We British tend to take our many rivers for granted, living as we do, under the deluges of so much rain. It is often fishermen who first notice the deterioration of water quality and who understand the consequences for the subtle links in the ecological chain of a watershed’s total population, human and non-human. When such fishermen are also creative writers, culture can intervene on behalf of nature because such writers know that, in constructing nature for readers, culture is itself nature’s possibility for the human animal to adjust its way of behaving to its home in the rest of nature. When such fishermen have the imaginative resources of the novelist Brian Clarke (1938 -) and the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), their writing can penetrate deeply into British culture with profound insights from which perhaps we can all learn in our wider international culture.
Brian Clarke's The Stream won the Natural World Book Prize, the UK’s top environmental book award, and also the prize for ‘Best First Novel by a British Writer’, awarded by the Authors’ Club of Great Britain. It is the way in which the combination of fiction, journalism, science and activism come together to address the issue of water quality that gives The Stream its unique novelistic mode. The Stream has the issue of water quality and its implications at its heart.
The development of an industrial park in an economically depressed rural area will require new roads and a supply of huge amounts of water. At the same time a nearby farm, whose fields straddle the un-named stream, is to be modernised by the old farmer’s son with new drainage systems, new strains of crops sustained by new fertilizers and pesticides. But it is the life in the stream that is foregrounded in this narrative. The small and accumulative consequences in the stream of the stages of these two environmental developments are cleverly narrated in parallel, often with ironic effects made all the more poignant by the reader’s awareness that only an observer such as Clarke would be able to register the subtle changes to the life of the stream. The ecology of the stream is brilliantly characterised as the plan of ‘the law of continuing’: ‘the law that decreed all things, had made all life in the stream to fit in with this plan’. It is important for the reader to appreciate the subtleties in the details of the ecology of trout breeding that is at the heart of the novel. Clarke’s prose conveys this with both clarity and celebration:
Clarke and Hughes knew each other through fishing and Hughes had offered to read the manuscript of The Stream, but was too advanced in his terminal cancer at the time when it might have been possible. It is an indication of Clarke and Hughes’s common interest in writing about their passion that they both contributed in 1983 to a book of essays titled West Country Fly Fishing, although in this book they reversed the roles that might have been expected of them. Clarke, the angling authority, wrote poetically, as a visitor to the West Country rivers, about three memorable days fishing. There is a life-enhancing attentiveness and poetic evocation to Clarke’s writing and it is Hughes who contributes an over-view of the history of the fishery through his two chosen Devon rivers, the Taw and the Torridge. Although Hughes evocatively celebrates sea trout night fishing, for example – ‘the least touch can be anything from half a pound to seven or eight – which is the difference between a swallow and a tiger. This leaks an especially high-quality adrenalin into the blood – which is no doubt the drug we are hooked on’ . Hughes moves towards an account of the dramatic decline of the trout and salmon fishery in these rivers. An indication that the sub-text of this essay was really about water quality is revealed in an unpublished letter to his friend Keith Sagar: ‘Did you see my piece in West Country Fly Fishing? The hoteliers on the two rivers are friends of one sort or another. So the essay is an attempt to glorify the rivers while suppressing the knowledge that they are going down the drain. Even twenty years ago they produced 1/3 of all salmon in the West Country. Last year only 43 salmon were caught on the Torridge. (It used to be a thousand to 1500.) It’s become a farm sewer’. This last phrase gives a hint of a little-known practical and political concern that underlies the poetry of Hughes’s celebrated collection River.
Hughes was named Poet Laureate a year after publishing his collection, River (1983). At least two Hughes scholars believed that this collection was the height of the poet’s achievement at the time they wrote their books on his work (Robinson 1989: 205 and Scigaj 1986: 290). In his second book on the work of Hughes Leonard M. Scigaj wrote: ‘River will one day be recognised as one of the central literary masterpieces of the world; it should be required reading for all humans on our planet to help them attain responsible adulthood’ (1991: 133). This was Hughes’s ninth major collect and it was to be the last collection to focus entirely upon his major theme: the human relationship with the forces of the natural world.
The iconic figure of that relationship in River was the most primitive – the fisherman hunter, but in his most self-conscious twentieth century mode, as the poet himself. Just as fishing had always been a part of Hughes’s life, so too had a river. Although the two rivers of his childhood – first the River Calder in West Yorkshire, then the River Don in South Yorkshire - were so polluted that they contained few fish, as a child Hughes fished in the canal alongside the River Calder (‘big, but rare trout’) and in an oxbow lake beside the River Don until the first silage made in the area killed all the fish (Hughes 1983a: 184). In Devon, where the poet lived for most of his adult life, Hughes’s village, North Tawton, took its name from the River Taw, one of the rivers flowing from Dartmoor that he wrote about for West Country Fly Fishing and that also appears in River. Hughes’s belief in the symbolic value of a river as a ‘vein’ in the life of the ‘sea-spirit’ that regulates our globe, had already been established in the poem ‘December River’ in Season Songs (1976). So the River collection was, for Hughes, about more than simply his most intimately known part of our environment. It was also about a key indicator of the state of our relationship with it.
When I asked Ted Hughes to tell me the story of his ‘greening’ as a poet he linked his reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in America when it was first published in 1962 with his experience of the rivers of his childhood. ‘So my greening began you could say with everything that lay about me in my infancy’ (Gifford 1995: 132). The plight of the fish in those rivers of his childhood, as much as in those of his adult life, are, Hughes explained, an unrecognised indicator of human self-destructiveness: ‘these fish are simply indicators of what is happening to us’ (ibid.). Speaking more generally in an interview Hughes has said: ‘Most people I talk to seem to defend or rationalise the pollution of water. They think you’re defending fish or insects or flowers. But the effects on otters and so on are indicators of what’s happening to us. It isn’t a problem of looking after the birds and bees, but of how to ferry human beings through the next century.
The danger is multiplied through each generation. We don’t really know what bomb has already been planted in the human system’ (Morrison 1993: 34). For Ted Hughes, his poems about rivers and fish are also clearly about the links between water quality and public health. What has not been known by readers and critics of his poetry, and of River in particular, is the extent to which this ecstatic poetry was informed by practical political action on behalf of the rivers in the southwest of England. The Hughes archives in Britain and America reveal the hitherto unknown link between the poet’s activities in a range of discourses for a variety of forms of intervention concerned with water quality and health for all its dependents.
The first poem Hughes offered as Poet Laureate was about the rivers of Devon and appeared under the title, ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy, A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Harry’. In fact, this poem had originally been intended for the River collection. The poet’s unpublished correspondence reveals that there was actually an environmental agenda behind this poem and that the poem had some effect on local politicians:
"Surprising what effect the Poet Laureate label has’, Hughes wrote to Keith Sagar. ‘The line [in ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’] about the pollution (quite mild and domestic) of the Okement caused great agitation in Okehampton (responsible for the refuse) – might even affect the Council’s laissez faire. These are the perks Pity I didn’t leave in the lines about the Torridge – they were'
“And the Torridge, that hospital sluice of all the doctored and scabby farms from Welcombe to Hatherlea to Torrington
Poor, bleached leper in her pit, stirring her rags, praying that this at last is the kiss of the miracle,
That soon she’ll be plunging under her sprays, splitting her lazar crust, new-born,
A washed cherub etc” ......'But I thought it might seem in poor taste.'
Of course, Hughes was a well-known fisherman, so his concern for water quality in rivers is understandable. In a long letter to the Times in 1985 his concern had been for the effects upon ‘the employment and economy of their home rivers’ of the 77,000 returning salmon caught by the Northumbrian driftnet fishery (Times 13 Aug 1985). Hughes wrote a letter to me in answer to my enquiry about his justification for fishing , but in a letter to me written the previous day that is marked ‘unsent’ in the Emory University archive, Hughes points out that it is the fishermen, rather than the water authorities, who are most active in their concern: ‘All the river renovation down here has been initiated by fishermen – I mean the actual cleaning of waterways. At least, in the early nineteen eighties it was – before it became politically OK. (And in fact, the political resistance was unbelievable – to a degree still is).
The unpublished letters and documents in the British Library and the Hughes archive at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia reveal an impressive commitment of time and thought in attending committee meetings, site visits, reading scientific reports (with titles like ‘The effects of surfactants in the Rivers Exe and Creedy’) and writing in various modes – letters, notes, speeches, satirical poems – that go beyond the poet’s concern for water quality as a fisherman. Indeed, despite the economic significance of the riparian business in the South West of England, Hughes realised that perceived self-interest in a ‘hobby’ would undermine any arguments concerning water quality brought forward by riparian interests. In a letter to Trout and Salmon in July 1998 Hughes charted the history of campaigns for improved water quality in Devon’s rivers since the early 1980s and the 1985 Bideford estuary, but noted that ‘a river that is nothing but a fishery has a poor prognosis’. ‘Larger, social – in other words political - issues’ had to be engaged by the riparian industry, he wrote. In the archive there is a long note headed: ‘A NEW NAME FOR RIPARIAN ASSOCIATIONS’ which indicates the intensity of Hughes’s thinking about political strategy in the water politics of Devon. He has obviously been stung by the fact that
"a big chief of the Water Company attending the Taw AGM -made the comment; it’s wonderful to see what lengths a lot of old buffers will go to for their private hobby […] meaning ‘elitist hobby, pursued by rich snobs who want to keep the fishing to themselves’. We are stuck with an image problem [..] the bad effects are seen every time the Riparians try to defend the Sports fishery against some damage [… and] have great difficulty getting their case taken seriously.’ Hughes suggests ‘Taw Fishery Cooperative’ before continuing, ‘Suddenly the cider works at Winkleigh wouldn’t be occasionally brushing off its nose end the fly-like thought of the Taw Riparian Association – that amiable gang of ‘silly old buffers’. It would suddenly be contemplating the idea of a group of businessmen intent on developing […] a multi-million pound business of immense benefit to the whole of North Devon [… and] everybody else would be in a different frame of mind.
So it is significant that when I began researching Hughes’s environmental political activity Carol Hughes drew my attention to her husband’s being instrumental in founding the West country Rivers Trust. What had begun with Hughes’ involvement with the Torridge Action Group, formed in 1983 to tackle a specific issue, led to his proposing the formation of the West country Rivers Trust with Ian Cook in 1993. This was the first Rivers Trust in England which was instrumental in forming, with thirty other Rivers Trusts, the national water watchdog organisation, the Association of Rivers Trusts.
"I’ve been involved in a local battle, of sorts, over Bideford Sewage system. The Water Authority, mightily leaned on by local building interests, are putting in a type of sewage system that merely screens the sewage (takes out 20% “solids” – mostly cardboard, plastic etc […] 1600 new houses go in immediately. '
But a year later the depth of his involvement as he prepared for the enquiry was telling on Hughes as he wrote to Sagar:
"I made the mistake of becoming too involved in the battle over the River Torridge – fairly pointless. The battle is between the Water Authority and the Riparian Owners and fishermen. The Riparian Owners have lost collectively the best part of three million pounds and Albion will probably lose its run of salmon in the Torridge. But the whole business is perhaps mostly busyness and lies. I’m quite sick of it, but I don’t see quite how to extricate myself. '
Fortunately he didn’t extricate himself and he made a brilliant speech at the inquiry, of which one witness says, ‘You could have heard a pin drop. Nobody asked questions’. For ecocritics the significance of this speech is that it expressses as much a concern for the health of local people and tourists as it does for the salmon population, drawing on a range of scientific evidence from both the human and the fish research into the consequences of raw sewage being discharged into the Torridge estuary at Bideford in an estuary that, according to Hughes’s research, ‘takes 12 days to change itself completely’. An indication of the concern for the effects on the human population can be seen from this part of Hughes’s presentation to the enquiry:
"A local doctor has been heard to say that of all the holidaymakers who stay here for a few days canoeing and windsurfing and using the estuary for similar sports, 75% contract an ailment that needs treatment. [9 doctors from the Wooda Surgery in the Bideford area had expressed their concern with the present situation.] Bideford Chemists prepare for the tourist season as if for a campaign. The chemist in Mill St displays a window sign, advertising his cure for diarrhoea. And in spite of their conditioning the local population does not escape. In general, they complain of an endless grumbling epidemic of throat and chest complaints and stomach disorders. In the 1984 tourist season 200,000 visited Bideford […] The effect of the estuary’s pollution on the state of mind of the local residents, is subjective and elusive. However, this depression is very real. Local people can feel in their bones that the whole situation is depressing […] And this depression accumulates. But it can be picked up quite quickly. You do not have to be a superclean German or American to decide, after one good look at the sludge, that the Torridge Estuary is no place for a holiday. '
Here is a poet and storyteller presenting vivid, detailed and elusive material as evidence at a public enquiry in a mode of writing that was not formerly known to be part of his discourse. Yet the self-inflicted human ailments recorded here - transmitted by water, but also symptomatic of human pollution of earth and sky – surface in the poem ‘If’ that was later included in the River section of Three Books (1993): ‘If you have infected the sky and the earth/ Caught its disease off you – you are the virus’ (137). The poem’s final line catches the inescapable ecological pervasiveness of human water pollution: ‘Already you are your ditch, and there you drink’.
Ten years later, following Hughes’s realisation that a new name and a wider remit was needed, a press release dated 2 June 1995 for the formation of the West country Rivers Trust states its aims more generally as ‘concern about pressures on natural water resource’ in the West of England and it intends to meet its aims through a broad range of activities, including education – ‘the trust has already acquired an area of suitable river, allowing free access and fishing to children’. Ted Hughes was a founding trustee. It should not be forgotten that one of Hughes’s most powerful and educational interventions on behalf of water quality and public health was the children’s story referred to earlier, The Iron Woman (1993). In a letter to his editor at Faber Hughes wrote, ‘We could send John Major a gold-backed copy. Present all the chieftains with one, maybe […] And all the cabinet’. In 1992 Hughes was a very visible supporter of Ian Cook’s court case against South West Water for their failure to regulate water quality on a stretch of the River Creedy in Devon which Cook owned. The foam on the river, which had a sewage works upstream, was likened by Judge Cox to ‘the face of a beautiful woman scarred by disease’. Hughes was quoted as saying outside the courtroom, ‘It’s an important case, an historical case because it’s reactivated the power of common law in this terrific issue of water quality in rivers’ (Guardian 16 April 1992). South West Water contributed £5000 for a research grant for the Institute of Freshwater Ecology to investigate the effect of the detergents on the River Exe. Here was another example of practical involvement, active concern, bringing about changes to river quality that would be unknown to readers of River.
There are some wider implications to my hope to begin to ‘reconnect all aspects of an artist’s work’. Latterly ecocritics have been moving away from deconstructing representations of nature in literature and turning their attention to signs of the linked effects of environmental change upon both external nature and upon people in the environmental justice movement. Both Cohen (2004) and Buell (2005) have most recently identified this as an important direction for ecocriticism. The lives of fish, local people and tourists are all affected by a quick-fix sewage system that will enable developers to put in 1600 new houses, as they are by the abstraction of the aquifer in Clarke’s novel. Hughes is still known primarily as a poet, and then as a writer of poetry and stories for children. In the last few years I have been researching the environmental agenda underpinning and sometimes explicit in his creative work. It turns out that informing the creative work is another kind of work that led to environmental interventions, of which I have indicated here only the activity concerning water quality in the Southwest.
In a previous paper I have documented a wider range of support and activity on behalf of other environmental causes (Gifford 2006a). Taken together, this so far ‘unknown’ documentation concerning Hughes gives a clearer sense of the ‘whole work’ of the ‘reconnected writer’, such as we ought to be exploring for other writers, including the novelist Clarke.
Secondly, we should perhaps give greater attention to, as well as celebrate more widely, the way the reading and discussion of science has informed the fiction and poetry of these writers, together with the way the metaphorical language available to the imaginative writer is used in the presentation of the science. Here is a fascinating confluence and braiding of culture and nature by which each defines the other. It is also an urgent example for our times of the need to collapse the Two Cultures dualism that so strongly separated Science and Arts for generations of intellectually disabled children in the English education system. It has been as though Dickens’ analysis in Hard Times of the educational distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fancy’ has been enacted at the age of sixteen for all children in the UK choosing to study either Science or Arts subjects for A levels.
The view of science expressed by Hughes in his essays follows the Dickens line that scientific objectivity excludes ethical and subjective aspects of experience to the extent of holding ‘the human element’ in contempt: ‘The prevailing philosophies and political ideologies of our time subscribe to this contempt, with nearly a religious fanaticism, just as science itself does’ (1994: 146). Whilst this has clearly been true for the scientific developments that led to Rachel Carson’s need to write Silent Spring, for example, when Hughes needs to inform himself about what he calls ‘the chemistry of the Torridge Estuary’ it is to the latest available objective science that he turns, as we all must today to reduce our multiple forms of pollution, as Clarke’s novel demonstrates. Effective activism requires a wide range of discourses to raise questions about the variety of experiences for which we need to take responsibility in making our informed environmental choices.
If this investigation into the work of Clarke and Hughes demonstrates a need for the study of the deployment of a range of modes of knowing and modes of writing, the relationship between the science and the fiction, the polemics and the poetry, the memoranda and the myth making, the satires for fellow activists and the stories for children, there are implications for the academy. The cases of Brian Clarke and Ted Hughes confirm my argument in Reconnecting With John Muir (2006b): that by focusing only on the ‘artspeech’ we are ignoring an ecology of discourse in the whole ‘reconnected’ life of a writer. We need to explore the relationship between multiple modes of discourse that the academy so often keeps separate – those derived from our own scholarship, criticism, creativity and pedagogy.
When we share an urgent concern for the future of both our environment and our culture - our public health and our poetry, for example - we need to reconnect our modes of knowing and our modes of discourse to understand how these might inform each other in the service of both planet and people. This, surely, should be the purpose of ecocriticism, an activity of human imagination, which is, as Hughes says of the imagination of each new child, ‘nature’s chance to correct culture’s error’ (Hughes 1994: 149).
First published as an extended academic paper ‘Water Quality in the Work of Brian Clarke and Ted Hughes’
Scott Slovic, Serenella Iovino, and Shin Yamashiro, eds.
Concentric. Literary and Cultural Studies. Special Issue on Water
March 2008. Vol. 34:1, pp. 75-91.
Dept. of English, National Taiwan University
ISSN: 1729-6897 print
ISNN: 1729-8792 online