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Right to Thrive

David Bramwell: "It feels right to treat the river as a living thing"

The Doncastrian writer, podcaster and musician expores his connection to the River Don in our new generative interview series looking at nature's right to thrive in South Yorkshire.

David Bramwell
In collaboration with River Dôn Project logo

Right to Thrive explores local people's connections to the River Don through a collection of generative interviews. In this series we encourage people to question extractive, human-centred views of nature in favour of recognising and celebrating its right to thrive.

David Bramwell is a writer, podcaster, musician and performer who grew up in Doncaster. David’s Cult of Water project began as an experimental BBC radio programme about the River Don, combining magic realism with interviews with folklorists, river experts and witches. Over time it evolved into a touring stage show featuring a mixture of animation, archive material, interviews with former steel workers and the voice of comic book author Alan Moore.

You’re not around in South Yorkshire anymore, are you?

I live in Brighton. I was born in Scunthorpe, but we moved to Doncaster when I was six. So 12 very formative years were spent in Doncaster and my family never moved away from there. So Doncaster is a place that I continue to return to, have done for the last 30 years, and my parents introduced me and my sister to walking [and an] appreciation of nature.

Never the River Don. Never the River Don, because in the late 70s and early 80s, the River Don was not somewhere that you would go and walk. We would go to Derbyshire, we'd walk there. We would go to the coast, we'd walk there. We'd go into North Yorkshire. But it would never have occurred to them to take us to the Don. Even Sprotbrough, I think, back then wouldn't have been a particularly attractive place. The river would not have smelt good.

And so that was one of the reasons why I felt this strong need to reconnect with the Don. It began about 15 years ago and it continues to this day.

To grow up in a town which took its name from a river, and yet the way the river had been exploited, the way the river had been polluted, the way the river had been shifted around – moved out of the town centre to the fringes of the town. None of my friends, none of my peers, nobody I ever met had any relationship with that river, or anything good to say about the river. It was just talked about as being dirty, polluted and not a place that you'd want to go.

One of the stories I heard, which you might have heard, was a young Jarvis Cocker took to the Don, close to Wicker, where he grew up, and just thought, what happens if we get in a rubber ring and go down the Don? He writes about it being one of the most memorable days of his life, but also acknowledged that it didn't feel good to go through the city centre. You'd risk your neck and you'd risk getting ill back then too.

I remember visiting Sheffield's when I was a teenager. It looked like a city that had been bombed, that had been in a war. My recollection of driving through the city, the closer to the river you got, the more polluted and rundown it was. The steel industry was in massive decline, like so many cities across the UK in the early 80s. There was massive decline in heavy industry and so all of those buildings or those factories by the river were rundown or abandoned. I just remember seeing shopping trolleys and all sorts of shit just dumped in the river. And again, it was more like a warzone. You know, you kept away from it.

So it was a real sense of what had been lost. What we've all lost – it's not just me. That made me want to reconnect with the river, and walk the river, and to realise that it had transformed. Although – sadly, ironically – 15 years ago when my research and my psychogeographical wanderings began, there was a real sense of hope that the river was really transforming. The salmon were returning. There was talk of otter. The deer were using it as a network at night.

Some of this I got from Ian Rotherham, who at the time was working at Hallam University, an ecologist. He was a great source of knowledge. He took me to one of the many places that may or may not be the source of the Don, and told me about the hybrid ecology that's happened along the river as a consequence of non-indigenous species like Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed, and the fig trees. He showed me that fig forest by Meadowhall. It was really exciting to be connecting with the river and discovering all of these things. Most people don't welcome those invasive species, but I think he was a bit more philosophical about it.

It felt like a river that was being rejuvenated, rediscovered and appreciated for the first time in centuries. And so what's been happening, what's been unearthed in recent years about increasing levels of pollution, widespread pollution, disregard for the health and ecology of our rivers and the related areas – by intensive farming practices, by industry and especially by our water companies – has been very saddening. Because it felt like we were going full circle in terms of the stories that I'd unearthed with the Don going back to a pre-industrial time, a Roman time, a pagan time, when the river would have been venerated as a goddess, would have been worshipped, would have been revered, and possibly feared. Because we know that water is a powerful substance. We can hold it in the palm of our hands and yet it has the power to wipe out an entire city if it feels like it.

Cult of Water live

A Cult of Water live show.

You've been connecting and reconnecting with the river, and iterating on the Cult of Water project, for a good while. During that process, what has the Don given you?

It's fundamentally helped me reconnect with the place that I grew up. It's provided a narrative of our disregard for nature or our exploitation of nature. You can put the focus anywhere, in any environment, and find the same story. When I started performing the Cult of Water, taking the story of a river that I felt a strong connection with to the other towns and other cities, I would seek out folklorists, psychogeographers, ecologists, environmentalists, to come and talk about the river that was particularly pertinent to the audience, to the area, but with an understanding that the story of the Don speaks to all of us.

There was a line that I came across – I don't know where this is from – that [says], ‘what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves.’

You can apply that to any part of the planet really, but the Don was a particularly powerful story that connected with me because it’s been so worked as an industrial river, and declared biologically dead at some point during the 20th century. I mean, that was not common – maybe that happened with Thames, maybe that happened with the Trent, I don't know – but all of that heavy industry along along the river, from Sheffield to the outskirts and beyond, to Mexborough, that was artificially heating the water, putting effluence into the water, putting poisons straight into the water from the steel industry. So it's such a horrific story.

What did the River Don give me? It gave me some magic as well. There were so many gifts that came from connecting with that river. Just two of them that spring to mind.

The forest of figs. These figs that have been eaten, presumably fig biscuits eaten by the workers in the last couple of hundred years, that had passed through the human digestive system straight into the river to be germinated, because the temperature was right for figs, because it was an artificial temperature for the area [due to pollution]. And then this whole forest of figs is found. There's something quite poetic, biblical about that. I end the story [of Cult of Water] by presenting this, that there does seem something very poignant about it.

And the other [gift] was the discovery of Vulcan – that the Sheffield steel industry had adopted the male god, the Roman god of fire and forge as its mascot, standing on top of the Town Hall, once the tallest building in the city. And that the River Don – Doncaster was originally Danum, that was the Roman name for it, Danum came from [the goddess] Danu.

And so I almost stumbled upon this story of two mythological figures, a river goddess with connections with the Hindu goddess of primordial waters and Danu, or the Don, or the Dan, existing from the Danube to the Don in Russia, the Don in Ireland. So this water goddess representing life and vitality, and then this Vulcan, this god of fire and forge, who was looking down on the river, a river that had been culverted and canalised and walled and polluted and made inaccessible to us.

Our rivers should be accessible to all. According to Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, something like 97% of all waterways are inaccessible to us. So I felt like the Don gave these great stories that I didn't know existed, and that felt like a very generous spirit.

Obviously, I'm being a little poetical again! But you know, the more I research our relationship with waterways and how we imbued a sense of life and spirit and vitality to our rivers the further we go back in history, the more connected I become to that idea that it feels right to treat the river as a living thing, as maybe even something with a soul, whatever that means, rather than something mechanical, rather than something to be used for our benefit. Something which deserves rights for its own sake. Not deserving rights because we also recognise that what we do to nature we do to ourselves, and therefore if we look after our rivers we look after ourselves. Beyond that, the river itself deserves respect, deserves to be clean, deserves to have the life that it wants, to flow how it wants.

Cult of Water album cover

That takes us very neatly onto the next question I wanted to ask! Does the River Don have a right to thrive? And if it does, what should that look like?

I don’t think anyone would dispute that any river should have the right to thrive. What does it look like? It's certainly not my area of expertise at all. From what little I know of the possibility of giving rights to rivers, giving rights to mountains, to forests, and the work that's happened already in places like Ecuador, New Zealand, I'm excited to hear of groups and organisations who are starting to do what they can to roll this out.

In Brighton, where I live, just up the road we have the town of Lewes. In Lewes, there's an organisation called Love Our Ouse. It's another place, like Sheffield, where there is momentum in terms of how do we go about granting rights to our rivers.

I do a podcast called Adventures in Nutopia and I was lucky to interview Tim Smit, the guy who was behind the Eden Project. We were talking about the rights of rivers and pollution of rivers. He shared a story where he'd been to a farming conference in Oxford. He's talking to these farmers saying, amongst you, there will be those who are pro Brexit, those who are against Brexit, those who are for the left, those who are for the right, those who are for changing our farming methods, those who are for more conservative approaches to it. But let's try and form a new political party and see if we can agree on everything.

Hands up, who agrees that all water should be clean and accessible? And everyone puts their hands up. Great, okay. Why wouldn't you? So how do we feel about soil? Should soil be protected and not polluted and depleted? Yeah, everyone puts their hands up, and he does the same with the air. Great, this is a really radical manifesto. Would we all agree as well that any business which willfully damages our environment, pollutes our environment, encroaches on our environment in a harmful way for the sake of exploitation, should we agree that [business] is not allowed to be a business? And they said, ‘well yeah, we agree with that, but now we're thinking about what we do…’

To go back to basics like that, and ask what constitutional rights could we give to our environment, to our rivers – I think it has to be as simple as that. You start with something and then you let everything else fit around it, and say, this no longer works. This model of exploitation doesn't work.

What hopes do you have for that really radical readjustment of our relationship to rivers and to nature? What hopes do you have about getting to a point where people in Doncaster would see the river as an agent unto itself, a citizen and something which has inherent value?

I have given this a lot of thought, and I'd like to see ecology becoming a core subject in our education system.

How about teaching ecology from the moment kids are in kindergarten, and that being a core subject, and that the essence within that teaching is that the only way that a system is sustainable is by thinking ecologically.

We think hierarchically, we think in terms of growth, and the growth just goes on and on. Nothing in nature grows forever. The only thing that keeps growing and growing is cancer, until it destroys its host. If we changed our metaphors and started calling our economy a cancerous economy, it would make a massive difference. I think we are fooled when I hear political leaders saying, we need more growth, we need more growth. This is a finite planet with finite resources. So if we start talking about it as a cancerous economy – and we start thinking in terms of circular economies, doughnut economics and different measures away from GDP – then perhaps that can change the way that we think.

But I think it has to go right back down to school and an understanding that everything within an ecological system is interdependent. Everything relies on everything else. We're not at the ‘top of the food chain’. Maybe by teaching that from day zero, then we start to change our relationship and understanding with the world around us.

You can't force people to… It's like forcing someone to appreciate a piece of art. Billy Connolly used to say, his music teacher used to shout the word ‘appreciate’ whenever she was playing a piece of music in class, and rap the ruler down [on the desk]. It has to come from within, and for it to come from within we have to change the way that we think.

One of the systems that I greatly believe in is Ecological Civilization, which is a movement that is based in the States. Jeremy Lent is one of the key people behind this, that we look at our systems – whether it's political systems, economic systems – we look at them ecologically. We completely rethink them in terms of sustainability and integration.

What would the River Don say about us?

[laughs] “Hey, you guys, erm…”

I'd like to think that the River Don would have compassion for our greed and our ignorance. Because at one point, I think the River Don would have felt revered and respected, and has seen a societal change, perhaps in the way that certain Americans might have felt from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, going: what just happened?!

I’d like to think that the River Don would feel that we're trying again to address the impositions and the stress. We've treated the River Don like a donkey for hundreds of years.

I know from talking to some people who work with the River Don, they say the River Don will never flow how it used to. We've done too much. There's been too much in terms of redirecting the river, rechannelling the river. But I guess over time, eventually, a river will find its flow again, the path that it wants to take.

I'd like to think the River Don is forgiving of our stupidity and acknowledges that there are those of us trying to fix the problems we've created. I don't like the obvious, ‘Oh, nature thinks we're all a disease on the planet and can't wait to get rid of us,’ because [in] ecological thinking, everything relies on everything else.

Cooperation is absolutely at the core of everything. I think our imposing the idea of a battle, imposing the idea of competition on nature – that's entirely in our western mindset.

So therefore I think the river would have that wisdom and generosity of spirit to recognise that, you know, we're a necessary part of the system, but we’ve just gone a little off the rails of late!

What would you like to see happen next in relation to the River Don, and what might you want or need from communities to make that happen?

I've got so much respect for the work that's going into fighting for legal rights for the River Don, because I wouldn't know where to start with that. It's not like going out with a bunch of people and clearing shit out of a river on a Saturday morning, where you feel like you're there, you're doing something positive, you're doing something communal, you're out in nature, you're engaging with the river and you're doing something practical right there for the river.

I can't think of anything more important right now in terms of if we can get our rivers legal rights, then we can fight back on behalf of the river against those who are doing harm to our waterways, and we can hold people responsible as well, which just hasn't been the case.

Changing the system [...] that's not likely to come from our politicians, it’s not likely to come from our mainstream political parties. So grassroots and community, and hard work. So that's why I'm really respectful of that. All it takes is one river. It just takes one and then it will start to change across the country. Eventually, something will crumble, and then there'll be transformation.

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