walking by water


if only I a passerby could pass

as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip

turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance

the weight of hope against the light of patience

From ‘A short story of falling’ by Alice Oswald

I have just moved house, just a short distance, from the river plain of the small city I live in, to near the top of the hill that leads down to the centre, the castle and the river it overlooks.  My local walks with the dog have consequently changed.  I am happy to be higher up, looking out into the western sky, closer to the heart of the city, but I miss the river, with its weirs, its diving birds, its tidal rhythms.

Skerton Weir Ian Taylor

photograph by Ian Taylor

I still have the canal instead, with its slower pace, its swans nesting, its straight edges and mellow stone bridges.

What is it about water that makes us seek it out?  I am focusing here on freshwater-ways, as the sea needs a salty blog space of its own.  I turned to Alice Oswald as she has a lot of experience of transforming the slippery flow of rivers into words.  On YouTube there is a video of her reading the poem I quote from above.  Introducing it, she says:

What I love about water is that it spends its whole time falling. It’s always, apparently, trying to find the lowest place possible. And when it finds the lowest place possible it lies there, wide awake.’

(the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4rKwW5tgXk).

Yes, it is the constant movement of rivers, streams, becks, and even canals, that helps smooth out any worries or burdensome feelings I have brought with me to the riverbank.  I can drop them, consciously or unconsciously, into the water flows and eddies, and they are born away.  I hadn’t thought of water flows specifically as the act of falling, as Oswald does here, but I shall do from now on.  See how she brings in the rain into our thoughts about water and flow.  How significant the falling rain is to the running rivers.  How I should always celebrate its presence.


While Oswald concentrates on the fall of water, Katharine Norbury wrote of her burning desire to walk against this seeking out of sea level place, from river mouth to river source, in the direction taken by salmon, returning to spawn, of how she walked up the fifteen miles of Dunbeath Water to find its source.

‘I crossed the tributary with a sense of elation, and was surprised by quite how much my heart warmed at the sight of the water. The river was gently and visibly rising, held in a gentle V in the land. The fear that I had felt when I first saw the map had quite dissipated. While I followed the river I could not get lost. It was as constant and as concrete as a ball of flax. I folded the map away and put it at the bottom of my bag.’

from ‘the Fish Ladder’.

Walking against the flow means the river can swiftly sweep unwanted concerns away and out of sight, downstream .  Waterways give you a choice – to climb towards its beginnings as a water flow, or to follow its fall.  Which ever direction you choose, as Norbury says, you can relax into its journey.  It is the path, for now.

summer 2009 001


‘I stepped back down into the riverbed. It was filled with new grass, brilliant and green, no higher than my foot. I was happy for the companionship of the water. The river was now little wider than a stream, but it was my clue through the labyrinth.’

From ‘the Fish Ladder’.

A river or stream or canal gives you a path you can follow, and a companion to walk with, whose flow will help open up your mind, your eyes.

DSCF0687My photos also remind me that these small or large water beings are also in constant dialogue with the light of the sun and moon, and this also why we seek them out, to watch them play together in an infinite variety of dance.

Through visual art we also celebrate these flows, this companionship, these dances.




Noticing 1

Arctic_Tern_141 IBC

from the International Bird Collection

This post is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘After a Rain’ (Selected Poems, Wave Books, 2010), in which she explores being ‘a noticing kind of person‘.

Like the arctic tern in the photo above, many of Ruefle’s examples of noticing are grounded in observation.  Here is one of them:

………, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like
there is no tomorrow while the very aged
will give you a weightless grip for the same reason,

And here is a recent observation of mine, not so beautifully condensed as Ruefle’s.

I noticed that the heron on the other side of the canal did not flap away in the usual indignation as I passed by with the dogs.


Grey heron by Andy Holt for RSPB.

On my return I checked and saw it in the same intent position. Moving on, a sharp splash made me look again, to see the heron backing away from the water’s edge, a flash of silver in its beak, and then its thin neck bulging as it swallowed.  I have passed countless solitary herons staring into the water, but this is the first time I’ve seen one get its reward.

In this kind of noticing we rely on our senses – sight, of course in my case, but also hearing, and touch in Ruefle’s consideration of  the grip of a hand.  Perhaps you can think of when smell or taste have been part of something you’ve noticed?

Ruefle also makes use of another type of noticing in her poem.  Here is an example:

……… and I noticed the road followed roughly
the route of a zipper around a closed case,

Here, you may say she is drawing on sight, but this is imaginary vision, a noticing that draws on her language knowledge to make new connections between things.  She also mixes the two kinds of noticing together – as in the first example ‘I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow‘.  This kind of noticing is a primary staple of poems, of course, and is also part of the work of visual artists, using the power of image rather than words.  Louise Bourgeois’ work immediately sprang into my mind as I was thinking about this kind of noticing:

BOURgeois NY Times

One of Bourgeois’ spider works from the New York Times.

This kind of noticing is a creative process of course, and so here I am, thinking about creativity again, which wasn’t my initial intention in this post!  As such it needs a great deal more practice than those based on observation only, at least to make connections that open up the eyes and minds of the rest of us.  Here is another sculpture example, this time from Kiki Smith:

Rapture by Kiki Smith


My journals are jampacked with small incidents I have noticed.  They are there for me to remember and rejoice over, but these quickly written notebooks are not the place for this second kind of noticing, such as the kind of connections Mary Ruefle shares with us in her poems.  This kind of noticing makes me go ‘oh yes!’ as the image she has summoned up in words enters my mind, and I begin to savour the rich meanings invoked.

Honing our senses to notice what is going on around us is though, something we can all make more space for in our daily lives, and prepares the ground for the second kind.

Watching the terns

clouds and sea

I stood, a small static spot in the wide sweep of
the white sand and seething sea, amazed by
the show as terns flew above the shore and hurtled
into the waves below.

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

These agile artists etched erratic silver
streaks into the deep blue canvas of the
sky; haphazard strokes connecting sunlight to salt grey
water, then dissolving.

Sometimes my slow eyes could only catch the quick
flick of sea foam as these sea swallows plunged beneath
the waves, creating sporadic explosions
of stippled spray.

The bravura patterns of moving light, made from these
acrobats’ sheer steep falls from the air, are seasonal star
performances within the eternal drama of sea and sky unfolding
on Embleton sands.

But these winged artists also use a different set of rules to
draw on land, I found, while loitering along the shore and
snooping into rock pools. At the water’s edge I saw
a pair of terns begin their act.

First they faced each other, then
each turned to sketch a perfect
circle on the wave polished sand.

Facing each other once more
they dipped their heads and brought
the tips of their beaks together,
before each carefully stepped out
and round their circle again,

incising their spiked claw prints,
firming, confirming, returning.
Finally they stood close together
looking out to sea, two small grey
backs resolutely excluding me.

from the International Bird Collection

from the International Bird Collection

The nonchalant ease of their plummeting sky falls and careful
courtship circles kept me returning to these sands, trying to
interpret these abstract forms produced from
their briny elements.

sea and skyI watched these terns on Embleton Sands, Northumberland, but I was so busy ‘snooping’ that I didn’t take photos while there.  For this post I have used photos of another sea on the opposite side of England, on Morecambe Bay.  There are no terns here, sadly, but there are shorelines, sands, clouds and big skies.  The photo above was taken, not by me, but by a friend (thanks Mary) on a a late afternoon walk we shared, walking around just one small part of it.