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.


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


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.)


Recommended reading: Thin Places

Wild Strawberry Unicorn by by Tamsin Abbott

One of the very best books I've read this year is Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a volume born from the edgelands between nature writing and memoir, but also well rooted in folklore, myth, and history.

At the core of the text is Ní Dochartaigh's account of growing up in Northern Ireland during the violent years of the Troubles, of her subsequent flight from the land of her birth, and of her eventual return. Although the story is necessarily dark, the telling is made luminous by the author's exquisite prose, shot through with flashes of bright connection to the twinned worlds of myth and nature.

Otter House, Allotment of Plenty, and Sacred Spring by Tamsin Abbott

Here's a taste of Thin Places:

"What does it mean to come from a hollowed-out place? From a place that is neck-deep in the saga of loss? ... What effect does where you come from, and what that land has been through, have on the map of your self? How deeply can a person feel the fault lines of their home running through their own veins?

"In Celtic lands it is not unusual to use the landscape as a mnemonic map. Geographical features hold a particular importance for our history, beliefs and culture -- places make up the lines of our very being. There is an understanding that we are part of and not separate from the land we inhabit. Celtic legends place the natural world at the very heart of story, maybe even inside its bones. In such stories things in the natural world can possess a spirit and presence of their own; mountains, rocks, trees, rivers -- all things of the land and the sea -- sing their own lament. Locations can be associated with a particular warrior, hero or deity. Places are tied to stories by threads that uncoil themselves back beyond known history, passed on through oral tradition, only some of which have been written down.

Young Stag Ancient Oak by by Tamsin Abbott

"Amongst these geographical features, whether manmade -- such as ancient mounds and standing stones -- or naturally created features, it is not unusual for some to be associated with the worship of pre-Christian deities. The aos sí (or aes sídhe) is an Irish term for a race that is other than human, that exists in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythologies, inhabiting an invisible world that sits in a kind of mirroring with our own. They belong to the Otherworld, Aos Sí -- a world reached through mist, hills, lakes, ponds, springs, loughs, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. The island from which I come had no choice, really, than to find a name for these dancing, beating, healing places where the veil between so very many things is thin, where it has been known to lift, right before our humble, grateful eyes. 

"The folklore of almost every culture holds room for these liminal spaces -- those in-between spaces -- those unnameable places, not to be found on any map. Are these thin places spaces where we can more easily hear the land, the earth, talking to us? Or are they places in which we are able to feel more freely our own inner selves? Do such places as these therefore hold power?

Old Brock by Tamsin Abbott

"We have built up a narrative over many years -- decades, centuries? -- of 'nature' as 'other'. There is so much separation in the language we use with each other; we seek to divide humanity from its own self again and again, and this has naturally bled into how we view the land and water that we share with one another -- and with other species. What do we mean when we talk about 'nature'? About 'place'? I want to know what it all means. I need to try to understand. When we are in a place where the manmade constructs of the world seem as though they have crumbled, where time feels like it no longer exists, that feeling of separation fades away. We are reminded, in the deepest, rawest parts of our being, that we are nature. It is in us and of us. We are not superior or inferior, separate or removed; our breathing, breaking, ageing, bleeding, making and dying are the things of this earth. We are made up of the materials we see in the places around us, and we cannot undo the blood and bone that forms us.

"In thin places people often say they experience being taken 'out of themselves', or 'nearer to god'. The places I return to over and over -- both physically, and in my memory -- certainly do hold the power to make me feel light and hopeful, as though I am not quite of this world. Of much more power, though, is the way in which these places leave me feeling rooted -- as utterly and completely in the landscape as I ever feel, as much a part of it as the bones and excrement that lie beneath my feet, as the salt and silt that course through the water. For me, it is in this that the absolute and unrivalled beauty of thin places lie."

White deer by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places is one of those books that I long to buy multiple copies of and gift to everyone I know. It's a beautiful book, and a timely one. I urge you to seek it out.

For another slant on "thin places," have a listen to Philip Marsden on Scotland Outdoors (BBC Sounds) discussing The Summer Isles, his book about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Go here for the interview, and start at the 29:50 mark.

Hare by Tamsin Abbott

The glorious stained glass art today is by Tamsin Abbott, based in rural east Herefordshire. Tamsin received a first class degree in English literature from Stirling University (where she specialised in the medieval period); she then returned to school to study art at Gloucester College of Art and Technology, and trained in stained glass at Hereford College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Country Living, on Country File, and is sold in galleries and shops across the UK.

The Guardians by Tamsin Abbott"I have always been influenced (and almost obsessed) by nature," she says, "but most specifically animals, continuously drawing and painting them; for a long time I dreamed of speaking with them, and of being absorbed into their world in a way that seemed more natural to me than this human community.  I don’t think I am alone in this as I find that this animal ‘spirit’ speaks directly to others too.  However, I am also inherently inspired by the idea of myth and legend as well as fairytale and medieval romances, and the sense that our ancestors, who inhabited this land, have left an imprint on it throughout the ages.  I also love the idea of the timelessness of the cosmos that overarches everything now as it would have done since time before humanity. It is the intermeshing of all these things that contribute towards my internal universe which I hope manifests in my work.

"Behind all this inspiration the underlying sense of what I am trying to portray is how much life goes on around us constantly but outside our awareness. Be it a shrew foraging for its young in the hedgerow as we walk by, or a giant spirit dragon that soars above us in the night sky.  Conversely, I also wish to capture a sense of the magic of the everyday in my work; the sacred washing line, the reverential bonfire, the glory of a scrap of garden."

To learn more about her work, please visit Tamsin's website, or read an interview with the artist here.

Golden Fox by Tamsin Abbott

Raycomb House by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The stained glass art is by Tamsin Abbott; all rights reserved by the artist.