Do you have a favourite river? I do. I discovered it only last year, by chance, on a walk in Derbyshire. Just below Monsal Head, the River Wye meanders through the valley. Cows graze on its edge. It twists and curls along, providing hidden spaces to sit and think. Just below the weir is a platform of rocks that provide the perfect place to drop your gear and launch yourself into the water. Later, you enter the woods, blackberries tangle at your waist; nettles try to brush your ankles. The river falls below as the path winds up the hill…
I was reminded of this river as I read The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw, a delightful book about time spent on rivers in a canoe: two friends, the Pipe and a plethora of places “where it is still possible to get lost while knowing exactly where you are.” I became entranced in the descriptions of their experiences on different rivers; the way their perspectives changed when they were on the water. Gaw writes, “floating beings, our brains have been transported in a bubble of water that popped as soon as we reached land. […] The river is a place where the drip of time both speeds up and slows down…”
The book journeys through different rivers and although some parts read as romantic love letters to the water, Gaw carefully draws our attention to the environmental changes that have happened to our rivers over time. His experience on the Colne, the river that he grew up with in Essex, brings a stark reality to river ecology and the rivers of our future. The Colne has been narrowed, there is barely enough water for paddling, and little effort is being made to keep both natural debris (fallen trees, enthusiastic plants) and man-made debris (washing machines, clay pidgeons, cartridges, litter) from the river. “The whole surface of the river is filmed and bubbled with plastic. Drifting and choking.” It is an important reminder of the responsibility we have to participate in keeping our different ecosystems alive and well.
It is an important reminder of the responsibility we have to participate in keeping our different ecosystems alive and well.
My favourite part of the book is Gaw’s solo journey down the River Otter. This section discusses the reintroduction of beavers into rivers and the important ecological effect this has had on the rivers themselves, but also the surrounding environment. Beavers on the River Otter were due to be removed by the government, but a fierce campaign, led by the Devon Wildlife Trust, ensured their protection for five years by making them part of a research project. This project is due to end next year, and the future of the beavers is still uncertain.
It is stories like this that make nature writing so wonderful, a reminder of the unknown, unseen world that surrounds us. How often do you think about the rivers that surround you? The plants and animals that survive because of the rivers’ continued existence? As you hurry from place to place, meeting to meeting, busy in our (often concrete) world, this book is a call to the wild places, where the earth exists without us. Whether alone, or in company, Gaw takes us with him through history, geology, geography and (sometimes) adrenaline-fuelled encounters with the river.