New Welsh Review
Rivers of Wales
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Jim Perrin follows streams to the lowlands in his new book, Rivers of Wales. It is easy to be swept away in its strong currents of folklore, to tumble through the literary cascade of writers and to float gently to the sea in its verdant cultural landscape. In many ways, it is a stream of literary consciousness.
The prose- and poetry-rich chapters devoted to the Gwy/Wye and the Teifi dominate. While the lesser-known folklore rivers – Cynfal, Dwyryd, Glaslyn – share part three, followed by the regionally distinctive Dyfi and Dysynni catchments, and finally Afon Dwyfor, Perrin’s favourite river, supports the envoi. The objective to present an appreciation of these rivers is certainly achieved but the book starts with a masterclass in the author’s principles of nature writing. Unapologetically, it is a book in the old tradition of journey descriptions, punctuated by extracts from the giants – Lhuyd, Cambrensis, Condry, Burrow, Pennant, Kilvert. But the reader is guaranteed to encounter lesser-known figures too, such as Robert Gibbings, Irish wood carver, and the poetry of Ruth Bidgood. Perrin considers applied knowledge and close attention, the two crucial elements of topographical writing. In contrast to some contemporary efforts, he believes that the text should be simple, observant, and devoid of affectation and ego. He also succeeds in developing an environmentally focused book which is truly passionate about the Welsh rivers, and the need to monitor and protect them. He encourages authors to immerse and lose themselves in nature.
In addition to the profusion of literary extracts, we share Perrin’s many blessed encounters with whiskered otters and elusive fish, moss dripping Atlantic oak woods, and green hairstreak butterflies. Progress down the Wye is marked by encounters with people and tributaries. On the Afon Teifi, the raised peat domes of Cors Caron are evocatively equated to the ghost of a great glacial lake. You will smile at some of the personal interactions – a garlic-hued kiss or the botanical ‘bottoms-up brigade’. In contrast, the ominous rodent burrows on Cardigan Island and the flood of Caernarfon rats may reappear in nightmares. Across the three folkloric rivers, tales of modern nuclear intrigue are mixed with local legends, descriptions of climbing mishaps and rituals, as well as Madoc’s colonisation of America. On the Dyfi, we celebrate the purchase of Ynys-hir nature reserve and continue to mourn the horrific loss of young April Jones, while we learn how the Dysynni foreshore was redrawn to benefit the birds. The Afon Dwyfor provides the backdrop for Perrin’s story of conversion to a conservationist, and a warning not to become involved with the fairies. An additional chapter on the relative cultural importance of all our rivers would address the full promise of the title and add a very valuable component to the book.
Perrin has his own environmental perspective based on strongly held personal values – there are no graphs or masses of statistics. He defends goosanders and other fish-eating birds, and advocates the Aldo Leopold approach – ‘let wildlife manage wildlife’. Rivers of Wales includes graphic accounts of fish kills and rivers swirling with slurry and sludge, while the author implicates inadequate policies, tending to exempt individuals. In the case of sheep farming, the strong heritage links to wool- and flannel-weaving in west Wales are acknowledged. Like RS Thomas, Perrin recognises the destructive impact of insensitive forestry development and reservoir construction on local communities and their environment. The strongest tensions throughout are between bird conservation and shooting interests. Overall, the author fears that we are moving backwards in terms of environmental protection, post-Brexit. Confident that public opinion is on his side, Perrin considers it essential to focus on the polluters and others who destroy nature – ‘It’s a fight we can and must win.’
The striking book cover by Siôn Ilar depicts the fading away of nature. However, there are occasional intrusive book production glitches – a missing chapter header, random single blank lines inserted into text blocks, and inconsistencies between the list of contents and chapter titles or parts. Also, some of the long sentences containing bracketed text need to be deconstructed by more than one reading. Use of this book as a travel guide will be frustrated by the lack of an index and map.
Literature may capture the nature of our relationship with the environment. Perrin shows that for the rivers of Wales, this heritage is very ancient, rich and deep, and set to continue. This book will sit comfortably on bookshelves in Wales and far beyond. It provides some wise advice to future generations and will entertain general readers with a love of Welsh culture and landscapes, and an interest in the human and environmental forces which shape them.
Catherine Duigan is an environmental consultant, and the author and co-editor of an earlier academic book, The Rivers of Wales.