Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Helena Turgel

26th December 2023

As she looks back over 2023, Helena Turgel considers her daily interactions with water.

Drinking it, running taps in case of lead pipes, letting it sit so the chlorine can rise. Flushing my toilet with it, and into it. Trying not to flush it each time, trying to limit the water I’m adding into a broken system. A system an ancestor (by marriage) designed to tackle cholera in Victorian London. 

Short-term good, long-term bad. How do we balance the needs of the present against the needs of the future?

At this time of year, in west Wales, my relationship with water feels complicated.

In summer, we are carefree lovers frolicking in the first flushes of love. It’s a precious resource, sent sparingly across flower beds to help keep life living. It’s a place to reset your body after a sticky day at a desk. It literally quenches thirsts.

At this point, the land is fully logged. More comes and there’s nowhere for it to go. It sits in vast puddles, floods my back garden and makes entire bridges disappear.

This used to be a salmon fishing hotspot. Now there are no salmon. We are told that it’s fine because there’s no environmental impact. You can’t lose what you don’t count.

My neighbour river becomes famous for all the wrong reasons. Worse than we thought. The prize of the gas-lit is to have confirmed the terrible things they suspected. The news is bad…but also maybe good? Perhaps something will change now, we hope. Hesitant optimists.

At this time the river runs chocolate milk brown. A reminder that water moves land, particle by particle across huge distances. Entire footpaths disappear, existing only as dotted lines on ordnance survey maps, trails that can only be walked in imaginations and memories.

Walking alongside it, swimming in it, but avoiding it after rain. More of it falling from the sky. The path becomes a stream. The stream finds the river. Water finds water. Water finds a way.

Locally, it has become a leisure pursuit, retired from its industrial past. But with waste disposal as a side hustle. A dirty secret you can’t unknow.

The year is book-ended by two different friends talking at events about nature’s voice.

We hear about a fight to give rivers rights.

Showering in it, hot; a sweet micro pleasure. If you pay attention you can hear the difference between cold and hot water running, it falls softer when hot.

Warming myself with it, filling the pipes and radiators around my house with it, filling my blue hot water bottle…I scald myself with the water and then scold myself for clumsily emptying the kettle too fast.

It’s a pet with a wild side, a mercurial companion, a friend you can’t live without. Keeping close always, but usually at arm’s length.

Brings life, takes life. Erodes, destroys, makes possible.

Trying to stop it getting in, trying to help it escape. The sound of rain on a roof used to bring deep comfort. Now I just worry about the damp getting in. The anxieties we trade.

Figuring out drainage systems, laying damp-proof courses under new floors. Extracting it from the air. Putting it on plants. Washing clothes in it, keeping it off clothes with waterproofs. Waterproofs that sometimes leak. Trying to dry wet clothes in damp houses. 

A friend tells me you’ll not get under 60% humidity living in Wales. I can’t get much below 65 with my new dehumidifier and it’s back above 70 again the next day. A Sisyphean task I seem to have willingly signed up for.

Breathing it. Excreting it. Made of it.

Water wants to get into everything, and yet also always seems to be trying to escape. Holding two opposing thoughts in your head at once is necessary.

We are close and we are distant.

It is good, it is bad.

I feel constantly overwhelmed by the complexity. A friend tells me in July she thrives on it. I wonder at how our brains work so differently and yet come to similar ideas at similar times. A thought I’ve had, before it fully becomes a thought, a pre-thought, falling out of the mouth of another.

I want to know how every brain thinks. I want to see all the thoughts.

I am told we are now beyond the unthinkable. Water rising. If it reaches our mouths, will the water from without join with the water within? 

I watch people repair things to fall asleep.

We visit the spa to treat ourselves to water served in different ways…hot jets pressurised, bubbled, vaporised, ice cold, salted. The fatter your body, the better you float. A super power.

Lost at sea, I am my own raft.

Drinking plenty cold, so the hot doesn’t leech it all from your cells. Water finds water.

After, we shower, together, but apart, and the nattering continues from the cubicles into the changing area, where we try and remove as much water as possible using towels, hairdryers and by avoiding puddles on the floor.

Water must be contained and controlled.

Water is a weapon. Far off, near felt Middle Eastern conflicts being waged with water in the arsenal. Human rights are being taken away.

20 years ago a teacher told me the next world war would be about water. Others say the last one never ended. 

Oil and water. Like counter doctrines, meeting only by not meeting at all, a marbled dance.

Our broken floating home is at sea. Eyes follow fingers pointing towards specks in the water, and don’t notice it being ransacked from within.

A writer tells me in November ‘there’s as much to be said about what you thought would happen as what actually did’. ‘More’ I think. ‘Much more’. But does anyone care? These imagined futures. Is it like recounting dreams? Or “isn’t it all just fiction anyway?” A poet suggests in December, quoting a musician.

The magic of a stock-still puddle, magnifying what lies beneath, making more vivid the colours, a mirror to the world above. Placing the fallen leaves back onto bare branches. Nature writing its fiction onto my eyeballs.


I wrestled with some thoughts from Richard Fisher, found others really helpful (reading The Long View and hearing him speak at Clebran in Aberteifi).

In October Cardigan is given the unenviable title of Dwr Cymru’s worst performing sewerage plant 

Simeon Rose talked about representing nature on the board of Faith in Nature at an event in March at St David’s and Jess McQuade reminded us in November, that the ‘other voices’ are the voices of nature (during Other Voices Aberteifi).

I had flashes of my mind being read (Rachel Cusk: Second Place).

Had that sensation, plus the feeling, once again, of paradigms being shifted, chatting to Emma Dabiri then reading her book Disobedient Bodies.

I heard Kae Tempest quote Colm Mac Con Iomarie and weave some kind of beautiful magic at Other Voices Dingle.