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A Magazine for Sheffield

Being Human festival Writers explore ancient origins and possible futures for the River Don

To close this year's Being Human festival, Sheffield Hallam University hosted a floating poetry workshop that explored Sheffield's relationship with the river it was built on.

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Andy Brown.

"What intrigued me about the project is the way we can humanise rivers by giving them rights and personhood, and what that means in terms of shifting our perspective in how we relate and connect to the river."

Writer, artist and Sheffield's current Poet Laureate Danaé Wellington is explaining over True Loves pizza why she wanted to get involved in Writing the Water, the finale of this year's Being Human festival.

"Before we were here as people, the land was here."

Wellington has just been leading the first of two eco-poetry workshops presented by Sheffield Hallam University as part of the festival, taking place on a boat sailing up the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal, near to where it merges with the River Don.

This morning’s family-friendly workshop saw Wellington explain how indigenous cultures often see rivers as active members of their communities. She asked the young people onboard to imagine what the Don might say if it was a person, and how they would protect it if it was their mum.

Wellington's poem 'Scythian', commissioned for Writing the Water, is a tempest of emotion, history and allusions to cultures much older than our own – at one point she lists the species that grow on the river's banks (valerian, balsam, willow) as if from the pages of a medieval herbal.

The poem even references the improbable cluster of 30 mature fig trees that have grown on the banks of the Don near Tinsley since the turn of the 20th century. They originate from the fig biscuits that were a favourite of factory workers, whose seeds then passed into the river where they were germinated by the unusually warm waters caused by heavy industry.

As the bright red and blue L.B. Hardfeet cruises past abandoned factories and future housing sites on its way from Victoria Quays to Tinsley locks, we're invited to write our own poems exploring how we treat the river now, and its place within Sheffield at a time of ecological crisis.

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Alban Krashi of the River Dôn Project asks how we can reimagine our relationship with the natural world.

Andy Brown.

Wellington asks us to consider how the city's residents have related to the Don in the past – as a resource to be exploited and extracted from – but also how we might renew our relationship with the river, using older ideas about humans being an intrinsic part of the natural world.

It's an idea also being explored by Alban Krashi of the River Dôn Project (hosted by Opus, who publish Now Then magazine). On the boat, he explains how the harmful and destructive distinction between humans and nature first came into being – and what we can do to change it.

“We’ve had this idea going back thousands of years that humans are somehow separate from natural entities like mountains, rivers and seas,” he says. “Since ancient times certain societies have unfortunately maintained that mentality of control over the natural world, and that’s been accelerated by technology and globalisation.”

“But at the River Dôn Project we’re challenging that. We’re exploring how we might reimagine our relationship with the natural world. Could we give the river its own rights? Could we treat the river as an active citizen of Sheffield? How do we give the river its own voice in the political process?”

Around the world, indigenous communities have secured legal status and protection for features of the landscape like rivers and mountains that they consider sacred. Krashi and his colleagues are now seeing if we can do the same in South Yorkshire.

But listening in to the workshop, it's clear that young people in Sheffield already see the river as an important part of their city and one that needs protecting. Asked what they thought should be done to help the Don, they talk about the need to safeguard it from polluting corporations.

To help us find inspiration for our poems, the sides of the boat are decorated with photographs by Community Curator Ella Barrett, who also shares stories of the neighbourhoods that line either side of the canal, both past and present-day. The photos capture the ever-changing streetlife of nearby communities like Attercliffe and Spital Hill.

“The idea for me was looking at the present and the future, because I think Sheffield, and especially the canal, is very bound up in the past,” Barrett told Now Then. “Connecting the dots is really important, and showing how there’s life on the canal now – it’s just different.”

Sheffield Hallam’s Amy Carter Gordon, who curated Writing the Water, told Now Then that she hoped the event would highlight the university’s ”emerging research and innovation activity around the climate crisis.”

“To bring eco-poetry writing onto the barge felt quite novel,” she added. “As we collectively cruised up the canal towards the River Don we could all have time to reflect on our individual and community relationships to the water.”

“Watching families and adults alike writing, drawing and contemplating the water and the environment has been a simple and beautiful collective experience”.

The afternoon workshop, for would-be writers aged 15 and over, focuses more on different forms of poetry, and how using templates or techniques like alliteration can serve as a useful jumping-off point for creative expression.

As we leave Victoria Quays for the second time the session begins with a reading of ‘Sheffield and Tinsley Canal 1819-2023’ by Professor Harriet Tarlo, a poem commissioned especially for Writing the Water.

With its impressionistic montage of textures and materials, the sparsely written piece acts as a sensory breakdown of the canal. This is poetry that you can touch, that you can feel under your skin.

With Tarlo’s poem serving as inspiration, writers Vicky Morris and Helen Angell lead us through the process of writing a series of poems, each more ambitious than the last in terms of form, imagery and its role as a storytelling device.

Many of the poems produced by participants in the workshop touch on themes of environmental degradation, pollution and the untold harm that was done to the Don and its tributaries by heavy industry until relatively recently.

In the 1980s, with the steel industry still at the height of its powers in the Don Valley, the river was identified as one of the most polluted in Europe. Some have described it during this period as being ecologically dead.

Although the health of the river has since improved, in part because of the dramatic collapse of heavy industry in Sheffield, it's still too often seen as mere infrastructure, to either be extracted from or dumped into as required. Data from The Rivers Trust shows that water companies spilled sewage directly into the Don and its tributaries for thousands of hours in 2022.

While there are growing calls across the UK for regulation to stop such flagrant abuses of nature, Writing the Water asks deeper questions that lead us to think about the river on which Sheffield was built in a more philosophical way, drawing on indigenous ways of thinking.

What if we treated the river as a family member? What if we saw the river as our mother? How would we want to protect her if we did? The name of the festival, Being Human, neatly speaks to these open-ended and regenerative questions.

Eventually the boat turns around at Tinsley lock, just short of where the canal meets the river – not an easy manoeuvre for a vessel only fractionally wider than the canal itself. As we sail back Barrett leads us in a meditation, inviting us to contemplate the river’s history and its future, as well as its role in our own lives.

We pass a bottle of Kananga water around the boat, a fragrance used in Jamaican communities for rituals, and each rub some into our hands. I pick up Danaé Wellington's poem again.

She had a way of coaxing
flowers to grow from the ugliest things.
This gentle forest now stretches
far and wide along the canal,
and claims its land on the riverbank.

It is in her nature to take back what is hers.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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