Monday 6 February 2023

THE FLOW by Amy-Jane Beer, reviewed by Linda Newbery


" ... conjures natural surroundings, weathers, landscapes and of course flowing, falling and trickling water with striking immediacy." 

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication, This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us, is a guide to compassionate living for teenagers and adults.

"Something happens to our brains when we stare at moving water: a sort of broad, effortless attentiveness," Amy-Jane Beer wrote in a Guardian feature, and I think most of us recognise this. "Spend a quiet hour on a riverbank watching water slide by," she writes in her introduction here, "and you might find yourself wondering where it comes from, and where it might be going. You might even ask yourself What is a river? The answer is simultaneously simple enough that it is taught to nursery-age children, and vast enough that the mind struggles to hold it."

This expansion from immediate mental and physical sensations to the changes wrought over aeons of Earth history makes The Flow a thoroughly engaging read: personal, confiding and anecdotal, but also packed with information about geology, wildlife and botany, folklore and place-names. An experienced and apparently very brave kayaker, Amy-Jane Beer lost a close friend in a river accident. On a kind of pilgrimage to the river gorge in the Howgills where her friend Kate tragically died, she resolved to explore, know and appreciate waterways in all their moods and forms. She portrays natural surroundings, weathers, landscapes and of course flowing, falling and trickling water with striking immediacy.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe," wrote John Muir, and The Flow is a testament to this, showing the interconnectedness of ecosystems, how they can be damaged and how, sometimes, they can recover from human interventions, if given time and space to do so. 

No nature writing of our times can be free from a sense of grief at all we have to lose: or even, at times, seem intent on losing. There's anger and frustration here as well as appreciation: about the (now well-documented) pollution of the River Wye by run-off from intensive poultry units, and the inadequacy of the Environment Authority to prevent or even properly measure river pollution in general; about the modern love of tidiness that too often wants river-water channelled quickly downstream between neat banks, at the expense of water-meadows and floodplains which could do so much to absorb groundwater; and about the sobering fact that around 97% of rivers in England are legally the property of landowners, so in most cases to canoe, swim, paddle or snorkel in them is to trespass. (I didn't know that.) Amy-Jane Beer points, too, to the deliberate and false separation of town and country in attempts to keep control over land and resist change (something I'm well aware of, as a rural resident fiercely opposed to hunting and shooting). She comments on the hostility often shown to landscape restoration: "a minority in positions of significant influence continue stoking an 'us' and 'them' narrative." Every challenge she's met with on a river, she says, has come from a privileged white male - something that's come to media attention in recent weeks, with the attempt of Devon landowner Alexander Darwall to ban wild camping on Dartmoor; Amy-Jane Beer has been vocal about that on behalf of Right to Roam. More positively, she meets in her travels various people who share her deep love of ecosystems and work to improve them, whether by planting trees to slow the course of a river, introducing beavers to Devon rivers or rewilding their own patch of land.

Each chapter is focused on Beer's exploration of a particular place and habitat - by walking or climbing, wild camping or swimming in icy water.  She's a likeable and immensely knowledgeable companion, whose sense of wonder at the grandeur, variety and sheer incomprehensible age of the Earth pervades her writing.  Explaining rock formations to her young son, " ... for a moment I grasp a bigger picture. This weird formation isn't just on the surface. We're standing on millions of cubic metres of it - a structure that is both skeleton and shell, as much conduit as barrier - and all of it potentially subject to the influence of running water. There are rivulets and rivers down there. Some of that drizzle we walked through earlier - freshly condensed in the air above us - has already gone on below, on its way to becoming something else. Seeping, washing, leaching, dissolving, depositing, freezing or vaporising. It has no destination, only spaces and forms it passes through, and occasional organic or mineral partners, any of which might sit out of the dance for a matter of hours or billions of years, before the water whisks them back into play." Eloquent, insightful, exhilarating - it's no surprise to find in the acknowledgements that Beer is an admirer of Robert Macfarlane, whose readers will find much to enjoy and appreciate here. 

The Flow is published by Bloomsbury.

More nature writing reviewed on the blog:

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Natural Selection: a Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson, reviewed by Linda Newbery

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, reviewed by Paula Knight

12 Birds to Save your Life - Nature's Lessons in Happiness by Charlie Corbett, reviewed by Linda Sargent

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