“A river revealed in a flash of lightning is as thick and quivering as gelatin. And yet, measured against a millennium, a mountain melts down the sides of the valley and pours into the sea.” Kathleen Dean Moore
I have a photo in front of me just now, I was eight or nine at the time. It’s a snapshot taken high in the cypress groves of Corfu, my Mum in sun glasses carrying me on her hip, my tanned little arms slung around her with affection. Summer 1978 was a good one. I remember, I have the photo.
My own daughter is now about the same age as me then, and Mum’s ashes are interred in a peaceful churchyard. Time moves along.
There is a particular place along the River Wye, which I know very well. Smiles, curves, colour and mood, I feel I know her spirit through the seasons like my mother knew me and I know my daughter. This is where the river transits between child and adolescent, where water crowfoot flowers in plenty and one can stand on a bridge nearby and sense her youth over rocky outcrops, but also the widening of her girth, the lengthening of her reach. I know exactly where to step into the shallows, gaging speed and volume of water with depth so that the cold flow won’t spill into my boots and shock my senses. I know where the more dangerous eddies form, where hot limestone slabs bake in Summer, high points where, on a good day, you can see to clear depths, and places where the ice bites first in the Winter.
Upstream, I know she’s the child; learning, playful and mischievous. About five miles further downstream it’s her first major flood plain, where fertile soils in Spring and Summer make for prized agricultural land. I’ve known her character a little in middle age too. Around Hereford City, where the Bishops Palace reflects in her mirror eyes and mute swans swim with bread fed mallard. She tumbles through a mid life crisis at Yat Gorge and slows again by Wordsworth’s Tintern. I don’t know her at all from there to the sea. Perhaps I’ll explore her tidal character when I am older, as she winds slowly down to the Severn Estuary and the salty wisdom of the Irish Sea.
At whichever point I have visited along the length of the river, I often lose perception of my own sense of time. This is a very good thing for me, healing processes at work, perhaps a gift to us all inherited from millennia of people-nature bonds. Worries and fears dissipate into the strong vortex of life, water and rock that is the Wye. She compels and sustains.
But this ancient river has worth of her own exceeding all of our combined human needs. She is, from source to sea, matter and anti-matter, in a seemingly perpetual cycle. She responds to climate by expanding and contracting, like breath. Her course wanders (the Romans called her Vaga, the Wanderer) over, under and through time, melting towards the sea. Geology, morphology, ecology, war, plunder, possession; she’s endured the changes. And she’ll respond accordingly to our current meddling with her atmosphere, plains and structural woodland, by flood and by erosion. It is in her nature, the nature of energy, to want to spread out.
Long into the future, perhaps the winds may change direction, continents will divide again, the Wye’s entire length may disappear, consumed by new geological action and climates. There may be traces of her ancient form and life in the rock, and these may, in turn, erode to dust and silt the rivers a billion years from now.
One person’s lifespan is a blink of an eye to the river. All things relative, of course my own perceptions of time may be faster than the veteran oak or the pearl mussel, slower than the needle fly or sand martin. And we experience the river as uniquely as we are species. Fast or slow. Yet it is our meeting point.
I’ll keep going to the river and will bring my daughter along on occasion to lose track of our time. Ebb or flow, whirlpool or riffle, all the senses engaged, memories will be in the making and not in the recalling. And I’ll keep this photo of me and Mum in a frame from now on, a lightning flash of a single moment of our river of time together.