Day 13 – Day off, sort of

We had a total day off Tales from the River-ing. No walking, no performing. So of course I was going to London to speak on a panel for #scicom21. Ross said to me, ‘You know, normal people would say, “I’m walking the River Trent then, I can’t do it.”‘ But of course, I agreed to do it ages before we’d set a date to do Tales from the River. Anyway, I wanted to go, and see old friends, etc.

However, when I had to get up at 6.45am on my ‘day off’, I didn’t feel so keen, it must be said. But it was a great day, with some interesting sessions. And it was lovely to see old coursemates and other science communication people I know. But I’m mainly going to take this as a chance to share some thoughts I’ve been having about rivers.

One old friend I was talking to, Liam McGee, used to work for the Environment Agency. He told me that years ago, the EA did some research in Stoke-on-Trent. They stopped people in the street, in Stoke-on-Trent, and asked them what river flowed through the town. Over 50% didn’t know.

Now of course that sounds very funny – the clue’s in the name, people! – but having followed the Trent through Stoke, I can see why.

A sad and neglected looking Trent, with weeds growing round the sides and some rusty pipes and barbed wire going over it.

The Trent, in Stoke

The river is tiny there, and most of the time you can’t find it. It flows under roads, in between houses, it’s neglected and overgrown. We were wandering round carparks swearing at our OS map, going, ‘It must be round here somewhere!’

Ross trying to look at an OS map, by a busy road, and looking confused. Ross has a beard and dark curly hair and is wearing a rucksack.

The Trent isn’t a feature here, the way it is in Nottingham. So even though it’s what the town was named for, and even though in a roundabout sort of way it’s responsible for the town’s former prosperity*, it’s been forgotten.

Similarly (well, not very similarly, but bear with me), when I was doing the google map for the route page, I discovered you can’t get google maps to follow a river. If you put two placemarks in a place where there are roads, google map can draw a route between them, along the roads. But you can’t do the same thing with a river.

Essentially, the map doesn’t really know the river is there. Roads are more real to google maps than rivers are. It barely bothers to give the rivers names.

This seems crazy to me. Surely, rivers are exactly the kind of feature the earliest maps were invented to show you? Rivers are major (often impassible) features in the landscape. They’ve been there for thousands (tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands) of years. To our ancestors they really mattered. But to google maps they are less real than the roads humans have made in the last few years and decades.

It says something sad to me about the way we regard the natural world, and what we think is important. And about our alienation from it.

*A geographer told me that part of the reason Stoke made its fortune from pottery, is that it was lucky enough to have a seam of good quality clay, next to a seam of coal (to fire the kilns with). As the river cut through both it had exposed them, and this is most likely why people around Stoke realised their luck and started using both to make pots.

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