Conversations with Streams

Today we publish two writers contemplating the significance of streams within different territories. 'Cracks', by Daniel Rathbone, follows the Braamfontein Spruit as it meanders through the urban sprawl of Johannesburg, confronting history and liminality along its path. 'Chalk Stream Lullaby', from Clare Crossman on the banks of the river Mel in Cambridgeshire, is a meditation on our connection with rural waterways, accompanied by an extract from her film and community project 'Waterlight'.
Daniel is a Johannesburg-based pedestrian. He is trying to find new ways to see and be in his home city. Clare is a poet living in Cambridgeshire. She has published four collections of poetry with Shoestring Press and engages in practical and creative projects focused on local landscapes and nature.


 The northern suburbs of Johannesburg are a strange place. From afar it would like a forest, leafy and green in the summer, a major shift from the rolling grassland that defines the Highveld. At a street-level it forms a grid of properties mostly for the well-to-do, secured by high walls and electric fencing that snaps whenever an errant branch brushes past. Cars speed through, comfortable and air-conditioned, ferrying passengers between home and mall. Only those who cannot afford anything else walk with any regularity, and to do so makes one feel almost like an anomaly. 

On foot, at a slower pace that seems alien to the city, you begin to notice things about its form. Not just the legacies of a rigid segregation along race and class, but the fractures that reveal the movements in-between: flattened frogs just short of their destination; the bones of birds baked onto the asphalt; a pole which has rusted open, swarming with bees. It is rough, fractious; a different entity to the newly-made modernist homes, monochrome boxes with tinted windows. There are cracks everywhere, but it is easy to ignore when the world seems to be designed around a particular type of person’s convenience.

It is easy to ignore things, especially when it does not fit into the neat boundaries we have made.

I live near the Braamfontein Spruit, a tributary of the Juskei River which winds its way from south to north, all the way to the Crocodile River in Limpopo – a long, meandering trip to the Indian Ocean. The spruit, ‘The spring of brambles’, runs from the city centre, flowing out into the leafy northern suburbs. Unlike the Juskei, the spruit more or less resembles as it always was; not walled in by concrete, but washing over ancient rock along a gentle path that has been shaped over millennia. It is one of the more interesting green spaces of the city, a mix of park, wetland conservation and pedestrian thoroughfare. All while under the gaze of the massive electricity pylons that stretch on above, powering the city. It is a place both earthbound and industrial, its contours shaped by subtle flow of the stream, its boundary demarcated by the roads and wires that mark out the city, the shuddering nerves on weathered bones. 

The spruit has become an unusual public park, a slender green space that winds its way north through some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city, a sliver of water breaking through the lawn and concrete. Like many parks and green spaces in Johannesburg, there is a reputation for being unsafe, insecure. Public space has an association with crime and violence here, so those who can afford to have cut themselves off, hiding behind gated streets and electric fences. Only in the last few years has there been a shift in attitude, which brings with it a particular kind of rejuvenation. Jaunty signs along pathways, private security patrols, clean-ups that attend to graffiti as much as the litter that lines the high-water mark. It is a sort of green gentrification, mapping out the space safely for those who would otherwise avoid it. 

 It is a place both earthbound and industrial, its contours shaped by subtle flow of the stream, its boundary demarcated by the roads and wires that mark out the city, the shuddering nerves on weathered bones. 

Not that this was some wild space in the heart of the city. Trees are regularly cut so as not to grow into cabling that dangles above, and squat concrete manholes dot the surrounding fields, the dank openings leading to the storm water drains that bring all the detritus down into the stream. The water sometimes has a sudsy quality, suffused with plastic and other chemicals that indicate that deeper saturation of the man-made in the environment. Like many other waterways, it seems to be taken for granted for the most part; a dumping ground to wash away our waste and sins.

Yet where would Johannesburg be without it?

Most seem to forget the role that water has had in shaping this place, even if its human history is more dusty, defined by the extractive processes of mining. The whole of the Witswatersrand – the white waters ridge – is named for the trickling streams found in the rocky hills, and it once formed a large shallow sea millions of years ago. The build-up of sediment resulted in the quartz-bearing rock and an abundance of gold from which the city of Johannesburg would spring up from. Yet even before that, the farm and smallholdings that dotted the landscape before the gold rush were nourished by the small streams and rivers. Nothing so dominating like the Thames, but still integral to the communal life of all the people who have made this place their home. Now most of these waterways are canaled over, like so many minor tributaries in other cities. Yet they still flow all the same, that gentle powerforce of water and gravity.

For all the encroachment, there exists a rawness that no amount of suturing can cover up. It is not picturesque, but the romantic notions of country streams do not reflect the importance of waterways in our day-to-day. The spruit still has that primordial pull that draws people to it. On Sundays you can see dog walkers go past the Zionist church groups dressed in white robes, their new congregants being baptised in the the murky brown water. They are drawn to this interstitial space, wedged between formalised properties and gated parks, and here they are reborn into the world, cleansed. That connection to this place has been forgotten by most it seems, but it is still open to those who are willing to wade into its muddy banks and embrace it.

It will outlast the plastic and steel girders; outlast the city as it becomes another stratum on the earth. It is a crack in the city now, but it is more integral to the nature of this place than any building that forms the skyline. It encapsulates that timelessness to the world we often forget. It breaks through the surface, manifesting where we least expect it, but it is there. To be able to look beyond what we want to see and into those fractures, is a step in acknowledging the world as it is: both the damage we have done, and the resilience of these places. To peer into the rough edges, and find a way to connect to the world that is, and always will be, there.


– Daniel Rathbone

Chalk Stream Lullaby 

River Mel in the mist (still from ‘Waterlight’ by Nigel Kinnings

 Rivers are never still, even when it seems nothing is happening. Everything that comes close to them is reflected and carried. There is sailing, swimming, wading and drowning. Rivers are carriers of life and death.

There’s a chalk stream at the back of our South Cambridgeshire village of Meldreth. It is surrounded by woods and fields. A small tributary of the shallow contemplative Cam, it’s called the River Mel. At the source the water is crystal clear due to a high mineral content and the stream brims with water parsnip and the leaves of the trees which lean towards its surface.

For a long time I became part of its hydrosphere; that conversation between soil water, ground water and plants.  It was a place to go slowly, to look and hear the sounds. To be part of the movement of water. 

In 2000 myself and my husband moved to Cambridgeshire from Cumbria in the north where the rivers are broad and wild. They stampede and rush through the landscape, cutting a great path down from the fells to the sea. The landscape of Cambridgeshire is a stark contrast and in looking for wild places I discovered quickly that I was never far from a different kind of water.

The footpath along the river extends over to the next village. The river itself meandering. For a long time I became part of its hydrosphere; that conversation between soil water, ground water and plants.  It was a place to go slowly, to look and hear the sounds. To be part of the movement of water. 

There is restoration in being able to ramble in any direction along the stream. As flowing water seems to sing to itself: everything passes, everything changes. Its gentle rush feels like a lullaby. It never freezes. Chalk streams stay at a constant temperature, the warm water meeting the icy air, giving it a mystery. Water one atom of oxygen, twos atom of hydrogen. From Proto Germanic wod or wed meaning wet. Becoming Old English waeter. This small stream part of the hydrosphere of 1.338 billion cubic kilometres, connecting the flow of all the rivers and lakes in the world. No wonder the Greek philosophers named water as one of the four elements. No wonder its mystery is linked in astrology to healing, intuition, nurturing. In ancient European cultures many travellers carried a coin in their pocket to pay the ferryman, to cross a river from a bank to which they would never return.

The Mel once boasted nine mills. Centres of society for flour, for fish, for washing, drinking and conversation. Central to the life of the village; children played on its banks all day making rafts and catching stickleback. The demands of agriculture on an industrial scale have led it to be lost sometimes now, between steep banks to stop flooding.

This part of Cambridgeshire is sinking under traffic, new houses, and the cutting down of trees, plus overuse of aquifers for abstraction. We have moved from growing up with the same people, and living in the same place, to a transient, time-poor society. If we lose our connection with the natural world we are lost. Rivers have their own stories and if they vanish, all the myths attached to them become like the faint letters carved into the Ogham stones and we will both be forever lost.


– Clare Crossman

Waterlight Film

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.


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  1. Beautiful essays both, capturing the essence of what streams are everywhere, and giving a taste of what these particular streams are to their places on earth. Thank you.


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