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The River's Tongue by David Berridge

by David Berridge

I stood on the cliff top, red earth on my shoes and stories on my tongue. People have told me you cannot talk to earth and sea. I say, have you ever really tried? If we put as much effort into talking with our friends as we do with earth and sea then we would conclude that our friends could not talk either. I have a theory that if you really ask most things on the earth, and if you really listen, then you will get a reply.

“I have walked along the estuary, all the way from the city to this cliff top just to see you,” I announced to the sea.

“Fool. How do you know I am not the land?” came the immediate reply.

“Well…you have waves,” I said.

“The land rolls to meet me,” replied the sea. “It just moves slower because of its age.”

“I can walk on the land,” I continued. “It carries me from place to place.”

“I carry fish,” said the sea. “ What’s so special about you?”

“The land is made of earth.”

“All the time earth comes to me from the rivers,” grumbled the sea. “It sits in my gut. I carry and roll it thousands of miles and throw it away again. But I cannot ever throw it away. Earth is part of me as I am part of earth. We seem to get along fairly well.”

I was a newcomer to this conversation. I should have known. The land and the sea talk to each other all of the time. Sometimes they both lose their temper. That is when seagulls rise squawking into the sky. They are trying to tell everyone what it is that sea, land and rivers talk about all the time. Once they told me that the land worries about the future. The land was laughing under my feet and bits of it were falling into the sea it was laughing so much.

The boundary of coast and sea is like that between a fox and a blackbird, or an ant and an owl. The fox eats the blackbird and the sea erodes the cliff. This is not an example of predation. It can be thought of like a story that begins with strangers arriving, a hedgehog and a hare making a bet, with a parcel to deliver and the only path through the dark forest at night. They tell us about a world where everything is in conversation with everything else.

It is because of this connection that I have tried to become part of the conversation between sea and cliff top. Is that the right way to express it? I always pull up here. The stories I tell you come from a place. Or are they about, for, with, and by that place?

When I moved to Exeter it was the Exe estuary heading out towards the coast that attracted me. Where we go when we are in a new place, an old Yew tree I had sat beneath once told me, tells us as much about us as it does the place where we have gone. So each weekend I was out walking, finding stories on the mud flats and out to sea. I point the stories out excitedly, like they are dragonflies in the air. Sometimes they are.

The mud flats that appeared with the low tide told me that before stories there are philosophies. These have to be picked up, like flat pebbles on the beach. There are philosophers of estuary and coastline like there are philosophers of woods, mountains, back gardens, wetlands and window boxes. The philosophers of the coastline have sand in their shoes, mud in their throats, and salt on their lips. They read newspapers like other sorts of philosophers, but they also have fins. Their books are written in the sand. I rushed out between the tides and read as much as I could.

“This is a wild task we have chosen,” one had written. “To catch the waves in our hands and not to break them.”

Last weekend I walked out of Exeter along the west bank of the Exe. There had been storms. The river in Exeter is channelled into flood canals. It flows between its straight, white concrete banks. Now it lapped on the edge of the path and there were whole trees washed up against the white stone steps. People looked nervously from the windows of new blocks of flats built at the river’s edge. One of the waves, stronger than the rest, rolled over the edge of the flood defences and poured into my mouth. I spluttered and choked. Strangers stopped and patted me hard on the back. I coughed up fish that wriggled across the grass and dived back into the water. I assured everyone I was fine and when I was alone the river began to speak.

“As the river comes near to the sea the salt becomes sharp on the river’s tongue,” the river told me. “It stings painful memories. But I continue on my way as I always have. There is a wild dance that never ends as sea and river meet. But think what it must be like to dance all the time. Here I would like to correct some misunderstandings. There are tall stories of the river in the same way that there are philosophers of the coastline. Says one: rivers still flow in the sea, like eels. Says another: there is a starfish for every river that flows into the sea. These tall stories are all true.”

The river finished talking and the last few drops of water fell from my ear. I had arrived at a pub and after going inside and buying a pint of beer I came out again and sat at a table by the water’s edge where I could eat the cheese sandwiches I had made at home. I was thinking about how I had left the city that morning, certain that stories would fill the day like sunlight. Then I noticed something moving out in the water. I looked again and I saw that it was the city. It was floating quickly down the river towards the sea. I began to follow it by running along the shore. It ran aground on mud flats. I hid in a tree and looked down at it through the branches. It stayed on the mud flats all night. No one in the city seemed to have noticed. There were car headlights going along Fore Street and traffic jams. The shadows of people were like bats in the darkness.

I stayed in the tree all night, watching the city through the branches. In the morning the tide returned and the city floated loose. In the middle of rush hour the city was breaking up. There were roads and thin strips of brand new cycle paths being washed up on the shore. I climbed down out of the tree, rolled up my trouser legs, and waded out into the water. I stood there and felt the city lapping around my legs. I was shaking. Was I crying or laughing hysterically or shaking with cold? Of course, it was all three of these.

I stayed there until I could no longer see the city, although the water had turned black. I walked towards the sea. There were men fishing on the river banks. They did not seem to have noticed the city, and I whispered the terrible news into their ears. There were caravan parks and funfair rides, and then I was on the beach, looking out at the sea. That was when I said it, once again.

“I have walked along the estuary, all the way from the city to this cliff top just to see you.”

There was no reply. I felt slightly sick. I moved down to the sand. There were children building sandcastles and surfers wading out into the water carrying their surf boards under their arms. The railway line runs between the foot of the cliff and the beach and every hour the long inter-city trains went past, with people reading newspapers behind the tinted glass. The tide was coming in and people moved their blankets up the beach, gathered up their belongings and began walking towards the town.

There are no words now, but still the conversation is going on. A child kisses a stone and it turns into a cormorant. Only a seagull that weaves its way high in the sky, in and out of the sea and land, is still talking.

“All this is my doing, you know,” says the seagull. “When I came into this world I noticed that it fell silent for long periods of time—days, months, centuries even. So I gathered all the living creatures together with all the rocks and stones and I said: Look. This is serious. If we stop talking any more the world will stop turning and it will fall out of the sky.”

The seagull meant it as a joke, but since then nothing has stopped talking and the world keeps on turning. The salt of the sea stings sharp on the river’s tongue.


David Berridge lives in Devon, England, and is interested in using storytelling as a research method for understanding landscapes. In this story essay, he has used the creation of stories as a way to begin to understand the coastal landscape around the River Exe estuary near where he lives. Other projects include Hedgerow Arts, which uses story, writing, song, walks and performance to explore and research hedgerows in the Devon landscape."
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