Our Artist in Residence for October, clare e. potter, continues her journey through the life of a river.
Run to the riverbank, otter-dreamer, slip
your skin and change your matter
Robert Macfarlane, The Lost Words
When I launched my poetry collection some years ago, my friend who was coach for one of our Welsh rugby teams said, ‘Well that was one of the most emotional things I’ve experienced outside of sport.’ I was floored. I couldn’t believe he’d been surprised that poetry could be meaningful, nor, that I had been surprised that rugby could be as poignant as poetry. I learned a passion’s a passion whether it’s growing a marrow, turning a wood bowl, or walking a river. And all in equal measure; the sacredness, the connectedness, the absolute difficult and the pure joy.
I had a memorable day last week meeting a person who lives his passion to the full (and shares it with generosity). A friend suggested I connect with Jeff Chard because he knows his rivers and he knows his otters. Jeff gives talks on the natural history, conservation and protection of otters, and his experiences along our rivers as a volunteer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. Like my paternal grandmother, he was born and bred in Gilfach. The Rhymni River and all its coal spoils, derelict pits, and disguarded machinery were his playground. The stories he will tell me along the river will bring that industrial past back to life.
We meet south of Pengam train station and Jeff leads me to a few of his favourite spots. He is knowledgeable about every aspect of this river, its past and its present. What I always thought was Japanese knotweed is the invasive Himalayan balsam, what I think are just three ducks are indicative of the improved health of this waterway—goosanders, these wouldn’t have been present when Jeff played here as a child and the river banks were thick black. He kindly entertains my inane questions; so yes, we have beavers in Wales but in enclosed sites only, locations held secret for now (ironically, you can find them on the River Otter in Devon, he tells me).
There is a natural flow to our conversation determined by the river spots which Jeff introduces me to as if presenting an old friend, filling in their back stories. We pause from time to time to talk about the birds busy on the river shallows and above in the thick canopy of trees: grey wagtails, dippers, a jay, coal tits and so on, the air around us thick with the rush of water, the singing of birds, and now and again the piercing croak of a crow.
We walk under and over bridges. Jeff knits this day’s walk and talk of geography, industry, biodiversity with accounts of his childhood adventures. These are so evocative they deserve a project of their own. His memories emerge rhythmically as we walk, and as he recounts them, it’s like the river and its path, the rocks and now-gone tunnels become vivid, a film-set almost. So I see his gang of butties fifty years ago who’d forgotten to poke holes in the catering size can of baked beans they’d pinched, hear it explode in their river bank fire, glimpse one of them fall in hysterics off the old pipe into the dark depths of the water now stippled bright orange. That was there, here, as we approach this part, this is where the lads had set up camp in an old cavity in the remnants of Gilfach pit. This is where they’d melted soldiers to make pellets for guns made out of copper piping and where they’d found a filled entrance and chipped away at it, then discovered a tunnel; Jeff had dropped his torch which swirled and swirled for the 400 or so feet he would have fallen into if he’d crawled a little further. What they’d stumbled on was the old air displacement shaft which was duly covered over following the near-death experience of that young gang member (I imagine the National Coal Board couldn’t afford the death of any more children after Aberfan). And here I see the little lad who went home with his duffle coat hood hitched high to hide the side of his face scorched and hair singed as he’d peered over a canister of petrol and dropped in a match as a dare—his mother smelling the misdeed before she even opened the door.
I wanted to include all these stories in the audio. It was difficult work this, cutting out the treasures that he shared, but I was compelled to return to the thing that resonated like a chorus in the song of his youth: Jeff’s relentless seeking of the otter on this, his home river. Although he knows where otters are to be found on the Usk and the Taff, he walks here along the old paths of his childhood river, seeking the call of the otter, the one he saw a flash of when he was nine. I don’t want to say too much about that. I’ll let Jeff enchant you with his own account.
Oh, and Jeff told me how to find an otter. But I guess I forgot to hit record, so you’ll have to get your boots on, pack some sarnies and take a walk.
Get to know your local river. Go back to the river of your childhood. She knows your voice. And maybe you’ll know hers too.
The stories you’ll tell . . .