The road meets the River Brue at a place called Plungen. It’s here that the thirteenth century straightening of the river alongside Glastonbury begins. The Bradley Brook joins the river here, now channeled along a straight ditch of a rhyne, though once it meandered across the moor until it met the river’s original course. Until not many years ago there was a thick hedge between the road and the rhyne, though that’s now gone. Plungen, a friend suggested, is where the river once plunged into the marshes that in days gone by surrounded the Isle of Avalon.
I go through a farm gate and walk along beside the rhyne, on its opposite bank from the road. There’s a narrow path worn through the grass; though this isn’t an official footpath it’s a well-used route. There’s a locked metal gate with a style beside it, and then as I approach the river a crowd of noisy starlings erupts from a field ahead and spreads out around, feeding and chirping … some come back, and all but completely fill up a tree with perching on it. On following mornings I set out to get here earlier, a little before sunrise, and the arrival of the starlings is a daily event worth looking forward to.
When I reach the riverbank I find myself a spot to sit and I take out my notebook. The river, I note, is low, slow and sluggish, waiting for rain. I surprise a pair of moorhens that have emerged from the weeds just upstream. I jot down thoughts about the crisis that is overtaking the planet’s ecology, and look back on thirty years of activism and protests, thirty years that seem to have done nothing except slow down slightly the tide of destruction. Of course the river here doesn't look like it’s in a state of crisis: for instance I often notice there are fish that suddenly break the surface to snaffle insects; I rarely get to see them, just the concentric rings steadily widening across the water. People do go fishing here so it must be reasonably well stocked – the water looks a little muddy, but otherwise reasonably healthy. Then I remember going swimming, right here, thirty years ago. People never do that any more, not this far downriver, the water’s too polluted with agricultural chemicals.
At first I have plenty to write down in my notebook: the damp and foggy November mornings, the thousands of starlings flying in long ‘skeins’ (as Robbie Burns described them), the litter left by people who park just the other side of the rhyne, the changing moods of the river in response to the wind and the density of the sky, the flight of local ducks and swans and occasionally a heron, the sound of the wind and the birds – and not very far beyond them the constant noise of traffic on the nearest roads. These create the little-changing pattern of life along the river. I remember to come with a rubbish bag and clear up the litter. After two or three weeks all this has become a routine, and I seem to be running out of things to write. I walk away from the riverbank feeling sad – then more than that, ancient tears welling up from somewhere deep inside, though they don’t yet succeed in reaching the surface.
Last summer I walked the whole length of the Brue; a friend who joined me between Baltonsborough and Glastonbury left me with a little bag of semi-precious stones – she said they’d been specially blessed – for making offerings to the spirit of the river. Not being used to doing such things I’d arrived back home with most of the bagful still with me ... I get up from beside the riverbank and as I move away I notice something bright and fast-moving; was it a woodpecker, pecking at one of the willow trees that grow in the corner of the field? … Now I remember the bag of little stones, and decide to bring it with me and to give some to the river each morning as a way of saying hello and of making more of a connection.
I also go to see a play in the town: River Spirit. In this play the river is sick, its spirit split into three separate parts, no longer whole. The youngest of the three and the spirit of the upper section of the river is called Brooke; in her forlorn state at the lack of nurturing attention from the people living nearby, she has convinced herself that the rubbish, the plastic bottles and bits of polystyrene, are offerings from the people. She collects it all in old boxes and keeps it as if it were treasure. It’s a poignantly sad image.
There’s fish in the river, and wildfowl living beside it, though not in great numbers. I wonder how it would change if it were managed by people with indigenous minds and hearts. I’m sure the water would be clearer and cleaner, no chemicals and far less silt; trees would line the riverbanks and there would be more sound, more life. This part of the river was once swampy, deeply wet, at this time of year returning to marshland after the summer; closer to the town than it is now, wider and probably not so deep. Would there have been mosquitoes, and a malarial miasm? For several reasons malaria became endemic only with the introduction of farming, and anyway more prolific birdlife would have kept the mosquito numbers down. In their natural state the Somerset wetlands were not a malarial swamp.
Within a few days of starting to make my offerings, remarkably I find myself with plenty more to say. On the morning that I notice the change it is mild and quiet without any wind. The river is flowing steadily, giving the mellifluous impression of being like syrup loaded with gallons of dark green nutrients, and with a surface as smooth as that of a dark scrying mirror. A small cloud of midges has gathered above my head; no wind, no rain, mild weather – at this time of year they don’t often get conditions so much to their liking. The sky is blue and bright, though grey over on the eastern horizon with streaks of sunshine breaking through where the sun has recently risen. I take in a deep breath of gladness and hope: I have begun to feed the spirit of the river, and already I feel that she is feeding me in return.
An image is starting to form in my mind – still shadowy and uncertain, but coming into form: a monk, living beside the river a millennium and a half ago, writing down the story of his people. This people had survived enslavement by the Romans but their future was once again uncertain. He has a stock of vellum – rare treasure indeed! – and a little coracle moored beside the riverbank; very little else. His task is to write down this story and then to leave, down the river and into the distance. His place of the resurrection beckons already …
On November 27th I am taken into hospital after experiencing a Transient Ischaemic Attack. This is a mild form of stroke, and after a night and a morning under observation and having brain scans and the like I return home the following afternoon, plentifully supplied with medications. By the morning of the 29th I am walking once again down to the river; a cloudy, windy morning with ducks flying by and the river surface choppy with the wind – blowing from the coast, against the flow of the water. I make my little offering and stand by the bank, so grateful to be not just alive but with all my vital functions still intact. The starlings fly over en masse and I cannot stop myself from shedding joyful tears.