Torn Away

18th February 2023
Torn Away

There is a narrow peninsula of land where the River Frome joins the River Avon. I have been sitting here these past four years exploring how to converse with River.

A coppiced Alder grows at the very end point and nearby, a fallen stump of Willow.  Shoots have sprung up tall from both coppice and stump. Robins and Wrens forage in the undergrowth, long-tailed Tits flock in the higher branches, and Kingfishers perch briefly. River flows in a steady curve from wooded banks upstream to disappear through the railway bridge downstream.

The willow stump sticks out into River and impedes the flow of water. Eddies spin off from its farther end. They swirl downstream and jostle with the current flowing from the Frome in a further line of turbulence. This watery turmoil leaves a small bay still and calm between stump and bank.

But no more. The stump was torn away when River was in spate after heavy rain. All that is left is a ripped-out wound in the bank. My once-sheltered spot is exposed up and down River and to the dog walkers in the field behind. 


I was out walking with my friend Dave. We are both part of the same panpsychic inquiry group, but today are not out with any ontopoetic intent, just two old mates having a walk and a chat. As we wandered toward the River in the February sunshine, Dave said, “We’re quite near your spot, aren’t we? Let’s go and pay our respects.” As I walked toward the peninsula, something felt very different: the place felt more open, more exposed. Of course, this is always so in the winter months when the leaves are off the trees and the vegetation died down. But no, it was more than that. Something was seriously different, but it took me some time to orient myself. Quite suddenly, I realized that the Willow stump was no longer there. Instead of stump, tall willow shoots, and a little protected bay, the riverbank followed a continuous line down to the alder tree. Instead of an enclosed spot, the place where I sat was open to the upstream reach. 

The Willow Stump

I scrambled down to the water level to look at the huge scar in the bank where the roots had torn out. “You can see the stump in the water,” Dave called from a few yards away. As we looked around there were more signs of the flooding. Each side of the river the vegetation was flattened; here and there trees had been uprooted or broken off; and in the Alder tree, up above our heads, was lodged a loose bundle of grass and twigs, showing just how high the water had risen.

I stood there, amazed and a bit tearful. It was a lovely late winter day; River was flowing quietly and calmly along. There was the big Willow on the far bank, its reflection clear on the water surface, there was the little Alder, there further downstream was the big Oak, one heavy branch reaching over River, there was the low spot on the bank across the River where cows came down to drink, there was the view through the arches of the railway bridge. Yet it was weird sitting here with that stump ripped out. Before, the saplings growing from the Willow stump concealed me, so I faced somewhat downstream to the railway bridge and across towards the willow on the far bank. Now, I was open to the curved reach of River both up- and downstream. Maybe what I missed most is the line of eddies: I had watched them for hours on end, spinning away from the willow stump, flowing downstream, then losing identity, dissipating back into the main flow. “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”, the Heart Sutra tells us; here was that same teaching, writ large.

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do or say. So Dave and I went on with our walk. But I returned the next day, now calmer, to have a closer look at how much had changed. And I saw how the peninsula had been eroded on both sides, the banks undercut by the stream and overhanging precariously. The soil around the Alder roots at the far end was also washed away, so it was almost on a separate island. I saw how the peninsula was underwater during the flood, and I imagined that when the next deluge came, the whole place might well wash away.

This is a place I have sat for hours, in daylight and in darkness, sunshine and rain. From the shelter of Willow and Alder I looked out over River, watched the eddies and listened to the birds. One dark morning an Otter climbed onto the stump and looked at me with curiosity. This place has been teacher to me. Now, this familiar spot now feels so very different. I know that riverbanks will erode and move over time, that this is part of a natural process (if we bracket the heavier rainfall brought about by climate change). I know the idea of a fixed river course between firm banks derives from human re-engineering the landscape over generations. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine Kingfisher flying past or the Swans circling overhead in response to my call.  Something has been taken away. I must sit with what has been spoiled.


Dave writes in response: I think your closing words are a reference to Hexagram 18 in the I Ching:

To work on what has been spoiled, separate what is dead from what will bring new life. Crossing the Great Water to observe the situation with a fresh perspective, success is assured through systematic renewal. There is a need to overcome complacency so you can lift something to a higher and more functioning level…