My Rivers: The Ouse


“A river can give a city its very soul… We think of them pragmatically, as conduits of commerce, which is certainly one of their major gifts to us, but generally we overlook the spiritual benefits they bestow on the community living on their banks”
– Thomas Moore

The rivers in York are historically important, they are the reason the city was formed here.  They provided trade routes to the sea and were routes for people to travel along.  But the importance of the Ouse goes beyond the river herself and into the fields that follow her.  These floodplains, the ings, have been important to man, to plants and to other animals and have shaped both the landscape and the culture of York.  They have also allowed the city to survive the regular flooding of the river.


“Yorkshire’s rivers have been an important factor in man’s history, in the settlement and growth of towns and cities and in the formation of industries.  Wetlands can help man control the force of water, particularly during flooding.”
– Wild Yorkshire

It is this flooding that is key to the ecological and economic value of the land.  Sediment carried into the flood plains replenishes the land, increasing its fertility, and leaves it ripe for crops.  These fields produced agricultural produce which could then be exported along the Ouse herself, creating one half of an import export chain which brought raw materials and valuable goods into the city.

The fields grew hay which was used to feed sheep, cows and horses in the winter and the cycles of flooding and haymaking along the Ouse inspired poet Andrew Marvell in the 17th century.  The ings would also provide resources such as gorse and peat for fuel.  Willow collected from the river banks was also important and could be used to make baskets and fish traps.

Skeldergate Bridge (edited)

The history of the ings goes beyond what they could offer in terms of resources.  In 1639, King Charles I was staying in Kings Manor and, according to a member of his retinue, his “chiefest pleasure here was to ride downe into Clifton Yngs and have his nobilite about him, and see his cavaliers on their brave horses.”  Horses were not uncommon on the ings with records suggesting they were used as a location for racing since the Roman times.  In 1709, Clifton Ings became the official venue for York Races although it would later move to the Knavesmire, where the races take place today, after the Ouse flooded and the races had to be cancelled in 1729.

In the 19th century ice skating became popular on the frozen fields along the Ouse and the ings were mentioned as a skating venue at least as late as 1902. The other sport I am aware of with links to the Ouse is swimming. NB, the current is strong and the river has taken many lives over the years, please don’t try this.

As well as a fascinating social history, the floodplains are also a crucial habitat for birds, plants, insects and mammals.  In terms of plant life, the riverside is home to numerous species including:Reed Sweetgrass, Slender Tufted Sedge, Meadow-Rue, Meadowsweet, Northern Marsh Orchid, Ragged Robin, Large Bittercress, Guelder Rose and Field Garlic.

In recent years five species of bat have been found living along the river, utilising bridges as roosting spots.  There are also mice, voles, squirrels, shrews, moles, hedgehogs, rabbits and deer.  Evidence of otters suggests a slow recolonisation.  When it comes to birds there are a variety of species of ducks and geese alongside mute swans, gulls and songbirds.  The common frog, the common toad and the smooth newt are all found widely along the Ouse corridor.

Follow the leader

Perhaps the most scientifically important species to live in the floodplains of the Ouse is the Tansy Beetle.  It makes its home on the Tansy plant and is incredibly rare.  It has been christened the Jewel of York and is a beautiful, iridescent beetle with a coppery sheen.  According to myth, Victorians so admired the beetle that they used it as sequins… Not a good way to keep a species alive!

Like many waterways, the river Ouse also winds its way into folklore.  One story set in York is a spin on the ring in the fish tale.  I’ve also seen this version elaborated on but still, at it’s essence, the ring and the fish, a fable which goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and is found in various parts of the world including Norway.

Perhaps a more localised belief is that if you drop five white stones into a special part of the Ouse as the Minster clock chimes 1am on May Day morning, the surface of the river will show you a reflection of anything you desire to see, whether it be in the past, present or future.

So, it seems very appropriate to be posting this on the last day in April.  Go ahead and see what the river can show you!

I owe a lot to Martin Hammond who wrote Deep Meadows and Transparent Floods, The Story of the Ouse Ings.  It’s a well researched interesting look at the historical, social and environmental tale of the floodplains and is available from Carstairs Countryside Trust.


The Mekong


Whilst many people would have turned to the Amazon as an example of a river giant, I’m headed east to another great river, the Mekong.  A river I have seen, crossed over, floated on.  From a boat on the Mekong, I spotted Irrawaddy river dolphins.  From an island in the river, I talked agriculture with a tuk tuk driver.  I slept in rooms looking out at the Mekong.  I have a connection to it which I do not have with any of the other massive rivers.

The Mekong, like the Amazon, is an incredibly important river in terms of wildlife, economy and livelihoods.  It flows from Tibet to China to Myanmar to Laos to Thailand to Cambodia to Vietnam where it ends in the 9 dragons before entering the South China Sea.  From source to sea it is an estimated 2,703 miles.

Flowing through so many countries, the Mekong binds together a range of cultures and is the life blood of Asia.  It provides food, transport links, irrigation, the river edge provides homes to a vast array of wildlife.

“Mekong River gives everything. Mekong River is mother”
– a local living by the river

I visited the Mekong when I was in Cambodia and so will be focusing on that stretch of this epic waterway.  Life in this country is focused around the river and the regular floods are important to the economy.  When it floods, the Mekong brings water and nutrients to the rice fields which line the riverbanks.  Rice is the main crop in Cambodia and without the river bursting over to the floodplains, irrigation would be needed and I suspect it would become uneconomical to grow.  Looking at the Mekong delta more widely, we see how crucial the floods are.  A vast amount of rice grown here gets exported and earns the area the nickname the rice bowl of asia.

When I was in Cambodia, we drove over a rickety, slightly terrifying, wooden bridge to reach an island in the Mekong.  This bridge gets rebuilt every year because when the floods come, it gets washed away.  But these same floods are what provides the fertile land for agriculture and grazing.

DSC_0235 e

DSC_0242 e

The Mekong is important to food security in another way; the fish. Fish and crustaceans make up over 80% of the protein that Cambodians eat and fishing provides jobs and livelihoods.  And the impact of the river goes beyond her banks.  At Phnom Penh, the Mekong is joined by another river and lake system – the Tonle Sap – and affects the direction of this water system.  When the Mekong is low, the Tonle Sap is a tributary and when the Mekong floods, the flow reverses and the floodwaters head up the Tonle Sap.  This means that a larger area benefits from the gifts of the floods and more people would be affected by changes.

Which brings me to the topic of dams.  Any transboundary river brings with it potential for political difficulties.  In the case of the Mekong, this is played out by the creation of dams in Thailand and China.  The dams themselves are built, for example, to provide hydroelectricity to their people but actions have consequences and in this case, the consequences play out down river.  Out of sight, out of mind, especially if it’s not affecting your country.

As we’ve seen, millions of people depend on the Mekong and her floods and without the fast flowing waters, food security will be threatened, economies will be affected and so will cultures and the environment.

The Mekong is already heavily dammed, with many more dams planned and under construction, and we can’t always predict the impact they will have.  What we do know is that damming the river increases the risk of earthquakes, creates food shortages, and, as is so often the case, those most in need will be hardest hit.

“The very people that regional governments and international organisations are spending a lot of time trying to alleviate from poverty are the ones who are going to be impacted.”
– Ian Baird

As well as the human cost of changing the river, there is the environmental one.  The Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, second only to the Amazon.  As well as the many known species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, new species are being regularly described.  In 2009. There were 145 newly described species which included 29 fish, 2 birds, 10 reptiles and five mammals.

The river is also home to some very large fish including the giant freshwater stingray which can reach 5m in length and the Mekong giant catfish which can grow to 3m and weigh 300kg.  These large fish populations have, however, declined drastically, in part due to the building of dams.

Another species that is particularly susceptible to the impact caused by dams is the Irrawaddy dolphin.  Some Laotians and Cambodians believe that the Irrawaddy dolphins are reincarnations of their ancestors and there are tales of them rescuing people from drowning and even from attacks by crocodiles.  Despite this reverence for them, there are exceptionally few of them left in the Mekong.  They are shy and elusive, barely breaching the surface to breathe so I didn’t even attempt a photograph of them.  It was an honour and a privilege to see them.


In the 1970s there were over a thousand of them but they suffered terribly under Pol Pot’s regime and were virtually wiped out.  Today, threats come from fishing, pollution and population segmentation as well as the impact of damns.  But in conservation areas such as Kratie where I saw the dolphins, ecotourism is being encouraged as an alternative way of making a living to fishing.  Hopefully they will not follow the Yangtzee River Dolphin which went extinct in 2007.

The delta plays home to many other interesting flora and fauna including the, now rare, yellow headed temple turtle.  Smooth coated otters, fishing cats and Siamese crocodiles all live in this rich environment.

Perhaps the most moving animal tale is that of the flying bird, a type of crane standing 6 foot tall with a wingspan just as large, lives in the delta.  They disappeared during the Vietnam war as the delta saw some of the harshest fighting but as peace returned, so did the cranes.  What creatures are we driving away with our war against nature?  Our desperation to control the river?  Who is going to pay the price?

The Rivers Running Through Me

“We are all caught by a river.  This, I think, is what catchment means.  Every fragment of landscape slides to one river or another and our feet are sucked into the mud wherever we stand… A river is mire than the ribbon of flow at the foot of a valley.  It is the distillation of that valley.  A river is the expression of us and we are rooted in it.  The meandering relationship between the shaper and the shaped is revealed time and again: the rivers of childhood surge through memory and water the formation of the self.  Rivers are in the blood.  Rivers get under the skin.  Rivers stay with you when everything else moves on.”
– Charles Rangeley-Wilson

There was a brook near the house I grew up in.  For a small child, trying to explore and play, the banks were high and the trickle low.  There was a noticeable difference between summer and winter and you could stand on a rickety wooden bridge and peer down.  Later, once I’d grown a little more, I could clamber down to the water.  Splash about in wellies.  You wouldn’t want to go barefoot.  It wasn’t that sort of stream.  Getting back out was harder, wet boots slipping against the muddy slopes, hands grasping at clumps of grass and pulling your body weight up with the faith that the roots would stay loyal.

I looked it up recently.  It flows into the Mersey.  Not surprisingly.  But I’d never thought to think about it before.  This was my brook, this little stretch, and I spent very little time thinking about where it came from and where it went after.  My world was contained, and with that, so was the flow of the water.

Had I been a more courageous or adventurous child, perhaps I would have followed that stream bed in my little blue wellies.  Perhaps I would have twisted and turned with it, the water level rising and rising until it flooded my boots, drenched my socks.  Eventually sweeping me off my feet and pushing me along until the brook-now-river spat me out into the Mersey.

The Mersey was a feature of my life.  Echoed by the Dee on the other side of the peninsula.  We went on the ferry across the Mersey on a school trip.  I remember my finger had been trapped in a toilet door that morning before we left.  We traipsed round the slavery museum and walked around the docks.  But like most people, when I traversed the river, it was normally going under not over it.  The Kingsway and Queensway tunnels.  You needed to have change to get through.  These days I suspect they take credit cards.  An anxious child, I always held in my mind that question, what if?  What if the weight of the water became too much and the tunnel could no longer bear to stand up?  What if it started to crack?  What if?  What if? These worries echoed through the tunnel until we emerged into daylight.  Stunned by our survival.

The River Dee on the other hand, was exclusively crossed by bridge.  No ferry here.  No tunnel.  From the Wirral, you can see across the Dee to Wales.  You can walk out into the Dee at low tide to reach the uninhabited Hilbre Islands.  Again, what if? What if? Rung loud in my ears as we crossed at low tides.  Warnings of sinking sand and a vivid imagination.  What if?  What if we got the tides wrong and were stranded on the island?  What if?  Always, what if?

A safer way to experience the Dee is to stand on the front at Parkgate with an ice cream in hand.  The water itself is too far away to touch and the land between is marshy and is now an SSSI – A Site of Special Scientific Interest – I believe.  The river used to reach the walls.  It used to crash up and over them.  It fed into an open air swimming pool, my Granma told me about it.  Perhaps, a hundred years earlier, here too I’d have heard those endless what ifs?

You would think, from this, that perhaps I don’t like water.  But I do.  I love water.  I love the sea, rivers and lakes.  I love their beauty but I have a respect for their darker side too.

Leaving the brook behind, I headed east to the River Ouse and the Foss.  York.  A town built on rivers.  A town which once had a healthy respect for water.  Floodplains allowed the river to rise and fall, allowed her to live on her own terms with her own rhythms.  These floodplains have been built on in places, showing no respect for a river who bursts her banks many times in a year.  An attempt to control the uncontrollable.


Sited where the Foss joins the Ouse, York was a very strategic settlement.  The two rivers providing natural defences as well as communication and supply routes in and out.  Romans built jetties and wharves and warehouses here.  Vikings arrived with their shipbuilding and navigation skills.  York, through the Ouse, was connected to the entire world.  Liverpool would come to echo this, the Mersey replacing the Ouse when it comes to commerce today.

By the late sixteenth century, larger sea going ships couldn’t reach York, the rivers were filling with sediment. Shortly after, in 1715, Liverpool’s first dock was built.  I moved in the opposite direction to trade.  York’s rivers, no longer used for commerce, today host pleasure boats, historical cruises and an ice cream boat.

The riverbanks gained importance as the river itself lost some of hers.  This fertile land was used for agriculture and today there are four SSSIs along the banks in York; Clifton Ings and Rawcliffe Meadows, Fulford Ings,  Naburn Marsh and Acaster South Ings.

For me though, it is not the trees or shrubs or flowers or rare beetles which make the river Ouse a magical place although they do add their charm.  For me, meeting the Ouse as an adult in a new city, it is the memories that pull me, that draw me into the currents. I met the Ouse in a more academic, detached kind of way. The way that adults meet rivers.  There were no wellies splashing or scampering up and down banks.  Instead, the Ouse is a patchwork blanket with strands of emotion tying together moments and woven with facts.

The Ouse will always be the river I walked along with my love.  It will always be the night I went for a walk with my close friend and it rained and we were tipsy and took off our shoes and ran home.  The conversation I had with another close friend about the death of her mother.  The days when depression had wrapped itself around my heart like bindweed and threatened to squeeze my lungs and I stood staring and staring on a platform over the river.  There was the night I returned from a protest and it was pitch dark and my friend walked me home despite going far out of his way and we encountered a creepy shadow and both held our breath.  Sitting on the steps, watching geese scare overly brave tourists.  Ducklings floating by, defying the strength of the currents.  This river undoubtedly runs through my veins.

For the second and third years of my life in York, I would walk along the river path to town.  Doing so makes you acutely aware of the seasons and cycles, the life of the river.  Some days that walk would be impossible, underwater.  Other days it was borderline and the waves would lap dangerously close to the path.  The river wove itself into my life in those years, I became attuned and aware of her character.  She has her twists and turns, her placid days and her violent deadly moments.  She is both life giver and life taker.  We have our own rhythms, but both are the same.

Apart from my first and fourth year in York, I have never been more than a stones throw from the Ouse.  One of those years my bedroom looked out onto a tributary of the other river, the Foss, but that was a year of intense depression and detachment and I never knew that beck like I do the Ouse.

The Foss, thought to be from the latin fossa, meaning ditch, is a stranger to me.  The waters run and mingle and become the Ouse and it is only when coupled with my river, that I know the Foss.  It is like the partner of a friend.  You see them through the eyes of your friend, you know them as part of your friend but you do not know them truly, not in their own right.

“The many waters I’ve known as part of my own personal world – rivers, streams and lakes – have taught me, shaped me, and given me a sense of values.”
– Thomas Moore

The Mersey, The Dee and The Ouse.  These are the rivers which run through me.  These are the rivers which shape me.

Women and water

Water is not a gender neutral resource.  We’ve already seen that it’s often considered to be feminine when looking through a symbolic lens but if we look to how water is seen through a gendered lens, we see that it reflects and reinforces inequality.

In terms of daily interaction with water and management of water, the experiences of men and women are very different.  This is more so in less developed countries where water is interacted with more directly than in more developed countries, where you turn on a tap and don’t need to think about it.

Talking about The Rising Tide, a report from 2017 looking at gender and water, Caren Grown from the World Bank said:

“(The report shows us that) water is an arena where gender relations play out in ways that often mirror inequalities between the sexes. And it examines how norms and practices related to water often exacerbate ingrained gender and other hierarchies.”

In parts of the world where water is not available on tap, the day to day collection of water falls predominantly to women and so does the use of water.  For example, it is used in cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and washing children.  The many ways women use water throughout their lives is expressed in detail in Table 3.3 in The Rising Tide, page 30.  This table goes through the stages of live from prenatal through to the elderly phase of women’s life and considers changing needs.   For example, there is increased neonatal mortality in water stressed areas and the decreased likelihood of the baby being washed means they have increased susceptibility to diseases with lifelong implications.  As well as the direct health impacts of drinking unclean water during pregnancy, women in some parts of the world are putting their bodies under immense strain as the collect water whilst carrying a child.  This leads to other health issues such as back problems.

For men, the main use for domestic water is personal hygiene so inevitably, they have different perspectives.  This is important because when it comes to water management on a larger scale, it is often a male dominated world.  It is men who typically make up the employees at water companies, or at least in the technical side of the business.  Men are making decisions about water on a bigger scale despite not being involved in a more tangible way at home.

According to a 2014 report by the International Water Association on human resource capacity in 15 developing countries in the water supply, sanitation, and hygiene sector, an average of only 17 percent of staff in the water and sanitation sector are female. Especially in technical fields in the public and private water sectors, female professionals are significantly underrepresented.
The Rising Tide

In counties where water has become industrialised, we do see a less gendered interaction in the home, although it is still common to find women responsible for washing, cleaning and cooking.  But because water is available on tap, the interaction takes less time, less effort and is therefore less unequal than in other parts of the world.  But again, if we turn to a society level view instead of domestic we find that the picture is less equal.  Writing about the UK in 2004, Veronica Strang noted that:

“The groups directly in control of water resources are very male-dominated, most particularly in terms of who actually owns, makes decisions about or acts upon water… women have the least part in looking after or controlling water resources directly, and in terms of real ownership of water they are almost invisible. However, there remains one place where their water management is crucial: in the domestic sphere they are – as they have always been – the major users and managers of water.”

This is crucial to note as “control of water is inevitably control of life and livelihood” (Colin Ward).  The groups who control this vital resource have political, economic and social power.  We, in the UK, are on the whole, passive recipients of water.  We turn on a tap and it’s there.  We do not value it the same as we did when we had to collect it and carry it.

“If you carry water, it’s part of you… you kind of embody it really, then you are really in touch with it”
– Karen Wimhurst, quoted by Strang

Because of the gendered experience of water, the impact on women of poor water supply is different than that for men.  An example is that women cannot relieve themselves in the open air in the same way as men and so poor sanitation has a greater impact on them.  They also tend to shoulder the responsibility for the health and cleanliness of their children, and water quality and availability play an important role in that.

Around the world, about 1 in 10 people cannot be sure that their water is safe to drink.  This means that you either risk drinking water which could harm you or you must boil it to sterilise it.  In parts of the world where fuel is scarce, or must be collected, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.  If you’ve already spent a considerable about of time collecting the water for the day and then you must go out and find firewood, you rapidly lose time you need to spend on cooking and looking after children etc.  More people are killed by drinking bad water than by war.

There is also the economic impact as girls are taken out of school to help collect water and because there is unsuitable facilities for maintaining personal hygiene, especially important to girls when they begin menstruating.  This limits their job opportunities and deprives them of education.

Let’s turn for a moment to a few facts and figures from the United Nations:

  • About three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home and 50% to 85% of the time, women are responsible for this task.
  • In South Africa, in poor rural households, women who fetch water and fuel wood spend 25% less time in paid employment.
  • Reducing the time it takes to fetch water from 30 to 15 minutes increased girls’ school attendance by 12% according to a study in Tanzania.
  • About 44 million pregnant women have sanitation-related hookworm infections that pose a considerable health burden in developing societies.

Whilst it is a vast and complex arena, it is crucial that we understand how water and gender interact so that actions can be taken which both enhance access to water but which also help in the journey towards gender equality.

Further than simply perpetuating gender inequality, Strang claims that changes in water management actually “helped to establish male dominance in political, economic and religions terms”.  With this in mind, it is clear that an understanding of the history of water can inform the future and help us to improve water access and quality as well as empowering the lives of women around the world.

To look at water through a gendered lens provides an interesting perspective on a resource that so many of us take for granted.  Similarly, one can view historical changes and attitudes through the lens of water and water management.  If this is a topic of interest, I’d recommend picking up a copy of The Meaning of Water by Veronica Strang and download The Rising Tide.

You might also want to watch a couple of YouTube videos on the subject:

The sex lives of aquatic animals

Today I’m going to be looking at water and sex as it pertains to non-human creatures but later this month I’ll be looking at how water interacts with men and women.

Gendered language

Before we even dip our toes into this topic, we must acknowledge that how we talk about water is not gender neutral.  We find some rivers that are considered female, and some that are male.  There are no rules in the English language to stipulate this, although there often is in other languages. But how we talk about our bodies of water does matter, the language we use has a ‘profound influence on how we see the world’.


Fish are way ahead of us when it comes to thinking about sex and gender.  Whereas the majority of humans seem set that there can only be two genders and they cannot be changed, fish are rather flexible in their attitude.  They can undergo one or more sex change in their life and they can even have both sexual organs at once.  Sex changes tend to occur if a population becomes too biased to one sex or to improve genetic fitness.  One example of this is the clown fish which generally forms a monogamous relationship.  If the female dies, as in Finding Nemo, instead of hanging around feeling sorry for himself, the male will change into a female.  They will then pair up with a single male.  But that would have made for a more controversial film…

Other examples of sex changing fish include the Kobudai, made famous in Blue Planet II, which slowly but surely morphed into a male.  For the blue headed wrasse, it is the loss of the dominant male which triggers a sex change, usually in the largest female of the group.  This involves dramatic changes in behaviour, anatomy and colouration.  What I really like about this fish is that whilst most juveniles are female, there are a few sneaky males which look like females and then go ahead and mate without the dominant male noticing!

Interestingly, the population size of a fish and the direction they change sex seem to be linked.  There are more than 400 species of sex changing fish, some change from male to female and some from female to male (as well as those which can also change back).  Species who change from female to male have smaller population sizes than those which change from male to female.

As well as aquatic life which can change sex, we also have those creatures which forgo the need to change and make life easy and interesting by having both sets of genitals.  For example, there is a type of sea slug which has both penis and vagina. After it’s had simultaneously fertilising sex (basically some sort of epic 69 position) the penis falls off.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough drama, it grows another one!


No one wants to have sex in polluted water… but for the fish and other aquatic creatures that have to, the consequences can be dire.

For this topic, we need to understand what endocrine disruptors are and where they come from:

What? Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with endocrine (or hormone) systems.

Where? Endocrine disruptors can be found in plastics, cosmetics, medications, pesticides and even in food as a contaminant.  More than 800 man-made chemicals have been found to interfere with hormones.

We started to get a sense of the impact endocrine disruptors were having back in 1985 when a study on male alligators in a lake affected by chemical pollutants were found to have testosterone levels three times lower than those of males in a similar but uncontaminated lake.  The levels were so low they were close to those of females and females in turn had twice the amount of oestrogen.  Further, the males had poorly developed testes and smaller phalli and females also exhibited abnormal sexual organs. This was over 30 years ago.

“Chemicals are disturbing normal hormone-controlled development, affecting gender, sex, and reproduction.  And we are now seeing, low doses are disruption enough.  Fish appear particularly at risk of hormone disruption.”
– Janisse Ray, 2007

In areas where they are exposed to endocrine disruptors, fish have been found with lower levels of hormones, found to take take longer to mature, develop smaller sexual organs and produce fewer eggs, some of which don’t grow.  An example from Florida is that of the mosquitofish where effected females developed a male sex organ and attempted to mate with female fish.  Fish have also been found in the UK with both genitalia (unnaturally) occurring.  More often than not, these were found downstream of sewage treatment works and other industry.  But more recent studies show that the medications we consume are entering the water cycle in amounts which, whilst not of concern to human health, are altering the health and behaviour of animals in our rivers.

The impact of the endocrine disruptors is greater as the chemicals accumulate in animals up the food chain, for example gulls have been affected and a beluga whale has been found with two ovaries, two testes, male genitalia and partial female genitalia.  Female black bears have also been found exhibiting some degree of male sex organs.  A report (I lost the link) from 2003 stated that over 200 animal species were known, or suspected, to have reproductive disorders which might be attributed to these chemicals.

The impact on hormones on population sizes is exacerbated by the effects of climate change.  Changing temperatures affects the sex of species such as baby turtles and crocodiles and could lead to exclusively female clutches which in turn could be the end of the species altogether, especially if males are affected by endocrine disruptors and are unable to fertilise females.

Not that it should be the only reason we act, but these chemicals can also affect humans.  Human exposure can come from ingesting food, dust and water which is contaminated but also through inhalation and through the skin.  They can be transferred from pregnant woman to fetus and from parent to child through breast milk.

Further reading:

Otter Country

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington is a tale of her quest to see otters in the wild.  It weaves her journey with facts as well as drawing in reflections and experiences of other otter writers, in particular Gavin Maxwell.  She visits the site of his home as part of her search and, it seems, to pay homage to an author who’s ottery writings had a huge impact on her.

Have just read about imagery in nature writing, I chose two pages at random and picked out the similes and metaphors:

The land is ribboned with water… surfaces glossy with wet… web of lines that link ditches… a lattice of hazel… clouds loosed… wind bashes reeds and bends them into a whistling chorus… a frog shimmering as if varnished with water pings away and becomes a wet leaf among other wet leaves… I creak inside… a world slick with water… a rainbow seeps in… release my binoculars… a slab of grey water… moorhens bicker… mallard mischoreograph landings… rain on the roof is a thousand pattering fingers… a ragged battalion of cormorants… sagging skeleton of a drowned tree… the water surface is zinc… starlings begin their pouring flight… they are a flickering brown stream…

Within these two pages we also find an evocative description of the water that our narrator is looking out onto:

“The water changes from moment to moment.  It is grey, it is ruffled, it is polished pewter or a mirror holding the sky and bouncing light in every direction.  I am mesmerised as it furs with the lightest shower of rain, ripples beneath coots or bends under the weigh of a swan.”

Despite only being 52 words, we are filled with a detailed sense of the scene and the characteristics of the water.  Water as a changeable entity is something we find a lot in poetic writings about lakes and rivers.  It is endlessly the same and yet always changing.

The description of the water as a mirror holding the sky is such a beautiful image, I’m envious of her ability to describe the world she sees and the action within it.  The idea of the frog pinging away and becoming one with the wet leaves, the starlings with their pouring flight, echoing the water below them as they stream through the sky.  Even without the allure of the otter, I think Darlington could easily draw readers in with her captivating imagery.  That said, otters were the reason I picked up the book in the first place…

And that is because otters are amazing!  And as far as creature specific nature writing goes, we find them in Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, The Wind in the Willows and the internet phenomenon, I Am Otter.  Turning to poetry, we have Ted Hughes’ An Otter and Dog Otter by Kevin Saving amongst many others.

As a bit of an aside, the otters that pop up in memes and cute videos are most often sea otters whereas the kind we have in the UK are Eurasian Otters.  Instead of living in the sea, they move between land and fresh water, without which they would become dehydrated.  They also need fresh water to clean their fur and maintain its waterproofing.

Whilst the otter rock stars of the internet appear cute and cuddly, they are actually quite ferocious, they are serious predators, they are after all wild animals who need to survive.  They were one of the earliest mammalian carnivores to evolve and have a powerful bite.

To search for otters in the UK is quite a challenge.  Whilst numbers are on the rise, they got close to extinction in the 20th century.  But it is not necessarily population size which makes them tricky to find.  They are one with their world, they slip between water and earth with graceful ease, without impact and without notice.  They appear and disappear as if by magic, slipping away unseen.  This can, at times, make the book a little frustrating.  After all, I chose a book about otters with the hope of actually finding one lurking between the pages.

When reviewing the book, John Lister-Kay said:

“You don’t have to be an otter fanatic to love Darlington’s book… Otter Country is proper nature writing, revealing as much about the writer’s obsession with otters as of the animal itself and leaving us in awe of both”

Who isn’t an otter fanatic?!  As nature writing, Otter Country is a great piece of work.  She provides beautiful imagery, an interesting reflection on the watery landscapes she finds herself in as well as considering the otter in literature.  My only criticism is that it is titled Otter Country and whilst she is writing well about the home of the otter, I wanted more actual otters…  The nature of the otters means they are elusive and this is reflected in the book but I think the title sets the reader up for something that they aren’t going to get.

Silent Spring: A Legacy

“We can never forget the power of impassioned, informed voices sharing their stories of place, bearing witness, speaking out on behalf of the land they call home.”
– Terry Tempest Williams on Rachel Carson

Whilst I feel that Rachel Carson should be remembered for her lyrical writing on the sea, there can be no doubt that her book Silent Spring has had a huge impact on how we see, and treat, nature.

The Power of One Voice, which I mentioned in my first post about Carson (and got to see because of a kind stranger), looks at Carson’s life, her sea books and the legacy of Silent Spring. She is described in the film as a scholar, a storyteller and a voice of mother nature.

In writing Silent Spring, Carson essentially kicked the hornets nest. At a time when science was god, to question the use of chemicals was revolutionary. She did not call for a complete ban on pesticides and chemicals in agriculture, instead she asked questions about the misuse and abuse of them. She asked about the impact they were having and urged the country to er on the side of caution. There was no knowledge about the dangers of products like DDT and other pest controls, and no one had researched the impacts they could have on plants, animals and humans.

But what was becoming clear is that there was a huge impact. Wildlife and livestock were suffering, bird populations were being decimated and insects, crucial for agriculture, were being destroyed.

Despite the severity of the environmental impact, it was with the introduction of human health that Carson really drew attention. The idea that what we do to nature, we do to humans by extension was a radical concept at the time. By introducing the general public to the interconnectedness of life, she made people sit up and look closer.

“We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.”

Carson advocated the use of biological controls instead of chemical controls or at least the use of specific and tested pesticides. And it’s important to note that most pesticides don’t work. Mutations occur making the pests resistant to the toxins and you have to wipe out the entirety of a population which is nearly impossible. You may have a short term gain but long term, pesticides will fail you.

If we look to the impact of Silent Spring, we find that it revitalised the environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. But we do not seem to have fully absorbed the messages. We have not adopted caution and we are still using vast amounts of chemicals which build up in the ecosystem. We are just using different chemicals…

If we look at the book in terms of literary skills, we see that Carson has taken on a huge challenge. She has set out to explain complex and scientific issues to a general readership and needs to do so with enough emotion and passion that it raises reactions but not so much that she compromises her reputation as a truthteller.

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… There was a strange stillness… The few birds seen anywhere were moribund: they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus… of scores of bird voices there was no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

By using birds as messengers, Carson has skilfully brought messages from the insects and river life to human ears. She has chosen an environmental indicator that we are all familiar with, and which has an audible and visible presence in our lives, whether we are in the city or the countryside. Birds are universally recognised and bring home, literally, the impact that pesticides were having. Additionally, there is a large population of bird watchers who had noticed changes in bird life and who could add weight to the voice of Carson’s message.

Like her books on the sea, Carson has created, in Silent Spring, a powerful account of a complicated issue and yet manages to present it in a poetic and inspiring way. Not content to only be a writer or only a scientist, Carson had a foot firmly in each world and synthesised the two beautifully.

For more information:

A little more water symbolism

I’ve already looked at the symbolism of water and of the sea and whilst, when we turn to rivers and lakes, we see similar meanings, we also encounter new ideas and extensions of ones we’ve already seen.

For example, that of the lake being a reflective mirror, perhaps more so that the sea because lakes are still, often calm and contemplative spaces.  They provide room for revelation and meditation.  The inhabitants of the lake also extend our symbolism and provide a lens though which to view the symbolic lake.  For example, a lake containing a monster is very different to that which is home to the lotus flowers which rise from the murky depths and yet are so pure.  Lakes can represent tranquillity but also mystery and illusion.  We can’t always seen beneath the surface of a lake, or at least not necessarily very far.

The depths of lakes can symbolise the depths of knowledge and wisdom and it’s worth noting here that in the tale of Ceridwen and the cauldron of knowledge, the Celtic goddess lived in a lake.

As well as monsters, lotus flowers and welsh goddesses, we find water sprites, nymphs and fairies in lakes.  Perhaps this relates to the idea that fairies live in a world under ours and lakes connect the earths surface with the surface of their world.  Similarly, rivers connect the underground with the surface and often appear to come out of nowhere in the form of springs.  It is easy to see how this would appear magical and like a gateway to another world.

Rivers, with their endless flow, have come to represent journeys and the everlasting cycle of life, death and rebirth.  The crossing of a river can mean the completion of a rite of passage and the mouth of the river is another gateway to other worlds.

When I was researching and thinking about river symbolism, I came across the following and I feel that it’s been said better than I could so I just wanted to share it directly instead of reinventing the wheel:

“Rivers can be metaphors for many things. Metaphors for life, for its twists and turns, for the suredness of its path, for our uncertainty of what lies ahead. For times of peace in deep, calm waters, for times of struggle in the turbulence of the rapids, for times of submergence when hard bedrock yields to soft sand, creating hidden whirlpools and turnholes that threaten to suck us under their untroubled surface. Metaphors for the flow of time that’s constant in its pace but relative in our experience of it: going fast when we’re paddling frantic up stream, and slow, when we’re floating down, on our backs, gazing up at the clouds, letting the current do with us what it will. And metaphors for memories. That ethereal lifeblood that courses through our lives just like a river, connecting the babbling brook to the broad estuary, giving us a place, a direction, a stage, a reflection.  Rivers flow in all of us, and us in them, and in the sublimeness of their presence we find ours.”
Caught by the river

Turning to religion, we find a number of goddesses associated with rivers and lakes, for example an ancient Persian goddess of fertility.  Possibly the best known example of religion and rivers though, is that of Hindus and the Ganges.  In India, rivers have long been considered sacred and purifying and religious rituals are often carried out in or by rivers.  The Ganges in particular is believed to flow from the heel of Vishnu and is said to help souls of the dead reach heaven.  Because of this there are a lot of funerals and cremations which occur in the Ganges.

Bali is a predominantly Hindu island and holy water is essential to their religion and is used in many many ways including to heal the sick, in rites of passage, in worship and in cremation.

“Holy water is an agent of the power of a god, a container of mysterious force.  It can cleanse spiritual impurities, fend off evil forces, and render the recipient immune to the attacks of negative, or demonic, influences.  In Bali, holy water is not a symbol, or something abstract – it is a sekala [tangible, visible] container of a niskala [intangible, occult] power, and, as such, is sacred and holy in and of itself.”
– Fred B. Eiseman, Jr

DSC_0030 (2) MO

Lake Beratan; A Hindu lake temple in Bali

We also find holy water in many other world religions.  For example, in Christianity, it is used in baptisms and blessings as well as protection from evil.

“I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like Holy water.”
-St Teresa of Avila

In Buddhism, offering water at shrines is a symbol of the person’s aspiration to cultivate the virtues of calmness and clarity.  It is also a reminder to seek purification and enlightenment. Here the water is not ascribed particular powers but instead acts purely symbolically to help the follower keep the aspirations at the forefront of her mind.

As I start to explore literature of rivers and lakes I am sure we will encounter more symbolism associated with these bodies of water.  Water is such a crucial part of our lives that it has found itself woven into many metaphors and interpreted in many ways throughout the world.

The River Singers

I’m going to start moving away from the sea and into other bodies of water but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to return to the oceans as I take this meander. I’m, appropriately, letting the waters guide me, going with the flow and seeing where I end up!

“It reminded me of Watership Down because it’s a poetic story about a family of animals in danger who are looking for safety”
– Charlie, Age 9


The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse is a compelling tale, and whilst it’s aimed at children, it warmed my heart as a 31 year old adult. It centres on a family of voles who live alongside the Great River and what I really enjoyed was the creation of the river as a character.

When our hero, Sylvan, first encounters the river he is exhilarated:

“She filled him with her vastness, her movement, her song. He felt the stirrings of hunger, the desire to dive, to twist, to flow with her.”

During this initial meeting between vole and water, Sylvan’s mother passes on words from her mother:

“Well, young ones, beyond this point lies Sinethis, the Great River. We are River Singers, Water Folk, children of Sinethis. We live by her ways. She takes our old and gives us young. She stirs our hunger, feeds us with grasses. She shelters us in her waters and burrows. She rises and dashes us. She sings with us a song as soft as thistles, hard as roots, deep as shadows, old as stones. We sing with her a song as quick as thinking, sweet as apples, brief as day. We are River Singers, and we are hers.”

What I love about this is that in a short paragraph we find water as life giving and life sustaining, water as death and water as eternal. These are themes that you can see at play elsewhere in the book and which weave together the wider river ecosystem.

There is some beautifully poetic prose in this novel and the interplay between Sylvan the voles and Sinethis the river is evocative:

“She is as old as stones and our song with her is brief as summer.”
– Sylan

“Flow with me. Be as I am. Be yielding but strong, swift and implacable. Flow with me. You will need to swim, to fight. But flow with me. This is my way.”
– Sinethis

“She sang in him [Sylvan], louder than she had ever been, her melodies twining deeply through his heart. She sang a song of savagery and peace, of raging torrents and burbling trickles, cataracts and calm. She sang of life, a strident tune, its notes strong, bright and gleaming. She sang of death, the notes muted, dissolving and mingling with the others, lost in the eternal whole.”

The river is truly, undoubtably, a character in her own right, an ever present semi-god.

“I loved the lyrical, spiritual relationship of the voles with the river, and somehow the very sad and dangerous parts of the voles’ lives was held in perfect balance with this, so that the book was accurate about life and death, but never gratuitously cruel or, on the other hand, unrealistically sentimental.”
– A. Booth, an amazon review

I think it’s useful to know that Moorhouse is an ecologist at Oxford University’s Zoology Department and completed his DPhil on water vole conservation ecology in 2003, as such this is a fairly good representation of this life of voles. Except of course it’s fiction and the voles talk. But you know what I mean!

“Once water voles were an everyday part of experiencing our countryside. Seeking them is a way of connecting with our past.”
– Tom Moorhouse

Water voles used to be a common sight along rivers in the UK, plopping into the water whilst fishermen sat on the banks. But things aren’t so good for them anymore. They are the fastest declining wild mammal in Britain and have disappeared from many parts of the country. Habitat loss is one reason for this but the introduction of the American Mink has had a huge impact on numbers as mink eat voles, something Sylvan and his siblings know only too well… Between 1989 and 1998, the population fell by almost 90 per cent. The populations which still remain are becoming increasingly disjointed and disconnected which leads to a loss of genetic variation.

But things might be improving for the voles. According to an article from summer 2017, numbers are on the up. And thankfully, for the species as a whole, they are not picky eaters and have been recorded eating 227 different types of plant in Britain. This means that they are less vulnerable to changes in flora but they do need to eat 80% of their body weight every day. I suspect a lot of live as a vole is about finding yummy food!

They have amazing, cute and expressive little faces and despite all the dangers around them, all the predators looking to eat them (we encounter a few in the book), they look relaxed and calm as they nibble away on the riverside vegetation. Just don’t expect this level of zen when you read the adventure of this vole family!