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Lives on the River

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

Lives on the River: Rachel Jacobs

We’ve moved our narrowboat from our lockdown spot on Tottenham Marshes after a dramatic series of events. First, the government decided to ease the lockdown – despite the UK having the second highest virus death rate in the world. Then the Canal and River Trust told us we could no longer stay in place. So we have returned to moving every two weeks, up and down the river, finding moorings where we can.

I’m beginning to really love this river. To love a place you need a level of intimacy with it. To understand something of its essence. I love this river despite its deterioration. Overgrown algae, rubbish, endless plastic, a bubbling mix of toxins, detergent, sewage and oil slicks. Yet it’s full of life, the algae teeming with fish and eels. New swans are born, cygnets with their patient sometimes violent parents. Ducklings waddle, facing risk of murder by the prowling fox I met the other night. Blackberries prepare to fruit. Grasses, meadow life, marshland, families of old trees with their fungi and lichen friends greet the days.

Whilst we were in place in Tottenham, we found a corner of the marshes my partner and I called the ‘magic circle.’ Daily we went there to look at the sky, meditate, picnic, exercise.

Our magic circle was recently destroyed. A murder investigation connected a burnt-out moped on the edge of our woodland to a shooting. The destruction spread to our place on the marshes. Police vans, tents, portaloos, divers, drones arrived, searching the waters for the gun. Our boats were used as anchors, holding the ropes for divers scouring the silt below. Then the cutting started, decimating bushes and plants. The nesting birds, butterflies, bees moved on. They didn't find the gun, just a lot of hidden rubbish.

We moved on, and moored in Springfield Park, Stamford Hill.

One day we walked from Stamford Hill, close to my Jewish roots in London, to the Olympic Park in Stratford. A journey down Cazenove Road to Stoke Newington takes us to where my mum, aunt, grandparents, their cousins and my great grandmothers lived before, during and after the Second World War. Then they were moved out of what was considered the East London slums to one of the shiny new post-war council estates in Essex. I suppose this is the closest to roots on this English island as I'm going to find. A sense of place, moving on, thriving is very much on my mind at this moment as I reflect on the Black Lives Matter protests and the virus.

My great grandparents arrived here illegally on a boat, escaping a cholera epidemic that killed one of my great grandfathers and fleeing pogroms that violently chased Jews from their homes. My family, as well as my partner’s family who came from Chile in the 1970s, all ended up here, close to these marshes and this river. They were seeking a safe place, trying to find ways to thrive--nutritionally, politically, metaphorically, spiritually, emotionally, communally. I seek the same things.

As we walked from where our roots and boat are, the river became increasingly closed in. We moved onto the tributary river behind the marshes, turned now into flats, stables, roads and football pitches. No longer meadows and woodlands. The tributary has some appearance of 'wild-ness', but damage is visible everywhere. The algae thickens, plastic is embedded in the mud and silt at the river's bottom. Still there is beauty, a twisting turning water flow, with lilies, reeds and willows and giant invading hogweeds, all squashed between the roads and industries of London. A miracle in the metropolis. Along the river families emerge from lockdown to sunbathe, barbeque and party. We stopped to salsa with a party of South Americans. My partner reminisced about his Chilean childhood summers. We celebrated the mixed-up aliveness of London.

The river keeps changing. The incredible landscaping feat of the Olympic Park has a different type of beauty, more in keeping with urban life. Regimented, serene, colour-coded, the water flows wide, straightened, rippling yet dull. No lightning-struck willows, huge nettles, hemlocks and hogweeds with hand-burning stems.

We reached the park, the stadium and Anish Kapoor's iconic roller coaster. The river split and split again, making it hard to follow the flow of water, locks, closed cafes, building developments and cement. We tried to find somewhere to eat and ended up at an epitome of consumerism and capitalism – a burger place in Westfield Shopping Centre. I had a mushroom burger and my partner 'treated' himself to a beef burger.

Walking, we spoke of damage, faith and medicine. Much of my research, the public workshops I run and the artworks I make, consider how we can be positive in the face of environmental and climate change. I am not using the words emergency, catastrophe or crisis. My research, which incorporates environmental psychology, shows that these words, a narrative of apocalypse, can encourage despair. We desperately need the urgency of 'emergency', just as the world has (partly) responded to the pandemic. But despair is where damage is done. Despair turns us into zombies. Despair is not where life is.

To have faith in our future, to envision any positive continuity, not the future we fear, we need trust alongside urgency. We need to trust that no matter how much we turn the river into a 'navigation', straighten it, add locks to manage the flow of water and the beings living in the water, throw rubbish into it – the water will still try to do what water does. Flow towards the sea. Evaporate. Rain. Keep being in the water cycle.

The water in the river is never the same water.

The problem is that our destruction has reached the water cycle. We experience an increase in droughts, storms and floods at unseen levels. Yet if we leave water alone, if we learn how to protect and be with it and not dominate it, water will be what water is. The same with plants, birds, fish. The same with mammals and humans. Despite the damage, despite burgers at Westfields, a return of cars to the roads and even higher levels of pollution and CO2 emissions--water will still try to do what water does. We started to see this when we stopped some of the travel and consumption during lockdown. Some humans and non-humans could freely return to what they do when they are not adapting, mutating, hiding and dying from destructive ways.

I don't believe it’s enough to acknowledge this just so we feel better. There are too many points of no return. We are discovering that atmosphere and weather systems can severely malfunction. Ice, soil, the whole of Earth's life supporting systems, can go awry. Yet even with our mutated, damaged world, surely we need to trust that the cure for the damage is also in our hands.

We can create vaccines and sustainability plans. We can re-landscape industrial land, change the politicians, the regulations. We can root out corruptions, reform the police and legal system. All this we desperately must do. But there is another type of healing we need: finding ways to nurture life. When natural life is thriving, we will thrive. Where we see no life (Westfield and a burger place, pollution in a river, the top of a sacred mountain removed for mining) life won't thrive. Despair comes. We turn into zombies. We seek to dominate, believing the myths about winning through infinite growth and consumption, technological determinism, extraction and progress. We create nothing but death. We experience nothing but despair and indifference.

The fundamental question for all of us: how do we sustain our massive populations, our health, our food, our economies, our communities, families, identities so that life can thrive? We are not yet answering this question.

We returned to the tributary river on Hackney Marshes. Hundreds of people were in the water and on the banks in the heatwave, the river smelling of sewage and rubbish from the incinerator upstream and human waste, fecal, food and plastic deposited after our emergence from lockdown. Pissing in the woods is a different experience now from the beginning of lockdown. Gone is the romantic dream of nature saving us. The atmosphere was shocking, joyful, electric. Terrifying.

Back at our magic circle, we discovered the police had cut it down. Razed it to the ground. Gone are the ribbons tied to the dog rose bush with dates and names on them. The brambles arranged in a circle. The beautiful pink roses and blackberries coming into flower. The birds soaring, singing and settling. I felt despair. Sadness at the spreading damage in the lives of everyone, for the birds, bees and butterflies who had even less place to roam and make a home, the fruits and flowers that would not grow there this summer.

Yet something remains in this place that was once a magic circle, now dead brambles and dust. Something ineffable is still here, a tingle of something in my bones, a memory of regrowth. Something bubbling up from below, something shining from above. The dog rose was left with one flower.


Rachel Jacobs is a Consulting Editor to Emerging Voices. She writes on climate issues and the role of the artist in addressing them


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