The River Has Rights

I wrote a poem some time ago called “On Being Lost” which talked about a river called “Bunowen” in Connemara, Ireland and how the river was my guide out of a wilderness place in which my partner and I had lost our way. The poem is below but at the time of writing I also came across a quote from an American Judge about the ecological significance of a river. Here it is :

“The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water – whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger – must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.” (Justice William O. Douglas 1974)

Recently a friend drew my attention to an article in The Guardian which records the local Māori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island of New Zealand gaining the legal right to claim the River Whanganui  as an ancestor and therefore having the same rights as a human person. I visited Whanganui in my early twenties as a steward on a British merchant vessel, “The Adelaide Star” carrying frozen meat from New Zealand to the UK.

I think I remember a woman researcher I met at Schumacher College a few years ago now who was actually at the time doing research, possibly, for her Masters, on this or a similar project. I would love to hear from her if she reads this.



On Being Lost

“This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge.”
Matthew Segal.

“caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.” Antonio Machado.

A hard climb up the rise,
Even with this height the land still boggy,
Clumps of last summer’s grass
Throwing us off the breath’s balanced pace
And now my eyes scan the saddle’s brow
For the map’s record of a track.
But find no correspondence,
Just rock, as the land falls away
Rough and savage to the conifers below.

We recheck the dark, dot-dash markings
That cross the contour’s metric grade,
Before, discouraged, we decide
To take the plunge, down,
Guided only by the steep decline.

We slip and slide on lichened surfaces,
To reach the unbroken line of the wood.
Then struggle through the dead lower branches
Ripping at our packs,
Resisting all progress
Toward the ridiculous idea of a road
And a parked car.

A watery precipice of slippery root and rock
Into the resinous bog.
And all faith in my navigation gone:
“We’re lost aren’t we?”
(He’d waken Jesus now if he were in the boat)
Determinedly, I say: “We’re not!”

I think I know the general topography
Of this wooded valley well enough,
Though, yes, I haven’t got the track,
There is no deer trail and sheep
(To whom I am disparagingly likened)
Are not good wood folk.

Yet in spite of our spiralling,
Through this wet-wood system,
Stymied by root and rock,
I know it will bottom out.
At its root core there has to be
A “drift” a “vein” to take the flow
Of all this wet life and spawn,
Back to our beginnings.

The river is called “Bunowen”.

And it sparkles,
In the starlight of the breaking sun,
Clear, gentle now the snows have gone,
Wary of unsettling chatter, loud talk,
So we are respectful,
Fall quiet,
Awed at its presence here.

We watch as its current curves,
Around the shingled bank of its bend
To find the fall it needs to run
To the glacier’s gouged-outness
And the sea.

The banks are still the conifer’s zone,
Pools of hidden bog,
Frogspawn just showing tails
You’d hardly want to walk upon.
So we walk in the stream
Hop, lightly as we can,
To exposed shingled curve,
Jump from rock to unstable rock,
Water squelching in our boots.

With all this water-leaping I lose the map,
Out the open pocket of my pack,
It floats down stream; I let it go.
Unsalvageable emblem of loss.
Brendan and Magellan,
The great tradition of cartographers.
But the river knows the way
And the map has proved
An unreliable companion.

We come upon the bridge suddenly;
It leads us back to the road,
And the old car waiting.
The saved cold melon from our lunch pack,
Running down our chins,
And home; the way we know.

Post Script: 25th. April, 2018:

I went to a poetry launch to-day at Charlie Byrnes bookshop in Galway. Paul Kingsworth was reading from his new book of poetry “Songs from the Blue River”. I thought it was really special: The “title poem” of the collection is beautiful and a kind of series of songs or movements in different moods, I thought of the moods of the river, and focusing in on  the threatened distruction of the valley by a proposed dam. It reminded me of the US minority High Court judgement by Justice William O. Douglas (1974). Well worth a read if you lke the river and its archetype.

One thought on “The River Has Rights

  1. I have spent the entire week working with an acting technique which respects the soul of an object absorbing its qualities to create a sense of a character. This Is profound exploration and is a reality in both spirit and art if we believe it.


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