Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Katherine Price

Katherine Price | 22nd December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Katherine Price:

It’s been a year of water, sea and river and ice.

It starts in Cornwall at New Year. Out past the surfers hanging about for the right wave, the resident pod of dolphins leaps across St Ives Bay. At Carrick Du the gannets plunge into the wild sea and the wind is so strong you can almost lie down and it keeps you standing. I’m thinking: all’s well with the world.

In spring, a huge flock of lapwings mass and billow over the meadow by the River Severn at Slimbridge and a jack snipe shapeshifts in the reeds below, and I’m thinking: yes, all’s well with the world.

Then in early summer, in Berchtesgaden National Park in south eastern Germany, I climb for four hours to pay homage to the Blau Eis, the most northerly glacier in the alps. It is shrunken and feeble and will disappear soon. The perfect little alpine scree plant, Thlaspi rotundifolium, that I photograph below the glacier’s senile snout, may not survive the competition of the lower altitude plants that will soon invade this lunar landscape.  I’m thinking: the world is sick.

I didn’t watch Blue Planet. I don’t watch telly anyway, mainly because technology has advanced so fast I can’t work out how to, and also I find nature documentaries too painful to bear (even with the mute button on). But Blue Planet made waves. The Daily Mail runs headlines I agree with. I’m thinking: the world is truly turning upside down.

High summer brings Tete a Tete’s annual festival of contemporary opera. At a pond on Hampstead Heath I meet composer Catherine Kontz and librettist Sarah Grange. They have made Fleet Footings, a sonic treasure hunt following one of London’s lost rivers, the Fleet, from where it rises on the Heath to where it meets the Thames at Blackfriars. Drought means the first stages of the river are dry, but it is still traceable through ‘the curves of streets, the names of roads and – if you listen hard enough – the sound of it still flowing beneath your feet…’ and at 17 points along its ghostly six mile path, we stop and listen to their work through headphones (you can download the album and the map).  Even in the 13th century the monks were writing to the king complaining about how the Fleet stank. 250 years ago, for reasons of health and safety, the open sewer was bricked up and hidden. I’m thinking: we’ve been fucking up the world for a long time.

Late summer to Salthouse, north Norfolk, to remember Geraldine, ten years on from her death. A walk across the salt marsh to the shingle bank and a wicked playful wind makes throwing her ashes into the sea quite tricky. The shingle bank was constructed after the 1953 flood, to protect the coast.   But a clearer understanding of the shift and flux of our shores, combined with climate change modelling, means the authorities have changed their ideas. The shingle bank is being left to time and tide and weather. It is shrinking too, like the Blau Eis, breaking up, dispersing. Geraldine’s favourite poem was Snow, by Louis MacNiece.

World is suddener than we fancy it/World is crazier and more of it than we think/Incorrigibly plural.

I’m thinking: the world will sort itself out; this is a comfort.

On a bitter autumn day to the Lenbachhaus in Munich to see Alfred Kubin’s dark apocalyptic drawings, far from the dazzling colour and space of the other Blue Riders like Kandinsky and Marc and Munter. Apart from his 1907 picture War (Der Kreig), the one that stood out for me was Noah’s Ark: Landing (1911), a detailed pen and ink imagining of the disembarkation, the living cargo returning to the earth, observed by birds on a blasted tree, the landscape thick with the drowned corpses of wild animals.  The flood myth is not the gentle tale of children’s storybooks. I’m thinking: the world will wipe us off its face and it will be a terrible slow death.

December, to the Thames again, near old Billingsgate. The sun is sinking over Westminster and the sky is salmon and baby blue and Canaletto clouds billow over Tower Bridge to the east. The river is muscular, calm, and the low tide has exposed a spatter of shingle at the bottom of the wide stone steps and the flint and glass and gravel shift under foot. Water laps in a frothing head of twisted metal, plastic, twigs and seeds.  A condom. Splintered wood. A moorhen. The broken stem of a clay pipe, an inch long, white like a finger bone, hollow, the central tube smokey black. I scoop it up.  There’s another. And another. Tens, no, hundreds. They clink against each other as I gather them in my cupped palms, chink chalkily together. One of London’s early throwaway products, manufactured in bulk from the late sixteenth century for three hundred and fifty years, to shift to the masses tobacco from the New World. Had they belonged to the Billingsgate fishmongers, clamped between their chapped lips as they gutted and sluiced the day’s haul? Had the washerwomen bitten down on them with their rotten teeth and plague-riddled children sucked on them as a cure and chucked them in the water when they were done?  Lighter than the stones, rolled and sorted, rolled and sorted on the river bed over hundreds of years until they surface on this intertidal lick of land. The bleached fragments summon bones from the catacombs, from the relic caskets in the crypt of Bermondsey Abbey, from the plague pits, from the caves of the interglacial times when the sabre-toothed tigers stalked the herds of antelope over the London plain.

There I am on that fault line between the city and the natural world, between the past and the present. There I am, vegetarian, no milk products, trying to be plastic free, no car, train not plane, lobbying my MP, writing letters, signing petitions, putting up nest boxes.   Twelve years until the point of no return. What can one person do? I’m thinking: it’s useless.

But then every one of these experiences I have shared with other people – ecology students at the glacier, family, friends at the sea and by the rivers, strangers on the search for the Fleet – and where we do things together there’s hope and a kind of power.

It comes on the shingle bank as we remember Geraldine. Among us is artist Charlie Holmes. He gives us each a white postcard with a small hole punched in the centre and instructions printed on it:

Stand on the edge/select a piece of sea/take it away with you/remember where it used to be

And, on the reverse:

Stand on the edge/select a piece of sky/take it away with you/remember where it used to be

We all do it. Hold up our cards and select sky and sea.

We all do it together.

We all have different memories of Geraldine but they are all of her.

We each select a different bit of what we see through our tiny viewfinders but they all add up to the same sea and sky.