By Brook

25th January 2023
By Brook

January 2023

In late autumn last year, I visited a spot on the By Brook where the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust were restoring the river flow. They were cutting down willow trees close to the water’s edge to create woody debris structures reaching halfway across the stream. These barriers slow the flow of water on one side of the brook and divert the stream toward the opposite bank. In time the structure traps debris and mud, so extending the bank and creating a meander within the stream’s present banks. A few weeks later I revisited the spot and could see the stream was already running faster on the near bank and scouring out the mud on the bottom to reveal a gravel bed – good for fishes to spawn.

In early January I visited the Brook once again after a period of persistent rain. As I walked the short distance from the car park, I could already hear the tumbling water.  Crossing the footbridge over the weir, water thundered down in white torrents, swirling round the lower pond and rushing on downstream. Above the weir the Brook ran fast and smooth, the water topping the banks, threatening to spill over, bypass the weir, and flow directly from the higher reach into the lower.

I continued upstream to where the Water Team had built their debris structures. At first, I could see no sign of them, but then I spotted twiggy branches sticking through the surface, waving in the stream. The structures were still there, but completely submerged. Even the largest of them, for which a mature willow had been cut down, was almost invisible under the rush of water.

I stopped to savour the day. A brisk northerly breeze was funnelling down the valley, chasing fluffy white clouds over a powder blue sky. As I lifted my gaze from the Brook, I felt the whole landscape moving in the wind – twigs clattering, ivy leaves and meadow grass fluttering; and on the skyline the tops of the winter-naked trees swaying majestically.  All this with the background roar of the sheet of white water toppling over the second weir, just above where I now stood.

From this point it is evident that the course of the brook is quite artificial. My feet were a metre or so above the pounding water below the weir, yet my eyes were level with the smooth-running water of the reach above it. A bank of land that must in part have been human made holds back the upper reach so that a head of water is led it to the weir. However, as I realized when I found myself paddling through a patch of sodden grass, the weir itself was leaking, water spilling across the land on both sides before pouring back into the lower river. It wouldn’t take much more rain for the Brook to overflow completely. From the footbridge over the weir, I looked upstream along the upper reach full to the brim, water right up to and over the banks, pouring downstream in a smooth flow, the surface decorated with tiny whirlpools set up by underwater obstructions.  Right under my feet the smooth flow tipped over the top of the weir, so that when I turned around, I looked downstream into a frothing rage of white water.

I know from my previous visit that there is a series of weirs along the valley, and that the Brook in the relatively recent past fed several mills. I have a strong feeling that the Brook doesn’t want to stay within its banks, to be constrained in this pattern of reaches interspersed by weirs that we humans have dictated – it wants to flood over the land, to bring these pastures back to the wetlands that they once were. We humans often say that a River has ‘burst its banks’ – but to a great extent those banks have been defined and built by us. Further back on both sides of the Brook there seems to be another bank, topped by a hedgerow or a line of trees, behind which the hillside rises steeply. Maybe, I wondered, these are indicators of the original spread of the wetland in the valley bottom before the river was contained and the land around drained? Could it be that Brook, as part of its systemic, self-organizing nature, holds a tendency, even an intention, to re-discover its old wider and less defined course? But how much does the farmer – who was driving past me on his quad bike at that moment – want the Brook to stay between its banks, not to flood his pasture and endanger his cattle? And how much the people downstream in Slaughterford want the Brook to stay out of their basements! For the moment, though, my inclination was to urge the Brook on back to its natural course!

I walked further upstream to a place where the Brook makes a big meander around a spinney of alder and found a place I could sit on the bank. I wondered what I might see if I sat quietly in one place for a while – I had to laugh at myself for holding the hope of seeing something ‘special’ like Kingfisher or Otter. No such luck today. But I was drawn to the Crows, singly and in pairs, gliding across the sky. I watched them intently, my gaze following the easy flap of wings, their seemingly effortless glide, their soft landing on the meadow. As I did, I felt that my consciousness joined them in their flight – they swooped me up with them. The Crows absorbed my attention and for a moment we were – not one – but somehow together part of the whole. And as I looked down again, the Brook too was also no longer ‘out there’; we flowed together as part of the same whole.

It is as if, while I have been inspecting Brook, noticing all the fascinating details of the woody barriers, the weirs, the water levels, the flooding, with my attention focussed on the reconstruction and rewilding of Brook by the Water Team, I had been drawn firmly into an inside-outside view: ‘me’ looking ‘out’ at Brook. Gazing at Crows gliding across the valley somehow created a subtle shift in my habitual perception. I begin to see with, rather than at.

I was so caught up with this experience that I sat there, quite unconscious of the passing of time, being with Crow, then with Brook, until I suddenly realized that if I don’t shift myself quickly, I would be late for my guitar lesson!  I hastened back through the wet fields back to the car park. Where now was my sense of self and awareness?