Connecting with the river, June 2017

Blog post, published 5/7/2017

It’s remarkable how much the scenery by the river has changed in the last few weeks, with all the new growth. The month begins with thick grey skies though it is nevertheless warm and muggy. There’s a reed warbler warbling his heart out just across the river, which brightens up the morning, though I also have a feeling of sadness as I notice more and more evidence of humanity’s lack of respect for the natural world – not quite grief, though it’s worth keeping in mind that it was grief that I wanted to get in touch with when I set out on this expedition. Neither is it despair, particularly as there is in fact so much wonderful natural scenery still left to see and to be part of: the river here, now enclosed in reeds and summer growth; the bird life at Steart marshes, which I have recently been to visit, there actively encouraged by peoples’ conscious actions.

I remind myself to offer gratitude to the river spirit. The next morning there’s a skylark as well as a reed warbler, both of them in full voice. That evening I give a talk to the local Conservation Society, and I have decided to talk about the recent period of the river, since the second world war, and this brings in all the conservation issues. I was surprised at how well received this was. Meanwhile, there is plenty of rubbish that I can pick up, which has appeared over the last few days.

The foliage around the river continues to grow – grass, reeds, all manner of wild plants; the river, though still, is very much alive – lily pads, insects, fish – and the little birds in the reeds. The reed warbler across the river sounds happier than ever; and there’s something else singing in the riverbank a little further along – there they go, a pair of them, fluttering around and then back again, then hopping about in the plants. The weather has changed to misty in the mornings and warm and sunny later, and grass growth is so lush that it’s become a local talking point. It’s been cut for silage earlier than usual, perhaps not just because of the weather but also the excess carbon to be absorbed from the atmosphere.

The thunderstorms that seemed inevitable never come, though eventually there’s some drizzly rain that freshens up the air. After a few days of this the water in the river is moving a bit faster than it has been. This mixture of rain and warmth ensures that the prolific growth continues, so much so that sitting on the riverbank I can hardly see the river!

One morning I am surprised to find that the water level has risen by as much as a foot, the current moving through at some pace, and the reeds that had grown up across much of its width almost completely submerged or washed away. There’s a lot of muddy sediment washing downstream too – the character and mood of the river have completely changed. It soon settles down again, and the reeds reappear, though summer solstice is the wettest day we have had for months. The state of the river, the water level and the rate of flow, does not seem to match the weather very well, so probably has more to do with management practices; maybe the dam above Bruton, especially if there has been a heavy downpour on the hills above the town.

The next day is beautifully sunny, whilst the river has risen following the previous day’s rain and the flow has again speeded up a lot. There’s still plenty of silt in the river, though it’s steady rather than rushing downstream, and the sunshine has it twinkling on its way towards me, embodying the spirit of the solstice. It’s now exactly a year since my walk along the length of the Brue and the Axe.

Towards the end of the month everything seems to be settling down: the weather, the warblers’ mating songs, and also the traffic on the A361 which has been noticeably heavier during the past week or two during the build-up to the festival – but now, after a major traffic jam when the punters arrive, this has stopped and I notice an unusual silence as I walk down Cinnamon Lane. When I get to the river a duck flies by and lands rather abruptly on the water – which is still muddy, though that’s clearing too. The sun coming out from behind the clouds delivers a sudden feeling of summer.

The EU referendum puts in jeopardy the Water Framework Directive, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive, and plenty more European legislation on which the hopes of conservationists have been pinned. The one I know a little about is the Water Framework Directive – and the truth is that it has done very little to reduce the pollution of rivers, it has mainly created a huge amount of bureaucracy, and whether it will actually make any real difference will now be up to the UK government. I continue to bring my ‘payments’ to the river, and to pray for a change in the right direction.

In the real world the sense of settling down continues; it’s very peaceful, with the breeze rustling the reeds a little but everything calm and – not exactly still, but moving gently. The river itself slips by quietly. The sun peeks out between the clouds, providing a brief flash of brilliance … There are occasional splashes in the water, I assume this must be fish though I don’t see them … A mother duck comes into view, with her duckling tucked behind her out of sight … There’s one patch of reeds with a warbler in it, singing loudly, perhaps one that never succeeded in mating, now left behind and literally singing its heart out; otherwise the riverbanks and reed beds are now procreating quietly.

Soon there is a new set of sounds – young birds getting excited about the arrival of food. Yellow lilies appear on the lily pads before the end of the month. The weather is still changeable and much wetter than usual, which according to humans of course is ‘bad weather’ (the Festival was reported to have the been the muddiest ever); the river, however, is looking very healthy as a result, and the birds all seem happy.