The river has over-spilled her chalky banks to lap, shimmer and shift between seasons. Summer sun has ripened the wheat, kissed the corn and turned her face towards Autumn. Crows circle the church steeple above the river's time-worn meanders.
Writer Louisa Thomsen Brits takes us on a journey through flux and its opposite, flow, examining this equilibrium and fusion within our evolving selves.
We step into the river. Her eternal movement is the 'beautiful and fearful invitation: a beckoning dynamic asking us to move from this to that' that poet David Whyte describes in Consolations. 'The courageous life' he says, 'is the life that is equal to this unceasing tidal and seasonal becoming'.
The fluid nature of the river runs through our lives reminding us of the ever-changing flow around and within us. We swim, all movement and exchange; feeling indivisible from the purl and shimmer of motion, from the wider presence, the communicative order and flux of flowing water.
'The rivers flow not past but through us', writes John Muir. 'Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fibre and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.'
Is it the same river rippling from moment to moment, the water slipping over us, spilling inevitably toward the sea, while new waters join at its source? Are we the same people from one swim to the next? From one moment to the next?
Fragments of riverine thought have been attributed to the pre-Socratic Ionian Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In his epigram We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not', Heraclitus cited the impossibility of stepping twice into the same stream as an analogy for his doctrine of universal change.
He believed that life is flux; that the nature of living is constant change, and that to resist change is to resist a truth at the core of our existence. We live in a world of flux. We are flux. Our bodies grow and decay, consuming light and shedding matter. We may step into the body of a river we have always known but the waters that flow over our feet will never be the same waters that flowed even a moment before.
Philosopher and environmental ethicist Ginny Battson writes that Heraclitus appeals to our senses 'to draw us in to the coolness and wetness of rushing water, the flow of being.' 'It is a life affirming thing to do', she says, 'we can decide not to step into the flow, to remain without experience of what is most enriching. If we choose not to experience the flow through our senses, then we deny ourselves the fullness of being.' And we reject an invitation to feel an integral part of a cyclic and dynamic universe; the unifying stream of life force that flows everywhere.
'[I]n the midst of all nature's constant flux and opposites' states Jostein Gaarder, 'Heraclitus saw an Entity or one-ness. This something was the source of everything, he called God or Logos.'
What sets Heraclitus apart from early Western predecessors 'is his view that the Logos is within us all' writes Battson. 'We are part of nature and subject to its uidity. We are a unity of forces in ux. The pattern of human life and the pattern of cosmic order are the same.' Heraclitus believed in a world order that exists like 'an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures', changing eternally.
Unity of Opposites
He explains this ongoing evolution by exploring the unity of opposites. Like the Chinese philosophical concept of yin-yang where contrary forces are thought to be complementary, Heraclitus illuminates how all things undergo constant transformation, including the forces within us. We wake, we sleep. Youth slips towards old age. Every life is guaranteed death. Hot will become cold; light will darken. Day and night uphold each other.
The experience of contrast and the challenge of constant change invite us to enter the unguarded aliveness of the moment, acting as a call to engagement, to becoming permeable to the essence of others, human and non-human.
The idea of balancing of opposites, of reaching equilibrium by maintaining flux, echoes the Chinese philosophy of Daoism and the notion of Wu Wei or the state of flow - a letting go, an attunement to the natural flow of life so that our behaviour becomes as effortless and inevitable as natural processes. We swim with rather than against the tide.
Flow has force and direction. Dao De Jing suggests that we should be like water; soft and weak yet unsurpassed 'for attacking what is hard and strong', content, non-competitive and clear. When Being and Dao merge into a harmonious state, all distinctions are removed. This alignment with the qi or spirit' of things by feeling some of this spirit in ourselves, gives us a sense of interflow and plenitude, a fusion of love and metaphysics similar to Ginny Battson's ecophilosophy, Fluminism:
'All life is ever-flowing, symbiotic and interconnected.' she writes, 'In understanding, we protect and proliferate life-flourishing processes'. To be a fluminist is to 'recognise oneself viscerally as part of the interconnectedness between all beings. And in this realisation, to act with love, respect and responsibility in protecting these interconnections'.
The Gap between Worlds
As we face the climate crisis and endure a global pandemic, the life we thought of as steady no longer seems assured. Our world feels particulate, loose, ungraspable, disintegrating. It isn't the case that the outbreak of disease has rendered human life suddenly fragile; we are simply realising that it has always been so. In experiencing a sense of acute vulnerability, we're invited to acknowledge the fear and habitat degradation that we have inflicted on countless other species for decades.
During lockdown, desert sand crept across the motorways leading to the towering absurdity of Dubai. Now flames have consumed more than 3.6m acres of California; homes, animals and ancient redwoods turned to smoke. We can no longer cloud our attempts to overcome nature. It's going to take years to unpick the way Covid-19 has changed the global psyche, but in recent months, we have glimpsed greener forms of human culture. A gap between worlds where transition is possible has opened up. We're experiencing dramatic change and, ideally, the dynamic cohesion of flux.
The last rays of sun reach beneath the clouds to caress the ripened world, illuminating the pale statues of two white egrets motionless on the bank. The church clock strikes six. Floating on our backs, the tide seems content to idle and gently turn us seaward. In the gathering dusk, a murmuration of starlings swoop, turn and plunge in elegant unison above us. In the split second before they seamlessly change direction, hangs the potential for chaos; in that infinitesimal shift, we see that flux relies on cooperation, on the balance of all things being equal, all working together, moment to moment.
Flux is our ally. When we feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence, when we seek liberation from restraint, we meet an impulse to transcend our finite selves and extend towards the infinite. Looking skyward, immersed in open water, we let go of control, allowing ourselves to be held in ongoingness, the inevitability of change whispered in reeds, willow-waver, water-light and river song. Brought to a place of constantly becoming, buoyed to a state of awe, we meet the dynamic exuberance of life and celebrate our evolving selves.
Jung believed that our inability to embrace change and accept conflict as a natural and necessary part of life causes pain and disappointment. After his own disappointments, the Medieval Japanese poet and essayist Kamo no Chomei moved to a grass dwelling to write An Account of My Hut. The essay opens with these words:
'Though the river's current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.'
Tributaries of joy and sadness flow into these moments in the Ouse. For seven years, through all seasons, we have carried our yearnings and regrets to the water's edge - dreams and plans, grief as a beloved child leaves home or a dreaded diagnosis is confirmed, fears and foibles, flasks of tea, chocolate, poetry.
Our bodies are stretched by time and pregnancies, pinched by disappointment, shaped by disease and lined by light and laughter. The river heightens our pleasures, dilutes our cares and carries our losses out to sea. Reanimated by currents flowing around and within us, by energy and pure activity, we feel an indivisible unity, a sense of communion in a participatory whole and the possibility of a way of living that upholds relatedness and the flourishing of all life.
Images by Louisa Thomsen Brits.
Louisa Thomsen Brits is an author, outdoor swimmer and walker. Her most recent book, Path, is a prose poem about reciprocity between humans and landscape.
Louisa's work explores the seam between domestic and wild. She writes about interconnectedness, art and craft that spring from our connection with nature, and the rhythms and patterns that unite and define all living things.