Sometimes I hold world in one hand, my life
in the other and I get cricks in my neck
as the balance keeps swinging, I walk uneasily.
– Cath Drake: ‘How I hold the world in this climate emergency’ (The Shaking City)
Most Mondays for the past ten months, the group has been surveying the area of the Wensum Valley which would be affected (for affected, read devastated) by a Norwich Western Link road and dualling of the A47 that’s being proposed by Norfolk County Council. Ours is a citizen science project, and we are the citizens who came forward: a small assembly of expert botanists, professional surveyors, scientists, artists, photographers and the occasional amateur person (like me) who wanted to learn, and maybe help.
This is an area of brilliant biodiversity, containing a mosaic of diverse habitats which is unique to Norfolk – and therefore the world. The river Wensum is a Grade A or ‘outstanding’ example of a chalk stream, which makes it an SAC (Special Area of Conservation), and therefore of instant international significance. Of around 200 chalk streams in the world, 160 of them are in the southern half of England, and most of the lowland ones in Norfolk.
The area we survey is quilted with ancient woodland and veteran trees; houses an endangered species of snail, the vanishing indigenous white-clawed crayfish, and the biggest super-colony of the rare barbastelle bat in the country. It has a smaller chalk bed river nearby which we find to be of such high purity that it’s of equal importance to the Wensum. We survey individual oaks which date back to the 1400s. The road hasn’t been approved yet. The knowledge that there’s still a chance to stop it, by creating a real, deep, scientifically verifiable map and analysis of this landscape, sends us out week after week, determination outpacing despair, the valley itself insinuating its way into our systems, somewhere between a new friend and a long-lost relation.
This Monday, day of the IPCC report and day spent journeying downriver, became totemic even as it was unfolding. It was a day of heavy rain and glowing sun, slow beauty and fast melancholy.
Our four rolling inflatable canoes were lashed together, in a solution both eccentric and practical which meant we could continue conferring and spotting side by side, as we do on dry land, without ending up separated by the current.
On the way there, I’d heard the news on the radio: such very bad, very big climate crisis news that it replaced the Olympics as the lead story; actually, the Olympics had ended the previous night, so now there was space for the climate emergency. And the news was not news: that we are probably screwed, definitely in huge trouble, and seem to be succeeding in laying waste to our biosphere. Not news, this, but hearing it on the news made it more true, more official; it created a new groundswell of panic that felt like it would now take up permanent residence.
There on the Wensum we were avoiding, swilling with, parallel to, circling and pivoting around this towering cliff-edge of news. Crouching on the surface of the water, tucking ourselves into it. We were held by the uncomplaining river, which turned a gashed, gun-metal grey in the beautiful rain, and was a dark clear green otherwise – its quiet self, this Monday afternoon, with the silky ribbons of its submerged weeds flowing by beneath us like racks of neckties in a flood.
Wensum comes from the Old English word wendsum, meaning ‘winding’. Here, the river was indirect, uninterested in going from A to B. We were about three-quarters of the way along its gentle, 50-mile flow across the flatlands from Fakenham, to just south of Norwich, where it converges with the Yare and joins the sea at Yarmouth. Its meander was quite something – this was a very slow way to go. We covered three miles in four hours. If the plans go ahead, there will be an 18-metre high flyover crossing the river in years to come, bearing traffic at speed over our heads, just above where our flotilla nosed and drifted, right at the spot of an old ford – a river crossing from medieval times or earlier. The ghost of the ford is still discernible: a low dimple at each side of the water.
If the plans go ahead, there will be an 18-metre high flyover crossing the river in years to come, bearing traffic at speed over our heads, just above where our flotilla nosed and drifted
After an hour, we nudged into an inlet and ate our sandwiches, in the rain, in a bower of rushes and reeds, willow, watercress and water forget me-not. With the sky darkened, the greens of high summer popped against its dark grey clouds. An abundance of trees and plants grazed the water, pointed towards the sky, ran with the river, cushioned the view.
I mentioned the IPCC report. In the next boat my neighbour – an artist in her 70’s and a staunch comrade from Extinction Rebellion actions – said that she was going to have a little cry. She opened her umbrella to hide her face, turned her head away, and looked upriver. We stayed silent for a while. Water coming down from the sky, up from under us, leaking out from her eyes. Water supporting us, just the other side of the cold rubber that we sat in. Colours vivid, textures encircling, here in this little belly of dripping, plopping life.
The head surveyor talked about that part of aquatic plants called the ‘holdfast’, which roots them to the floor; how strongly rooted some water plants have to be to withstand the tonnes of water flowing past every minute of every hour of every day. She talked about the liverwort kingdom; the starwort community. We were firmly in our parallel, low-down world. These plant terms were comforting, but stark too, in showing what we stand to lose: whole communities, whole kingdoms.
Someone passed a water figwort over from the next boat. I held the botanical magnifier to it. We came eye to eye. The blossom itself was perhaps the size of a lentil. Five times magnified through the glass, a spectacularly exotic, sumptuous miniature snapdragon of a flower was revealed: plasma-red with a buttercream trim, immaculately ordered, existing with exquisite beauty in its own tiny corner of reality here, on the end of a stem that branched off a stalk, in this nook of this stretch of the Wensum.
I felt the dissonance of co-existing realities very acutely that day: us in our tunnel of greens; the actual near-perfection of our surroundings – the work of the survey, the close looking, plumbs us in to this every time – and, to choose the most glaring and present visual global example that day, the images of the wildfires in Evia in Greece: the horizons scarlet like Biblical oil paintings beyond the picture windows of the retreating cruise liners.
Our safety in this moment versus what others are already experiencing, and what is to come in the future here: sitting with this, your brain bumps against a brick wall. I repeatedly felt my head hinge open and come to a standstill, the same way the littlest, lightest boat in our flotilla kept getting spun by the current and pivoting slowly to the bank, where it would point into it, wedged. Movement, like thought, coming to a stop, defeated. I was freezing with panic, like the creature I basically am.
Lying in bed that night, I face out in to the steady rain beyond the walls of the house, still feeling in my body the forward motion – jerky-smooth, push-pull – of the rowing of the oars of the canoe earlier on: four hours in the barrelling, steady lap of the Wensum. I see the stripes of river weed massing when I shut my eyes, and I feel the being-carried, and the work too, and I hear the rain – the rain like static outside the open window.
Here in East Anglia, we’ve had plenty of rain this year. Last winter, a friend’s house flooded for the first time in the 40 years she’s been living there. Houses became islands. The shopping mall flooded last month. Neither rain nor sun are necessarily pleasant these days. It’s capable of raining like a switch is broken; like a bombardment; like the sky is trying to rid itself of all the water it has, all at once. It’s capable of raining hard enough to curl a tarmac road up like a strip of chewing gum.
My partner, in response to my spilling this on him earlier in the evening, said: ‘Well, we’ve known this for ages, really, so let’s enjoy ourselves now.’ I love and envy his levity, which keeps me afloat. But I can only borrow it, temporarily; try it on like someone else’s jacket. It isn’t mine.
The rain has eased. Now it’s like a rustling, a creak of a floorboard as someone departs.
I think about how much I want to build the community we need for the times that are to come. I want to survive this mentally, so that I can play my part. I want to access the wisdom and steadiness I need. I don’t want to lose it. I want the river and its valley to stay alive. I don’t want to lose it. I fall asleep, and sleep the sleep of a person who’s safe and dry on a rainy night.
Two weeks later, we’re finishing the survey of the common at Ringland. It’s a mosaic of little, co-existing communities: marsh yielding to pasture yielding to classic Norfolk swamp, all abutting the river and its series of ditches, some of which are marked on maps going back hundreds of years. We’re on an ancient pilgrimage route that ends at Walsingham; a mile upriver used to stand a well dedicated to St Walstan, our local saint, patron saint of farming Post-enclosure, this land used to be heavily grazed. Nowadays it’s down to one small flock of sheep, and two cream-coloured cows, who occasionally wander over and try to eat our raincoats.
I’m holding a little soft flower that looks a bit like a dwarf dandelion – at first sight, it’s not much more than a scrap of yellow held between my thumb and finger. But when dived-into via the portal of the magnifying glass, a rumpled room is revealed: a room that somehow makes me think of a secret chamber in a palace. This bower of the flower is built of fork-tipped petals that swoop upwards, like brush-strokes in cyan yellow, each one shielding a stamen in dark orange. This flower is autumn hawkbit, apparently
This diving-in sensation the magnifier gives is a journey into a new territory. A safari inwards, it’s especially appropriate for a post-lockdown mind. When these worlds within worlds open out in front of you, the world shrinks right down, down and in, to something held between the tips of your fingers. The knowledge of how far in you could zoom is dizzying, and has an exalting effect. I dive in and in and in.
The stalk of a dock, gazed along from head to tip in close-up, discloses bunches of seeds like saddle bags all the way along it. A fern can be divided, sub-divided and divided again, until you are looking at the clusters of red spores, like the pustules of a rash, that live underneath its blades. These intricate worlds, hiding in plain sight, are rich to see, and easy to fall in love with. You’ve stepped into a place you couldn’t otherwise reach, like the moment when you duck under the surface of the sea. Crouched on the marsh, I’m journeying.
By this discovering and recording, we seem to greet each species of plant that lives here. It lives here, as beautiful as it is overlooked or unseen. Gathering this evidence, we’re representing a community of plants which is silent, and almost as everywhere as air. Then we move on, and they remain, growing here, playing their part; a knitted-together orchestra.
‘And do the plants look back at YOU, do you think?’
A friend asks me this, and I realise although I hadn’t articulated it, I probably do think so. How does it feel to these plants to be looked at so closely, so attentively, on these Mondays in 2021? I hope they know we’re here. I find that I want them to notice our noticing; to feel the love and appreciation that rolls out of me – as if we’re two consciousnesses meeting.
This panpsychism is hard to avoid, and seems to be part of the medicinal effects of this surveying. As the weeks pass, the sense of sentience around us gets stronger. When autumn approaches, and the fungi start to arrive, we are eyeballed by shaggy inkcaps which push out of the ground like reporters’ microphones in our peripheral vision, find colonies of chicken-in-the-woods that glow and beckon across meadows: beacon-like, coral-ish, brain-ish, with palpable presence. We stumble across puffballs that are bigger than our heads.
‘People don’t go round with books and magnifying glasses in Ringland very often,’ says one of my botanist colleagues, and I ask if it’s possible they might find new versions of some species, in doing this work. She says yes; it’s happened already on the survey. They’ve found ‘intermediate species’ – ones that are demonstrating ‘speciation’: forming new species in the course of evolution. Ones that haven’t previously been recorded. We don’t know what we may find, in the process of this kneeling, looking and recording – almost as if we’re not in the Wensum Valley but Papua New Guinea.
The survey is incredibly patient work. The botanists can easily spend half an hour over a plant – a fern, a dock, a reed – comparing three or four different reference books, checking leaf and stalk formation in near-microscopic detail to try and identify it precisely. Puzzling over cryptic indicators: determining whether its branchlets are unbranched, or checking for a cortex. Until, eventually, after meticulous examination, a consensus: ‘Capsules shining, blackish! Shall we go for Articulatus, then? Jointed rush?’ And we move on. This meticulous attention to detail is crucial if our survey is to make any impact.
The survey leader always uses the Latin names, but there’s something affectionate and irresistible about the common names: the intimate moniker of the plants speak to humans’ long relationship with them, as well as our need to analogise, and bring them into our own realm of experience. So we have lady’s smock – also called cuckooflower, as it flowers when the cuckoo starts to call. Or when it used to: like autumn hawkbit, these names come from a time when seasons and their markers were steadier; species more plentiful. The books, we realise, were written when these plants were common – when biodiversity was such that an English botanist might expect to see all 2000 plants contained here in a lifetime of looking.
It strikes me that we are cataloguing as a way of keeping control, as if by this charting, we are preserving. Distilling the precious, precarious present on paper, to fend off solastalgia. My colleagues here talk quite casually of ‘the zone of devastation’: the path of the proposed new road. The maps we use have it traced over, a ghost of a possible future. A future which may not include the autumn hawkbit and its rumpled, silky rooms.
It is steadying, in frightening times, to stop on the marsh like this and zoom in; to get lost in the leaf structure of one speedwell
It is steadying, in frightening times, to stop on the marsh like this and zoom in; to get lost in the leaf structure of one speedwell. It helps, this stopping, this kneeling and looking; this acquainting. The patient puzzling-away my colleagues do, ascertaining what species a particular plant is, while essential for the purposes of the survey, also feels like an excuse to linger with the plant a while, to fix it in the eye and the heart – and within our own beings. Looking up, zooming out again, stepping away, is hard – but the steadying stays with me, and the new way of looking; this deepening awareness of our neighbours, our quiet relatives. The thought of the County Council winning, and the road being built, has become viscerally distressing. It makes me squeamish.
I leave early today, and look back across the bright marsh at my two remaining colleagues, who are bent over something of interest by the reed-lined ditch. They look suddenly so small, and the habitat around them so big and all-enveloping. They look like something you might peer at through a pair of binoculars, on a safari. Huge beside the hawkbit, tiny under the sky. All of us trying not to lose it.
We return to the marsh in early December 2021, as we’ve heard that some machinery has moved in. Sure enough a fenced garrison has sprung up, with glinting efficiency. It encloses JCBs, bags of cement, piles of more fencing, lengths of wide tubing; a Portaloo. Plastic roading and metal tracks have been securely bolted to the ground leading down to the marsh and alongside the river, and a temporary but hefty metal bridge has been flopped out over one of the ancient drainage ditches, to enable heavy machinery to make its way through. The ditch’s sides are freshly scraped, some hedgerow uprooted. The garrison is for ground survey work; this is a speculative colonisation. But a colonisation nonetheless.
Floating in the water by the pop-up bridge is a dead swan, in the centre of an area of straw-like debris. She’s folded up on herself, beak still tucked into the groove of her wing; she died in her sleep, it seems.
It’s a bright day of sun and rain – a winter echo of our flotilla day. There’s a rainbow, whose wide foot lands on the far side of the valley, between two oaks, right where there’d be a roundabout if the road goes ahead. What is written? We don’t know. It is shocking to witness even this much of an invasion into our beloved space. But it’s not a done deal. We will continue trying.
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling
A great article by Joanna Guthrie who, on her daily journey along the Wensum River, takes a look at the landscapes, living beings, animals, plants and opens our eyes and our imagination to discover what is around us.
A much-needed exercise, especially when connected to this world of fast-paced and ever-changing news without any criteria, from the Olympics to the presentation of environmental reports such as the IPCC.
It has made me feel alive and able to discover every day the life that rebels and insists on showing itself to us if we are able to discover it.
Joanna Gunthrie captures what it feels like to be more observant with nature and helps magnify the rightful place these plants have in this world. may her efforts to protect the Wensum River be successful.