Reading Water: life and death
31 December 2020
I tend to try and focus on the beautiful aspects of the river, especially as an escape from daily worries, and the sight of the resident kingfisher, with its blue-green-gold flash, is always cheering, but there are constant signs of our neglect of nature around, too.
Valerie Bloom’s wonderful rhythmic poem ‘I asked the river’ pulls us in to a bubbly conversation with a river, only to end with a damning rebuke for how we should treat the environment better. Walks along the city section of the Exe certainly features rather too many traffic cones and shopping trolleys, not to mention the invisible microplastics that are omnipresent in our ecosystems now.
‘Why don’t you fight for your life?’ I asked,
‘You only foam and seethe.’
‘My lungs are clogged,’ the river moaned,
‘And I can hardly breathe.’
‘Perhaps a rest,’ I told the river,
‘Would help to clear your head.’
‘I cannot rest,’ the river said,
‘There’s garbage in my bed.’
I saw tiny minnows in the flood relief channel, skittering in a little cloud when I moved or the light changed. On occasion I have been lucky enough to look down on the water from one of the footbridges and see salmon leaping and think of the tremendous journeys they make from river to sea and back again to spawn. Walking along the shores of the Exe, I have found small private gated areas ‘Private fishing’ and signs telling me in several languages that I am not allowed to fish. I’ve never quite understood hobby fishing, as opposed to fishing to eat, but probably it’s like my need to take my sketchbook and just sit in a lovely place for hours.
Apparently the Exe has ‘wild brown trout , and in the lower reaches coarse fish including dace, chub, perch, roach, pike and bream and some grayling, the average size being 8–10 ounces (230–280 g). There is a run of Atlantic salmon and a sparse run of sea trout.’
Christian Schubart tells a tale of watching a fisherman in a battle of wits with a trout. The poem was perhaps made famous by being set to music by Franz Shubert:
‘So lang dem Wasser Helle,
So dacht ich, nicht gebricht,
So fängt er die Forelle
Mit seiner Angel nicht.’
(As long as the water
is clear, I thought,
he won’t catch the trout
with his rod.)
Translations are clunky, and can very rarely retain all the multiple meanings and grace of the original. Languages contain whole cultures and different ways of thinking, and I am reminded how wonderful it is to have people from so many cultures who call the Exe Estuary their home.
‘My hometown, like the stars just blinking on,
Is somewhere on the other side of a wide, wide river’