Canals

Canals are sometimes forgotten when we think of water habitats but they provide wildlife with opportunities that are just as valuable as lakes and rivers.

A lot of Britain’s canals were built in the 1800s with ‘Canal mania’ erupting after the Duke of Bridgewater built his canal in 1761 to move coal into the heart of Manchester.  When he opened it, the price of coal in the town was halved overnight.

More and more were built around the country to support the transportation of goods around the country.  They were a crucial network that provided people with food, fuel and livelihoods.  Once upon a time, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, barges transported vast amounts of ice into the capital for refrigeration, and, very importantly, for ice cream.

“Canals generate a degree of prejudice.  While rivers are seen as the life-giving arteries of our landscape, canals can been viewed as septic sumps accumulating the detritus of the industries that created them.”
– Hugh Warwick, BBC Wildlife

Weil’s disease cast a bad light over our canals along with the other pollutants that Warwick refers to.  But we have to see them through a contextual lens. Their existence is down to those industries which polluted them, down to the industrial revolution and once, these gentle currents were the motorways of our lands.  Unfortunately, as quickly as they arrived, they were abandoned.  Train travel took over and left the canals to decay, inevitably becoming derelict.  And this has coloured our view of them.

Canals are often slower paced than rivers and this can lead to a build up of litter but they also create wonderful wildlife corridors.  They connect habitats, provide a route for animals, and people, to leave or join a city.  In a world where habitat fragmentation comes up again and again, we should see the canals as opportunities.  They also provide a space for people living in urban areas to connect to nature living on their doorstep, sometimes literally as canal side buildings are converted into housing.

Canals are home to kingfishers, herons and toads and many other species including the water vole who has suffered badly in recent years and the otter which has a place in many of our hearts.

These spaces have also become home to poets.  The Canal Laureate programme, run by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, has been running for since 2013.  In that time, it has birthed a plethora of poems, artworks, films and events.  Previous Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, said of her experience:

“Waterways are such a big part of my daily life but I had mostly avoided writing about them, perhaps in case I didn’t do them justice.  The laureateship compelled me to write about my private environment… There’s a big body of work about the sea, or rivers – but not so much about canals.  What exists is often ‘folk’ poetry, or poetry about an imagined urban experience which is no longer quite true… Writing about water is often heavy with sentimentality and anthropomorphism, because writers seen it as mystical or symbolic.  In the inland network, water is vital and unglamorous.  I try to write it as it is, not as I wish it to be.”

You could write a poem based on canal boat’s names alone; ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, Blue Moon, Morning Mist, Dreamcatcher, Drifter, Halycon, Little Gem, Stargazer and perhaps my favourite so far – Unsinkable II.

And if names don’t grab your interest, perhaps you could write about the history, or take a trip along one and write a travel-esque piece about the geography of your trip and the nature you encounter.  Canals are excellent places to slow down and notice what normally passes you by.  And if you’re steering or navigating the locks, then you have the added bonus of being more deeply connected to the water itself.

Or instead, just head over to waterlines and see what other poets have written about these once vital water ways of Britain.

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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:

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

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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 symbolic sea; life, death and the journey in between

Water is used as a symbol in cultures around the world and back through time.  It represents life, death, purification and our emotions.  The meaning or use of water as a metaphor varies depending on the particular body of water.  Rivers for example can be used differently to lakes.  Today, I’m looking at the sea although inevitably other water bodies will flow in as well.

In particular, I’m looking at the sea as a symbol of life, of death, of emotion and the unconscious.  Being symbolic of birth, the sea is also associated with sexuality and I’ll be exploring this in another post.

Life, in all its entirety, originated in the ocean, in water so perhaps its unsurprising that water symbolises life.  Especially when you think that we are all born from the waters of the womb.  Water also sustains life, giving us the drink we need to survive and watering our crops so we have food to eat.

The sea also features in a lot of creation myths, giving birth to the world, gods and humanity. For example an ancient Egyptian story says that the sun god reposed in an ocean.  An Assyro-Babylonian myth is broader, bringing in fresh water as well:

Assyro-Babylonian mythology states that the gods, and subsequently all beings, arose from the fusion of salt water (Tiamat) and sweet water (Apsu). Apsu is the embodiment of the freshwater abyss that lies beneath the Earth. From Tiamat’s water came forth the clouds, and her tears became the source of the Tigris and the Euphratus.
http://www.pureinsideout.com/water-myths-mysteries-and-symbolism.html

There is a mothering aspect to this symbolism; life creator, life sustainer. But any relationship can turn sour and so too can the seas of life turn on us.  As easily as they create and foster life, the seas can destroy it.  The sea, as unfathomable depths, can kill and is filled with killers.  It is undoubtedly a dangerous place and can be a destructive force as much as a creative one.

Between life and death, we find the ocean used symbolically in a number of ways.  A common interpretation of water and seas is that of purification.  We have baptism in Christianity, the purifiying tears we cry and the powerful flooding that Noah endured was a purification of the world.  Often, spiritual purification is seen as a type of rebirth, making it appropriate that the sea is as symbol of both life and death as well.

I am sure I am not the only person to find a day by the sea emotionally purifying and feel calmer as a result of it.  For me, the pleasure of being by the water can bring with it a feeling of becoming new, of washing away the sorrows of life and starting afresh.

Life is a journey, and sea crossings can be used to symbolise this.  They can be considered akin to transitioning into a new world and a new self.  A new start, reached only by crossing treacherous waters.  But can also be seen as the rhythms of life, the high tides, the low tides, the calm days and the storms we all face.

Under the surface of the sea, we find emotional depths and our unconscious.  Like the ocean, our emotional world is changeable, sometimes it’s smooth sailing and other times its rocky seas.  High, crashing waves can threaten to drown us in our emotions but when things are serene, we feel on a more even keel.  Literature which involves characters going out to sea can be representing the exploration of emotions and our unconscious fears and desires.

The sea contains so much unexplored space, it has numerous different depths and what goes on under the surface is not visible from above.   Similarly, we have unexplored parts of our minds, there is much that is unknown about ourselves and our minds and of course, what we present to the world often doesn’t reflect what is going on for us inside.

There is much to mediate on when we are considering the sea as a symbol for our own existence.  It is a powerful tool and one we can use for our own reflection.  How we see the sea often says more about our current state than the sea itself.  We see, in the sea, what we want to see.

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

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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!

Water: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

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After fire in our series of wild unknown animal spirit cards, comes water.  Unsurprisingly, here we have collection of animals who spend either their entire life or a significant part of it, in water!

We have a mix of fresh and salt water animals, and I’m interested to see if that has any bearing on the cards.  But regardless, they are all water dwellers.  And water, in tarot, is the element of the suit of cups.  Which is all about emotions, feelings, relationships etc.  This is about matters of the heart. It’s about intuition and the unconscious.

Think of a body of water as an emotional scale – the surface showing your surface level emotions, the things that you probably understand a bit, the deeper you go the further into your unconsciousness you get.  So right down at the bottom is the tough stuff, probably where your greatest pains are buried.  And there’s no light at the bottom of the ocean, there’s vast amounts of pressure down there which would easily kill a human, so we tend to stay clear.  Coming back up to the visible aspect, this can be used to describe your more conscious emotional state.  If the water is flowing freely, so are your emotions, you feel them and then they pass.  If the water is stagnant, you might be holding on too tightly to your emotions, trying to control them etc.  This will all be relevant when we look at where in the water our animals live.

I love water, I love being by the sea and (if you’re into that sort of thing) I’m a Pisces with Cancer rising so, astrologically speaking, I’m very much a water maiden.


I have been really looking forward to this suit as I’ve been working my way through the deck and have been very frustrated by the vertigo which was stopped me from getting stuck into it.  I have very much glossed over a lot of the wonderful things about water as the vertigo is still persisting… This also means this post may involve lots of typos as I can’t really proof read right now! 

EDS and drinking

A while back, the lovely Beth of Mermaid in Disguise wrote about Cute Cups for Crappy Hands. And crappy hands being a subject I know a lot about, I accidentally wrote an essay in the comments section…

So I thought it would be useful to share the information here as well.

Collection of drinking vessels

What are the issues with EDS and drinking…

  • you may not be able to swallow. thankfully i can but my sister can’t and I’m afraid I’m not best placed to advise on this one.
  • you may not be able to lift a drinking vessel
  • you may not be able to open a bottle with your hands or a sports cap with your teeth
  • you may have a tendency to spill or drop drinks

Hot drinks

Contigo Autoseal are my go to for hot drinks (the site is american but there are UK retailers, it’s just an easier way to see the whole range on their site).  I’ve never had a spill and the button to open the mouth bit is fairly easy to press but not so easy it will spill in your bag. They’ve got a few designs so you can think about what will work best for your hands.  And they come in a range of colours as well!

Note of caution: your drink will stay hot for hours. If you want to be able to drink it soon, add some cold water!

Hot Straws are also ace for when you’re out and about.  They mean you can order a hot drink and not have to lift the cup, just pop in your straw and go.  The straws also fit into most takeaway cups (through the little mouth bit) which is extra helpful.

Second note of caution: Using a regular straw with a hot drink is not recommended. There are risks around the chemicals used to make them which are then released when they get warm.  Also increased risk of burning yourself.

Cold drinks

I get through ridiculous amounts of squash in a day.  Maybe 2 litres whilst I’m at work and 2 litres when I get home. Way above the recommended 2 litres per day.  And I can’t make my own juice or fill up my own bottle.  So I need a big bottle to get me through the time when there is no one here, which I wouldn’t be able to lift.  My first thought was that I’d have to have millions of small drinks all lined up for me… But then, through the powers of the internet, I came across Hydrate for Health.  And without wanting to seem dramatic, it has changed my life!

I can drink laying down; I just hook it into the walker I have by my bed or chair, clip or drape the end over another part of the walker and I have a litre of juice in my reach. I also have one one my desk at work. People only need to fill up my juice twice a day at work say instead of every hour and no spills.  Pop it in your wheelchair bag and feed the tube round the side and you’ve got instant access to your drink whilst you’re in your chair!

As you can tell, I love it, and I think it’s probably a good moment to mention I am not on commission!  I don’t receive anything from the products I recommend here, I’m just a satisfied customer.

Also Contingo Autoseal do juice bottles in a range of sizes and are ace.  Mine is 400ml which makes it lighter than carrying a coke bottle etc and went all the way to Cambodia with me.  It meant that whenever I was offered a (non fizzy) drink, either in restaurants or on the plane, I could pass over my bottle and not have to worry about plastic cups etc.  They also come in a range of colours and if you venture into the children’s section there are also some cool patterns as well.

And not forgetting alcohol…

Safe Sip drink covers can be used on wine glasses and are easy to use and small enough to carry with you if you’re going out.  I struggle with drinking from wine glasses so I drink wine from plastic beakers with a safe sip cover.

So that, folks, is how I manage to stay hydrated with EDS.  Do you have any other tips or favourite products?