Connecting with the river: September 2017

Blog post, 3/10/2017

I had caught e-coli. After my illness it is four weeks before I have the strength and energy to resume walking down to the river in the mornings. By then the weather has got grey and damp like autumn, though still warm and humid. The river is a little fuller than the last time I was here, and the reeds out in the river have died down – they are reduced to bare stalks sticking out of the water. Most of the foliage on the other side of the river has gone – it has been cut down, and the edge of the river cleared with a digger. This side the reeds are left to gently subside.

An autumnal chill and mist along the course of the river meet me next morning, though soon the sun is up in the sky and shining, almost blindingly if I look straight at it. The day before, when I’d been here later in the day, a pair of white butterflies with black markings had danced along beside me for a while as I walked towards the river; so it still seems to be summer in the middle part of the day. Whatever the weather, I’m feeling relief to be back – so pleased to see the river and to re-connect. A couple of small silver fish jump right up from the water to catch their insects.

Another day and the cloud cover has returned, though it’s still warm and humid. There’s darker clouds coming up from the southwest however – I think we’re going to have rain. The river is looking rather scruffy, though through no fault of its own. The denuded far bank and the shattered reeds in the middle of the river create an impression that I suppose is the modern autumn. The water level is quite low too, and I think that it could actually do with a good fall of rain to give it back its self-respect. The rhyne has one bank cut down to the level of a mown lawn: it already has plenty of duckweed encroaching, now there are dead reeds and a few clumps of grass mowings to add to that – it too looks like it needs flushing out with a strong shower of rain.

Sunny weather, if interspersed with cloud and rain, hangs on for a couple of weeks yet though. A heron is flying around each morning – I often disturb it from foraging in the rhyne. Most of the birds now are dark and autumnal however, like crows or geese (I saw one group of geese in a V-formation, with the lead bird honking to keep them in order). A breeze from the east, against the flow of the river, ruffles the surface as happened so often last winter, which gives me the feeling that the season is moving on. Along the road, the same breeze is beginning to take the leaves off the trees too.

It takes me a while to get back into picking up litter. I get some plastic gloves and a bottle of anti-bacterial handwash, though they don’t really seem to help. Then one morning I see that the tent that’s been pitched beside the river on the other side of the rhyne has in fact been abandoned, and now there is garbage strewn all over the place and if nothing is done it will eventually find its way into the river. After a lengthy debate with myself I do come with a plastic bag and a pair of gloves that I can wash, and collect it up. The tent I leave, I don’t even look inside, but a week or so later it’s collapsed and I prepare myself for another bagful. When I get there next morning, however, I find it’s all been stacked neatly; I go and spend a little time sitting by the river, and on my way back I see a truck stopped there; it’s the little ‘Highways maintenance’ truck that goes around emptying rubbish bins, and it has collected it all. Clearly I have not been the only one thinking about it!

Some balloons that someone had tethered on the opposite bank do of course end up in the river, and I think the river spirit must be cross with all this careless behavior. I make a point of checking out my picture of ‘Copper, the weaver of rivers’ (a print of one of Carolyn Hillyer’s pictures), which seems to express different feelings at different times. When I look, she seems sad rather than angry. When I eventually clear the site of odd bits of litter after the tent has gone, I notice that there’s a tyre in the water, too heavy and too far out of reach to be retrieved; also a fluffy white swan feather.

By the time of equinox it is definitely autumn. The past week has seen the seasons shifting and it has been neither cold nor hot, dark nor light, wet nor dry. I find myself thinking that the river spirit is perhaps sad, although the mess around here is so minor compared to the long, hard sadness that has persisted over centuries. The river is, I fear, in its last time of sadness, its last effort at survival; ‘the only thing it can do from here is to flood, with acres of wet tears’. All the same, I remember a woman called Johanna who has walked down the river, connecting with the river spirit and also carrying water from the source to pour along the lost route of the river across the moors; and another person I have heard of who is approaching the River Parrett in a similar way. I know She is pleased with these things.

The reeds on the river bank are still more or less whole, but they have lost their vigour – the leaves are turning brown at the tips and the stalks are beginning to lean at angles; they have begun the process of dying back that will finish with bent broken dried up stalks by next spring, when they will be overtaken by next year’s growth. As I turn to go back home, the Tor is shrouded in misty cloud. By the last day of September, it seems a long way from the first when it was still summer.