Downstream // Germany – Poland
Yesterday, as every night before going to sleep, I soaked a few handfuls of oat flakes, seeds and nuts. The water I used is from the river I’ve been paddling since last week, the same water I drink myself and all those boisterous little birds that just woke me up.
I’ve become fond of doing it that way – let breakfast prepare itself overnight. It’s a very practical trick. In the morning you open your eyes in the sleeping bag, sit up, stick one arm out of the tent and there’s the pot with breakfast ready; no need to do anything but pour a good spoonful of honey into it.
So that’s exactly what I do today, I sit at the tent door and eat my porridge while the sky clears in the East and the voices of the batrachians gain prominence in that ballad that has been given to me as an alarm clock.
After breakfast, the usual routine. Down to the river, wash my face, clean the pot by rubbing it with sand and watch the minnows fight over those little bits of oats that have mysteriously eluded both my spoonfuls and my meticulous licks.
Then I start dismantling the camp. Each piece of equipment folds and refolds until everything is compressed inside the panniers, which are in turn secured inside the raft.
Finally, I drag the boat until it floats on the water, and place the bike on top of it, fastening it with a few tightening straps on the port and starboard sides.
I wield the paddle. Behind me, there is no trace of the peaceful overnight stay. I’m ready for another day of slow rowing.
“… ready for another day of slow rowing.”
“Sometimes cranes, sometimes white-taled eagles…”
A warm breeze begins to blow and propels my erratic progress. I zigzag from one bank to the other, following the sightings I make with the binoculars.
Sometimes cranes, sometimes white-taled eagles, sometimes black-headed gulls. Each time I spot one of them I start with a slow approach.
Splash after splash I cover the distance that separates us. Some flee and others give me their trust.
The heat becomes sticky at ten o’clock, intolerable at eleven and by midday the temperature is so high that even my own shadow seeks shelter under my feet.
I comb the shores looking for the right place to disembark and abandon myself to my placid faintness. But all I find are canes and watercress.
When at last a suitable wharf appears to moor the raft, the first thing I do is to slowly sink into the current. Then I sit to cook under the cool shade of the willows and, after putting the ingredients on the fire, I return to the river to filter a couple of litres of water and wash my clothes.
They’re almost dry by the time the meal is ready. I grab the pot and lean back in the hammock gorging myself on a salad of pasta, red lentils, bulrush rhizomes and succulent bunches of finely chopped watercress.
“… bulrush rhizomes and succulent bunches of finely chopped watercress.…”
“The water that was falling as rain now rises as golden vapour. ”
I had woken up from my nap startled by the sound of thunder and the first drops of rain spurred me to jump out of the hammock. Within minutes of restarting a summer thunderstorm pours down with such vehemence as if it had set out to flood my raft.
I paddle with the water up to my ankles now, smiling with delight, though fully aware that I won’t get very far this way.
I disembark on the first sandbank I can find and sit down to wait. The clouds run low, almost skimming the treetops; bolts of lightning strike relentlessly one after another… until they don’t.
Suddenly there are no clouds left in the sky, they have been blown away by the wind. The sun warms the earth again. The water that was falling as rain now rises as golden vapour. Gilded sparkles cover the surface of the river, my skin shimmers with amber tones and the birds seem to be made of gold.
Weeks later I receive an email from Peter Torkler, the director of Rewilding Oder Delta – the organisation I am currently working with.
They ask me to go back to the river and find out as much as I can. There are rumours of a large-scale industrial spill. Some talk of mercury, others of chlorine. The little information that arrives is contradictory, but they all agree on one thing: dead fish are turning up.
I immediately load the panniers on my bike and pedal the fifty kilometres to the indicated point. When I arrive, the first thing I notice is the smell. The river doesn’t smell like before.
I take out my binoculars to scrutinise both banks. Between the reeds, I spot the first fish floating upside down. Then the second one appears, and a third one further on. The more I look, the more I find… they are everywhere.
“Between the reeds, I spot the first fish floating upside down.”
“I have become yet another victim of environmental collapse.”
Whole shoals emerge from the depths, thousands of fish surrounded by millions of molluscs, all dead.
There are rotting carcasses stranded on the banks, entangled in the vegetation or trapped in the barriers deployed by the emergency services. The stench is repugnant. And it gets worse with each passing day.
I don’t know what to do or how to act. I am overwhelmed; confused by such a scenario. I find it difficult to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe unfolding in front of me and I still can’t imagine all its implications.
Will the birds that eat these fish die? Will the beavers and otters die? Or for that matter, will any animal that comes down to water in the river die?
Cycling through this apocalyptic scenario I understand, in its full dimension, what it means to live in a polluted habitat. It is no longer just about the death of billions of creatures, now it is about my own health. I can’t drink this water, I can’t collect food or wash my body… I can’t even breathe normally without feeling deeply nauseous.
Overnight, and for the first time in my life, I am being deprived of meeting my own basic needs without risking fatal poisoning.
I have become yet another victim of environmental collapse.
It dawns on me. No one should feel safe. We all live downstream.
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