As part of her series on The Clearing, Nicola Chester asked Nic Wilson to respond to some of the themes in On Gallows Down: place, protest and belonging.
I spent a memorable day last summer reading On Gallows Down, sat in the sunshine beside one of Hertfordshire’s precious chalk streams. It was a profound experience. Nicola’s love of the chalk downs and her fierce determination to protect them spoke so deeply to me. Her kinship with the Berkshire landscape reminded me of my own love for the chalklands around my home and how much I’d missed them during lockdown, when struggles with anxiety and agoraphobia left me unable to get out for my daily exercise. This piece was inspired by my eventual return to the meadows, the reedbeds and the chalk streams.
I move among the irises. Yellow against blue, they sing up from the pond. I feel their bothness: their rootedness in water, their flightlessness in air.
The Grassling, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett
The stones are sharp under my softened feet; the clear water bites. It’s the first time I’ve forded the chalk stream since early March and it feels like an inadequate baptism. I want to be snagged in the flow on the tang of watercress, scoured in the deep-fed spring water. Lockdown, however, has muddied the clarity of immersion. I pad out on the far bank, damp and unenlightened.
Wandering barefoot through swathes of common bistort, I’m struck by the incongruity of the flowers. Each bold bottlebrush is tinted a timid pink, so pale it’s almost white, as if their painter lost conviction after the first wash. One flower stalk is crooked downwards, half-snapped, its brush head submerged in the grasses. I pick the single stem and remove the lower leaves. My small water bottle is full, so I drink half for a makeshift vase to carry the bistort with me.
As I walk along the exposed scrapes – excavated by the Countryside Management Service for wading birds like snipe and little egret, now parched by the driest May for over a century – I stumble across a magnificent stand of yellow iris. It has attracted another admirer – a single bumblebee. I feel a desire to capture this moment, so I fish in my backpack for my sketch book. Pencil in hand, I trace the standard petals that form a hood over the bumblebee’s head and thorax; then I feel a tug. Instinct turns the horizon yellow, so luminous that it swallows the sky, empties the stream, even eclipses the sun. I’m pulled into a subverted world.
The landing is gentle, but I feel the ground flex its strength beneath me. The surface is ruffled like crêpe paper, lucent as the softest chiffon. There’s a path ahead, banded with madder streaks that run like veins and gather at the top of the fall. It’s a signal to follow the waymarks upstream, tracing each tributary back to its source.
A single drop wells.
Sprung from chalk aquifer, streamed through shallow rhizomes, sugared in the nectaries, the heart of this drop fell as rain, millennia ago.
This water defines the flag iris. While other riparian flora fades, Iris pseudacorus is thriving. Phosphate run-off from agriculture, added to the naturally mineral-rich stream water, nurtures these nutrient-loving plants. Each time I wash the car, take a shower or run the tap, my water is drawn from the aquifer that feeds this chalk stream, increasing the concentration of nutrients.
Unlike the iris, the water here has deep roots. Deep-down roots. Deep-time roots. But we are natural uprooters and we’re abstracting deep-down, draining deep time.
I return to my sketch, puzzling over the iris paradox. This stately flag, its sweet nectar a magnet for bumblebees and hoverflies, is a bitter marker of our subversion of the water cycle. I can’t reconcile its bothness. That’s the song of the iris.
Nic Wilson is a Guardian Country Diarist. She writes about nature, gardens, landscape, her work also features in Gardeners World, RHS The Garden, and BBC Wildlife Magazine, as well as in Katharine Norbury’s acclaimed anthology, Women On Nature. She curates the UK #PeatFree Nurseries List and is a writer on John Clare’s contemporaries. Follow her on Twitter.
The photograph at the head of this essay is by Nicola Chester.
Sketch and photograph within the essay both by Nic Wilson.