; missed the start of many films and even left some early to catch the last few inches of foreshore. I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river. It comes knocking on all hours and I obey, forcing myself out of a warm bed, pulling on layers of clothes and padding quietly down the stairs, trying not to wake the sleeping house....

"It is the tides that make mudlarking in London so unique. For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force. If the Seine in Paris were tidal it would no doubt provide a similar bounty and satisfy an army of Parisian mudlarks; when the non-tidal Amstel River in Amsterdam was recently drained to make way for a new train line, archaeologists recorded almost 700,000 objects, of just the kind we find in the Thames: buttons that burst off waistcoats long ago, rings that slipped from fingers, buckles that are all that's left of a shoe -- the personal possessions of ordinary people, each small piece a key to another world and a direct link to long-forgotten lives. As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tells the greatest stories."

Wapping by James McNeill Whistler

Mudlarking is an unusual and thoroughly engaging book, full of the history of the city, of the river, and of the quirky society of mudlarks drawn to the banks of the Thames, past and present. Maiklem is a wonderful raconteur, and a knowledgeable one. If the subject intrigues you, check out her London Mudlark Facebook page for pictures of her adventures and finds, like the one below:

Mudlarking finds. Photograph by Lara Maiklem.

Black Lion's Wharf by James McNeill Whistler

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler is memoir woven through with nature writing (or perhaps it's the other way around), centred on the old canal system of Birmingham in the English West Midlands. It's the story of the unravelling of a heterosexual marriage, of slowly and cautiously coming out as gay, and of the challenge of beginning a new life while standing in shock in the ruins of the old -- something many of us can relate to, even if the particulars of our dramatic life changes are different than the author's. 

Longing for solitude and immersion in nature, Fowler daydreams about running away to Bolivia or central Asia, but settles on an adventure closer to home: exploring the Birmingham Canal Network -- in the heart of the city and beyond its borders -- in an inflatable kayak. She romanticises neither the urban canals nor her own life choices, writing honestly and insightfully about each; and yet the resulting story has a raw beauty of its own. Fowler writes:

Symphony in Grey and Silver (The Thames) by James McNeill Whistler"The backwaters [of the Icknield Port Loop] fascinated me. At night, I dreamt of returning to it, swimming, running through the water or just floating back down the same stretch that runs after the boatyard. In those dreams I saw everything in great detail. 

"Nothing in that stretch was precious, not the abandoned day boats, the rubbish strewn in the water, the wayside weeds or framed views of urban wasteland beyond the broken factory facades. Nature there was a mixture of native and non-native. The weeds were growing straight out of heavy-metal pollution and were stunted or burnt by the effort. None of the trees showed the soft, new green of spring, but instead were flushed already with deficiencies, their trunks scarred by the battle of living there, their branches strewn with ribbons of plastic. As I returned to those images, I was already obsessed with and a little haunted by that landscape. I went back to do the loop again.

"It was as unsettled as I was. Its position was as temporal as mine. It was barely holding itself together: the canal sides were crumbling, the banks bursting with wild things ready to march into the water and claim new ground. That landscape couldn't quite decide what it was. It was wild, but not natural, it was old, but not old enough. Its riches kept changing or floating away. It belonged only to those who cared to claim it, outsiders, tenacious wildlife, the drunken, the homeless, the lost and me.

Symphony in Gray (Early Morning Thames) by James McNeill Whistler

"I have never been much for joining in or up. I liked people and I liked belonging, but I have always floated between identities. One foot here and the other there, ready to move on if the boundaries seem to be settling into something rigid. I like best the edges of society, of ecosystems, of friendships. I like the place that is both held on to and departed from. And this watery world was just that. For the first time in nine years, I'd found a bit of Birmingham to fall for and all my internal butterflies took flight with excitement.

"I felt the great pull of the unknown, of adventure, setting in: if a place that was just a few miles from the city centre could hold another world so strange and unsettled, what would the past reveal? The pastoral edges of the network didn't pull me half so much as the dirty great industrial heart and its drum-thumping factories."

Limehouse by James McNeill Whistler

Much later in the book, Fowler reflects on this passage of her life, and her obsession with the city's waterways while in the midst of seismic life change. She writes:

Little Wapping by James McNeill Whistler"Travelling on the canals is to carry out a series of small rituals, to bear witness to the way light changes on the surface of the water or a seed head disperses and where next year's plants will appear. The best journeys are always worth repeating, and that is how I feel about my favourite stretches of the canals. I like those cathedrals of green trees in the suburbs. I like them in the spring when the fresh new green unfurls. I loved them in the autumn when those buttery leaves swirled around my paddle, and how in the stark of winter I see their bare bones swaying in the wind as I feel the chill of the water beneath me. 

"I see now that this journey on the water was about finding an external correlation to my inner world, a fluid space that would allow me to make my own changes.

"The canals will change and change again. Those metal hulls will sink or be dragged out, the edges tidied, graffiti removed. I hope there will always be kingfishers and butterflies to watch; I hope later generations will watch herons spear fish and lean over the edge of their boats to peer at pike. I hope that everyone has the sense to leave a little of the edges wild."

Nocturne in Blue and Silver (Cremorne Lights) by James McNeill Whistler

We've talked about urban magic in a previous post, and how the cities, too, contain rich pockets of nature and of enchantment. Mudlarking and Hidden Nature, in their different ways, are celebrations this; and of the ways the wild flows through all our lives, no matter where we live.

Nocturne in Grey and Silver by James McNeill Whistler

The art today is one of my favourite American artists, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), a brilliant colourist whose tonal paintings were both widely admired and deplored by the 19th century art establishment. (His work rarely invited mild reactions, nor did his pugnacious personality.) Whistler was born and raised in New England, but also spent part of his youth in Russia and London due to his father's work as a railroad engineer. He was educated at West Point Military Academy and worked as a military draftsman before deciding to devote himself to art. He then set sail for Paris at the age of 21, where he studied in the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre and fell in with a social circle that included Alphonse Legros, Édouard Manet, and Charles Baudelaire. He eventually settled down in London (around the corner from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Thomas Carlye), where he spent most of his adult life.

Although today Whistler is perhaps best known for his figurative work (and his iconic portrait of his mother), he also made many paintings, drawings, and etchings of the River Thames over forty years.  Art scholar Angeria Rigamonit di Cuto notes: "He began his explorations in the east of London, at Wapping, Limehouse and Greenwich, before moving upriver, his cosmopolitan background and outsider status perhaps easing his access to the mean streets of the docklands (among 'a beastly set of cads', according to his friend George du Maurier)."

You can see more of his distinctive artwork here.

Nocturne in Grey and Gold by James McNeill Whistler

The passages above are quoted from Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, 2019) and Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017); all rights reserved by the authors. The titles of the Whistler paintings and etchings above can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The Pull of the River

Swan Upping at Cookham by Stanley Spencer

Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:

The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw is an exploration of the UK's waterways "from the smallest tributaries to stent-straight canals and thick arteries that pump toward the sea. Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud. Through fields, woodlands, villages, towns and cities to experience places that might otherwise go unnoticed and perhaps unloved."  Travelling in a homemade red canoe, Gaw makes his way down the Waveney, the Stour, the Lark, the Granta, the Colne, the Otter and other rivers -- sometimes alone, but most often with his friend and rowing partner James Treadaway. The text is an aquatic travelogue full of natural, social, and folkloric histories of each waterway; it's also a poignant portrait of a friendship bonded in adventure. 

In the book's longest journey, Gaw and Treadaway follow the Thames from the Cotswold countryside to the middle of London, starting at the river's unprepossessing source at Thames Head near Kemble. Gaw writes: 

The Pull of the River"It is trying to rain as we turn off the main road and lope over a muddy track. A miserable, wind-blown drizzle. A mizzle. The path bends past a scrapyard filled with shipping containers and broken-down cars. To the right, the double lines of rail track race each other to the horizon. We cross and head over a stile and past an old wall, shoulder blades of dry stone jammed together and crusted with thick skins of bright white lichen. In front of us the field slopes up to a small copse with a straggling line of old thorns tracking through the centre. And then we see it. A stone, guarded by an old ash: a flecked marble plinth that marks the source of the Thames: 'The Conservation of the River Thames 1857-1974. This Stone Was Placed Here to Mark the Source of the River Thames.'

"Directly in front of it is a small pit lined with stone. There are records that a well stood in Trewsbury Mead as late as the 18th century, surrounded by a wall measuring some eight feet. The wall was demolished, eroded, or shouldered down by cattle, and the well filled in, leaving just this tiny Andy Goldsworthy circle of oolite stone; a font to hold and offer up clear water; a cairn signifying both beginning and end. 

A View of the Thames from Cockmarsh Hill by Stanley Spencer

"River sources are places of intrigue, portals from the underworld to this world, where water pulses, pumps or just trickles from mysterious beds to glint and dance in the sun. They are places of transition from the dark to the light, the starting point of a symbolic circle that sees a river rise to journey to the sea and return with the rain. In Norse mythology 'Hvergelmir', which means something like 'bubbling boiling spring', is the origin -- the source -- of all living things and the place to which everything will eventually return. But behind all the power and personality there has also been wonder; a sense of human curiousity at how something so great and powerful could spring from something so small. After all, to journey to a source is to go backward -- against the flow."

Landscape, Gloucestershire by Stanley Specer

As they follow the river north and east from Crickdale to Lechlade-on-Thames (not far from William Morris' Kelmscott Manor), Gaw reflects on the mythology and sacred history of Britain's inland waters:

"At Castle Eaton, the church of St Mary the Virgin is nearly dipping its toes in the water, its stone gold blushed with pink. A site of Christian worship since the 12th century, it is a place that was probably special for people long before that.

"Rivers have often been connected with the spiritual world, sources of life and death. It's one of the reasons there are so many gods, nymphs and myths associated with them. According to legend, for example, the Wye, the Severn and the River Ystwyth all share the same story: all three were nymphs conceived from must, rain, snowmelt, moss and marsh and born to the Lord of the Mountains, Plynlimon. When the day came for them to leave their home, to set out into the world, Ystwyth headed west, taking the shortest route to the coast, meeting the Irish sea by the town that would take her name. Hafren went next, winding through England and Wales, travelling for long miles before she reached the Bristol Channel; her shimmering route became known as the Severn. But the third daughter, Vaga (the Latin name of Wye and meaning wandering), wanted neither to rush nor spend time in the world of men. Instead she chose a quieter route, whispering through hills and crags, seeking out the wild places where beauty lived on. She sang through the valleys and forests: a song for the porpoising otter; for the salmon; for the curtseying bob of the dipper; for the kingfisher, whose jewelled back she softly kissed. She danced and darted, joyful, serene, all the way to Hafren, who rushed back upstream to meet her and guide her on, towards the sea.

Belltrope Meadow, Cookham, by Stanley Spencer

"History overflows with rivers that are regarded either as divinities or possessing other-worldly powers. It should be no surprise that the Thames had the same treatment. No one is quite sure when Old Father Thames was first evoked, but there is plenty to suggest that those living by the river have been paying their dues for hundreds if not thousands of years. An Iron Age shield was dredged from the depths at Battersea in 1875 and ancient votive offerings are still constantly uncovered  along the river, picked from the strandline by mudlarks and archaeologists. 

"Perhaps its personification as a god, or the creation of myths around it, was a way of understanding the river and its changes; the act of worship an attempt to control or impose order on water that has the power to shape and fertilise land, to give life and to take it away. The divine river helped to make sense of the mystery, the beauty and the destruction of the natural world.

View from Cookham Bridge by Stanley Spencer

"Some suggest that Old Father Thames has links to other gods. Peter Ackroyd says Father Thames 'bears a striking resemblance to the tutelary gods of the Niles and Tiber'. The Roman river god Tiberinus certainly shares key characteristics with him: the beard, the locks, the aversion to clothes. Ackroyd suggestions that Old Father Thames's hipsterish follicles could represent the braiding channels of the river's flow. But whatever his past, Old Father Thames has come to be a personification of the river in both good times and bad. He has been seen as a revered guardian while also caricatured as a rude and filthy tramp, during the pollution of the 19th century, surrounded by dead fish and rotting livestock, offering up his children Diphtheria, Cholera and Scrofula to those who lived and worked on his waters. 

View from Cookham Bridge by Stanley Spencer

"We continue slowly, taking a left bend, with the sun gilding water that is retreating from the fields. The current, no long funnelled by obstacles, slows to a glugging jog. At Kempsford there is another church named for St Mary, where Edward I, Edward II, Henry IV and Chaucer were all said to have worshipped. 

"The arrival of Christianity may have meant the disavowal of the old gods, but the rivers continued to be sacred places, with plenty of churches built on their banks. The Thames is certainly a river of saints. A swelter of them. Birinus, apostle to the Saxons of the west, who baptised converts at Kemble and Somerford Keynes; St Alban, Britain's first Christian martyr, who parted the waters on the way to his execution; St Frithuswith, Frideswide, Frideswith, Fritheswithe, Frevisse, or just Fris, founder of Oxford Priory and patron saint of Oxford University, who summoned a holy spring from the earth. Relics too have found their way to the water's edge, from the spear tip that was said to have punctured Christ, to the skeletal hand of James the Apostle. But on this stretch, it seems that St Mary holds sway. The Mother of God on the mother of rivers."

The Resurrection by Stanley Spencer

The Pull of the River is a lovely book, from its start in Roger Deakin territory through beaver sightings in the West County to the final expedition through a Scottish canal. I particularly recommend it to readers unable to make such journeys themselves (for any number of reasons, from pandemic restrictions to disability) but who long to do so nonetheless. I count myself among those readers. There are days when memories of my own wilderness adventures seem like another life altogether, and I fear I'll never get there again. Books like Gaw's, and the other water-themed texts discussed last week, help bring the wild world back to me, and I am exceedingly grateful for it.

The Garden at Cookham Rise by Stanley Spencer

The art today is by Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who was born in Cookham, a small village by the River Thames in Berkshire. Spencer trained at the Slade School of Art in London, served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Infantry in World War I, and was an official War Artist in World War II -- but aside from these periods he spent most of life back home in Cookham, paintings gardens, flowers, landscapes, boatyards, village life, and religious paintings in which villagers stood in for biblical subjects.

To see more of his art, please visit the Stanley Spencer Gallery site.

The Ferry Hotel Lawn, Cookham, by Stanley Spencer

This Green and Pleasant Land by Stanley Spencer

Poppies by Stanley Spencer

The passages above are from The Pull of the River: A Journey Into the Watery Heart of Britain by Matt Gaw (Elliott & Thompson, 2018). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and the artist's estate.


Riverwalking

River 1

Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:

Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water was the debut essay collection by the American naturalist and eco-philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, based in Oregon and Alaska, whose other fine books include Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, and Earth's Wild Music: Celebrating & Defending the Songs of the Natural World.

At the start of Riverwalking, she notes: 

Riverwalking by Kathleen Dean Moore"The essays in this collection are river essays because I began to write each one alongside a stream or floating down a river, and so they may still carry the smells of willow and rainbow trout. Drifting on rivers, you know where you will start and you know where you will end up, but on each day's float, the river determines the rate of flow, falling fast through riffles, pooling up behind ledges, and sometimes, in the eddies at the heads of sloughs, curling back upstream in drifts marked by slowly revolving flecks of foam. So, drifting on rivers, I have had time to reflect -- to listen and to watch, to speculate, to be grateful, to be astonished.

"I have come to believe that all essays walk in rivers. Essays ask the philosophical question that flows through time -- How shall I live my life? The answers drift together through countless converging streams, where the move softly below the reflexive surface of the natural world and mix in the deep and quiet places of the mind. This is where the essayist must walk, stirring up the mud."

River 2

River 3

The twenty essays here invoke a range of different waters and terrains-- most of them in the Pacific Northwest, from the region's high desert to the Oregon coast. Moore reflects on the nature of home by the Willamette River, of grief among the ponderosa pines of the Metolis, of change in the shifting dunes of Bear Creek, of death by the Salish River, of clarity and mystery by the Smohalla.

On the latter subject she writes:

What the Moon Saw by Helen Stratton"The word clarity has two meaning, one ancient and the other modern. The Latin word clarus meant clear sounding, ringing out, 'clear as a bell'; so in the ancient world, 'clear' came to mean lustrous, splendid, radiating light. The moon has this kind of clarity when it's full, and so do signal fires and snow and trumpets. But that usage is obsolete. Now 'clear' means transparent, free of dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, free of confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.

"For twenty years, I thought that the modern kind of clarity was all there was, that what I should be looking for was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth, that anything I couldn't understand precisely was not worth understanding -- in fact, may not exist to a rational mind. I am beginning to see that this was a failure in courage. I am beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this, that I don't always need to know where I am, that ambiquity swells with possibilities, that possibility is ambiguous, that I miss out on the real chance when I pile rocks at the edge of the river to trap an eddy where the water will stop and come clear while the rest of the river pushes by, boiling, spitting spray, eddying upstream.

"I want to be able to see clearly in both senses of the word. To see clearly in the modern sense: to stop a moment, stock still, and to see through the moment to the landscape as it is, unobstructed, undimmed, each edge sharp, each surface brightly colored, each detail defined, separate, certain, fixed in place and time. These are visions to cherish, like gemstones. But also, every once in a while, to see landscape with ancient clarity: to see a river fluttering, gleaming with light that moves through time and space, filtered through my own mind, connected to my life and what came before and to what will come next, infused with meaning living, luminous, dangerous, lighted from with in."

River 4

River 5

River 6

I love that passage, and was startled by it. For me, clarity in the ancient sense comes easily; it is the modern form that I must consciously cultivate to keep my vision of the world in balance. And that, I suppose, is what makes Moore a scientist by nature; me, a folklorist and fantasist.

River 7

We need both ways of seeing, of course. Moore's "stirring of the mud" in these beautiful essays gets the balance between them just right.

River 8

River 9

Words: The passages quoted above are from Riverwalking by Kathleen Dean Moore (Lyons Press, 1995). The poem in the picture captions is from The Second Four Books of Poems by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 1993).  All rights reserved by Moore and the Merwin estate.

Pictures: The photographs are of the River Teign where it winds through our Dartmoor village. The water here is slow and shallow -- perfect for gentle paddling by a recuperating hound. The drawing is "What the Moon Saw" by British book illustrator Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


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