Making Friends With The River by Bruce Garrard

The Black Line Initiative has arisen as a result of the film ‘Aluna‘ and interest raised in the Kogi people of northern Colombia.
The (much delayed) general release of the film towards the end of last year coincided with two significant things. One was a series of dramatic events – including a massive and lethal thunderstorm – in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where the Kogi live; this has convinced them that they need to be proactive in working with ‘little brother’, the people of the modern world, in making efforts to turn back the tide of ecological destruction that is now threatening life on our planet. The other was that the film’s producer, Alan Ereira, found himself inundated with messages from people all over the world saying ‘great film, but what can we actually do?’

The result is the Black Line Initiative, which is just beginning to take shape. In Kogi terminology the ‘Black Line’ is the connection between everything, both physical and spiritual, and in this particular context the link between people all over the world who are committed – within the context of their own local environment – to being part of making the necessary global change. The Kogi are preparing to give direct support to people working in their own localities around the world. This initiative, inspired by the thinking and actions of the Kogi themselves as indigenous people, is different from what we would think of as a ‘political movement.’ The Kogis’ exhortation to ‘make friends with your local river, forest, mountain, desert …’ directly addresses the key problem of modern peoples’ disconnection from the natural world – physical, emotional and psychological. The Kogi are particularly concerned that we should look after our rivers. All this has arrived just as my own project with the River Brue is picking up momentum. I have compiled a history of the river over the winter, and I am planning a five-day walk from the source of the River Brue to the mouth of the River Axe over midsummer in June.

Back in the 1980s, the Kogi had appeared in Alan Ereira’s film ‘Message from the Heart of the World’, to say that the way we treat the planet has to change otherwise it will not survive, and neither will we. The only rational, intelligent thing would be to do as they suggested. At that time, as many people were pointing out, humanity was at a cross-roads; we could go this way, and sort out the mess, or that way, where the consequences would be unthinkable; and we were bound to make the right decision, we are such an intelligent species. But we didn’t go this way, and neither did we think about the consequences of going that way. We sleep-walked towards the abyss. Another quarter century of environmental destruction ensued. The Kogi called back Alan Ereira and made another film: ‘Aluna.’

So, back then it was urgent; now, it is beyond urgency. Perhaps it’s too late. What can we do? What’s the point? But there were the Kogi; they’d called back Alan Ereira to make another film, to re-state their message in a new way – and, in spite of everything, they clearly weren’t giving up. An important part of this message, I had heard, was that we have to look after our rivers. I went to see the film in a crowded café in Glastonbury; and in the mean time I had been thinking about my local river, the River Brue. In the middle ages it had been diverted and the source cut off from the mouth of the river; once it had joined the River Axe and the two had continued to the sea as one substantial stream, though not many people know that now. ‘Aluna’ woke up a feeling that they must be joined back together, at least in a spiritual sense, this connection must be re-made; and people must know. By the end of the film I knew what I had to do: I must go to the mouth of the River Axe and find something, whatever it might be, to take to the source of the River Brue, as an offering. It seemed like a mad idea, but the sense of needing to do this, that this was absolutely the right thing for me to do, was very strong. All of a sudden I was on a mission.

The mission was inspired by the Kogi and their film ‘Aluna;’ it was given shape by the Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and his ‘four point plan.’ Llewellyn has written a lot about what he calls ‘spiritual ecology,’ pointing out the growing crisis that is overtaking the natural world is also a spiritual crisis, that arises from our culture’s materialism and disconnection from any spiritual reality. His message, certainly as it relates to the natural world, is much the same as the Kogis’. Those who have taken note have asked him, ‘What can we do?’ At first he would simply say that it was not for him to tell people what they should do; they should look within and follow their own guidance. But one day in what he described as a moment of inspiration he came up with a ‘four point plan’ for how we can creatively approach this situation on the material level as well as the spiritual.

The four points are: witnessing, grieving, prayer, and action. The first point, witnessing, is actually asking us to stop habitually trying to ‘do’ anything at all. To witness, with awareness, what we and our culture have done to the world. To look for no outcome, no result; to refrain from trying to fix things, but to thoroughly acknowledge how things really are. The second point, grieving, is to allow ourselves to fully feel the pain arising from that witnessing, that understanding of what we as a species have done. This is the honest and appropriate emotion that we must feel, and in a strange sense – in the situation we are in – the greatest gift that we can give to the world. For those of us who are products of white, middle class, English culture, trained through our up-bringing to keep it under wraps, this will not be easy. Praying, even more so. I do not understand or relish the idea of an act of prayer. It is embarrassing. But I am beginning to suspect that the world situation is by now beyond what we little humans can figure out and put to rights ourselves. We, after all, are the problem; not the rest of the world. Perhaps our best hope is some form of divine intervention. Llewellyn tells us that prayer, as a cry from the heart, arises naturally from our feelings of grief. All I can say for now is that I am prepared to go there and find out. And finally, action. Once we have re-oriented our minds through the practices of the first three points, and not until then, not until we can think in a genuinely different way about the task at hand; then we will know what to do.

So far I have made what I think is a good start on the witnessing, and I have been doing this in two inter-connected ways. First, by walking along the river, getting to know it, making friends with it. One friend took me kayaking on the river; another encourages me to go swimming in the river with him. Gradually I am building up an intimate knowledge of the river, what it looks like, what it feels like, the shape of the land through which it flows. The other is by reading about the river and subjects related to it; its history and natural history. I am compiling the river’s story, and it is very interesting. It is a story that mirrors the story of the world.

The River Brue is a disconnected river. Quite literally: the medieval monks effectively cut it in half. And the disconnection is metaphorical too: once the river flowed past the island chapels of saints in a consciously sacred landscape. It was changed from a river to a canal, and finally to a drain, its perceived purpose simply to get rid of the water. In times of flood, water can be deadly dangerous, but that doesn’t stop it being the stuff of life, the most essential ingredient for all living beings – and also the flow of existence. The Somerset Levels are drying out and the millions of birds that once lived there, or visited on their migrations, are year by year disappearing, dying. The river and its story makes an allegory for the whole of the natural world.

Inspired by the Kogi I went walking along the river, sometimes on my own and sometimes with groups of friends, bit by bit during the summer walking the whole length from above Bruton down to Glastonbury, then across the moors where only remnants and ditches remain to show where the river once flowed, into the Cheddar valley and along the River Axe. Finally I visited the mouth of the Axe at Uphill near to Brean Down, where I collected a handful of beautiful sea shells tinted in a variety of pastel colours. I took them to the source of the River Brue, where there is a little stone structure like a miniature shrine to the river goddess, and I gave these sea shells to the water as the offering that I had intended, what the Kogi would call a ‘payment.’ I cannot explain quite how or exactly why, but the result was extraordinarily profound. Somehow, in my mind, in ‘Aluna’ perhaps, I was making a first step towards healing that disconnection. In the silence that followed the river quietly said that it was pleased.

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