At this year’s Port Eliot festival, Kerri ní Dochartaigh found solace in the embrace of the estuary mud. Photo: Neil ‘Tomo’ Thomson.
Carried in from the sea
– above stone and shadow
– over ancient hedge
– dragged through muck and silt,
and unknowable things;
Carried in from a dream
– above sleep and snow
– over folkloric boundary
– dragged through history and battle,
and unknowable things;
I knew there would be a river whose belly I could swim inside at Port Eliot – but I had not quite envisaged the impact this river; the Tiddy, would have on me – not even nearly, in fact. I grew up in the shadow of another river – one that has formed a natural boundary for many moons – one that has separated the two communities of my hometown; both historically and tragically. It is unsafe to swim in the River Foyle from any point off its banks in Doire-Derry-Londonderry – that wee city of mine – with its 400 year-old walls, and its oaks much more ancient, still. I have swam in bodies of water from the very moments I could. Most of my time has been spent in the wild and folkloric Atlantic Ocean; being held safely – so close I can hear her liquid bones creaking – being tossed around in her foam and fury – like a thing without an outline; without a past or a future.
Over the years I have swam in lakes, ponds, waterfall pools and (very recently) in lidos – but I have not ever really swam in the body of a river, properly. I see myself as a creature of the sea. I didn’t really think about it – that river; not even a single bit.
The best festival I’ve ever gone to before was Caught by the River Teifi, at fforest – West Wales. That weekend, four years back, was a glorious one; full of that sun that can only find its way down to us when we are nearing the end of August – and only when we are on the outermost edges of these rocky, storm-sculpted islands we inhabit. It was a weekend that changed my inner landscape – through the happenings on the outer landscape. I met some of the best people I know there; folk that have encouraged and supported me in ways not quite of words, really. I fell deeply in love with West Wales that weekend, too. I walked through ancient woodland, and found a tattered book of trees – in Welsh – and paid five pence for it in a charity shop run by older ladies that had smiles like a safe harbour bathed in stars; a goodbye gift for lovely Sian who runs fforest.
That weekend I learned – amongst other things – about printing, about sound recording, and about fire. I listened to some of the most humble and talented people talk about nature in ways that made me both laugh and cry. I began to imagine that maybe – just maybe – I might one day share my own words in such a place; in such a way.
I swam in one of the most exquisite bays, just a handful of miles from the festival – I still dream of it; of its curves and colours – its church and crooked past. I have no idea why, but the only thing I did not do at the festival was swim in the river it was named for. I went straight from Cardigan, meandering a beautiful and folkloric course through Wales; right into the beginnings of a brand new home and life in Bristol. For weeks afterwards, I regretted not swimming in that river. I thought about how it might feel to go from a tent full of dancing words – straight into the flow of a river; to be held by it – in the middle of the day – on the edges of the world.
Life carries on along its course, and we are nudged along with it – either gently, or with such force that the banks are burst; in such a way that the landscape is changed beyond measure. And so it is that I find myself on my way to attend my first Port Eliot Festival; the one that is to be the last – for the time being. The train reaches a staggeringly, breathtakingly magnificent viaduct – hung above a curling body of water like the ceiling of some unknown chapel – and we realise that we are to get off here. This is the place we will spend the next days; this is the place – indeed. The body of water that courses below the ancient stone calls to me – sweaty, and thirsty for so, so much; I hear the words it sends up enter the carriage, like the first cuckoo – of the season we have just lost. I know all at once that this water will change me – I can feel it in the hollow places; deep, deep down – beside my bones.
River at full belly. Sun throwing its light down like a newly born language; all cadence and reverb – making its way into the edge-lands; soaking the skin with words – fresh from the egg; brighter than before.
We arrive at the river – her banks full of the song of humans and birds; the earth that holds her in place brimming with bodies and light. A space is found – a place for us to nestle down – beneath the low-hung branches of an old oak. My friend’s babba is feeding on her – nutrients and so much more, flowing – from the curves of her; into the tiny form of the joyful one that she created. I think of us humans, and of our ways; our place. I think of birth and death, of sickness and weariness, of isolation and loneliness; of how abandonment burrows deep.
I think of trauma – those inflicted and those we inflict. I undress, down to my swimming costume – and I see the scars my body holds on its surface like a map; I think of history, the past – I think of letting go. I think of wounds and the traces that are left behind – of bones and marrow; I think of the marks that we make on surfaces both seen and not. Children are sliding through mud and silt into a river at its fullest part. I am dragged back, then, to that bank – laughter reaching my insides; full of thoughts of the roots that run underneath all of our feet, like veins – the veins of the river’s bank – the veins of the earth; the veins of us all.
I think of that community beneath our feet, and of all that their knitted ways could teach us. Trees talk to one another; always. No tree is left alone, and in times of need, the goodness held inside the other trees – no matter how far away they be – is shared with the tree that is suffering. Words swirl around inside me – for the whole of the time I am swimming or floating in the river but I know that they are not ready to be written; I am not ready yet to put them into any language that I know. I leave the river, on the first day, feeling so different from when I leave the sea. I feel charged and shook – rather than having given things into the liquid world, I have come away with parts of it imprinted on my skin; I bring much more than mud and salt into the tent I quickly hurry for – dripping and shivery; alive, and silvered by something I can still taste on my grateful lips.
River almost – but not quite – full. The last chapter, or its final pages. The moon giving up the slivered ghost of its crescent presence in the morning sky; ready to be made new. That moment when the storm is only just gathering itself up – purple, hazy – soft as a newly born child; a year at its delicate turning.
I make my way to the river alone – full of longing, and a sense of purpose I do not normally experience when I am being pulled at by the water. There is the same sense of urgency I know well, but the early afternoon feels, in fact, a little like a place where I must turn up – both to, and for. I feel like being here is not quite a choice – there is an odd sense of duty at play, somehow.
Something seems to call to me from further along the edges, and so I enter at a different part – a different lip beside a different tree, with different light and shade; is it a different me that enters the river, too? All at once the air above is a cacophony of assorted signals – geese, in a tight V, call out; low, loud – a mother, a human one, drags her babies from the edge with her voice; a man tells the crowds at the Idler Tent that the pop-up dance van will be here in 10, 9, 8, 7…
I think of signals, and of signalling. Of what it means to pass something on, and of how we can – of how we could learn – to do this all a little better. I think of how we pass things on, and of what it is that spurs us to do so. What stories, what habits; what ways of being – do we now pass on to each other? I think about why some of us are held up high enough that our words and actions can make or take life; can break or fix borders between us in the blink of an eye. I think about why some of us are silenced, over and over again; our words beaten down into us until we forget that they are even there. Are these current words, these things – these ideas; the ones that have taken centre stage – are they really the ones that we actually need – here and now; in these dark and darkening days? If they are not, in actual fact, helping us – those old ways and suffocating words; how do we begin to form and to pass on the new ones; the ones that could, maybe, save us? And who is that we must turn to; whose roots are the ones that could nourish us the way we so desperately need?
River many moments passed its fullness. Liquid being held in the sky – gathering at its outermost parts – the threat of summer rain is all around. The part of the journey where you have flown past the mid-way point – only just – the crow urges you to carry on; carry on. There is no good to come from turning back.
I leave my things beneath the oak tree – where the muddiest slope meets the land. My friend is on her way there to mind them, and so I enter the water – with haste and the fiercest of hunger; this is to be my last time held by the milky, dreamy – almost velvet – water of the Tiddy. Excitement nestles in alongside the deepest, most surreal sense of loss. I am not the same person I was when I first swam here, only a handful of days before this one. Who am I now, and who am I becoming?
I cover the letterpress poster I had just bought from a lovely friend’s stall with my towel – feeling silly for even bothering to do so, and slip into the water –mind full of eels and electronic un-doings; heart full of gratitude and the memory of light.
Moving through the silken parts of the river, now, like a moth above a flame – erratic, fearless – delicacy and grace creeping into the scene; fleetingly – all out of nowhere; never remaining there long enough to settle in.
I think of all that has gone before, as best I can. I cry and I don’t wipe the tears away – I wonder where the river will carry them to, when I leave. I think of the future – of mine, of yours; of all of ours. Of all that it holds – of all that will be gained, and lost. I float, waiting for the queue out from the water to get smaller, like the moon – like the fires burning almost everywhere – like how we are watching the ice melt away; helpless and terrified. I know then, what it is that has changed; what it is that this body of water has – somehow, done to me.
I dry myself off, and rush back into the beat and the bustle; into the rooted kinship of the festival. I learn, soon, that as I swam, the poster I had bought, and one hundred pounds I had taken out at the ATM that morning – had both been taken. The poster had said, in gorgeous type – printed in Bristol – No one can own a river; a quote from Richard King’s book The Lark Ascending.
Indeed, no one can own a river, nor the things that it holds inside its belly. No-one can really own a poster, no matter how well it is taped to their wall, or hidden in their bag. No-one can own the moths and the butterflies, the trees or their roots – the sea or the sky – no-one can really own the land. The wild flowers and all of the insects we still have left, the muck and the sand, the rocks and the dust; no-one can claim any of these as their own. No-one can own the bats or the fish, the eels in any of their stages – the birds and the other creatures; no-one can own the moon as she passes from phase into glorious phase. The high places, the hidden places, the places in-between; the places that haunt and sing, and those that heal. No-one can own places, or people, and no-one can own the right to be the only teller of the tales of these places – these people; at all.
Later that day, a writer I have long admired – Ben Okri, asks of us all: who must we turn to, at times such as these ones; that we have found ourselves – and our world – in? Whose voice should we listen to; who should be the ones to show us the way? My friend, and many other parents in the tent, think that maybe the answer is children; those beautiful – almost ethereal creatures – still full of hope and goodness; so full of grace. The answer Ben Okri gave was not that one, though. He shared with us all – every single one of us gathered there, each with our own troubles and joys, our own losses and hopes; that the voice that we should be listening to – is, in fact – our own.
We do not own the river, or the land on which we live, or the people that we get to share this life with. What we do have, though – is our own voice; and maybe it’s about time we started listening out for it.
Above the eels whistling, and above the bullying shouts that are trying to throw us all over the edge; as the land and the seas scream out for us to act.
Above the sounds of wailing from cages, tears from underneath high walls, and above the deadly silence that follows a boat close to sinking; a boat full of people.
Above the tweets that ridicule teenage girls who want to save their world – our world; our world.
Above the hissing of the earth’s lungs as they burn, above the creeping in of dark ideas that seek to divide; above the sound of boundaries being drawn with invisible ink.
Maybe it’s about time we started learning how to listen for that voice; our own voice – deeply buried, silt covered – hidden though it may be, and let it guide us.
Let it show us the way – the way that we should be wading; through the mud.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Oh Comely magazine, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine.
You can follow her on Instagram here, Twitter here, and she publishes new writing on her blog here.