A couple of Saturdays ago I picked up a book from the Durham-Palestine Educational Trust’s second-hand book stall in Durham Market. It was a hardback copy of The Stream by Brian Clarke (Black Swan books, ISBN 978-0552770774), a book I had vaguely registered in my sub-conscious when it was first published in 2002 but never got around to reading. The Stream is a novel, telling the story of a fictional chalk stream in southern England as an industrial park is developed within the catchment. It was, I am pleased to say, a very well-spent pound and I would recommend tracking down a copy.
The term “novel” does not really do the book justice. The perspective swings between human protagonists – the multinational industrialists, local and national politicians and environmental activists – and the life in the stream itself. Brian Clarke is a fly fisherman so we meet the trout and salmon that live in the stream and are told their stories. We also meet the mayflies and some of the other invertebrate inhabitants of the stream. The Stream includes vivid descriptions – perhaps the first in literary history – of trout and mayfly orgasms (perhaps it should be reissued as 50 Shades of Grayling?) and even has some chapters where the algae take centre stage. The human drama is set against this on-going soap opera in the stream itself.
The human drama, however, is inevitably inter-weaved with the life of the stream itself. The strength of the book is the way that Clarke manages to do this. He does not take the sensationalist option; there are no pipes gushing with toxic effluent here. Rather, there are allusions to slight changes in practice – a decision to take more water from a borehole some distance from the stream itself, a farmer grubbing out hedges to make larger fields that will move the farm into profit – and the subtle chains of causation that are precipitated. The water table drops … the springs that feed the stream have less water, the bankside vegetation where adult mayflies congregate to breed are lost, and so on. Finally, the fish themselves struggle to feed and breed and the stream slowly changes its nature.
It is, quite simply, one of the best lay introductions to stream ecology, and their vulnerability to human activities, that I have ever read. I am becoming increasingly aware that there is a gulf between what environmental professionals want to achieve, and the aspirations of the wider public. The professionals are often not doing enough to explain their work in terms that the public – who will have to pay for the improvements via higher water charges – can understand. Books like The Stream are one way that we can do this.