On these chilly early summer mornings the sun is soon up, and in the earliest sunshine the feeling of warmth is noticeable. The river steams profusely, adding to the mist that lies over the lowest land and looks from a distance like white liquid settled in a great lake. During the first week of May the sound of farm machinery starts up on several adjacent farms, as if someone has pressed the button for a new season.
Also in May I am able to collect a big bag full of stones from what is now called the ‘Lower Axe’. These come from the actual riverbed, thoroughly washed in the waters of the Axe, rather than from the bank. Back at the Brue, the water is extremely slow-moving, almost still in places. I notice how the current is more pronounced in the centre of the stream than it is at either side. Looked at from the right angle, with so much weeds, reeds, grass and little shrubs (like comfrey and so on), it can look like a pond rather than a river. Bees enjoy the comfrey flowers.
When rain comes after a week or so it is gentle; it feels and smells like summer rain. Over the next few days there are intermittent showers that freshen up the river and clean out frothy pollution. I get bitten by midges – there are masses of insects, of all sorts – and for the first time I see a fish that leaps right out of the water rather than just breaking the surface invisibly. There is a pair of swans, that glide by from time to time, and a bunch of ever-argumentative ducks, which take off from just upriver with plenty of quacking and flapping. The river itself though goes back to stillness, as if everything has slowed to a standstill.
I make a visit to the lower Brue on its way to Highbridge, and to the Huntspill and the Cripps River. This gives me an interesting answer to the question of how the water levels in the Brue are controlled. When the Huntspill was built in 1940, the Cripps River – which used to take the flow of the South Drain, flowing north from Gold Corner – was reversed; it now takes probably half the flow of the Brue and flows south, to Gold Corner, rather than to Highbridge where there is frequent tidelock. At Gold Corner the water is raised two or three meters, by means of constant pumping, to join the Huntspill. The same is true, on a larger scale, for the South Drain. Gold Corner pumping station is the largest in the southwest; if it failed, there would be enormous floods in that area of the Levels.
With my regular walks down to the Brue I feel more and more deeply drawn into this process, visiting the river, writing my story of Petroc the monk, looking to connect with grief and praise. As I sit by the river I become more entranced by the song of the warblers, and one of them comes really close – not making sound but grappling along the reed stalks and, I assume, looking for food or nesting materials. In the sky a skylark is singing. I remind myself that this process is drawing me towards both ‘zeal of heart’ and deep grief, all at once. That’s what I want, that’s what I’ve called in, and at the same time that is what I’m afraid of.
What of grief? What of longing for a natural world that is completely full of life? That is utterly abundant, and of which we are all fully a part? The word that comes to my mind is ‘Aeske’. This is the old British word that has become Axe, Exe, Usc, and also the Latin Isca: a river or waterway. But what it really means is ‘full of fish’. The only water I have seen that is truly ‘Aeske’ is the abbey fishpond. This is entirely man-made, though this is how the rivers once were, this was once normal. And will it come back? Will the rivers be once again teeming with life?
Sometimes ‘stun fishing’ is carried out on the Brue (and other rivers); an electric current is passed through the water and all the fish are stunned, briefly floating to the surface to be counted. This seems a brutal way to do it, but apparently it is an extraordinary sight, even today with the fish stocks so much lower than they once were. I ponder all this, and feel that the answer to my question about whether the rivers will once again become ‘Aeske’ – will electronic ‘stun fishing’ become irrelevant? – seems to be yes, this will happen, one day. In the mean time, what we can do is to develop our longing, to fine-tune it; to learn how to long for life, exquisitely.
Some mornings are misty and some are bright and clear; a clear sky can mean a touch of ‘grass frost’, very wet to walk through. Nevertheless, it’s summer. The birds are here, nesting; the surface of the river is exuberantly covered with blossom, plant growth, bits and pieces. It looks warm even early in the morning when the temperature hasn’t caught up with the season! The river is calm, between banks growing lush with summer foliage. Some mornings it’s raining, though infrequently now, almost as if the season has gone back several weeks – though the birds seem to sing through it very happily.
Birdsong mellows after a while, as if the crucial and exciting work of mating and nest building is complete. There is, I’m sure, plenty of food for small birds with all these insects. Swifts or sand martins arrive a little later than the rest; I never see their nests, though the birds themselves are very much in evidence with their characteristic flight, and as they grow in numbers even sitting in a long line on telegraph wires. Early in the morning, the river surface is mirror-like, smooth and dark; at mid-day with the sun up above I may be able to see fish swimming through it.
I mostly ignore the people – principally those who park along the riverbank from now right through the summer. I want a private space and mostly so do they. The farmer finally delivers his cattle into the field and I can’t ignore them when they are nearby because they are so curious that they won’t leave me alone. They have three large fields joined together though, and usually when I arrive they are either far away or just deciding that it’s time to wander into the next field. I settle for a short while beside the river and jot down my thoughts in my notebook.