Waymaking: Counterflow by Jen Benson

Published: 29th September 2019

Extracted with permission for 'Wild Words' - our celebration of the language and words that connect people with nature and wild places

There is a winding brook that falls from the high ground on the eastern edge of Dartmoor into the green depths of a wooded cleft. Rising at Seven Lords Lands near Hemsworthy Gate, it rushes down past the moss-bright boulders of Houndtor Valley to its confluence with the Bovey below.

The brook is clear and peat-dark, like fine black tea. Now still and deep, collecting in round, brown pools; now flowing fast and foaming, skimming over granite-grey rocks and spinning wide, white veils as it falls. The heat of a dry summer thins it to a trickle; heavy rain fills and swells and excites it, and sends it thundering down the hillside, following the line of its own persistence. One winter, after weeks of rain, it flowed over the bridges and dammed the roads, reclaiming the valley as its own.

There are trout in the brook. Their long shadows appear and disappear, dart and flicker as the sun catches shining scales in the shallows, then vanish into corners and crevices. Otters leave their signs scratched into the shingle; bats bug-hunt at dusk; dippers bob on stream-shined stones. A pebble, thrown high, falls to the bed with a hollow plunk. Sticks, dropped off the old clapper bridge, gather speed and whirl away on an adventure all of their own.

Rain spikes the water’s surface: fast, heavy droplets that bounce and shatter like a thousand marbles. Beneath a grey sky the water softens and, silk-like, slides and sheens down its bouldery chute. Bright sun etches the moorland landscape into sudden contrasts: blues and greens and yellows and browns and darkest near black in the shadows. On these crystal-clear days the brook sparkles and crackles, the sun’s light catching and fragmenting on dimples and ridges as it swirls and flows, spangling the tops of falls where the smooth, heavy water gathers, ready for its heady plummet.

Slipping out early one morning, the deep green, moss-scented woodland all around, I can hear the brook’s gentle crescendo as I approach. Its music is a constant here: a hiss above a rush above a deep thunder; a wild cacophony from which emerges the occasional clear, woody, watery note. This is the sound that lulls me to sleep and greets me each morning here in the valley. An undertone to the birds’ chattering and the insects’ buzzing and the distant smack of an axe on wood.

I have watched the brook often, at every time of the day and at every time of the year. I’ve played with it, dangled my toes in it, paddled and splashed in it, welcomed its chill, allowing the sharp fingers of cold to grasp my submerged feet, gasping with a pain that soon subsides to delightful numbness. More than anything else I have simply stood still and watched it, mesmerised by the roll and flow and fall: fast, slow, over, under and around.

Until today it has been a unidirectional brook, bent upon its journey, uninterrupted, downstream. Today, though, I entered it and turned upstream. Barefoot, naked to the thighs, turning the tide I walked against the current, counterflow. I became immersed, not just in the water, but in the brook’s own world, absorbing every detail as each busy molecule rushed past. At times the knots of rhododendron and hogweed hedged me in, trapping me on my watery path, forcing me to step on shifting darkness, the unknown beneath my feet. Pushing on, paring the water before me, I felt the stones under my toes in countless shapes, sizes and textures. Some moved underfoot; others remained rock-solid. My skin grazed quartz-sharp granite and slid on the slime of river-rounded rocks. Balancing fear and excitement I stepped, hands flung out, ducking beneath branches so low they laid their leaves upon the stream.

The sudden depth of a dark pool caught me by surprise as the cold water inched further up my skin. Another step and the sun’s rays slanted, orange dust into the clear brown, casting a warm sepia below. And all the time, all around, played the river’s roaring, rhythmic music, gloriously deafening, reducing the world to just this point where body and water met. I walked as far as my feet could bear on the cold, sharp bed of the brook.

Paddled-out, I escaped that watery world, skin tingling in the warmth of the sun, already longing to return. For I’m happiest walking upstream, surging against the current of expectation, forging my way, counterflow.

Counterflow by Jen Benson was taken with permission from Waymaking - an anthology of prose, poetry and artwork by women who are inspired by wild places, adventure and landscape. Order a copy of Waymaking.

Find out more about Wild Words.

Waymaking book cover

Get 25% off for your first year of John Muir Trust membership* if you join us during October 2019. Use the promo code: WILDWORDS (*Ts & Cs apply).