Tag Archives: River

Cinquain 21


with the current –
five brown ducks in a row
like little feathered coracles

Rock and river

20150509_150912-1 So, what do you think this is? A slab of stone? (York stone, one of my Twitter friends suggested.) A patch of sludgy mud? Or perhaps… the River Wye in extreme close-up on a cloudy day?

I’ve written before that I love rivers for the pattern of ripples and reflected light on their surface, whereas my husband looks for fish as signs of life beneath. I took my interest in surface patterns to a new level when, for idle amusement, I zoomed in on a tiny patch of a slightly bigger photo of the Wye at the National Trust’s Weir Garden near Hereford. Suddenly I was looking at something completely unlike water, with none of the usual cues of context to tell me it was a river.


If you look at the original photo, taken from a path above, looking over a stone wall, you might be able to see a bit more of what was happening. The flow downstream collided with the backflow of the water bouncing off the stone wall. Meanwhile, there were weeds just below the surface, which set tiny eddies spinning before they unrolled themselves to continue their journey downstream.

Imagine a novice folk dancer attempting to ‘strip the willow’, who gets confused and starts prancing the wrong way up the set. With luck, someone kindly turns her around to face in the right direction and the dance flows on. Water doesn’t let itself go against the flow for very long before sorting itself out.

I started by thinking ‘How can water look so much like stone?’ But you might turn the question itself in a different direction: ‘Why would a surface of stone display the ripples and eddies of a river?’ There’s an answer to that, of course. It’s because a slab of stone may well have once been a slice of mud, marked by the current of water across it, then placed under enormous pressure over millions of years. The rippling textures in stone are the fossilised ‘footprints’ of water streaming away in the distant past. 008 crop

Back to the present day – and a wider view offers no chance of a mistake. That’s a river, and a beautiful one, too.



My last post, about ‘things men have made’ (D.H. Lawrence), reminded me of the summer when I travelled by train from Paris to the south of France. Sitting on a bench at a railway station – perhaps Nîmes, perhaps a much smaller place called Alès – I saw a man standing in the open doorway of a train. He was perfectly framed there, each hand resting comfortably on a side wall, his head not quite touching the archway above. It struck me that (yes, obviously!) we design and make trains human-sized, for human use, under human control.

When I arrived at the campsite where I was to stay for a fortnight, near the town of Anduze, I found that it was on a cliff-top above a river gorge. These cliffs were not human-sized, designed and made for human use. The man I’d seen on the train, if standing against these sheer walls, would be dwarfed, not framed by them.

At night-time on the beach by that river, the Milky Way was visible with a brightness of individual massed stars that I had never seen before and have never seen since. The stream of stars followed the course of the river, like a reflection of the water beneath.

The feeling evoked by both these sights, the cliffs and the river of stars, was awe. I was confronted by something seemingly boundless, not made to fit and frame a human being – something that existed for its own sake, regardless of our human needs.

Of course, human-made artefacts can be awe-inspiring as well, such as rockets, oceangoing liners or magnificent bridges. Ironically, though, many of them are designed for the purpose of bringing awe-inspiring natural phenomena – space, the roaring seas – under our control, thus reducing their awesomeness.

In the 18th century, there was a fashion for bringing whole landscapes under control. Wealthy landowners paid for the view from their stately homes to be carefully shaped, placing grassy banks, trees and lakes in combinations that seemed to be ‘natural’ but were actually contrived to create perfectly proportioned ‘picturesque’ vistas – making the physical environment into something that might be seen in a painting, surrounded by a frame.

When we see something awesome, our instinct is often to try to tame it. We seem reluctant to leave anything out of our control. We try to make ourselves ‘the measure of all things’ (Protagorus).

I wonder – is there anything made by human hands that is awe-inspiring in itself but doesn’t also tame the awesomeness of nature?

Photo taken on the line of the steam train of Cevennes, between Anduze and Saint-Jean-du-Gard, France. By Georges Seguin (Okki) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Rivers alive


Why does my husband always want to stop and look for fish when we pass a river? He loves to peer into the depths and point out dark shapes that are not immediately visible to me. I asked him why, and he told me: ‘Because the fish are what make the river alive.’

I hadn’t thought of that. Of course water itself doesn’t live: it gives life to the birds and animals that make it their home. The fish and ducks are two a penny; you’re really lucky to see a grey heron stalking the margins, and even luckier to see the electric blue flash of a kingfisher darting past. All of them, though, tell you that the river is sustaining life.

I do think of a river as being alive, but it’s the movement of the water itself that I find most attractive. While Chris looks for waving fins and tails, I stand and stare at the patterns created by the flow, the swirling shape of the water around obstacles and the sparkle of reflected sunlight on the surface.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, ‘You cannot step twice into the same stream.’ Whether or not you think of that metaphorically, as a comment on the flow of time and circumstances, it’s literally true: a river is always shifting, always pushing on from the source to the sea, always showing new patterns. Jesus talked about ‘rivers of living water’, too, in a spiritual sense, and I like to think he meant a bubbling, ever-flowing source of energy. For me, that energy is what makes a river ‘alive’.

Moving from Southampton 25 years ago—a city built on two major rivers, the Test and the Itchen (with the smaller Hamble to the south-east, where the wreck of Henry V’s flagship the Grace Dieu still lies)—I arrived in a town with none. These days, with flooding so much more of a threat than it used to be, that might be considered a blessing, but I can’t help feeling that a riverless town lacks soul.

Still, we don’t have to go far to find plenty of beautiful waterways—sparkling on the surface and full of fish beneath. And when we find them, we just have to stand and stare.