The Flow – Rivers, Water and Wildness

Aug 23, 2023 | Insights

With a few days left of the holidays, here is one more item of holiday reading. The Flow contains fundamental insights into human nature.
With a few days left of the holidays before schools return in early September, you may be running out of holiday reading, so this week, my Insights are about a book I have been reading (but have not quite finished). And although it’s not strictly relevant to what I do, there are valuable lessons to be learnt for change makers and those seeking a new purpose. I write this holiday week free from word count and SEO constraints, and it is a pleasure. Enjoy.

I love flowing water. It has a mystical and physical attraction for me – and I know I am not the only one. I swam last year in the Jordan, and of course, Lourdes, to which I return each year, is built on the spring uncovered by Bernadette in 1858 at the command of Our Lady. Today, the spring attracts thousands seeking healing for their bodies and souls.

I frequently walk along the River Rye where I live and have skinny-dipped in Scotland’s cold and clear rock pools. There is a place on the Hodge Beck in Sleightholme Dale which seems sacred until it suddenly disappears before re-emerging to join the Dove and then the Rye.

So when I returned from Lourdes a few weeks ago and found Amy-Jane Beer’s book The Flow in Kemps, our local independent bookshop, I was immediately engaged. After checking I was in the natural history section and not the health section of the store, I browsed through it. Although I felt from the inside covers that the author was probably another individual with an axe to grind and a message to ram down our throats, I bought the book. And thank heavens I did.

The Flow – Rivers, water and wildness

It is a beautiful book, well-written, lyrical and potent. Beer can take her place amongst those astonishing writers who can explore a subject from many different perspectives, such as Sally Coulthard (countryside), Natalie Hayes (mythology), Helen Macdonald and Jennifer Ackerman (birds), Anne Lamott (writing), George Kinder (money), Karen Armstrong (religion and nature) and Alice Roberts (Arch & Anth). If they have one thing in common, it is that they write from the intense experiences of their subjects and have explored their topics right to the foundations of what they mean to humanity. We can learn so much from these writers.

Beer is an experienced kayaker. She has paddled rivers all over Britain as well as the Zanskar and the Indus. She has seen a close friend die in the water and would have lost her life but for the quick thinking of a fellow kayaker. After years of paddling, she reads running water as we might read the papers. She understands flowing water from physical, psychological and cultural viewpoints, so I am grateful she has put pen to paper.

I only realised Beer was a local author when I read the book. Her description of the River Derwent, which flows past her home on a beautiful stretch of the river near a ruined priory not far from where I live, made me feel ashamed that I know so little about the river (although I am not the only one – Beer describes the river as “hidden, unassuming, unvisited, unexplored and generally remarked upon only when it overspills.”). However, her words made me realise I still have time to get on my walking boots and find out for myself.

Judgement hurts and hampers.

Far from being a narrow-minded zealot with a messianic desire to impose her viewpoint on the rest of the world, Beer is refreshingly non-judgemental in her writing. She occasionally loses it, for instance, when she writes of water voles, “For a generalist, fecund rodent to disappear from an ecosystem, something must be profoundly wrong. For them to be threatened with extinction across an entire country is an appalling indictment of our custodianship”.

She also writes passionately about access to rivers (in this country, water sports such as swimming, sailing and kayaking in rivers are a form of trespass) and the countryside. However, she tries to see the situation from the viewpoints of the many who use rivers as a resource: farmers, water companies, swimmers, anglers, kayakers and others. She reserves her vitriol for anglers, using words similar to those I use when they aggressively uphold their right to fish in the Rye. But, again, Beer comments that not all anglers adopt this attitude. Many are happy to keep the dialogue open with other river users and landowners, as she confirms by conversing with an angler.

Her advocacy of communication and cooperation is more likely to get results than taking an embedded approach and not budging. This is such a valuable lesson for anyone looking to create beneficial change and have an impact on their lives and the lives of others.

Beer reserves her most vociferous vitriol for Humphrey Smith of Sam Smith beer fame. She writes about the power of landowners and the protection of their rights and interests. Smith is signalled out because of his refusal, after floods destroyed the bridge over the River Wharf at Tadcaster, to allow a temporary bridge to be erected next door (a logical and safe place) on land owned by the brewery. As a result, a temporary bridge was constructed someway downstream, causing further inconvenience to the local population. Locals (including me) who used to have a wonderful pub, The Malt Shovel, in Oswaldkirk, have similar words to Beer about Smith.

Where are the responsibilities?

I agree with Beer when she talks about a legal system that protects rights and has very little to do with enforcing responsibilities. I recall a St Laurence Ethics Forum in 2020 (moved online because of Covid). The subject was the law, and the main speaker, a high-powered lawyer, kept going about the rights of individuals and corporations. At one point, feeling very hot under the collar about something he said, I asked him if responsibilities were not an issue. He responded that in the UK, the law was about protecting the rights of others. Generally, the legal system was not concerned with responsibilities.

I must disagree and include a sentence about the importance of taking responsibility for our actions in my business manifesto. I am reluctant to take on clients who are not prepared to take responsibility for their actions.

Although Beer suggests solutions to some of our problems at a practical level, I believe that humanity’s mindset needs to change in the first instance, with a shift from egotism to compassion. The underlying cause of most of the problems she addresses is egotism and self-interest. Such a fundamental mindset shift is impossible, you might say. However, it has been done before. In China and India, as Karen Armstrong documents in her book The Great Transformation, sages and leaders moved regions at war with themselves to places where compassion and respect for the individual came first.

Should she ever read this, I would point to Beer that not all landowners are “unskillful”, and not all businesses are money-grabbing profiteers. Many landowners and corporations show respect and compassion for others. They are happy to sacrifice an element of financial profit and plough it back into sustainability and environmental projects.

Writing worthy of an award

Despite my initial reservations, I agree with much that Beer writes about. Sometimes, our experiences, reflections and language are almost identical, not least when it comes to kingfishers. I have seen three kingfishers in my life, and on each occasion, I have used similar words to Beer, “Bloody hell”, in awe and disbelief.

The Flow has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Wainwright Prize for Nature and Conservation Writing. I hope it wins. It deserves to.


Beer, Amy-Jane.The Flow. Bloomsbury Publishing, 4 Aug. 2022.

Photo attribution

Jeremy Deedes at the Jordan

Audio link

Taking it further

Buy the book at Kemps:

Explore the authors

Sally Coulthard:

Jennifer Ackerman:

Karen Armstrong:

Amy-Jane Beer:

Natalie Haynes:

George Kinder:

Anne  Lamott:

Helen Macdonald:

Alice Roberts:

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so share your thoughts in the comments box below, and thank you for your time and generosity.

What do you think?

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