The Landscape Guide

7.6 Metalihorical rivers

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It takes a poet to read a river and a community to make a response. T.S. Eliot wrote the third of his Four Quartets in 1940--41, when living in London and recalling his far-away childhood on the Mississippi. It opens:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities -- ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight

How should one treat a strong brown god? With the greatest respect. To prepare for "seasons and rages', land, which otherwise might be assigned a use, must be sacrificed to the waters. Such areas should be brought to a pitch of ecological health and then abandoned, below the flood line, allowing them to be ravished by floods. Rivers should be honoured and propitiated in other ways too. Monumental structures should be placed here and there, to mark important places and for people to rest as they revere the waters. Large tracts should be left in states of nature.

This is not how London's rivers have been treated, alas. The general policy has been for small rivers to be buried and large rivers to be raped. By 1940, the shores of the London Thames were industrialized, except for short Sections: near regal and episcopal palaces ( Westminster, Greenwich, Lambeth, Fulham). Since then, some reaches of the river have been commercialized and recreationalized. Often, this has been done by building a riverside walkway with ugly blocks of apartments or offices peering at the water (Figure 7.10). It has not been done in a reverential manner, and no effort has been made to provide habitats for swans. These royal birds once made the Thames famous. Metaphorical planning could have achieved superior results, remembering always that the river is "a strong brown god' to be honoured, garlanded and placated. John Denham, who once employed Christopher Wren as his deputy, had a poetic vision of the Thames, to inspire future planners:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great exemplar as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full.

What should these building say to a river?