“The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river,” Virginia Woolf wrote some years before she filled her coat-pockets with stones, waded into the River Ouse near her house, and, unwilling to endure what she had barely survived in the past, slid beneath the smooth surface of life.
One midsummer morning seven decades after Woolf was swallowed by the Ouse, Olivia Laing set out to walk the river’s banks from source to sea while navigating her own upheaval of the soul in the wake of heartbreak. She recorded her forty-two-mile existential expedition in To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (public library) — one of those stunning, unclassifiable, uncommonly poetic books that seep into crevices of your psyche you didn’t know existed and settle into the groundwater of your being.
I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.
Laing examines the particular pull of the Ouse and its riverine stretch across “233 square miles of land the shape of a collapsed lung,” haunted by Woolf yet animated by some singular spirit of its own:
For a while I used to swim with a group of friends at South-ease, near where her body was found. I’d enter the swift water in trepidation that gave way to ecstasy, tugged by a current that threatened to tumble me beneath the surface and bowl me clean to the sea. The river passed in that region through a chalk valley ridged by the Downs, and the chalk seeped into the water and turned it the milky green of sea glass, full of little shafts of imprisoned light. You couldn’t see the bottom; you could barely make out your own limbs, and perhaps it was this opacity which made it seem as though the river was the bearer of secrets: that beneath its surface something lay concealed.
It wasn’t morbidity that drew me to that dangerous place but rather the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control. I was pulled to the Ouse as a magnet is pulled to metal, returning on summer nights and during the short winter days to repeat some walks, some swims through turning seasons until they amassed the weight of ritual.
Reflecting on the cataclysm that thrust her toward this riverine journey — “one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that sustains us seems destined to collapse” — and the aim of her unusual experiment, Laing writes:
I wanted somehow to get beneath the surface of the daily world, as a sleeper shrugs off the ordinary air and crests towards dreams.
Rivers may be among our richest existential metaphors — “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river,” Borges proclaimed in his timeless meditation on time; “I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow,” Frida Kahlo wrote in celebrating her unconventional relationship with Diego Rivera — but they are also the raw material of our existence, the seedbed of civilization. Laing writes:
A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.
But whatever rivers may nurture with their physical presence, Laing argues, they also foment some essential metaphysical part of our humanity:
There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today. Unlike a lake or sea, a river has a destination and there is something about the certainty with which it travels that makes it very soothing, particularly for those who’ve lost faith with where they’re headed.
A river moves through time as well as space. Rivers have shaped our world; they carry with them, as Joseph Conrad had it, “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.” Their presence has always lured people, and so they bear like litter the cast-off relics of the past.
Echoing Woolf’s metaphor of the river as the permeable boundary between the present and the past, Laing writes:
At times, it feels as if the past is very near. On certain evenings, when the sun has dropped and the air is turning blue, when barn owls float above the meadow grass and a pared-down moon breaches the treeline, a mist will sometimes lift from the surface of the river. It is then that the strangeness of water becomes apparent. The earth hoards its treasures and what is buried there remains until it’s disinterred by spade or plough, but a river is more shifty,…
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