Something happens to our brains when we stare at moving water: a sort of broad, effortless attentiveness. Psychologists call this state “soft fascination” and suggest that in it we might find relief from anxiety and mental fatigue, an opening up to freewheeling patterns of thought. Spend a quiet hour on a riverbank watching water slide by and you might find yourself wondering where it comes from, and where it might be going. You might even ask yourself What is a river? The answer is simultaneously simple enough that it is taught to nursery-age children, and vast enough that the mind struggles to hold it.
To me, for many years, rivers meant adventure, adrenaline. The kayaking years, when almost every weekend and holiday would see us loading boats on to cars, sometimes on to planes, and even, a few times, helicopters, and chasing rain or melt. There’s not much to match white water paddling for physical, emotional and technical challenge, or experiencing places and sights most people rarely get to see. Then, in 2012, the joy and the thrill became awful, heart-shattering loss. That of Kate, a beloved friend, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an extraordinary person. She was a highly competent paddler. But flow can be chaotic, and sometimes it takes even the best. It was almost seven years before I could bring myself to visit the place. Years in which I grew older, more cautious, a mother myself. But when I did go, I found something I wasn’t expecting. Not closure, or peace, or even the words to say goodbye … none of the things I was probably looking for. Instead I found wonder and a sort of gentle tug, as familiar and insistent as gravity.
It made me wonder what else I might have missed in all the years of chasing rainbows and adventure
In the water below the ferocious pot-bellied rapid that held Kate just out of reach for 10 minutes, there is a pool of calm water. And in crouching by that pool I saw a feature of flow so delicate I’d never noticed it before. At first, I thought it was a thread of spider silk or discarded fishing line. But after watching more closely I realised it was a boundary, hanging vertically like a veil in the water from the surface to the depths, visible only as a slight perturbation of light. It had no substance. It disappeared when I touched it and reformed when I took my fingers away. It dawned on me that I was seeing an interface between opposing flows – an eddyline. It was like seeing the join between past and present, life and death – the tiniest nothing between enormities. The longer I watched, the more features I saw: tiny boils and upwellings and vortices that created small dimples in the surface, as though someone had touched the water and it remembered. It made me wonder what else I might have missed in all the years of chasing rainbows and adventure, and I decided it was time to go back, only more slowly and much more attentively than before.
I returned to that same spot a few months later, on the first of January, seven years to the day after Kate’s accident, and I stripped naked and swam. I don’t remember being baptised, but it’s clear to anyone familiar with the buzz of cold water why immersion might be incorporated into ritual. In a long-forgotten part of my brain, aquatic ancestors stirred. I woke up.
What is a river? Three years later, I’ve found many answers. None are new. People have been making watery journeys of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual discovery forever.
Water reveals how small our lives are in time as well as space. Less than 0.025% of the water on our planet exists in all the world’s rivers, lakes, marshes and biological organisms combined. A river is water’s chance to flicker and dance under the sun before it returns to the deep, dark ocean, is frozen in ice or stored away underground, sometimes for hundreds of millennia. Flowing water moves mountains, it hollows and builds land. It provides the medium in which the chemistry of life recycles and reorganises energy and matter. There’s a river running through you, now. Tomorrow its substance will be somewhere else and you’ll be imbibing more of the stuff of oceans and glaciers, of sweat and spit, of bog and mud, of clouds and rain and snow. It’s all river, all flow.
What is a river? Rivers are life, health, history, story, reflection, transmission, awe. They can be barriers and obstacles, but more often they are corridors, portals, confluences. A river can be a giver and taker of life. This duality and the tendency of water to change state from ice to liquid to vapour, runs thick in mythologies and theologies from around the world. The avatars of rivers include deities, spirits, monsters, and most are halflings, chimeras or shapeshifters, offering sex and death, beauty and horror, fecundity and obliteration, kindness and ferocity.
The biological denizens of rivers give us stories every bit as weird and wonderful: the hero’s journey of salmon, the vigour of willows, the defibrillating shock of kingfisher flight. These species have become my familiars, my totems and my guides.
On the banks of the Severn, late at night, the new moon tugged, and brought a monster upstream
In the run-up to the autumn equinox in September 2020 I took a trip to Wales. Unseasonal heat, clear and starry night skies, and long hours of unaccustomed solitude after months of family lockdown sent my imagination on a rampage. My dreams were wild. On the banks of the Severn, late at night, the new moon tugged, and brought a monster upstream – a tidal bore, the river devouring itself. Snorkelling in a narrow canyon where salmon and sea trout – fish that change their skins and their physiology to move as they must between fresh and salt water – come to spawn showed me something of how to embrace change while remaining true to myself.
That Welsh gorge, its underwater rock formations lit with cathedral light, golden and aquamarine, was as good a place as any for a religious moment. Only it wasn’t a god I found, so much as a sense of indigeneity. A military brat from birth, my early childhood was happy and secure, but lived on tours of duty in places that weren’t home. In place of roots there were flags and anthems, the rules of cricket and Enid Blyton ideas of decency. Those things seemed good enough then, but I’ve come to need a different kind of belonging. In a matrix created by myths, by constellations, by the taste of water flowing from a specific geology, by human and non-human ancestors and neighbours, I’ve found the emotional and spiritual coordinates for a place that feels like my true home. The folk singer and song collector Owen Shiers uses the word cynefin to describe this niche within a web of culture and nature, and the idea has thrown me a line I never knew I needed.
The power of indigenous thinking is being belatedly acknowledged, or should I say rediscovered, by the developed world in the battle for climate justice, in land rights, in conservation. In one of many examples, the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga calls on individuals, communities and societies to recognise the complex interconnected nature of the human and non-human worlds and to act to safeguard them. How extraordinary that for all the depth and breadth, diversity and specificity of the English language, we have no words for cynefin or kaitiakitanga. The lack means we are suffering an unnameable agony of loss: a recent survey ranked the UK lowest of 14 European countries in nature connectedness.
What is a river? Across England, the public has a statutory right to navigate a mere 3% of rivers. Even the opportunity to sit peacefully on the bank is often limited to those privileged by wealth or circumstance, or willing to trespass for it. Our access to rivers is even more limited than our access to land, of which we have freedom to roam over around 8%. And yes I know all about public rights of way, some of which follow rivers. But a right of way is for moving along. It is not a right to sit and stare.
This legal absurdity means that many of the activists at the forefront of campaigns to protect and restore our rivers must routinely trespass in order to access the water. While statutory bodies fail to regulate or protect, grassroots organisations and lone individuals are punching far above their weight in highlighting sewage and agricultural slurry pollution, overabstraction from chalk streams and the ubiquity of microplastics. They are clearing litter, monitoring wildlife, tackling the spread of invasives, and advocating passionately for the rights of nature. Interestingly, these actions are very much in keeping with the responsibilities of kaitiakitanga. Perhaps we can make amends after all.
I am changed now. It wasn’t so much the rivers or the writing of them that changed me, but the attention-giving that doing so has required. I’ve found wonder and connection and a sense of my place, but also a call to act. I’ve discovered that I can’t be a bystander.
What is a river? If you ask me now, I’d say it is a path. Whether you follow it up or down, forward or backwards, doesn’t matter. It’s a circle you might never complete, but if you keep going long enough you’ll be back somewhere close to where you began. What I can’t say is what you might find on the way, or who you might be when you return.
• The Flow: Rivers, Water and Wildness by Amy-Jane Beer is published by Bloomsbury. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.