A quiet has descended on the river, sudden, like an in-breath. The birds have seen something I haven’t. Perhaps it is a ritual they undertake at this time of day, triggered by a certain quality of light or air. Or they could just be waiting for me to pass by. In the riverside meadows the grass is now waist high. Somewhere in there are the nests of curlews, their young hatched and jostling like clockwork toys in the hay. I’d love to get a glimpse of them, but I’m not going to try. They’re just hanging on and need to be left alone. Instead I’m walking to the old railway bridge where the swallows are rearing their young under the arches. I can see them skimming on the surface of the water, swerving and veering, then arcing up to disappear into the dark crevices between the bricks. They’re busy. I, for once, am not. It still doesn’t feel quite right.
Across the water there is an area of closely mown lawn, a clubhouse, and a long jetty. A strange boat is moored there, a type I’ve never seen before, something between a Canadian canoe and a Venetian gondola. It seems very out of place on an English river. As I’m examining it the clubhouse door opens and a group of paunchy men of my age walk down to the lawn. They line up facing the river and begin to do stretching exercises, guided by a large bearded man dressed in alpha black. I leave them to it. I find a spot under the bridge and watch the swallows, four pairs of them. Time slips away like the river. Damselflies land on my boots, a good sign I think. I must be calming down.
Walking back to the boat I spot a heron in the reeds. I think it’s asleep, stone still, its neck folded into its torso like neatly coiled rope. As I watch it I hear splashing downstream, fast and rhythmic. The heron straightens and flees in a tatter of wing feathers. I hear a deep voice, shouting. Round the riverbend the strange canoe appears, moving fast, manned by the group I’d seen earlier, all paddling hard. I wait, camouflaged by the high reeds, and watch them pass. The men are bent over their paddles which they are stabbing into the water as if they’re soldiers in battle. They’re pouring sweat, grimacing, panting like overheating dogs. At the back of the boat the man in black is standing at a long tiller, barking instructions: “Dig deep! Push harder! You’re not pushing hard enough! 1! 2! 3! Paddle!” Watching them exhausts me. I feel the shivering in my chest that starts before a panic attack. But very quickly they’re past and the fury that they’re projecting through the water and air starts to fade. Until they turn round and head back. “Dig. Dig!” I walk as fast I can to get out of range. The birds knew what was coming when they stopped singing. Half a mile upstream I’m passed by two men on paddleboards. Again they are bowed over their paddles, staring into the water (though they surely can’t see it), pushing hard and sweating. It’s what I came to the river to get away from, this constant striving. But I don’t think there’s a single place on these islands where you can avoid it. Even the remotest mountain summits are all being sat on by people getting their breath back after their latest conquest. The act of bending over your work used to be associated with slavery or the near slavery of the worst factory and farm jobs. Now it’s a sign of achievement. As the two men pass an ambulance comes into hearing, just over the bank, sirens blaring. They pay no attention to it.
Narrowboats cruise at 4 miles per hour upstream, 6 downstream. When we’re cruising we put the engine only slightly above tickover because that is when it is least audible, when the boat is the least stressed, when we’re the least stressed. The boat creates the shallowest wake at that speed. Ducks and swans overtake. It makes us smile. I’ve noticed that most narrowboaters don’t look very fit, but they seem to laugh a lot.
Lately I’ve been reading Chinese classical poetry. I’m fascinated by the image richness of the poems, and of their stillness, how they seem to come out of, and go back to, silence. It’s something I’m trying to find in my own work, though I’m not striving for it. I don’t believe it can be found by striving, only by waiting, listening, watching. The chinese symbol for the word bow shows a pictograph of a hand, next to the symbol of a mouth placed close to an ear. A bow, therefore, is a “hand whisper” (In China a bow is done using head and hands). The ancients used this ritual gesture as a basis for their spiritual practice, going quietly and with humility about their lives. The bow is the opposite of the bend. It is an act of reverence. It is also an act of healing, and can be the beginning of a return to balance for people like me, whose constant striving has lead them to serious mental health problems. For me, healing began with the breath and the bow.
The river is empty now, the surface of the water smooth except for the trill caused by the wind, or the songs of birds which have come back to life as the paddlers left. A pair of curlews have just risen from the far edge of the meadow and are now crossing the water, wauping as they glide. As I watch them a white bird appears, flying low, following the course of the river. At first I think it is a herring gull, but it is much smaller. Then I notice the forked tail, the angled, narrow wings. It is a tern, the first I’ve seen this year. I watch it slowly fly upstream. I whisper a greeting. I bow.