Monday, June 25, 2012

The promise of rain

Rain blurs the lens of my camera as I crouch in the rocky bed of the stream. To face the spring, I must turn into the persistent rain which is driving across the low fields. It is running down my hair and face, dampening the collar of my sweater. My sons are kicking through the water and shouting into the wind, delighted to be outside, exhilarated by the weather.
It has rained for forty-eight hours, a rhythmic deluge which comes and goes, pulsing like waves on an infinite sea. The ground is sodden, heavy with the burden of water. Upwellings bubble from the fields and paths; spontaneous risings of water, as though the earth can take no more and is expelling the excess rain. We are walking across the fields around the village simply to feel the rain, to see the tracks and paths which have become streams, to see the normally mute springs roaring with it, an endless white noise of running water; a reminder of how much we need this rain.

I live in a land of limestone, where streams disappear and re-appear, an intricate geography of sinkholes and springs, rumours of underground rivers like the promise of secrets withheld beneath the earth. Water echoes beneath rocks like dark wine poured from a flask in a dimly-lit room. A stream rising from the spring around which the village has grown disappears under tarmac and grass; its hollow thrumming is heard like a bird in the night beneath slabs of limestone. The village in which I live, and the ones to south and west, are spring-line settlements, located at the base of the thick strata of limestone, where the risings of underground streams provided a reliable, perennial water supply. There is a world beneath our feet, a system of dark waterways switching and dodging between the fractured joint systems of the limestone, seeping along bedding planes of rock, emerging from under strata as though flushed clean of their subterranean existence, carrying only a hint of darkness at their first exposure to the light. New-born water, filtered and fresh, earthy and mysterious.

Rivers are like stories, bringing tales from the highlands, rumours of other lands told in hissing tones, the susurrus of heresay and whispered spells. At times of heavy rain like these, rivers bring tales of destruction and chaos, fallen trees carried on bank-full brown water, boulders moved in the night by the power of the flood waters. I remember from my youth the sound of alpine rivers in flood, the dull chunk of boulders being shifted on the bed of the river during the afternoon, as the meltwater from glaciers rose in the mid-day heat. After rain like we have had this weekend, the roads are littered with pebbles, twigs and grit, scatterings of debris marking the run-off from fields and overflowing becks, the random graffiti of weather which is out of control, unbidden.
In Cumbria, our relationship with water is held in a delicate, uneasy balance, a fear of floods which might rise again in any season, a dependence on the lakes and rivers which create this green landscape. There is a tale to be told of the importance of rivers in our oral culture, the hold they have over our lives. It will be hymned in the many names we have in our native languages for watercourses: burn, stream, brook, river, water, beck, ghyll, afon, allt. In a land of wet, rivers become the defining feature of our geography, determining the position of towns and villages, of crossing points and transport systems. I recall the drainage patterns I learnt in my school geography lessons: dendritic, radial, linear; streams meeting other streams to become rivers, tendrils of water on a featureless landscape. These fragile lines seemed somehow like a map of the human body, like the nervous system which, at that age, I understood intellectually but not emotionally, the fine lines of feeling which give me the taste of water on my tongue, the soft kiss of rain on my face.

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