A River Runs Through it......














Rivers, or more accurately water, seems to have an almost gravitational pull on me. “Down by the river” or “Should we have lunch at Goats Water” are phrases of palpable appeal. Water can convert any journey into something more interesting, an afternoon walk round a lake, far better than round a football oval. The lexicon of water is different here, without pools, meres or ponds but rich in dams. No becks, burns, ghylls or rhylls, but we do have creeks - Dead Horse Creek being a favourite.

I don’t think that it is any surprise that on the times I have returned to the UK I have sought out the watery places that I once knew. As a kid I burnt the hours of youth fishing, staying at the water’s edge long past any hope of a memorable catch, of a catch worth boasting about the next day. The repetitive cast and recast of float fishing in a river - trotting for chub and barbel or if the truth be told, anything that came along. Even when I lived in the NE of England, in a city blighted by decline and the arrogance of government, I still sought out water. The North Sea at Roker beach on a Sunday morning, cold, even on a hot day. A glimpse of the cloudy Wear as it made its way to a sea once rich in fish but now haunted by the ghost of shoals long past and dying echo of industry.

After the Wear I moved to the Tyne, one valley north, to a town with a similar history and a broken river. The riverside was far from fashionable, but the shoots of regrowth could be seen in small, dark bars and cafes without chips on the menu. But it was not the lower Tyne that attracted me, with its oily water and public wastes. The Derwent was the river that held me there. Winding through oak woodland, shadowed by a dead rail line reborn as a country park. There were Dippers by the river, water beetles in the flooded bank-side grass and Stone Flies in the river rubble. Arching across the river was a viaduct that once carried the rail line, proof if it was needed that not all architecture brutalises the environment. In the scrub around its foundations we dug small pools which were soon rich with wildlife.

But further north again was a river like I had never really seen. The Coquet was almost untouched from source to sea. Neither dammed nor polluted you could cup it in your hands and drink it for most of its course. I never fished it, but I did kick the gravel and hold a net downstream to see what I found. Stone Flies well over an inch long marched up the mesh and thrashing in the nets depths were lamprey, jawless fish. It’s the only time I have ever seen them. Small trout flickered in the pools and the riffles bubbled with life. This was a pin point day, to be carried forward with you while other days fade, and if the truth be told I have no idea where I was, apart from the fact that I was on the Coquet, and we were, just, in a national park. I suppose with the means I could find the place again, but I know it won’t be the same - it couldn’t possibly be.

Then I moved was to a place with only one lake, which still confuses people by being The Lake District or The Lakes. Tarns, meres (some of which are windy), and waters were surrounded by thwait and ghylls. The names were stamped onto the landscape like the archaeology of settlement long gone. Almost every stone and step, brook and beck was named, open fell sides where water trickled, were named and held to valley farms and distant times. In places the water still flowed over wheels and was stored in dams that powered mills and hammers of industry. It may have been a national park, but it was not a natural park.


And then in the blink of an eye I was in one of the driest places on Earth - not admittedly in the dry heart - but a place that was dry enough to be in drought from most of the time I have been here. Australia. Much of the decade or more I have been in Australia has been dominated by the lack of water. And absence made the heart grow fonder. Whatever water there was had an even greater pull, and local dams, lakes and rivers had an almost irresistible pull on both me and the wildlife. Trips to the north where the rain still fell and the rivers flowed made me miss my own local patches of water even more. They were a holiday from an absence, wonderful and green, but distant and foreign despite the convenience of currency, conversation and road rules. Northern Australia was a foreign country and its boundaries were marked with flowing water and the fall of rain.

Closer to home I sought out smaller places where water gathered and in the half light of morning or the failing evening light some transformation comes over even these places. Ringed by footpaths, traversed by board-walks and studded with litter, these are not secret places by any means. But at times they manage to summon a spirit that makes a passing counterfeit of solitude.

Small fish dart in the water edge weeds, and larger ones swirl in the distance. Herons peck and stab in knee deep water, grey and silent, slow moving and graceful. A frog's worst nightmare, a fish's last sight. Ducks float and dive, gather where path meets water, waiting for bread, forsaking weed. Chestnut Teal, Pacific Black Ducks, sometimes Hardhead, more often than not large ducks with white neck rings and a farmyard history. Puddleducks on urban ponds, stories made real.

And around the water, with roots that can drink through the heat and the dust, trees and bushes grow that give shelter and food to creatures small and large. Swamhens, purple as a princess' robe, strut with confident ownership over reed beds and hated willow. Their cocky acclimatisation to human presence shattered by a lolloping dog, too far to chase them but wolf like enough to scare them. Grey Fantails in the bushes, busy, unstopping. Fairy wrens on the ground, a White Naped Honeyeater, Noisy Miners and Wattle Birds. Each one dashes with the urgency of food and mate and nest. Little Pied Cormorants dive and pop to the surface, always away from where you expect, always away from where you focus. All with the background of traffic noise and the whir of lycra clad cyclists and the pant of iPod runners. Such places may not be as well known as the wetlands of the north, people do travel half way round the world just to stand and stare, but they are still important. Little pockets of wetness, of wildness, of green, breaking the sweep of grey.

But of all the watery places I have been, one calls me back more strongly than any other. Not the Lakes with its grand views, well worn paths, poetry and history. Not the rivers of the north east. Not even the flooded lands and rich wildlife of northern Australia. The place I see most often in memory's eye are the pools that sit below the ancient landscape of Priddy. Sitting in a bowl in the limestone Mendip hills, with thick plants and the buzz of dragon flies. The hill top horizon is ringed with ancient barrows, grave sites that marked the boundary between the here and now and the hereafter. This is a landscape that has spoken to people for many thousands of years. Back in the time when knapping was something you did to flints, not something you did in the afternoon, this landscape, with its water and plants, with its dragons and fish, caused people to put down the tools that would feed the body and build structures that were about their understanding of the human condition. The need to have places that are more than just spaces, places that are special. Places that connect.

As a kid I spent hours there, catching obliging perch and the occasional rudd. This seems less popular now. But the frogs are still there, and I suppose the fish are too. Snakes slid through the grass, adders and grass snakes, probably brought by the frogs. Newts blundered, drunk, over sunken stems and in the grass by the willow - native here and welcome - orchids pushed spikes of purple flowers to the sky. A barn owl hunted the reed beds, a Merlin flashed past. Butter yellow flowers studded the grass, and down in the dip of the land you could catch the flash of water, rippled by the breeze.

In my own mind there is no clear division between the memory and the reality of these places, for believing a place to be so, may make it be so.

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. I am haunted by water”.

(With apologies to Norman Maclean)

and now they've seen the snow!

Snow is probably not the first word that comes to mind when people are asked to think about Australia. Beer, cricket, surf, spiders, kangaroos or koalas definitely . Leathery men with large knives, felling street criminals with well aimed cans a distinct possibility. But not snow. Here the wisdom of the crowd would fail, for snow is important to Australia. Maybe not in its extent or depth, but because it is a reminder of where Australia is from, and how much it is still connected to the snowy continent to the south - the Big Pav - Antarctica.

As Australia moves north, away from its southern roots, it’s easy to forget that it was once part of a greater southern land, ages ago in the distant past. The breakup of Gondwana, Australia’s ancestral home changed the present in ways we can still see, feel and understand. The Earth has the climate it does because of the fridge in the south - if Antarctica was ice free, the world would be a very different place. For Australia it has been 80 million years of movement, heading north. Antarctica, the stay at home member of the southern family, was isolated from its brothers and sisters as they started to wander the globe. And in its isolation it sat, surrounded by an encircling ocean, growing colder, colder and colder. Sail west at 40 degrees south and you could keep going until to you return to where you started. A merry-go-round of sea and salt, wind and waves. The white of the continent cools the air and drives weather systems that echo around the world. Many ocean currents have their birth in the cold waters of the Antarctic; the push of cold saline waters drives the water around the world. So, how is the white continent linked to the red one? Hobart - the southern-most of the state capitals – no further from the coast of Antarctica than it is from Fremantle. And the waters of the Southern Ocean lap along the south coast of Australia. Sitting near the end of this southern boundary is Melbourne, the largest city in the world on an east/west shoreline. Our weather is pushed by pressure systems born in the Antarctic boundary zone. They bring cold in the winter and refreshing cool in the summer.


For many, both continents must represent the ends of the Earth, the last truly great landmasses to be explored. I live in one and hope, one day, to see the other. Chance brought me here and I hope history does not rob me of the chance to see the other. But water is running on the white continent where it has never been seen before. The clock is ticking.
Much closer to home it has been nose drippingly cold. Air rushes west as Antarctica sighs out one last winter breath, cold, bringing rain to the coast and snow to the hills. The window on the mountain world - the snow cams - have been icing up invitingly, and the temperature stayed has stayed low. The weekend approaches, and local snow becomes a possibility, a probability and finally a plan. Excitement grows in the small people. Snow is frequent in their books, but to them is it also an unknown. It could just as well have been the dark side of the moon, known but unreachable. Snow ball fights, snow men, snow angels, sledge runs; a winter that actually looks like the ones in the important imported books.

We headed for the hills, departing from home before 9am was a Sunday novelty. More than normal the kids wanted to be there as soon as we had left. “Are we there yet?” The hills that flank the north west of Melbourne are not impressive by world standards, but they are the first to be buffeted by the wind from Antarctica, and snow falls. As we drove further from home the temperature slowly fell, dipping into single figures, falling, falling, falling. We were in the forests before we were in the snow lands. Damp and mossy, with streams rushing with welcome winter rain, branch drips smack the windscreen, the road dark and shiny even in the dull light of a grey day.



Then a sharp turn, and the climbing began in earnest. Mud splashes, the singing hiss of wet roads, the tyre rumble of unmade roads. And then by the side of the road were the remains of snow ploughed piles, and my kids had seen the snow. But this snow was nothing like the pictures, dark and angular, thick with road surface stones and dirt. It was melting in ways that were both angular and curved at the same time. Strange snow sculptures. Soon patches of snow sat back from the road's edge and nestled in the crooks of tree branches. Icing the trees and ferns like sugar cakes, the faint sparkle of winter decoration. This was the snow we had come to see.

The car park was covered in hot chocolate mud and was not a pleasant place to be, stirred by the wheels and feet of Sunday visitors, cars like mine, boots like mine. The kids - fully equipped from shin height to wrist - jumped into the snow with both feet and soon regretted it. The chinks in the clothing armour soon resulted in cold hands and wet feet. In books children play all day in the bright white snow, but the reality for the casually dressed and wearers of gum boots (or Wellingtons, or more often wellies as I still think of them - a cultural marker as plain as the nose on my face and the accent in my voice) is that they are soon cold and need some TLC and dry socks.



The snow slopes are rich with footprints and the calls of children - some happy and some not so happy. Chilled feet and sausage fingers are par for the course. The sun refuses to shine, and relief is found in hot fruit juice and chocolate. And then a little bit more chocolate.

Wildlife is not abundant, but if you stand still and wait things become clearer. On the edge of the forest a single Crimson Rosella sits in the snow, claiming scraps from a picnic. From a distance it looks like the ground is bleeding. The white of the snow seems to cut back all shades with its reflected light. But under the trees there is a change; even the snow looks green, from the reflection of the leaves. Looking back out from the trees to the open land the snow seems grey, but when you arrive there it looks blue. A single eucalyptus leaf sits on the snow, and in the lea side shelter of rock, moss and ferns push through the snow. Ice coats the base of the trees, fingering its way along lines of bark. Under the trees there are far fewer footprints - the myth of the deep, dark forest, that will baffle and confuse, seem to be alive and well.

                                                    

I was born in the spring of a cold winter. I was carried through deep snow the like of which had not been seen for years, and would not be repeated until this year. My mother always claimed that’s why I prefer cold to heat, as if some element of cold had been taken in during that long winter. The snow lingered under the hedgerows, in the dark of a shadow. In the sun it was spring, but in the shade it was still winter. If you turned away from the sun you would have been looking into the past, with the future now behind you. If you walked in a circle you would have seen both past and present in a single journey.


                                                   

But my mother may have had a point, snow brought with it a cold that would seep into each and every corner of the house, and you either embraced it or you fought it. And to fight against such a force is futile. But what does remain is the abiding sense of surprise that can come from a warm house on a cold night.

My kids began to lose interest in the snow at about the same time they began to lose contact with their fingers and toes again. I think about the layers and layers I used to wear as a kid, and the layers I wore in the mountains in winter. Both out of necessity, but one much more fun than the other. Snow on the hills gives a place a real sense of depth, and it stays white as it melts, it does not turn grey, or worse, like city snow. It does not become decorated with the wreckage of Friday night fights or splattered with the excess of Saturday. Snow on the hills, with clear air and warm feet, it’s just about as good as it gets.


Sometimes you can come to snow as a guest and it lays a kind of veil over what you can see. So, for me at least, Ohio is a place of snow, pale trees and, sometimes, stunning blue skies. I have little idea what lies beneath the winter cover, as I have only seen the place in its winter clothes. How does it dress when winter is over, when it puts on its flush of spring colour? It seems a place where snow heaps against the back door and raccoon prints loop around the barbeque. It is a place where birds gather round winter feeders and icicles drip from buildings under clouded skies. Because I have not seen anything else, Ohio is winter and snow and coffee on the way to school. Inside the white house I stayed in (a white house – not THE white house!) it was many other things, but outside it was winter.



I’m glad my kids have now seen the snow, but I’ll make sure that their feet stay warm next time.

Now for some mountains ……………