All the joys of the world are like this/The many-evented river flowing east
(Li Po, Climbing the Peak at Lin-Hai, trans Barricelli)
January can be a quiet month, where you batten down and escape the chill, the damp and the storms. Why venture out unless you have to? The urban world is different but out in the country nature is in hiding, only a few – the brave gorse, jasmine and aconite – show their faces. The seed is planted and all is dormant until under the first warm rays of March nature breaks cover.
This is a time to retreat inward, not to engage the world, but to watch. Nature on cold days lies becalmed beneath a sparkling sun, on mild Atlantic days the wind blows steadily, the cloud never breaks and the day begins and persists in gloom. Yet the sun will rise and the day will be its predicted length. The wind will blow from its expected quarters, and sometimes its unexpected, but whatever direction we know well the outcome, the wet or the gloom or the chill.
The rooks blur the dawn sky and return well ahead of dusk from their feeding frenzies. We only catch the occasional dart or flurry of garden birds, with rooks nature writes with a sweeping hand.
And the river flows, strong and sure, but the storms and floods of autumn are past. We may sit and watch its flow, imagine our lives caught up in that flow, the ripples on the surface, the sense of passage of time all the more real because the adventitious and distracting events of life are stilled.
Life, we think, has an even flow.
But out in the chalk the water is rising beneath the land and as it rises new and unused springs bubble out and the river rises though the rains may have been weeks gone. The flow is strong and wells up and breaks boundaries, slowly, insidiously. Sun and rooks keep to the January rule but the river breaks the pattern. But it is all so predictable, measured, slow. We can anticipate our fate, count the days, as the river rises and fills out its natural course, until the moment when the first trickle or damp crosses the flags or damps the carpet.
Chalk, its springs and aquifers, its bournes – its river courses – obey a hidden subterranean rule. Not only comes flood, but the ground water rises. The dry land beneath our feet saturates and the first film of water becomes a puddle, a pond, a lake.
We may have wished to contemplate by a stream or river, we hadn’t imagined a lake, our own, private, unwished-for lake, which will have its own beauty in the morning light, and if we’ve secured our possessions and our feet are waterproofed then the lake stillness will balance the water flow, and we may enjoy again the equilibrium, the stasis, that lies at winter’s heart.
But it’s a proposition none of us would wish to test. Better our protected bolt hole. Better the quiet moments to look out on a river which keeps its bounds and imagine lying within it all the events of our world swirling and breaking in the currents, a river which like the Lambourn flows east, as the great rivers of China flow east.