Connecting with the River: December 2016

Blog post, 30/12/2016

Starlings. Photograph Sharon Jones-Williams.

I would walk down to visit the river early each morning, before breakfast, wearing an extra layer of clothes and carrying my notebook and a pen. The water level in the river had barely changed in a month and a half; there had been no heavy rain nor what could be called a drought. Another bunch of gulls flew over – at first I thought they were ducks. What breeze there was came lightly from the west, from the direction of the sea, pushing gently against the flow of the river and creating little wavelets in the water. To the east the sky was brightening, though low clouds would keep the sunrise obscured. Gulls inland, I remember hearing from somewhere, means stormy weather at sea. Perhaps the storms will arrive on land before long.

The starlings first appear like a wisp of dark curling smoke against the pale grey of the morning sky, over the levels beyond the river; as they come closer, rolling over the fields and trees with a seemingly effortless speed, I stand and watch in awe. They are drawing past, entering into the future in a wild mass that continues whilst more follow, and more and more, a huge long extension of life flowing from somewhere behind, as if from the ground, heading on with gentle determination and with yet more still following, more and more, now not just a column of birds but wider, louder, darkening broadly and spanning the landscape, straddling the river, being overhead with a mighty moving flutter that carries the whole sky forward. A group across the way flies in low, banks aerobatically left and then right, a mischievous swoop that includes hundreds of small feathered lives, hundreds out of these thousands that form the swathe that engrosses the sky, a pattern with no centre, no edges, no apparent rhyme nor any reason though it’s enough to make my heart sing, my senses for these few minutes completely immersed in birdlife.

One starling viewed alone is an ungainly flyer, small wings beating furiously with the effort of keeping its body in the air; a group has more visible cohesion, formation, direction, a sense of local purpose; a murmuration fills the sky with the sound of so many small wings becoming one wave, a tidal conflagration, a beating of hearts without gaps, entranced by their own wonder, separate but all one, a moving airborne landscape that reaches for a short while all the way to the horizon, whirring with motion, passing over on its momentous daily way.

Gradually this is all going, making way for the simple normality of a cloudy sky. The sound recedes and the past appears to be empty; there are more still, but in smaller groups catching up, flying on into the morning. From the rear of this moving event a limited community peels away from the great direction and heads for a tree, or a telegraph wire, and gradually settles into a chirruping discussion, making its decision as a whole that gradually becomes the parts, the individual birds, that then band together again and find their way collectively to their feeding ground for the day.

Walking down to the river every morning I notice, more than I might have done, that December this year is remarkably mild. By the middle of the month temperatures are reported as being about normal for May, and at first there is not much rain. It’s mostly cloudy, though we do have a few clear, open skies, and a touch of frost appears once or twice,.

The numbers of starlings build up day-by-day, sometimes flying high in the air, sometimes low down near to the ground, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in huge formations, though with no obvious reason for these changes. One morning I am standing on the riverbank and a crowd of them flies straight towards me, parting to go either side of me, flying low, swooping over hedges and around trees. If they are flying higher up, the first thing I notice is the sound – almost like the sound of water flowing over pebbles. Other birds are almost pushed out of their way; sometimes a group of gulls flying lazily across the sky, or a pair of ducks complaining about the interruption, will suddenly find that their course is at at right angles to the rush of starlings.

Towards the end of the month it begins to get wetter. The first thing I notice is that the river has a bigger presence, with a silvery reflection of sky, and bits of debris caught in the flow. The water level has risen by an inch or two; the water is moving slightly faster than it has been and there’s weeds and broken twigs floating downstream. A few days later the sky is full of thick grey cloud, and a wind is getting up. The clouds move by like the backdrop to an old-fashioned animated film, and a spray of rain catches me but straight away passes on. The river seems happy in this weather – fuller, wider, almost smiling, gathering itself for some new venture.

There is news of major storms coming in off the Atlantic – though they all arrive further north, where the floods are dramatic. In Cumbria there’s a new 24-hour rainfall record that would have overtopped the flood prevention dam if it had fallen on Bruton. Here in Somerset it is merely wet, with thick grey skies and the ground becoming saturated in places; caught by a shower, I watch raindrops spattering across the surface of the river and a light wind blowing ripples against the current. The shower passes and it’s briefly still and quiet, then a group of four swans fly low over my head; gulls higher up are suddenly noisy, and fish seem very active in the water, breaking the surface here and there to take insects. The first few starlings come by, flying so low that I can hear them muttering to each other about the weather; and when they’ve all passed, the moorhen that had shot across the river with much fluster sails quietly back to her nest.

There’s a strange human perception that there’s ‘nothing going on’ in the countryside. I notice that the cars on the roads nearby inhabit a peculiarly different reality, electric-lit and separate from their surroundings. I don’t think the people in them can notice the birds, or the river, or the clouds. On a clear morning four aeroplanes with bright vapour trails cut through the atmosphere. Their lack of rightness is obvious, between the moon and the sunrise, like parasitic worms boring through the substance of the sky.

One morning I find myself feeling quite tearful, for no apparent reason … Many people are feeling very hopeful, with the climate change conference in Paris being talked up so much – and maybe there will be a big change, though the materialist nature of our culture hasn’t changed, and won’t change overnight. Is the river hopeful? I think she is, but not in the same way or for quite the same reasons as people might be. It’s the darkest part of the year; the moon, three quarters full, shines down through the pale early morning light. A feeling that nature is taking back her own begins to settle into it all.

Before dawn, when it’s dry overhead but there’s more rain expected later, the sky can be vivid pink, occasionally a blaze of red and orange, changing minute by minute as the sun gradually comes up and the clouds slowly move. The pink is changing to orange, and further over the sky is turquoise blue. A group of birds fly across in front of their spectacular backdrop, as if enjoying being part of this particular scenery; the light in the sky gradually fades to grey and blue, slowly changing to daytime colours.

My little bag of precious stones that I’ve been giving to the river is running out; one day I cycle across the moors to Bleadney, then I walk along the footpath beside the Axe to reach the ruins of Marchey Farm. Looking for something new to use for offerings, all I can find are chips of the local limestone from the riverbank. I collect a bagful, hoping that it will touch the river’s memory from the time when it used to travel to the other side of the moor and join the Axe. I hope that the spirit of the river feels fed, by what seems such a humble and mundane offering.

Next morning, as I reach the river dark grey clouds move aside to reveal a bright pink sky above. I toss my small handful of stones into the water and turn to walk a few more yards and sit down, taking out my notebook. The pink from the sky is reflected on the surface of the river with the exhilarating look of a rich warm glow. From where I am sitting the widening rings in the water, expanding from where the stones have dropped through the surface, appear in the midst of the glowing pink reflection. Yes, the river is pleased.

In the last few days of the year we catch the edge of another storm and the wind, whipping across the levels down by the river, is ferocious. Later in the day we have the heaviest rain of the year, and by the morning of new year’s eve the water level in the river has risen noticeably. The water is flowing by at some pace, with miniature whirlpools swirling round across the surface. For the first time I see a fish come up out of the water; it’s smaller than I imagined, silver-skinned and busy. Suddenly the whole sky is full of starlings – I hear them first, then see some, high up, and more, lower down; the biggest crowd I have seen all year.

On the way to the river I had noticed that after yesterday’s heavy rain there’s a pool of standing water in the field. The rhyne is fuller than usual too; but the sky is almost completely clear, just a little fringe of cloud over on the horizon. The storm has passed. As I walk back, along the edge of the field, a large group of starlings appears, dancing over the pool that has formed in the middle of the grass. Then they land, take off, and land again, moving around the pool and chattering with great excitement. For a short while at least, the wetland is returned to its true nature.