We came upon the signless signpost immediately after the footbridge across the River Avon: a square oak timber set in the ground by the side of the path. It had been there a long time: the weather had penetrated the grain, opening up deep shakes; junks of wood had split off and fallen away; more seemed likely to do so. On top, where the wood had been cut in four bevels to shed the rain, sat a cap of moss, roots penetrating the cracks. A rectangular mortise opened to one side, holes drilled through to take wooden pegs: once it had held a signpost, now it was an empty hole.
My friend David and I are following the River Avon downstream from its sources in the hills of south Gloucestershire to where it flows into the River Severn at the port town of Avonmouth. Our walks are a kind of ecological pilgrimage: we follow the river to see what we can learn about the relationship of humans to the land. While a religious pilgrimage is a search for a holy realm and an encounter with the sacred, an ecological pilgrimage can be seen as a search for a primal, heartfelt, connection with the Earth itself, a sense of deep participation. This quest follows long and arduous pilgrimages by sea I completed in recent years, sailing my yacht Coral from the south coast of England to the far north of Scotland.[i] After my long voyages into the ocean, it felt time for explorations closer to home, to places maybe special in their ordinariness. Since the course of a river defines a bioregion, giving an opportunity to see the land as it underlies the human superimposition of roads and railways, towns and farmland, I decided to walk the length of my local river, the Bristol Avon.
David was keen to join me. Our habit is to follow the river downstream for a few hours in the morning and then find a pub for lunch. We mull over the morning experience, then consult the map to plan our next walk, picking two places within reasonable distance between which there appears to be a footpath. In some places we can walk along the river banks; others are private and fenced off, or include muddy fields that we cannot access; in some places there is no suitable footpath. And of course the map never gives complete information: it doesn’t show where the footpath has been ploughed over or covered in cow shit. We have to find our way on the ground.
We started right at the source. This is not, as we had imagined, a well-defined place where the stream bubbles from the ground, but somewhere both obscure and multiple: a damp ditch by the railway line; wetness seeping up in a shallow hollow between cultivated fields; the pumping station established by the water company to supplement the flow with groundwater. In its upper reaches we found the river in some places wild and self-determining, meandering across pastureland; in other places it was constrained in the straight line of a ditch dug at the side of a field or taken under the road in a culvert. Near its source the river is often, paradoxically, almost dry, but it fills to overflowing after heavy rain. In the highest reaches one can simply step over the narrow trickle; a little downstream a flat bridge of stones, a plank or a concrete slab is sufficient. A few miles further, when the river’s multiple origins come together in what is recognisably a permanent stream, it becomes too wide for such simple crossings, needing arched stone bridges to carry the country roads across. Downstream again, where the stream becomes a river, wider, flowing rather than tumbling through the countryside, crossings became yet more substantial affairs of steel and concrete.
As we walk, we have learned to notice the shift between the wild and the constrained. We follow what seems like a natural river easing its way across the countryside, with trees and rushes along its banks, sometimes choked with reeds; then at a village the flow is hemmed in between stone walls, gentrified—in one place flowing past the garden of a house called ‘Brookside’. We may come across ancient diggings, an old leat and millpond; or a modern weir built by the water company to manage the flow. We learned how the wild actually merges with the constrained: these man-made constructions create the tumbling streams and quiet reaches that we take for granted, so attractive to our accustomed view. But all are hybrids, created both by natural flow and human intervention; as is the river as a whole.[ii]
One weir is built across the river near the village of Upper Seagry. We had tramped all morning across farmland, following muddy farm tracks around arable fields, only aware of the river by the line of trees following its banks. Then the path took a sharp turn and led over a footbridge built onto a substantial modern weir; here at last we had a good view of the river. Under our feet the water poured over a series of concrete sills, dropping maybe fifteen feet in all before resuming its steady flow. A steel gantry held the mechanism for three huge sluice gates that controlled the flow of water. Today these were fully open, and as the water poured over the sills we could see it in several different forms: hanging just above the top sill, oily blue, darkly mirroring the sky; falling in a smooth sheet down the face of the weir, sparkling with light and offering a fragmented reflection of the bridge; breaking into cataracts that fell like braids into the foaming mass of water pounding on the concrete ledge; tumbling chaotically over the next sill; and so on down. Upstream, the dull green rectangles of the gantry framed our view of the river, its banks supporting alder and birch, disappearing round a bend. Downstream, curving vortices of white foam covered the surface, the sunlight reflecting in sparkling fragments of light; then, maybe thirty yards below the weir, the river once again resumed its placid flow between banks of trees and bushes. The man-made weir seemed both to create the river and punctuate its placid flow with excitement and drama.
After pausing on the bridge we resumed our walk, almost immediately coming across the signless signpost. I turned to David, quoting a line from my friend John Crook’s enigmatic poem, one that he used at the start of Chan Buddhist retreats: ‘The fool by the empty signpost stands pointing the way.’ “But this is the second ‘signless signpost’ we have seen today,” said David; the first had been some miles back, a square board on a stubby post, writing peeling off, once showing the way to an angling pond. And strangely, although we had followed the footpaths marked on the map, we had noted how poorly signed our route had been that day. What, if anything, might we take from a signless signpost, and were we two fools somehow pointing the way?
The river is certainly leading us somewhere and teaching us something, for David and I keep coming back, following eagerly as it unfolds itself before us. But what is it that fascinates us, that draws us on? Some of its teachings are clear: there is no natural, wild river flowing from time immemorial, free of human intervention; what seems most naturally beautiful is often revealed to be a human/river hybrid. But much of the river’s teaching remains unclear; indeed, the point of the Buddhist teaching of the signless signpost is that there is, quite simply, nothing to be sought. As John Crook writes, ‘Buddha-nature is immediately before your eyes, there is no need to go anywhere. There is no need to go anywhere else. Everything is as it is and that is It. Do not seek elsewhere for that which is right now, before your eyes.’[iii]
In Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, after a lifetime of seeking the eponymous hero comes to live by the river and work with Vasudeva the ferryman. ‘The river has taught me to listen’, Vasudeva tells him, ‘The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it’. Siddhartha too learns that the river is a great teacher, one that has no concern for his pretensions and laughs at his human struggles. Then, as he learns to listen more carefully, he hears everything in the voice of the river: ‘all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world’: from the river Siddhartha learns of the completeness and perfection of the world. There was no need to go anywhere, everything was right there, before his eyes.[iv]
Even as I write these words, the water is still pouring over the sills on the weir at Upper Seagry. Despite the interference of humanity, whether easing lazily between meadows or plunging over a weir, the river knows its path, following the fall of the land ever downhill toward the sea. It asks no questions about its path or purpose; maybe that is why the signless signpost is so provocative to humans forever asking questions. In John’s poem it is the sign that is absent, while the fool points the way. David and I will return and continue our walk downstream; there will be more peaceful stretches and turbulent weirs. Are we two old fools? If so, in what direction we are pointing? And are we really on an ecological pilgrimage, or just two elderly gentlemen taking a quiet walk followed by a pleasant lunch? Only a real fool would suggest there is a difference.
PETER REASON is a writer whose work links the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. His latest book, In Search of Grace, was published by Earth Books in 2017.
[i] Reason, Peter. In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage. Winchester, UK: Earth Books, 2017; Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea. Bristol: Jessica Kingsley Publishers (originally published by Vala Publishing Cooperative), 2014.
[ii] The idea of hybrids is borrowed from Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Hemel Hempsted: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
[iii] Crook, John H. “Everything Is as It Is—and That in Itself Is Remarkable.” New Chan Forum No. 45 (2012): 1-2 https://www.westernchanfellowship.org/uploads/media/ncf45.pdf.
[iv] Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Translated by Hilda Rosner. London: New Directions Publishing Company, 1951.