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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Bannister

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