Return to the River

The man tidying his garden with an electric blower whom I stop to ask for directions is friendly enough, but he doesn’t know the way to the river. It seems a foreign idea to him, to want to “actually go to the river”. I can see it from our new home, our flat in Lewes, the river wending its way through the Ouse Valley – a vast, ever-changing panorama, the green of the low Weald, patchwork of trees and low-lying fields stretching away to a dark line on the far horizon, the grey flint tower of a distant church, the weather changing and great cumulus building in a blue sky, cattle grazing along the lush river banks.

My first sight of the river up close fills me with surprised joy, as if returning to a house one left long ago that had become a faint memory and now laying one’s eyes on it again with a sigh and a realisation, “ah yes, home again”. Warm, late August sunshine and a cool, fresh breeze stirring the tall banks of reed; hawthorne, bramble and rose-hip full of bright berries already; sheep calling to each other – bleating wouldn’t be the right word, too plaintive, rather their calls are guttural and hoarse, as they warily funnel through an overgrown embankment on the other side of the stream at my feet, a side-cutting to the main river; a herd of Red Devon cattle foraging amongst the reeds indifferent to their passing.

How long I have been away – two years but it feels like a lifetime – and now I have come home. These last few weeks have been so busy – working day and night, travelling up and down motorways to distant work sites, moving house – not a moment to spare to stop and go outside, to look and listen. How can anyone live so close and not want, or need, to be by the river, to explore what lies beyond one’s front gate? I can’t understand it. It feels essential to me – this exploring, finding a way to feel more grounded and connected, to be here and now, a being-in-place that only being in and close to nature can give and restore. It’s not that I wish to judge the man with the blower, I only wonder at our apparently fundamental difference in this regard. Perhaps he feels grounded and connected enough, in his work, family, or community, in tending his garden and home at the weekend. Perhaps he doesn’t even think about these things, these needs, and is more the content for it.

Even whilst I write about ‘connecting to nature’ I wince at the separation and difference that implies. How to acknowledge that we’re fundamentally a part of it, our actions, our very existence, inseparable from nature as a whole, and yet at the same time articulate the numerous ways we can feel alienated and disconnected from ‘nature’ as we see and experience it, or the lack of it. This place, this river valley, isn’t just ‘nature’, but human and natural history intertwined – if one needed further evidence beyond the mere presence of people and livestock on these river paths, there is evidence enough on the Environment Agency information board announcing essential work to the flood defences, and in the place-names mentioned – Wiley’s Bridge, Chalk Pit Cut – all signs of industry, commerce, work, community and even human-induced climate change. Without that sense of history, and of ongoing human relations with nature and with place, for both practical purposes and emotional well-being, without that sense of interdependency and co-evolution, ‘nature’ and ‘place’ become mere commodities, experiences for our consumption. The human communities that have helped make them what they are today become mere footnotes to history, marginalised and disenfranchised from the new ecotopia, their labour and their stories invisible. The places we experience as so benign to us today have been shaped by generations of hard labour and industry, by the demands of a growing and changing human population, even by war.

How to convey the inexplicable beauty of the railway track running alongside the river, iron bridges spanning overgrown chalk streams and cuttings, the green belt of trees hugging the chalk ridge that climbs from Offham towards Blackcap? That peculiar juxtaposition of human and natural elements: the chalk track hardened by sun and hoof, the field of pale, drought-borne yellow grasses and white thistle heads gone over and ready to seed, the huge expanse of sky where clouds are building in the thermal draughts of an august afternoon, electric pylons spanning the valley and the hushed wind in the reeds, soothing and whispering? There is a song in my head – The Carpenters, ‘We’ve only just begun, to live … White lace and promises …’. Somehow the promise of the new and tender home I now share with my loved one, of returning here to continue on this journey of learning how to live and care for a place, building attachments and community, seems inextricable from the promise, the hope and the challenge we all face, collectively. We’ve only just begun, to learn how to live …

When I hear the sheep calling by this river in Sussex, a kernel of childhood memory unfurls within me, of being out in the fields in Cornwall with my Dad helping round up the sheep, and no doubt that’s part of what makes this place feel like home to me. Having that sense of connection to our personal, family and collective pasts can help us to not only make meaningful connections to the places where we live and where we go to seek out nature, but also to understand the currents of history running through them, and therefore what their futures may hold. We don’t all have to be sons or daughters of farmers to find that, but if you look hard enough you’ll find evidence in your family story of real, lived experiences and knowledge of land and sea, for wage, livelihood or food to supplement incomes – hunting rabbits, poaching deer, fishing, and growing vegetables, or even for the less bare necessities of adventure, glory and profit. Perhaps, in the span of your own lifetime, it was camping holidays as a child or trips to the seaside that formed those early connections and senses of place.

These are some of the themes I am exploring in ‘Pathways to Home‘ – a book I am writing about my return to my native Cornwall for a year to be a ranger, reconnecting with family and with my childhood home, learning the skills to navigate my search for home as an adult and to more deeply connect to, care for and conserve, land, place and nature. Over the next year I will be seeking to apply these skills back in my adopted home of Sussex – learning about the human history and stories that have helped shaped this landscape of rolling green downs, woody clay Weald and white chalk sea cliffs, as well as actively participating in, and writing about, current conservation efforts in this dynamic and changing environment.

If there are conservation projects that you feel deserve to be written about and shared, stories of people working with and shaping the environment in new ways, or re-inventing old ones, then please do get in touch with ideas via my contact page.