Making Friends with the River

Published on the Black Line Initative website, February 2015.
Adapted as a talk contributing to ‘Retoring the Earth’s Balance’, a presentation of the Black Line Initiative at the Red Brick Building, Glastonbury, June 2015.
Re-written as the Introduction to ‘The River’, first published October 2015.

The source of the River Brue

Some time early last year I heard about the film ‘Aluna’ and about its key message, that we have to look after our rivers. At the time I was wondering what I could do, what was worth doing, what it was possible to do; I had recently watched a short film made in the 1980s about an international event called the ‘Harmonic Convergence,’ full of confidence, with one of the leading players assuring us that we would be spending the next 25 years repairing that which was ‘out of balance’ in the world, cleaning up the mess that we humans have made of the planet. It was poignant to notice that I was watching the film 26 years after it had been made. About the same time the Kogi had delivered their message in Alan Ereira’s film ‘Message from the Heart of the World’: the way we treat the planet has to change otherwise it will not survive, and neither will we. The only rational, intelligent thing to do would be to do as they suggested. At that time, as many people were pointing out, humanity was at a cross-roads; we could go this way, and sort out the mess, or that way, where the consequences would be unthinkable. At the time, the feeling amongst people who I knew was that we were bound to make the right decision, we are such an intelligent species; but we didn’t go this way, and neither did we think about the consequences of going that way. We sleep-walked towards the abyss. Another quarter century of environmental destruction ensued. The Kogi called back Alan Ereira and made another film: ‘Aluna.’

So, back then it was urgent; now, it is beyond urgency. Perhaps it’s too late. What can we do? What’s the point? But there were the Kogi; they’d called back Alan Ereira to make another film, to re-state their message in a new way – and, in spite of everything, they clearly weren’t giving up. An important part of this message, I had heard, was that we have to look after the rivers. I went to see the film. A friend was organising a showing in a crowded café in Glastonbury. It was the only way to see this film – unlike the first one, this time there would be no showing on the BBC. In spite of the acclamation that the first film had received, this time it somehow did not fit with their programming priorities. I went to see the film; and in the mean time I had been thinking about my local river, the River Brue. In the middle ages it had been diverted and the source cut off from the mouth of the river; once it had joined the River Axe and the two had continued to the sea as one substantial stream, though not many people know that now. ‘Aluna’ woke up a feeling that they must be joined back together, at least in a spiritual sense, this connection must be re-made; and people must know. By the end of the film I knew what I had to do: I must go to the mouth of the River Axe and find something, whatever it might be, to take to the source of the River Brue, as an offering. It seemed like a mad idea, it seemed to make no sense, but the sense of needing to do this, that this was absolutely the right thing for me to do, was so very strong. All of a sudden I was on a mission.

The River Brue above Bruton

The mission was inspired by the Kogi and their film ‘Aluna;’ it was given shape by the Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and his ‘four point plan.’ A couple of years back I had decided that I might benefit from joining a meditation group – something I had never done in all my years in Glastonbury – and a friend invited me to join the group that she was part of. This turned out to be a Sufi group, following the teaching of Llewellyn, who is English and living in America but who is nevertheless one of a long line of Sufi teachers that goes back to the medieval middle east. He has written a lot about what he calls ‘spiritual ecology,’ pointing out the growing crisis that is overtaking the natural world, and which is also a spiritual crisis that arises from our culture’s materialism and disconnection from any spiritual reality. His message, certainly as it relates to the natural world, is much the same as the Kogis’. He has delivered this message in several books as well as numerous talks and articles, describing the spiritual crisis, if it continues, as ultimately rendering human life devoid of meaning. Those who have taken note have asked him, ‘What can we do?” At first he would simply say that it was not for him to tell people what they should do; they should look within and follow their own guidance. But one day in what he described as a moment of inspiration he came up with a ‘four point plan’ for how we can creatively approach this situation on the material level as well as the spiritual.

The four points are: witnessing, grieving, prayer, and action. The first point, witnessing, is actually asking us to stop habitually trying to ‘do’ anything at all. To witness, with awareness, what we and our culture have done to the world. To look for no outcome, no result; to refrain from trying to fix things, but to thoroughly acknowledge how things really are. In Sufism such witnessing, of ourselves, is a time-honoured spiritual practice; now we must give this attention to the world, and know that in reality there is no separation between ourselves and the world.

The second point, grieving, is to allow ourselves to fully feel the pain arising from that witnessing, that understanding of what we as a species have done. This is the honest and appropriate emotion that we must feel, and in a strange sense – in the situation we are in – the greatest gift that we can give to the world. For myself, a product of white, middle class, English culture, this will not be easy. My family does not do grief. It is not polite or comfortable; I have been trained through my up-bringing to keep it under wraps. This will be a big challenge for me.

Praying, even more so. I do not understand or relish the idea of an act of prayer. It is embarrassing. But I am beginning to suspect that the world situation is by now beyond what we little humans can figure out and put to rights ourselves. We, after all, are the problem; not the rest of the world. Perhaps our best hope is some form of divine intervention. I think it is called grace, I think we need a miracle. Llewellyn tells us that prayer, as a cry from the heart, arises naturally from our feelings of grief. All I can say for now is that I am prepared to go there and find out.

And finally, action. Once we have re-oriented our minds through the practices of the first three points, and not until then, not until we can think in a genuinely different way about the task at hand; then we will know what to do.

[This, at least is my understanding. If you would like to read Llewellyn’s own words then they are here: ]

IMGP0090 copy

This, then, has given me the shape for a project concerning my local river. I don’t know how well I can take care of the river, but I do know that I can care, and also that I can write. As a writer I imagine writing four whole books as a result of this project, suggesting that the process will take several years. So now I have an approximate time scheme as well as a shape. I am not in a hurry. So far I have made what I think is a good start on the witnessing, and I have been doing this in two inter-connected ways. First, by walking along the river, getting to know it, making friends with it. One friend took me kayaking on the river; another encourages me to go swimming in the river with him. Gradually I am building up an intimate knowledge of the river, what it looks like, what it feels like, the shape of the land through which it flows. The other is by reading about the river and subjects related to it; its history and natural history. I am compiling the river’s story, and it is very interesting: the Glastonbury Lake Village, the Celtic Saints and their seven holy islands, King Alfred – who travelled up the river in search of peace with the Danes, the medieval monastery at Glastonbury and its network of waterways based on the River Brue, the centuries-long efforts to drain the Somerset Levels and so to feed more people but to diminish the river, and most recently the huge and still on-going debate about the future of our wetland ecology in a world dominated by economic priorities, growth, and development. It is a story that mirrors the story of the world.

The River Brue is a disconnected river. Quite literally: the medieval monks effectively cut it in half. And the disconnection is metaphorical too: once the river flowed past the island chapels of saints in a consciously sacred landscape. Then it was taken over, first by Saxon overlords, then by the Benedictine rule of the Catholic church, and lastly by invaders from Normandy. At each of these steps the river was pushed further away from its place in that magical landscape. It was under the Normans that the physical division took place, that the requirements of power and commerce led to the final abandonment of its early spiritual roots – and the magic gradually retreated and became the stuff of mythology, inhabited by King Arthur’s knights but no longer by real people in present time. What was left was changed from a river to a canal, and finally to a drain, its purpose simply to get rid of the water. In times of flood, water can be deadly dangerous, but that doesn’t stop it being the stuff of life, the most essential ingredient for all living beings – and also the flow of existence. The Levels are drying out and the millions of birds that once lived there, or visited on their migrations, are year by year disappearing, dying. The river and its story makes an allegory for the whole of the natural world.

Walking the River Axe

 Walking the River Axe

Inspired by the Kogi I went walking along the river, sometimes on my own and sometimes with groups of friends, bit by bit during the summer walking the whole length from above Bruton down to Glastonbury, then across the moors where only remnants and ditches remain to show where the river once flowed, into the Cheddar valley and along the River Axe. Finally I visited the mouth of the Axe at Uphill near to Brean Down, where I collected a handful of beautiful sea shells tinted in a variety of pastel colours. I took them to the source of the River Brue, where there is a little stone structure like a miniature shrine to the river goddess, and I gave these sea shells to the water as the offering that I had intended, what the Kogi would call a ‘payment.’ I cannot explain quite how or exactly why, but the result was extraordinarily profound. Somehow, in my mind, in ‘Aluna’ perhaps, I was making a first step towards healing that disconnection. In the silence that followed, the river quietly said that it was pleased.

at the mouth of the axe

At the mouth of the River Axe at Uphill, with Felipe Viveros from the Black Line Iniative.