Words and pictures: Melissa Harrison
August, and I am once more in Dorset, luxuriating in a world that isn’t mine. Always the lush garden with its eight potted agapanthus and riotous vegetables; and around the old stone house the late summer fields. Always the chickens to manage, and the resident dog far bigger than my own – two dogs, in fact, this time. Always the vivid dreams of childhood, and the Perseids to look out for at night. And always, through these visits, through the years now, the river.
This year the water level is low. On my first day I sit on the little jetty at the end of the garden, shaded by trees, and dangle my feet; they only just skim the surface. It runs cold and clear and is full of tiny fish; but the riotous vegetation on the banks has its roots in dense alluvium over rich Kimmeridge clay. While the upper water may seem clear, the riverbed is veiled in fine, dark sediment, its depths lost almost entirely to view.
Of all the Augusts I’ve been here, 2016’s is easily the hottest. Day after day dawns clear and cloudless; I take to writing in the garden, or trying to, my pale London legs reddening all too quickly in the sun. Impossible not to wallow a little in nostalgia for the long lost summers of childhood; impossible, in this two-week sabbatical from the responsibilities of my urban, adult life, not to be beset by daydreams I do not trust.
I go down to the water and watch it slip by, and let my mind slow to the current’s pace. Coming away like this – being alone for long periods of time – isn’t just about having more hours each day to write. It’s about letting myself sink into a kind of reverie in which thoughts unfurl slowly and obscurely, sometimes over days; much of it happening deep below the surface, but necessary to the complex writing I have come away to do. I see no-one bar fellow dog-walkers and the cashier at the shop, and phonecalls seem to reach me from a very long way away. Twitter is company, when I need it, but I rarely put the radio on or watch TV. Voices and music and faces lift me back to the surface, to an easier but more fragmentary current of thought.
Sometimes writers are asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ It’s the kind of question there’s no way to answer without being disingenuously glib or unforgivably prolix. All I can point to is a kind of ongoing attentiveness that takes in both the deepest, darkest currents of the subconscious and the unexpected flashes that take place in conscious thought. To be attentive you must be willing to tolerate both fear and boredom; and able, too, to tolerate yourself.
Sometimes, when I am at the river, something unexpected happens. A moorhen swims past, hugging the far bank; from deep cover comes a robin’s subsong, intimate and rarely heard; a brown rat passes under my dangling feet, sculling fast and efficiently underwater. Several times on this visit I’ve heard the kingfisher call, then seen it flash past, glinting, over the water. I love these moments – not least because I can’t make them happen. I can only be there, alert, for when they do.
I want to get into the water, something I have never, in all my years of coming here, managed to do. Last year the soft mud of the bank defeated me, my feet sinking into sediment so bottomless I lost my nerve, worried about whether I could get out alone. This time I find a length of blue nylon rope and fasten it to a bankside hazel. I will haul on it should Shreen Water not easily let me go.
At the house, oddly lightheaded, I put on my costume and find a towel, unsure all the time if I’m really going to do it or whether the iciness of the water, or the depth of the mud, will defeat me. I consider dropping in off the jetty, but when I peer down I can’t see how deep it is, or what my feet might touch. It’s beautiful on the riverbank, and the sun sparkles on the water, but for me – alone, and never a strong swimmer – there’s an undertow of horror to what I’m about to do.
I grab the rope and step in at the bank, holding the jetty. It is shocking and wonderful, the bone-chill, the achievement, my heart high and hammering in my chest. Silt blooms out from me, a roiling cloud; I push out into it, then, gasping, tread water. I wanted to float on my back and look up at the sky, but already I know I can’t surrender that completely. I decide that it’s enough, for the moment, that I’m in.
Halfway out I put a tentative foot down. It meets what feels like brick; but the other foot finds only further depths. I pivot, exploratively, finding something smooth and curved (a ceramic outfall pipe?), and various unstable bits of wood. Kicking myself into a breaststroke my toes bang hard on something rough, barking the skin. My feet, I realise, are already aching from the cold. This is going to be a short dip.
The call comes just as I regain the little wooden jetty: a peep keen enough to carry over the sound of running water, like the otter’s high whistle or the dipper’s piccolo note. I hang onto the boards by my fingertips, looking downriver – but this time I am disappointed: the kingfisher does not appear.
The rope method is inelegant but it gets me out of the river, despite the bankside mud and slick roots clutching at my calves. I sit on the jetty, dripping black onto my towel. And then – a distinct splash off to my right.
A kingfisher is perched on an overhanging branch a few metres from the jetty, and it is hunting. Holy shit, holy shit! I whisper, casting around for the camera and the binoculars that, of course, aren’t there. Again it dives and emerges, as bullet-shaped and stub-tailed as a starling; between each foray a pause, then another surprisingly prodigious splash. Perhaps, I think, it’s come here not in spite of me, but because of me: to catch all the little fish my riverswim disturbed.
It’s a risk, but I shuffle backwards off the jetty and creep along the muddy bank; I want to see it in sunshine, see the light tease intense cyan from its back. Most vertebrates are unable to make blue pigment, and the kingfisher is no different; the colour of their feathers is actually murky brown. The azure we see is blue light reflecting from the feathers’ structure, a phenomenon known as the Tyndall effect. I need to see it now for my own peace of mind, because there’s a small part of me that can’t believe that this is really happening, to me, right now.
Another fish. Another. Its feathers dazzle blue and I’m laughing now, joystruck by the sheer gift of this encounter, glad I dared the dark water and so was there to see the bright bird fishing above.
Read Melissa’s previous pieces on Shreen Water here. Her latest book, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather is available in the Caught by the River shop, as are Spring and Summer – the first two books in a series of seasonal anthologies, published by E&T in conjunction with The Wildlife Trusts, and edited by Mel.