Animal

Country diary: glimpses of a drowned world


The river is on the rise. It breathes out of fields like mist, settles silently as snow, shimmers where it flows. The silver pike-belly of dawn rises in the north-east behind the Wrekin hill to light the splash from the mountains of mid-Wales to the Bristol Channel. In this one section, between the meanders at Leighton to Ironbridge Gorge, there is a swerve between river terraces forcing the water to haul like cable under Cressage Bridge.

The republic of the River Severn lifts from its main channel and reclaims old braided courses across fields, then spills through dips and ditches to join them up in a flash of cold, reflected light. It has appeared and disappeared a few times since autumn, but from the bridge there are long miles of floodplain with only the tops of hedges and fenceposts showing now. Stands of poplar, willow and alder hold their ground.

As the Severn moves through trees there is an uncanny glimpse of a future landscape of river valleys restored from swamp forest rooted in the past. Rain follows water memory; it knows the way because it goes the way. From every farm and town, wood and moor, each trickle, like an eel, follows a migration trail from puddled gateways and mossy mires, through every downslope, crease in the hills, bend in the road, every brook, gutter and drain through these catchment lands, drawn by the gravity of the Severn.

River Severn floods at Cressage



River Severn floods at Cressage, Shropshire. Photograph: Maria Nunzia/Varvera

Cells of living beings are filled with water and this green world feels the pull of the flood like that of lunar tides. Many soil and sward animals can survive floods in a winter torpor until anoxic conditions remove oxygen and produce hydrogen sulphide, or until the poisons flushed from fields and industrial yards get them, when most will die. Our bodies are 60% water, two-thirds of it bottled inside cells, the rest in surrounding fluids; we lean over the bridge parapet to spit into the churning core of the river, marking a return.

A million confluences make a single animate river spirit. The great pike, its tail-swish spinning whirlpools, sliding against trees, sharking silently through cultivated fields of drowned ambition, turns a cold eye.



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