A Rush of Waters
by Roslyn Weaver
On my way there I stop, mid street, to have a word with the cat. Shady, the neighbourhood shadow, has had the temerity to peer up a tree out front of the terrace houses in a way that can only be described as sinister. Worse yet, Shady has now brazenly ignored my raised eyebrows and jumped up onto a branch. I pause to issue a firm-but-fair reminder that Shady’s role in life is as killer of rats, and protector of birds, and that getting out of the tree at once is the only sensible thing to do. I reassure myself I cannot see any nests in the tree anyway. Perhaps Shady is just exploring, like me.
I continue on. As I reach the river, Caversham side, I make the mistake of pausing for a moment to admire the sight of birds and boats and bridges on this part of the Thames. Sensing opportunity, a fleet of fifteen or so young Egyptian geese sprint eagerly towards me the moment I stop, mistaking me for one of the countless portable bakeries operating under the guise of tourists and families. I hastily move on. Resigned, they settle back into the sunshine, until I pause again, when they attempt another siege of my bread-less person. This time I leave and do not stop again. The swan’s nest at the base of the pedestrian bridge on the town side is newly empty, bar a lone egg baking in the summer sun. Beyond, I see mother and four cygnets in the water. They return, spending much time shaking feathers and preening before the babies collapse into heaps of grey feathers and the mother settles back over the remaining egg. Then they return to water, the egg alone again. I wonder what will happen to it.
The waters speak of it before I am there. The slow ripples of the Thames are turning into the violent pull, pull, pull of the canal boat as it slows down on its approach to the lock. It sends water skittling to the concrete edges of the canal and under the pier, creating a deep jarring, echoing thunder as if a sea monster is emerging from ancient depths. Over Caversham lock, I cross the weir bridge, its roar of water spilling down until I reach the other side. Now is the deep thud, thud, thud of the turbines turning, and I stop to listen. I have walked this path a hundred times and never paused to look, or to wonder at their rhythmic drumming. This is the turbine house for hydroelectricity, built by volunteers. Unlike other renewable energy sources – the sun, wind – water from the Thames is ever present, and it is used locally.
But this is not why I am here. I turn to the right, and enter a path I have never travelled until now: View Island. Just at the start of the path, signboards speak of life within. They tell of birds and the houses volunteers have built to encourage them to thrive. This I can hear; I have enjoyed their ceaseless chatter all the way from house to here, from wren to robin and warbler to wagtail. They tell of curious creatures that inhabit the island for three seasons of the year: frog, hedgehog, and muntjac. I have only ever seen the first, and longed to see the second, but the third creature is a surprise; people have told me they’ve seen a deer – a deer! – in the concrete landscapes of our neighbourhood and I now have my answer about that riddle. The signs tell of the insects that call this island their home: centipedes, woodlice, and beetles. The close-up picture of the stag beetle – with the male growing to almost 8cm long – is fearsome and fascinating. They tell of the fish – chub and pike, and eel – that might be making their way along the river here. And this is why I am here.
As I walk through the sunlit green haze of tangled bush and tree, alternately stung by nettle and serenaded by birds, choosing this path and that path, I eventually find the fish pass. Here the waters are rushing, a fast and eager sound of opportunity. This pass is also volunteer-built, and helps fish swim upstream without being stopped or confused by the weir or turbines. It looks different to the fish ladders I have seen in Canada, where I used to live. This one has a slope rather than steps, with a concrete-based section to make it easier for fish to swim up the pass. Recycled plastic reeds slow the flow; slope variations create fast and slow flows appealing to different fish; pools give them somewhere to rest. Fast, slow, still. Pebbled ‘eel tiles’ near the turbines help eels to slip into the pass. The young eels, elvers, have travelled thousands of kilometres from the Sargasso Sea to spend a quarter of a century in the Thames growing, before returning to the Sea for spawning. Eels once thrived in the Thames. Now they are critically endangered. Climate, pollution, parasites, hydropower, weirs, dams – whatever the culprit, fish passes such as this are now crucial to aid their survival.
I stand here some time, head bent to watch the dappled blades of light searching out the dim green waters of the pass, accompanied by the sound of constant movement from the rushing river: fast and slow, slow and fast. At last, vague shadows appear, several moving together, dim long outlines wandering along the fish pass. I cannot tell if they are chub, pike, elvers, or something else, but I can tell it is life.
I return home. Shady has now taken up residence on the hot roof of our neighbour’s old bomb shelter and I nod my approval. I empty the dirty water from flower vases into garden pots, calves still burning from nettle, and listen to the soft spill of the water trickling into its new home. Thames to tap and back to earth.
Roslyn Weaver is a writer living in Berkshire, whose publications include academic books and journal articles on literature and popular culture. Her website is here: www.roslynweaver.com.