Saturday, 15 September 2012

So flows the river



I suppose my fascination with rivers started as a small boy, thanks to the proximity to home of a small tributary of the Thames, the River Roding. So close infact, that by scrambling through a hole that I had made in the hedge at the bottom of the garden, I could emerge beside a muddy bank and onto a little path that followed the meandering river upstream. We lived in the small village of Abridge in Essex, just 20 kilometres from Hyde Park in London, on two London Transport bus routes and close to the Central Line of the Underground, but still the village felt part of rural Essex. The very name Abridge, drew attention to its relationship, our relationship, to the river. From the house we could look over water meadows which once or twice in the winter would flood. Waking up we would look across a vast shallow lake, with dozens of Black-headed Gulls apparently aimlessly drifting about as they swam on the surface. But it was the river which was the magnet for me. A place for me to wander alone to find Water Voles, Kingfishers, Grey Herons, Reed Buntings and Sedge Warblers. I would sit beside deep pools and watch chub drift through the weeds, or minnows in the shallows.

As a teenager, now living in South Wales, my river was the River Usk, a salmon river. My birding walks were divided between the oak woods and moorland of the Black Mountains or following the banks of the Usk, a haunt of Dippers and Grey Wagtails. Finding the traces of ancient ox-bow lakes, which had become marshy refuges with alder trees, I came across wintering Water Rail and sometimes amongst the Common Snipe, the enigmatic Jack Snipe.

These rivers were great for birds and other wildlife because they represented a narrow ribbon of habitat richness, a gallery, a transition of aquatic to emergent vegetation and then the fringe of unfarmed land between the river bank and the fields. Though narrow it extended practically unbroken along the length of the river, a wildlife corridor for resident and migrant species alike. It was in such narrow belts of riverine vegetation, that I later spent three summers studying Marsh Warblers in Worcestershire, along the River Avon and its tributaries.

As an adolescent I had read Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha. Siddhartha was the son of a Brahmin who found enlightenment thanks to a ferryman Vasudeva, who showed Siddhartha how to listen to and learn from the messages that the great river divulged. It somehow captured the magic that rivers have, the flow, the passage of water to the sea. I thought about that when I stood for the first time upstream of the Victoria Falls, watching the calm of the waters of the Zambezi just minutes before that same water would form part of Mosi-oa-Tunya "the Cloud that Thunders". I had many meditative moments thinking of Siddhartha, when I lived on the banks of the River Amazon in Colombia for three years, watching the sun setting over the distant Peruvian shoreline, with the towering afternoon storm clouds starting to disperse above the seemingly endless tract of rainforest.

In Extremadura, there is one special river above all for me. It rises in the wonderful Villuercas mountains, now declared a Geological Park for its ancient rocks and Appalachian relief, and runs west across the middle of Extremadura before joining the River Tajo (Tagus), the longest river in the Iberian peninsular. It is a river that one crosses on any road heading north-south and thus it becomes a familar feature for the visitor. It is the River Almonte. What makes the Almonte so special is that it is the last river of any length in Extremadura without a dam. One can enjoy it in its natural state as its cuts through the dehesa, in a deep incised valley, with rocky outcrops supporting breeding Bonelli's Eagles, Egyptian Vultures and Black Storks. In the photo above (from the photo library of the Junta de Extremadura), one can see the river just downstream from bridge where the road between Trujillo and Plasencia crosses the Almonte, at an ancient crossing site used by drovers since medieval times.

At the moment I am far from Extremadura, in Juba (capital of South Sudan) to be precise, but thinking of rivers because today I took my first short break (a couple of hours) from work in over a fortnight. I sat under the shade of a mango tree beside the River Nile and simply watched, as I have done since childhood, the water passing slowly by, this vast volume of water powered by gravity. Branches and piles of vegetation passed by, whilst whisling duck and herons flew across the water. How long would that water's journey take, through the vast Sudd Swamp, then as a blue ribbon through the desert of Sudan, the Aswan dam and then through a gradually widening strip of cultivation in Egypt before being part of the Mediterranean Sea. I saw the river as it was, both a constant traveller and a physical connection, an artery on a continental scale. It is no wonder that rivers are thought of by many as sacred, they always have been for me.

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