There is a stream that runs along the back side of our yard. I say stream, but in truth it’s a burn, so named, I presume, by the Scottish settlers who first lived along the street.
I have yet to find its actual source, though I know it runs from the Vorlage ski hill, at times down the side of the street, at times wending its way behind the houses and through culverts under tarmac until it flows out of a large pipe into the Gatineau river. I am endlessly fascinated by this stream and its power to create conversation, to occupy large amounts of time and resources, and now and again to menace those who live close to its banks.
I imagine that it reminded the early settlers of home. I find myself reliving hikes through the Peak District in the UK, when as teenagers my friends and I would walk through the dales, across the hills and moors, often following along the side of a seemingly friendly brook. We would start at the youth hostel in Ilam, and head north along the river Dove, to Hartington, and then over the hills to Buxton, to Castelton with the fluorspar caverns, or Eyam, where back in the 17thcentury the villagers closed off the village, sacrificed themselves and stopped the spread of the plague. Wakefield, in no small measure reminds me of those villages with its friendly folk and old (stone) houses. Inevitably, the hike would end at Edale in the High Peak up on the moors, where mysteriously every year one or two of the group would fall prey to severe gastroenteritis, putting an end to our adventures. Eventually, it was discovered that at least one sheep had died and polluted the stream feeding the youth hostel water supply, making it dangerous to drink.
Water is life: the streams and rivers that run through our communities, have offered us the ability to settle, to thrive and to connect with other communities, long before roads and trains cut across the land. It is part of the conversation I have with the burn, when I visit her daily.
There have been three floods in the village since I arrived, three times that the burn has overflowed its banks and either flooded or threatened to flood the houses on the street below us. We are learning to pull up the bridges to high ground, to make sure there are no big logs or branches to wash downstream and to keep the culvert below us clear. During one of the floods I was away in CapeTown, where within six months the city would, literally, run out of water. There were signs everywhere about limiting water use: short showers, no baths. The conference centre where I was staying had lagoons for grey water recycling. In Canada where there are vast expanses of water, it is unimaginable.
Even in the height of summer, when there has been no rain to speak of for weeks, the burn continues to run. There is debate of how best to protect the banks: gabyons; pond liner and gravel; stakes and chicken wire. Our son visits and turns into his ten-year old self, building a weir with logs and stones, lecturing us on stream management. Our daughter is recruited to chisel a big log to just the right dimensions, so that the stream tumbles over the top in a satisfying flow. My husband reinforces banks and pours bags of gravel to raise the stream’s bed.
There is a response. This spring, the pond skaters were numerous. Clouds of black dragonflies with iridescent turquoise wings chased the hovering bugs. Frogs half submerged in mud surveyed the changes and called to each other. Small fish populated the pools, a great heron stood in the shallows, and then one day a bird I didn’t recognize perched on the stones at the edge of the waterfall: a green heron had come to fish.
My conversations with the burn continue. In the past few months, a dear colleague passed away. Victoria Braithwaite spent most of her career studying fish perception. I would have loved to have shown her this stream. I stand on the edge of the burn, and remember her, wondering about the lives of the fish I watch darting in and around the falling leaves. Each day the stream changes, each day there are new revelations, new memories, new things to learn. Each day is a new conversation.