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Ten Years, Six Miles, and One Canoe

This excerpt comes from one of the 40 short stories in my books, “Wessex Tales”, Volumes 1 and 2 (20 stories per book). Here clip is from: “Ten years, six miles, and one canoe” (Volume 2). The story condenses incidents from my extensive time on the river during a ten-year period, from 1955 to 1965, my teenage years.

¶  “The River Stour ran three-quarters of a mile away from our house. That amounted to three long fields, several styles, farm gates and a railway crossing. Two months after hay-making the fields had grown long grass again. I learned to drag my new kayak across pasture using dew as a lubricant—as if I were pulling it through water. Soon, I learned to move it early in the day, before the sun burned off the dew.

Looking back, its importance to me is clear: my kayak turned out to be among the most significant, most enduring, most stimulating objects in my life. It was more than a real friend. It brought me to another cosmos, just a quick walk from our home.

The river’s flow comes at you slowly, tranquilly. On a summer day the current can seem almost static. The season had been dry, the water level, low. After looking ahead carefully for floating logs, it was a simple matter to take careful aim at a narrow channel in a reed bed and ram my kayak into the rushes. When the channel gave no room to paddle, I stowed the paddle, grabbed the rushes on both sides and hauled the boat into the thick of the reeds. My kayak’s fabric is soiled green, often muddy, and I painted my single-bladed paddles in rough green and brown stripes running the length of the wood. Perfect camouflage in a reed bed. At the Okeford footbridge where I used to put my boat in the river, the Stour may be just twenty-five feet wide. Yet in places along this stretch, one could sit in the middle of the stream, listening and observing, concealed by reed beds from both banks.

The abundance and sheer diversity of life along the Stour is astonishing. I played Moses in the bulrushes for years, experiencing days when the variety of species within sight and sound seemed to disgorge from a cornucopia.

The River Stour’s channel and valley still exemplify something called the ‘Principle of Plenitude’. Long before I heard that term I gleaned its meaning. Sitting in the river one sensed the variety of life, its sheer exuberance, and the very inventiveness with which species fit themselves into Nature’s landscapes and water-worlds. Here were plants and creatures molding, and molded by, their habitats.

Press your boat between a reed bed and a steep six-foot bank and the number of species may double. This territory twixt land and water is rich in stinging nettles, willow saplings, elders, thorn bushes, brambles, sorrels and cow parsley. Species of tall-growing plantain attract insects, especially moths that grow and feed on the rich seed heads. I learned to sit still as a cat at a hole for up to an hour—a fifteen degree transit by the sun across the sky—observing, perceiving, meditating or all of these.

Insects and myriad tiny creatures of strange and wonderful variety always fell off rushes or willow-branches into the kayak or onto me, especially when I hauled my boat through a reed bed. I sat still in concealment, a Brobdingnagion boy suddenly become a giant habitat to be explored by crawling, climbing, scrambling, running, flying, biting, stinging little lives. These creatures gave no trouble. I already knew my way around my grandfather’s bee hives to find precocious young queens in the crowd. Besides, I travelled with a pocket full of dock and plantain leaves, styptic and astringent analgesics that grow in hard soil on country paths and river banks.

Applied in the natural world, the Principle of Plenitude works like this: Everything that can happen will happen—eventually. Life in some form will arrive, occupy and adapt to every possible niche. Beyond this lies immanence, a gathering of spiritual qualities by which divine oversight projects and encompasses the natural world.

Of course, the author of ‘Plenitude’ used more up-market language to set out his principle: ‘No genuine potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled.’ In English that means: If a niche can be inhabited, it will be, and whatever plants or creatures move in, they will adapt. Nature is said to abhor a vacuum. The Principle of Plenitude goes further: Nature abhors an absence of life and works to fill it.  ¶