Streams of consciousness
‘February fill-dyke’ is a more than fitting epithet for a month that sees the sodden countryside fringed with patches of frost and ice, reflects John Lewis-stempel, before spotting a kingfisher, a native crayfish and an otter while in search of spawning t
While in search of spawning trout, John Lewis-stempel spots a kingfisher, a native crayfish and an otter
IT was around 10am and the sun was nuclear white, obliterating the familiar upturned hull of the Black Mountains in the windscreen, but the frost hated the blaring sun and, on the hillsides, hid beneath the hedges.
Driving up the Dulas valley, I had a sudden urge to see if the trout were spawning yet, so swung the Land Rover round and lurched up in the gateway of The Parks, a 40-acre traditional hay meadow owned by Herefordshire Wildlife Trust. The Dulas brook runs through the flat belly of the field, although in an untidy line, like a long abdominal scar left by a drunk surgeon.
Streams pattern this hillocky west edge of Herefordshire. Imagine a leaf, with small ancillary veins running into a central stem, and you have it. The streams are always working, saving us from drowning in winter or dying of thirst in summer. From the edge of The Parks, the mauve-hazed alder along the Dulas seemed an impenetrable honour guard; it was only when I was a yard or so away that the trees stood apart and let me, and the light, in.
On that February day, the edges of the brook were still, in places, hemmed with ice. Rains of winter had scourged the brook clean, so the water ran pure and clear over the green-and-pink pebbles. Nowhere was the brook more than 6in deep, except on the bends, where it formed bathtub pools. In the branches of bankside, trees were trapped in the invariable cacophony of the rainy season—sticks, boughs and plastic feed sacks. On one corner, where the floodwater had backed up the week before, the flotsam was dense enough to form a wooden wall. Fill-dyke, the old country epithet for February, is perfectly true.
I could see no sign of trout spawning, but from somewhere down the silvered stream came the zeep of a kingfisher, so I stood still, hunch-shouldered in imitation of a tired heron. The kingfisher flashed past, leaving an atomic particle of cobalt to die in the air behind it. As I turned to go, a dipper landed on a mid-stream boulder, curtsied politely (hence the name) in the manner of an aproned French waitress, before peering at her reflection in the water.
I had reflections of my own. People talk about the isolation of rural life, but, in touching the water of the Dulas, I was connected by a countless chain of molecules to people halfway round the world—the surfer at Brisbane, the fisherman on the Yangtse—by the World Watery Web.
A river enhances a landscape with visual glamour, but a brook is more lovely, more human-scaled. A brook is Pooh-sticks and fishing for Jurassic sticklebacks with DIY nets made from bamboo canes and your mother’s out-of-fashion tan tights. In a brook, you can, even as a toddler, plash around with a fishing net and catch fantastic creatures—water shrimps, bullheads and caddis worms in their delicate stick houses. Say ‘river’, and a grey shadow springs in the mind of an adult. Their next thought is ‘danger’ and, after that, ‘supervision’.
The poet W. H. Auden, not for the first time and not for the last time, got it right when he wrote these lines: ‘Dear water, clear water, playful in all your streams, As you dash or loiter through life who does not love/to sit beside you?’ Or stand. Due to the narrowness of a stream—the Dulas is not much more than 8ft across—nature is forced close to you, as you can stand patient, like a heron or a bankside alder.
On that day, I must have imitated a heron sufficiently to become the bird and enjoy its acuity of vision, as I suddenly noticed a tiny claw wave from under a stone. Plunging in, I lifted the rock. A mist of sediment arose and, as it dispersed, I snatched the stubby brown water scorpion by its midriff. Held gingerly between thumb and forefinger, the crayfish, which was about 2in long, tried in vain to nip my hand. And I was 10 again.
In Britain, white-clawed crayfish have become rare, courtesy of pollution and competition from immigrant, signal crayfish. One can no longer catch and eat the snacksome native crustacean as I did as child in the 1970s, so I placed it back beneath its stone home. (Our method of trapping the miniature lobsters was death-camp efficient: a stainless-steel bucket sunk in the streambed, with a bait of rotting meat. In fell the crayfish, never to climb the slippery sides.)
The Dulas brook never ceases running and farming never stops. I had heavily pregnant ewes to check over at Abbey Dore, but some caution in the ether told me to wait a minute more. The otter came lolloping along the opposite bank, dived into a slow pool and executed a trio of perfect barrel rolls. Then, it scrabbled out onto the shingle and shook itself dog-style.
I suppose some scent of me, some sight of me fritted it and it disappeared behind the spray-screen of droplets.i could see no reason for the otter’s sub-aquatic gymnastics other than sheer joie de vivre and pleasure in his own skill. All this took only a minute, if that. I was left listening to the music of the brook and the view of the water rushing prettily past.
John Lewis-stempel is the 2016 British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year (Specialist Interest & Business Brand). He is also the author of the ‘Sunday Times’ bestseller ‘The Running Hare’ and ‘Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field’, which won the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing