THERE is a fascination in following rivers upstream towards their source, whether it’s an epic exploration of terra incognita or a country walk over familiar ground. To be accompanied by a stream, to have a sense of following it towards its hidden origin, has a draw that is about more than outer topography: it taps into our yearning towards the mystery from which all things flow.
And the flow of the stream itself becomes, by gradual association, an expression, an outer image, of that other stream, the stream of our consciousness as we walk; both streams have their pools and eddies, their little rushes forward, their passages where all is clouded or covered, alternating with stretches of complete clarity.
I felt this kinship between the outer and the inner very strongly while reading Katharine Norbury’s moving book The Fish Ladder, a work that plays into that fascination with finding the source, in a close and gripping account of a series of journeys upstream towards the sources of various rivers, undertaken by a mother and daughter together. The writing is very vivid: “I heard a sibilant trickle, a mischievous chatter as the stream spattered over gravel, and the white cloud once again pressed around us. The only colour was in the bright moss, visible once more at our feet.”
These lines made me feel as though I were there, invisibly, as the mother and daughter make their way alongside a stream that keeps disappearing and reappearing, towards its numinous and beautiful source: a holy well.
The pleasure of reading in itself is also a kind of drawing towards a source. As one immerses oneself in the flow of the prose, one wonders what it would be like to travel upstream of the writing and encounter the writer.
As it happens, I had just that experience — not on the banks of an English river, but on the shore of the Indian Ocean; for Katharine and I were both speakers at the Galle Literary Festival (Poet’s Corner, 9 February) in Sri Lanka, and had been asked to do a joint session on literature and landscape.
We are living in a golden age of nature writing, and Katharine, one of its representatives, was there to talk about this present flowering in writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald. My task was to take us a little further upstream, to the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and to show how their reimagining of the links between outer and inner worlds had opened a channel for the work that is going on now.
Meeting Katharine and the other writers at the festival made me realise that my own quest to “find the source” was not ultimately about meeting the authors themselves, or even exploring their literary sources, but, rather, about discovering that none of us, as writers, is ever the source or well-head of our own work. Instead, we gather as fellow pilgrims on the banks of a river whose source we can never trace; for it is always just upstream of utterance.
The quest in The Fish Ladder was inspired by Neil M. Gunn’s book The Well at the World’s End (a title that Gunn had borrowed from William Morris). But, for a writer, the world’s end, and its beginning, is in the moment when we take up the pen, and our own deepest sources are hidden from us. We come to them afresh each time we take out a notebook, its blank pages open and empty, like two hands cupped at a well.