Should I pursue a path so twisted?
Should I crawl defeated and gifted?
Should I go the length of a river?
What about it, what about it, what about it?
Oh, I’m pissing in a river.
– Patti Smith ¹
We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.
– Heraclitus, Fragment 49, 24 ²
We pull up the battered-down red ford fiesta by the nook of the bridge, swerve into the grassy lane that seems to be formed only where bank meets river, as if centuries-old travellers had trampled open this path as a way to find themselves beneath the water, River-Lethe-forgetting their living world, to obliterate themselves in the unforgiving torrent.
I am 17 and we have been water-lusting our whole lives growing up in Nottingham in the Midlands, the furthest region from the sea. The rivers are our bodies of water. Bodies though, doesn’t fit the flux of river-flow, its refusal of language, it does not wait for the noun; too active for that kind of word-hold. We have driven to rivers in the Peak District countless times since I passed my driving test, a way away from the increasing suffocation of growing up in a small city in the Midlands. The rivers are a freedom, the rivers are an escape, the river-flux mirrors our teen-flux, neither here nor there, neither North nor South, teenage Midlanders, yearning for more. Our bodies meeting the river bodies.
Otter-keen and hawthorn-scratched we trip through the fringes of a thin Oak forest, stumble past used condoms, a discarded shoe, rain-splattered notebook, pages fluttering in late- summer breeze, when we get to the part of the river we want we tumble under the wire-fence, feel the twisted metal tear at our jeans. We wrestle free, the fence a futile border to the borderless, ever-shifting river below. The river waits for no one, the river does not care for us. Amidst teen-flux, that’s exactly why we lust for it. We’re sick of having to care.
At the bank, silt sucking at my tattered high-top Converse. I kick them off, feel the oozing, restless earth try and take us under, strip off my jeans and t-shirt, slipping on the banks, slight splash of icy, peat-stained water, coursing like amber ale, froth-like foam lines gathering around the edges between the water and the land, the sounds of our excited voices and laughter chiming up into the knotted branches of the Oaks that loom above the water. Slipping, sliding, slipping still, I inhale, taste the peat-trace, copper-rich scent of the Peak waters, I exhale, then plunge into the surge, feel its current take my body, transformed, water-realm, body and mind elsewhere.
I swallow thick, trout-brimming mouthfuls of water as I’m pummelled downstream, screaming in fear and joy, pulsing in the river-flow, downstream, beneath the bridge, beneath the road, beneath the battered-down red ford fiesta parked by the verge, my body floating now, floating, floating, in the river-flow, no point in resisting, no point in turning back, a submission to the current as it surges, submersed in its power, its energy, its constant flux. A forgetting, not a River-Lethe-obliterate-yourself-forgetting, but an in-my-body-living-forgetting of the dark unfolding in my small life back in the city, of my dying dad, of my shrinking city; my desire to get out of a place I have outgrown. Here I’m in-my-body-forgetting that abstract human world of hurt and confusion, surging downstream, immersed in the physical world of the river and its course.
I started thinking about rivers, for the first time in a long while, after reading a recent piece by Kerri ní Dochartaigh. In it she spoke of how it was only recently that she swam in a river for the first time and that, prior to this, growing up in North-West Ireland, she had seen herself as a creature of the sea ³. In my own experience, growing up in the Midlands, the sea was always an imaginary. It took on an almost mystic quality, such was its remoteness to where we lived. In my early years my only remembered experience of it had been going to Skegness on a camping holiday with a friend and his family. Skegness was all paint-peeled arcades, rusting fair rides and abandoned fish and chip shops; I’d never been anywhere like it. Yet two days into the holiday it was hit by a freak tornado that submerged most of the campsite in water and forced my friend’s parents to drive us back full throttle to Nottingham. It seemed, growing up, that the sea and me were destined to be estranged. And yet from a very young age I’d longed and longed for water. I’ve always loved the way it alters the feeling of your body and your mind, that floating world. So, if you’re a teenager from the Midlands who is an inexplicable water-baby, rivers became our bodies of water. If I am a creature of anything, I am a creature of the river. Trout-shimmering, restless, Crested Tern joy.
What about it? What about it? What about it?
As a teenager I was desperate to forget body and mind with a kind of recklessness. I think that is a state lots of teenagers feel, but especially so when youth meets loss in the form of the lingering trauma of my dad’s terminal illness. The water, the river, felt like a place where those tensions, those fears and frustrations, could be erased; a place of temporary healing. The river was a suspension, literally, of body, and psychologically, of mind. Of course this idea of a river as healing is nothing new, with the religious rituals of Baptism being a salient example; its differing approaches to that rite being ‘immersion’ (partial-covered) and ‘submersion’ (fully- covered) and the hope that the water may renew and cleanse us of our sins.
I have never been religious, but the river did hold a potent dialogue to something outside of myself, whilst simultaneously bringing me back to my body.
We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not
As a teenage boy ashamed of my rake-thin body, so unlike the ripped torsos of the popular boys at school, I often tried to go missing from my body, felt of it as an inconvenience that I wished I could float outside of. Yet in the river my body became my body and notmybody, transformed from my perception of it as pathetic and useless into something invigoratingly alive. A water metamorphosis. we are and are not. The water allowed me to both forget and to remember. Forget: the pain and confusion awaiting at home and the shame of my body. Remember: that there was still joy and desire to be claimed in my body and that there was perhaps more space within it to grow than I had realised. It is only all these years later that I am truly beginning to engage with the depth of that feeling of my body as an opening.
Yet for all the kaleidoscopic, complex, paradoxical effect of the water on our bodies, ‘bodies of water’ always seems to fail so spectacularly in capturing the nature of rivers. Seas, too, but there is something capacious about an ocean which seems that it holds water in a very different way to how a river refuses to hold anything at all. Lakes seem to be the ‘bodies of water’ that coincide most appropriately with the term, at least giving an impression of stillness; of holding something. Rivers resist this in every way. Maybe this makes rivers, in the sense of its meaning as a ‘copious flow’, a more useful metaphor for the way many of us in the contemporary world perceive and connect with our bodies: not as fixed and definable borders of identity, binaries of gender, of sexual desire, of biological determinism, but rather fluid and shifting over time, in a state of constant flux, their power being in their refusal of the narrow social categories that force bodies to be policed in ways that our desires frequently do not connect with. Human bodies are never still, and what they hold is always mutable and in an ever-constant process of renewal and transformation and ultimately, as I found out so early with my dad, decay. The blood cells coursing through our veins and arteries, the bodily fluids flowing in and out. River bodies. When you enter a river you cross the brink, you cross a border, and enter a liminal realm, where your physical relationship to your body changes and so, too, does your mind. River bodies. River flow.
So, for me, the attempt to taxonomize the river as a ‘body of water’ is futile. The river doesn’t wait for language. It refuses the noun. The river did not wait for me, and I have learnt not to wait for it. The very source of the name us humans gave to the river I’m speaking about, ‘Derwent’, is a town that was submerged by its waters nearly a century ago. It is a drowned village: the villagers and the church bell sounds vanishing beneath its murky surface. River-lost; Lethe-forgotten. The river waits for no one. Us humans would do well to respect that and listen more.
What might it mean to lean into unknowingness more? To embrace what we don’t know, rather than attempt to shape everything in our image. I’m drawn here to the writing of Nan Shepherd, who has done so much to emasculate nature writing from its patriarchal, nationalist and, far too often, fascistic history. I’m thinking of lines like this:
Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the Earth must see itself ⁴
What might it mean if we were to de-centre the human from being the only focal point, to make the focal point everywhere? To listen as well as constantly speak ourselves onto the Earth. I would like to lean into unknowingness, to listen more, to stumble across that which I do not know and see it as a sight of learning; a place of exchange. I want to see more than just ourselves in the world. More than reflections of human impact. More than bleached coral, sky- high cities, forests the size of countries reduced to farmland. I’m thinking of the way, outlined by Robert Macfarlane in his magisterial Underland ⁵, that forest systems used to be as interpreted, in the profit-lust of 80s neoliberalism, as a reflection of “free-market” competition, all the trees competing against each other for light and soil. Yet when we began to listen, really listen, to how trees spoke to each other, led by the research of E.I. Newman, we discovered a vast and intricate inter-dependent network above and below ground, that has now become widely known as the ‘Wood Wide Web’. Within this ancient web, nearly 500 million years old, is a complex underground network of roots, fungi and bacteria existing symbiotically. The fungi connect the trees and plants together in a relationship of mutualism, sharing and distributing resources between one another, as well as allowing trees to communicate to one another. Dying trees, for example, may divest themselves of its resources for the benefit of the community, or a young tree in a shady section of forest could be given extra resources by stronger neighbours. The implications of the Web are astounding, and a very long way from the previous “free-market” presumptions that fungi merely fed off trees, causing disease. Yet to impose another more appropriately collaborative human structure upon the Wood Wide Web, such as “Communist”, or “Socialist”, say, would still work to greatly limit and reduce our understanding of the mind-blowing complexity of this non-human phenomenon. What might it mean to lean into unknowingness more, not to always try and trap the non-human within the limits of existing human knowledge?
When Richard Arkwright came to the River Derwent, he didn’t see a complex and delicate eco-system built for millennia around its shores, but rather a profitable site of opportunity to harness its energy for industrial gain. Its hydro-force was exploited to power Cromford Mill, the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill, surging humans towards capitalist imperialism through its ancient river flow. Bodies locked behind mill-gates from 6 till 6 every day: bodies across the globe chained to its imperialist reach. We weren’t listening then and we’re not listening now.
What about it, what about it, what about it?
What might it mean for us to alter the kind of dialogues we have with the non-human? To lean into unknowingness more. To make a focal point everywhere. Maybe we could do a lot worse than listening and learning from the way trees speak to one another.
I am back by the river, parked in grassy verge, the tracks into the river seem more-trampled, more worn-down. Have more travellers walked to their peaty deaths? Crossed the brink, ferried to the other side, traversed the Stygian depths. I have been walking in the borders between the living and the dead since I was here last, four years ago. These banks did not know me then and they do not remember me now. My world has been falling apart and this constant flow does not yield anything to me. There is a comfort in that. Its inexorable flux. I am Lethe-lost in black fog that has clouded me for the past two years since dad died, I have gone missing from my body. I have come here to forget. I have come here to enter a glimpse of something beyond all this hurt.
I slowly undo the laces of my docs, no mud-stains now, no, I’ve been living in the London metropolis too long for those, and tentatively begin to take off my clothes. I’m on my own this time, my school friends scattered across other parts of the country, but as I inhale the peat-stained, copper-scented air from the water, I sense the memory-trace of who I was then, when he was still alive. I stand on the brink of the water, the shifting oozing silt-banks, the river has risen since I was here last, the water has swallowed more of the land. How long before it swallows us all?
I stand and wait for what feels like a long time, I’m less reckless than I was. But the surge slowly slowly shudders through me again, I feel that trace-desire rippling to the surface, feel my skin shiver, naked beneath the Oak trees whose roots are fed by these waters as they scramble hungrily down the banks.
I inhale one more time, then dive, joyful depths, that sense that I could be beneath this water always, could call the boatman to take me across, I hold my breath beneath, feel my body being pummelled by the violent flow, hold it, hold, hold, hold, hold until the very last moment, then emerge, gasping for the light, gasping in that rapturous moment between the living and the dead, and the joy of choosing, after all, to breathe.
I let the river take me beneath the bridge, beneath the road, beside the otter-banks, the nests of black-swans, past a group of teens by a verge getting high, I let the river take me, I listen to its flow, and I feel my body as an opening for the first time in a long time, I feel my body in dialogue with the river, borderless and shimmering with desire
1 Patti Smith, ‘Pissing in a River’ from the Album Radio Ethiopia (Arista Records: 1976)
2 Heracilitus fragment translated by Samuel Béreau http://philoctetes.free.fr/heraclite.pdf
3 Kerri ní Dochartaigh, ‘Mud’ in Caught by the River https://www.caughtbytheriver.net/2019/10/port-eliot-mud/
4 Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Canongate: 2017)
5 Robert Macfarlane, Underland (Penguin: 2019)
Jack Young writes creative non-fiction and prose-poetry, which explores the slippery borders of memory and desire and its relationship to bodies and language. His work has found a home with Entropy, 3 A:M, Burning House Press and The Grapevine, amongst others. He is co-host of the literary podcast Tender Buttons with Jessica Andrews and co-runs Barcelona-based multilingual literary collective Anemone. Alongside writing, he works with young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to develop arts-based critical pedagogy, with a particular focus on multilingual filmmaking, applied theatre and creative writing.