Lucy Anna Scott
Posted on 16/08/2019
Lately I’ve been enjoying as many evening walks as I can along a stretch of river near my house. The sun lingers long with the day and it is a precious time. But now the June solstice has passed I value it more intensely. So whatever is happening in my life, I always head out to revel in the fleeting wonder of summer nightlight.
Being by the river gives me a sense of space that’s so soothing. For me this space is an antidote to the claustrophobia of being a responsible adult, the feeling that the older you become the narrower the possibilities seem. An expanse of water, with its mutability, its never-ending flow, forever free and ever onward to some distant place, inspires me like nothing else.
I feel this sense of renewal most acutely at the tail end of the day. When the boat traffic dwindles and waterfowl nest down for the night, the river speaks to me more clearly about the ever-present poetry that dwells beneath distraction.
The river near me is tidal and therefore in a constant cycle of change, expanding into the grassy banks or retreating from them, always in pursuit, it seems, of a change of depth. Although I have discovered that smaller events on the river are equally mesmeric.
A moment’s pause
One evening this week I went out to the river following a rainstorm. In the canopies of trees that hung over a wide shallow pool by the river’s edge I noticed drops of water – gathering remains of the afternoon showers – slipping to the tips of leaves and falling to the water.
I stood and traced them as they bloomed, from drops on the still surface of the pool into countless circular ripples. And as they overlapped each other across the water’s surface, like flower buds opening their faces to the sun, I was captivated.
This motion put me at ease, as new patterns appeared and faded. Following the circles and their rhythmic efforts outwards, I felt space opening in my restless mind, halting its routine game of spinning a few thoughts upon the same spot. I focussed on one circle at a time and exhaled, trying to breath out for as long as it lasted, repeating, repeating and repeating. It just felt so good.
Being alone during these evening walks also allows me to hear the river and its inhabitants. This is something I rarely find possible when I’m there in the day, marching down the towpath with my kids and friends (and their kids!) on the way to another destination, caught up between chatting and corralling children into a semblance of order.
But without distraction I’ve become aware that so much of the movement within and around the river makes practically no sound at all, at least not to my ears. A fish wending its way through the water; those eddies that swirl; the tints of light that glide so swiftly over the vegetation; the water boatmen that glide; the blade of grass as it bends with the weight of a dragonfly in an emerald suit. And up in the sky, colours falling through colours and bats navigating this river world with barely a fuss.
It’s refreshing to witness such elegant, silent motion through time; a counterpoint to our human society, where proving you exist can sometimes feel to me like a mission to make a whole lot of noise.
But here, nothing is doing anything for show and, feeling free from buggies and wild children, I like to lie down in the grass under a huge willow on the banks, my legs stretched out and up on its trunk. Lazing there one evening recently, I gazed up at the tree stooped over me like an old giant and began to wonder about all those litres of water being perpetually drawn upwards, from the soil through the roots to the foliage and out into the air above.
As I lay there I thought about the mechanics of this process – water moving up through tall trees against the force of gravity – all without any pumps or moving parts. Baffled, I pictured all that water rising in the trunk, being pulled to the leaves in unbroken threads. I sat up and rested my head on the bark, feeling energised by the close presence of this awesome feat of natural engineering.
Later at home, as the skies settled down to their nightshift, I looked for more information on my bookshelves. Literature on the subject suggests scientists have long been vexed by the question of how water physically moves through trees like, how Darwin put it, “ropes of sand”.
And I found a quote by the chemist JS Rowlinson. “Water is unique in its importance and properties,” he wrote. “No other substance has been the subject of so much study and speculation, nor has any been harder to understand at a molecular level.” Water eludes us all. I love that. But as mysterious as it still is, I will always leave the river with more knowledge than when I arrived, and never more so than when the towpaths fall silent in the summer evening light.
Lucy Anna Scott co-created Lost in London, an indie magazine celebrating all that is wild, natural and beautiful about the city, and is the author of Mindful Thoughts for City Dwellers (2018)