A Journey Up The Exe

By DAVID H. LYNN

 

From across the Atlantic, I’m helplessly, compulsively watching videos on the BBC and other news sites. It’s early February 2014, and an unusually powerful storm—in truth a sequence of fierce winter gales—has been raking the south coast of Devon, like a wave of marauding bombers. The storm has conspired with the moon and spring tides (nothing seasonal in the term—these “spring forth” each lunar month), to batter a path of old stone and brick known as the Goat Walk. The path runs south from the small town of Topsham and along the bank of the River Exe, a distinguishing feature here for generations.Gales surge again and again, driving wind and wave into the Goat Walk’s stone base, finally cracking and wrecking and all but sweeping it away. Great shards of broken pavement and collapsed foundation lay hulked in the mud. Even on my computer screen, I can make out where ancient fieldstones have been torn free of the iron-ribbed retaining wall behind what had been the path, leaving it eerily gap-toothed.

This destruction, of course, is merely an instance of a more general havoc in Topsham and across Britain’s southwest counties. With their cottage on Ferry Road near the town’s quay, my friends Marc and Kim Millon spend those frantic days alongside neighbors desperately filling and stacking sandbag after sandbag as bulwarks against the surging waters. (It was Marc who, in electronic haste, first alerted me to the siege.) The bags hold stout until, overwhelmed at last, they are undermined by lapping waves. Topsham’s lanes are awash. Floodwaters shove into homes and pubs along Ferry Road and up along the Strand, with water rising out of basements and climbing far up the walls inside and out of historic homes. Some stretches of road crack and crumble away into rubble.

Powerless from four thousand miles away, I can yet make out villagers standing about in the night, dismayed and disbelieving, even as the winds howl. My friends will describe weeks of confusion. “It was dire,” Marc tells me later. “We always keep an eye out (?) for winter storms combining with these high tides. But we’d never seen the likes of this before.”

Watching the distant destruction of a small and particular place I have loved for over forty years—I feel trapped in a weird, dissociated real-time while gazing at the screen—suddenly brings home, as nothing else has done, the reality of ongoing environmental alterations that are changing the face of the planet. Violent storms such as these are bred by rising seas and warming waters and are likely only to grow worse. What I’d long taken to be eternal rhythms in the ebb and flow of the Exe—and the occasional storm too, of course, and even sporadic flooding in the lower reaches of Topsham—are rapidly evolving into continuing threats that are new, unprecedented, and dangerous.

I’ve realized, belatedly, that the changing nature of, well, nature can no longer be safely dismissed as vague worries beyond our control. And I also must admit, if only to myself, that I know almost nothing about the actual life of the river.

 

“I suppose I can help you get below the surface,” says John Goss-Custard, a renowned behavioral ecologist. But I’m not sure whether he intends the joke.

“Okay,” I respond with a laugh nevertheless. “That’s the idea. I want to learn more about the Exe. And maybe get a better sense of what may lie ahead.”

It’s two years after the destruction of the Goat Walk, and I’m sitting over a pint of ale in the Bridge Inn. It’s an ancient gathering place. According to Caroline Cheffers, whose family has served as landlords here for four generations, the Bridge’s current covey of mismatched snugs and bars and malt rooms dates perhaps to the sixteenth century. Yet the Domesday Book of 1086 notes an inn already extant, sited just above a small stone bridge, of course.

Across from me, John nurses his own pint. I’ve been acquainted with him for decades, but mostly as an occasional doubles partner. Along with a group of other friends, the tradition has been to repair to the Bridge after a Monday evening’s tennis. Only now, during my latest stay in Topsham, do I seek to take advantage of John’s professional expertise.

“It’s still early in the season,” he says, with apparent inspiration. “Why don’t you come along with me into the estuary? I’m about to head out for the year’s first survey.”

“That would be so great,” I answer, not quite sure what he has in mind.

 

“Do those birds seem vexed in the least by the bloody dog walkers?”

John dismisses his own question with a wave of his hand in the direction of twenty or thirty waterfowl, ducks and gulls and even a large black swan, paddling near the riverbank. Seemingly indifferent to the rest of the world, they remain intent on dipping their bills or their entire heads into the river, either to syphon nutrients from the water or to stab at small fish or insects. Along the track a few yards above them, a large golden retriever and a chocolate lab are walking an older woman in their charge. The lab carries a stick in its mouth. Neither dogs nor ducks nor old lady seem much grieved by the presence of the others.

We’ve halted for a moment on our hike down to the river from the Exmouth rail station. A varnished map of the lower estuary stands before us and just above the beach. With red and yellow markings, it charts various zones and restrictions for the coming summer. One quadrant determines where power boats will be permitted to nuzzle surprisingly close to the shore. An overlapping rectangle with a yellow border maps an area restricted for windsurfers and water-skiers to fly from the breeze and to beat against it. Different scorings, as marked out with stylized buoys, distinguish the winding route for safe navigation along the river’s central channel. Cockle Sand and Pole Sand—two ridges rising from the riverbed, which in the everyday world are submerged at high tide and largely exposed at low—loom threateningly within the elaborations of blue paint.

With another contemptuous hand-wag, John turns from the map. As far as he’s concerned, its regulations merely reflect an ongoing public tug-of-war pitting conservationists against coastal developers against recreationists. Rather like the concerns about dog walkers interfering with seabirds. “One time or another,” he says with no little pride, “I’ve managed to provoke or offend the precious sensibilities of just about all of them.”

 

Exmouth is a small city at the mouth, naturally enough, of the River Exe on England’s southwest coast. Through its narrow breach between quay and sandbars across the way, the river flows out into the wide girth of the English Channel. But John’s plan is for us to take advantage of a low tide and hike north in the other direction, up the very middle of the estuary. These broad lower reaches are where fresh waters flowing down from the north mix with brackish currents drawn inland from the sea.

Bull Hill

As we stride carefully down from the beach and onto the first flat tongue of wet sand left by the retreating waters, the gradient of the shore shears abruptly away. Almost without knowing just where it happened, we have descended onto the riverbed itself.

The estuary opens north and west and east before us, a vast panorama that is largely brown and very flat. At eye level, the expanse broadens out. It’s a stark change in perspective from standing safely ashore on the Topsham quay—about four miles north from here—or even while sailing in a dinghy. The elevation from which I’ve typically viewed the river has always been several meters above my current vantage. It’s strange and alien, this landscape I thought I’d come to know so well.

Trying to get my bearings, I can just make out a tower far to the north—probably the squat red-stone Norman turret at St. Margaret’s, jutting high above Ferry Road. Brushing at the edges of visibility along the eastern bank, that must be the Goat Walk. I’m glad to say that, over the past two years, the resourceful, not to say stubborn, citizens have restored their cherished landmark.

As we make our way farther from shore, the sand remains fine-grained and hard-packed. It’s flecked with empty cockle and winkle shells, while a few flat scallop fans lie scattered about as well. So far our footing seems relatively secure. Each step sinks an inch or less, despite pools and rivulets crisscrossing the riverbed. Scrims of water glimmer in a radiant sheen.

In the weeks leading up to our outing, I’d imagined we’d be wearing Wellingtons—ubiquitous in these parts for foul weather and wet slogs. But John suggested instead that I sacrifice a pair of old tennis shoes. Only now that we’re out in the mud do I grasp his good sense. High rubber boots would be heavy and ungainly. John has also chosen, despite the April chill, a pair of tattered khaki shorts, a T-shirt and a fading windbreaker. The idea of bare legs in such weather had discouraged me in advance, so earlier that morning I’d slipped into black sweatpants, a shirt, and light rain jacket of my own.

Whipped by the sharp breeze, dazzled by sun flashing off the rills at my feet, I’m overwhelmed with sensory data. Even language—and I’m a creature of language—falls away. I’d say, I’m exhilarated. But that falls short of the truth and would, if I spoke, strike my own ears as lame.

Over the course of the morning, the wind continues to lash steadily, burnishing my cheeks and nose and brow and ears. The exposed skin grows tender and raw, and yet there’s a thrill to it as well. All the while I’m wresting great, bursting lungfuls of air.

How to translate the teeming, messy, multitudinous stinks? Or the viscous muck of the riverbed? Even through my soles, I’m newly awake to the slip and slide and suck underfoot. I look and I look and I look, striving to see.

“That brent goose,” shouts John over his shoulder, pointing at what I’d taken to be some kind of largish mallard. “They won’t stay in these parts much longer before flying back to Russia, where they’ll breed over the summer. Migrating species—see that curlew?—they stop over here more or less briefly. Our wetlands offer a significant way station en route elsewhere.” He glances back to make sure I’m paying attention.

“Their principal concern is to renew stores of body fat and muscle. After all, the onward journey can be hundreds, even thousands of miles. Success—and that means survival—depends on the richness of shellfish beds and worms and other sources of nutrition on offer. On how many calories they consume before taking flight once more.”

Stepping lightly, John darts here and there to investigate a puddle of water, a flashing stream. He knows how to see, though I’m not sure what he’s observing or just what he’s looking at.

You wouldn’t guess he’s well into his seventies, not with his energy or that wild thatch of brown hair. But the deep tan, weathered cheeks, and prominent nose do betray his many decades exposed to weathers of every sort. Much of that time he’s spent stationed in blinds just above the estuary waters, observing the behaviors of one particular species he’s already gestured to with his head, a smallish black-and-white shorebird whose name, oystercatcher, is misleading. On this river, the bird’s diet consists almost entirely of mussels.

 “John,” I call back, “how about the changing climate? The rising waters and warming temperatures. Increasing salinity. Everything we’ve been hearing about, including the fiercer storms. How will it all be affecting these birds, the ones that migrate as well as those that stay year-round?”

He halts for a moment and glances directly at me. Suddenly his voice is more measured and pedagogical. “Some effects of warmer temperatures may actually be positive,” he says. “Longer breeding seasons, for example. While others, naturally, are already becoming more problematic, such as disappearing wetlands, both here and elsewhere on the migratory routes.” He nods, as if I’ve already challenged this response. “Populations have been falling in recent years, yes, even significantly. But identifying specific causes will take a great deal of time and painstaking observation.”

I’m nodding too, but I hold my tongue. Though I admire John’s scientific probity, I can’t help but wish he’d put aside his professorial caution and speculate more directly about the threats to his oystercatchers and other species.

All this while I’m following him deeper into the estuary, bushwhacking across slopes and sands. Mostly we’re able to skirt the last shallow ribbons of water sluicing south toward the sea. Far ahead, John points out a set of dark red cliffs. They’re different in height and color from most anything else along the bank. Behind them, I realize, nestles Lympstone, a small village that is both our goal for the day’s trek and John’s home. Taking stock from our progress so far and given our steady pace, I’m reassured that the journey to those cliffs, roughly two miles, should be challenging but certainly feasible.

Yet we’ve progressed only another few hundred yards when a small creek, as John calls it, slices swiftly across our route. Hardly hesitating, he plunges in, and I, hesitating more fully, take a deep breath and then wade heavily after him. The stream is shallow, hardly up to my ankles, and in two or three steps my shoes are fully sodden. It’s no surprise, of course, that the April flow is as icy as it is clear. Yet, once soaked, I can’t help but feel gleeful, like a child stomping in puddles. The water snakes and squelches between my toes. Some important barrier has surely been breached.

Crossing Creek

As we emerge on the other side, John continues to scour the pools and small mounds of dirt and sand. Something seems to have alarmed him or at least caught his attention, but he won’t let on for the moment. “Let’s check out Bull Hill,” he says. I’m not sure what he’s referring to. Only as the riverbed rises do I sense we’re now climbing onto a broad sandbar. At high tide it would be invisible.

“Legend has it,” he explains, “that local farmers would drag their agitated bulls through the water and isolate them on this bank. Eventually, when the animals calmed, they’d be retrieved.”

But even while recounting this tale, John seems distracted. I can sense his increasing agitation. Something in the waters us has provoked him.

“It’s crazy,” he says at last. “This entire shoal should be blue with mussels. I don’t know what to make of their disappearance.”

The wet earth around Bull Hill seems no different from the large swaths of territory we’ve already crossed—scattered with a token of shells, most of them broken and empty. “When was the last time you saw any here?”

“Only last fall. And it was the same as always—they covered the sandbar in, well, multitudes.” He stops and gestures. “And look at the erosion without them.”

Deep gouges and even narrow trenches crisscross the ridge and furrow deeper into the riverbed. Up to this point in our journey, we’ve been treading mostly on finer surface sands and silt, but here on Bull Hill these have apparently been scoured away by unchecked currents, leaving gaping gullies in the hard-packed earth.

Now I’m the one to be perplexed. “But isn’t that natural? Don’t the currents always cut through this way?”

“No,” he says, half to himself. “Not at all. When mussels are thriving, it wouldn’t happen. They’ll anchor themselves into the sand and attach to each other. Their tendrils are tough as iron. Keeps them from being swept out to sea. And the blanket of mussels protected the sandbank as well. Or used to. That’s been true as long as I’ve been studying the river, forty years and more.”

Abruptly, John stoops to dig his fingers into the sticky mud. Rising, he’s tugged loose a solitary creature. The mussel is three or four inches long, not black or blue so much as a greyish-brown, and patched with small barnacles.

“See this?” He wags the shell, its tiny tendrils extending below. Bits of debris and sand still cling. “These usually connect them to one another. A big one like this would never be stranded on its own.”

I’m shaking my head. “What could have happened?” I’m asking as he nestles the isolated mollusk back into its bed. “Could a bad storm have a result like this? Or other environmental factors?”

He’s shrugging, still unnerved. “Look, we’ve only just discovered they’re gone. At this stage there’s no way to reach a simple verdict. As far as I know, none of my colleagues have even mentioned it yet in their blogs or posts. Believe me, there’ll be a real fuss when I share this news. As for a cause, it’s too early even for a guess.”

Something else occurs to me. “You were talking about available nutrients for the birds. How’s this likely to affect your oystercatchers?”

John’s still staring at the vacant sands, his brow furrowed. I figure he’s already been considering such implications.

From his small backpack he’s drawn a camera, and now he’s busy snapping photos for later examination. I hear him muttering with a cool but fascinated astonishment.

Whatever John’s hesitation about identifying a particular cause or assigning blame, I’m gnawed by the suspicion that this is not an isolated event. Global patterns manifest themselves—become real—only in very specific locales and incidents.

 

Some twenty yards away, a largish white bird swoops in and startles me. For a moment it stands poised in the river, very still and yogic. Its wide wings dwarf a lean torso. Dazzled by the bird’s immaculate plumage as well as by sun striking wet sand where it stands, I can’t quite make it out. “What species is that?” I shout. “Some sort of avocet?”

John glances back to where I’m pointing. “No, no—that’s a snowy egret. It’s only the last few years they’ve arrived in this region. Spreading up from Europe.”

I can’t help but be mindful of those Brits who rail about uncontrolled immigration. Good luck to them, I think, what with these beautiful birds already comfortably at home, not to mention the large schools of squid and other creatures from southern climes chasing traditional cod and plaice away in search of colder waters. No wonder it’s fried calamari and chips so often these days on local menus. Nearly as common as curry masala and chicken tikka.

This particular snowy egret tugs one thin leg into the air and bobs lightly forward onto its other stalk, never quite halting, in a simple, unceasing dance through sand and water. All the while, the bird is stabbing, probing with its straight black beak—unlike an avocet’s, which would curve upward at the tip, as I should have noticed immediately. And its plumes are an unsullied, brilliant white, not daubed with black markings. The bird couldn’t care less about our presence. It isn’t oblivious to us so much as occupied with more pressing matters. As our route brings us a few yards closer, the bird flaps up and settles again a few yards farther upstream, maintaining a certain measure. Beyond that, we’re of no great concern.

 

By now we’ve hiked a significant way, and the banks of the river lie distant on all sides. We’re almost as alone as the egret. But a hundred yards abeam I notice another human, a solitary old man, wearing a beaten jacket and a shapeless hat pulled down on his head. As indifferent to us as the bird, he’s laboring intently over something in the mud.

“A crabber,” says John, following my gaze. “Those are his own tiles he’s working.”

As I watch, the dark lumps he’s been tending resolve into a long set of tracks behind him in the wet sand. Each mound marks a grey ceramic tile. They look as though they’ve been diverted from patching a roof.

“He sets them to lure peeler crabs,” says John. “They’re not so much for human eating as for bait on the fishing boats heading out to sea—larger fish find them irresistible.”

“And they’re a particular species?”

He shakes his head. “Not really. Peeler just describes them outgrowing their shells and shedding. While a new outer layer hardens into armor, they’re easy prey for the gulls.”

I watch as the crabber continues tending his dark tiles. Setting them out is, I suppose, a kind of thoughtful gesture. Naked crabs will gladly burrow under them, even though eluding one predator soaring overhead may only be in exchange for another, more patient species.

“It’s far from an easy hobby,” John says, lowering his voice as we continue to make our way. “But crabbing’s how some villagers have made a little extra over the years. Their sitings are established by tradition, with parcels of riverbed assigned among neighbors and within families.”

Likewise, he explains, other locals have supplemented their wages by farming mussels and other shellfish. Individual allotments are also carefully staked out, just as vegetable patches might be assigned in communal gardens. While peeler crabs are sold as bait to fishing boats headed out to sea, mussels have always fetched a fine price by train to Bristol or even up to London. And when shellfish have been out of season, villagers have taken to fishing for themselves, using poles or nets to try and land salmon and bream, brown trout and pike.

Waterfowl used to be great beneficiaries, John continues, as we walk on. As a matter of fact, raking the riverbed to harvest their mussels, cockles, or winkles, villagers would churn up a rich stew of nutrients. It was a feast for the birds.

But just as, decades ago, the depletion of salmon and other fish stocks wiped out larger-scale fishing operations on the river, many of the families who once farmed mussels have abandoned the practice or have chased other livelihoods away from the water, away from Devon. And as the plenitude of shellfish gradually disappeared, so have the avian species that depended on them.

As we trudge steadily past this one old crabber, granting him and his tiles a respectful berth, I wonder whether his sons or granddaughters will follow him onto the riverbed in their turn. Perhaps. But I can well imagine them declining the chance. By the standards of our contemporary world, crabbing’s surely a hard, lonely way to make a little extra. It’s a reminder that not all the profound changes to the life of the river are to be blamed on environment.

 

“Right, then. Let’s not dawdle,” says John, as if aware that my thoughts have wandered. “We want to make land before the tide is fully turned.”

I merely grunt an assent. I can picture well enough how a fresh flood surging up behind us would certainly make the going tougher. Or even cut us off from land entirely.

John surges, picking up the pace. Yet every few moments he darts a few steps left or right, like one of the wading birds, peering at hidden baubles or significances I can’t make out.

Climbing onto another sandbank, we abruptly come upon the river’s main channel—where the flow of fresh water never ceases completely—blocking our path. Even at low tide and with an expanse of exposed riverbed to all sides, the channel flows fast and deep, too treacherous for us to wade safely. John steers away at an angle. Soon, however, we come upon a lesser creek, perhaps twenty yards across. To swing around it as well would mean tracking a good distance back toward Exmouth, losing both time and progress. He scouts forward, wading into the stream.

Impatient and eager—I’ve got the hang of it now, and anyway, my shoes are soaked already—I plunge after him into the swiftly flowing current. This is an adventure, though I hadn’t imagined we’d be this deep into it.

Water rushes up, soaking my sweatpants to knee, to crotch, to waist. I hitch the windbreaker higher up with one hand. My own small backpack is riding safely, at least so far, on my shoulders. Although the icy currents buffet me, my footing, step by step, seems firm.

Emerging on the other side of the creek, we are triumphant, exhilarated, and dripping. I’d shake the water from my body like a dog if I could. Ahead I spy the dark red cliffs above Lympstone. How can they still be so distant? Did I misjudge from the riverbank at Exmouth? At least the stone face does appear sharper in outline and detail.

We’ve made it to an upper region of the estuary marked by bends and crannies. Separate channels are weaving laterally back and forth like little streams in the lull of the larger flow. Their eddies are slower, more gradual. The sand underfoot seems softer along this stretch, its grains finer in texture. Sand and silt are shielded from the sweeping rush of open river that, down by Bull Hill, has carved those deep gashes into the foundational clays.

For the moment, John seems to have forgotten me entirely. I’m matching him as best I can, beat for beat, but am lagging a step or two nonetheless. And it’s just now, without warning, that my own leg keeps plunging away, no firm bottom to halt the momentum. All a quick suck and slither. Ankle and calf are buried already, my thigh sinks away into the clinging maw of quicksand.

“Oh!” Surprise rather than raw fear rushes into my throat. It’s all happening too quickly.

I’m reeling and lurching, struggling to keep some kind of balance. My left leg has lifted off the riverbed behind me and now it lands too, but awkwardly. I’m trying to shift my weight, only for the other leg to begin sinking away as well. I’m tugging, yanking at both limbs, one then the other. Yet each wild gesture seems only to thrust me deeper into the mire.

For the first time in my life, I grasp—bone deep, mud deep—the jungle-movie horror of quicksand. An initial, innocent step into a camouflaged pool, and suddenly you’re plunging, engulfed, monstrously it would seem, deeper and deeper and away. It’s both a falling-aslant and a sucking clutch at your limbs.

“John,” I cry out more harshly at his withdrawing back. I’m trying to keep my voice measured. I may not be entirely successful.

He glances back. He’s realized. At last.

As he retraces his path, even John’s quick feet are sinking a bit as well, but not so deeply. He’s an adept, a creature attuned to the river. His motion never ceases—his soles remain pancake-flat, stepping steadily.

Apparently neither terribly surprised nor as alarmed as I might wish, John extends a hand. “Catch hold,” he calls calmly.

I lean forward to grab at him. But the motion, or the eagerness of it, throws me off balance, and abruptly I’m toppling. My arm lunges out to slow the tumble, only for my hand to plunge deep into the thick, clinging sludge as well. Wrist, forearm, all so quick, almost to the shoulder. And, oh lord, now the momentum is carrying my head and face toward the muck.

When, somehow, I manage to bring my knees up under me in the sand, slowing the plummet. Cautiously, I’m able to reel backward and regain some semblance of steadiness, while yanking my arm free once more. I’m wobbling, yes, but upright, more or less. Apparently, a firmer bottom does lie below—the sinking goes only so deep and no deeper, at least here.

After the first startle and alarm, I never actually fear for my life. Yet any pretense of dignity has surely fled. Even in the moment, I can’t help but picture how funny this would look from the outside. Perhaps not incidentally, that’s because John has stepped away to snap photos of my predicament. Okay, fine—I’ll be happy enough to laugh, once I’m safely ashore.

But my tennis shoes. My limbs have worked their way so deep into the mud I can hardly feel my feet. I’m worried that they’ll slip out of the old shoes completely, abandoning them to lie forever interred in the Exe. And worse—if I’m left barefoot, how in heaven’s name will I make it to shore? The debris of broken shells and small stones will shred my flesh.

Another image leaps to mind: John deciding to strike out on his own for help. Me left behind, stranded and impotent, like a buoy that’s come unmoored and drifted aground. Water rushing up and up with the new tide. Rescue arriving hours hence by boat. Probably more cameras. Certainly more laughter.

Perhaps that’s what compels me to grasp at John’s outstretched arm again—one more time for leverage. Yanking hard, I’m able, at last, to rip one foot free. Only grudgingly does the muck release it. Miraculously, the heavily-caked tennis shoe remains attached. With another mighty heave, my second leg tears clear with a smacking pop. Yet the mud doesn’t quit grabbing and grasping, eager to catch hold once more. But I’ve seized the initiate’s secret: Keep moving. Don’t ever stop.

So I’m charging forward already, one foot plopping down after the other, flat as I can keep them, like a clown’s tread.

What a sight we must be. My soaked and clinging sweatpants, rain jacket caked in mud. The arm that plunged so deep now resembling a huge black claw. I keep recalling our friend the egret and its effortless dance through sand and water. With me, however, the muds remain greedy. They snatch and suck at every step.

As we get on with it, I’m breathing hard. I’m sweating. I’m not thinking. I won’t think about it. But it’s at the back of my mind anyway.

What if the quicksand catches me off guard again? What if I can’t keep up this pace? How much farther can I make it?

On we slog.

 

Another low sandbank rises gently before us. For a moment, the footing has firmed again. I’m panting, and trying not to show just how hard.

“How’s your heart?” John asks. I think he’s kidding and then am disconcerted to realize he’s not.

“Heart’s just fine,” I manage. My breath is still coming heavily. “But my knees ache.”

Which is true. But I’m also deflecting the question. I don’t want him imagining I’m about to keel over.

He nods and moves on. “Maybe this would be a good time for a break?”

“Sure,” I say. There’s no place to sit, nor even to put down my pack. “Let me get some of this mud off.” It’s still caked along my arm. My legs are coated too, of course, but they can wait.

Stepping carefully, I tromp back to one of the shallow creeks. The flowing water no longer feels so cold on my skin, but neither does it dislodge any mud, which remains affixed and impervious. I’ve no choice but to scrub with the other hand. Until now it’s remained largely unscathed, but wringing and rubbing them in the water simply leaves both hands gritty. Yet I do feel better as I climb back to meet John.

Pulling off my pack, I reach in for the cheese-and-tomato sandwich I’d prepared in the early morning. I’d added a dab of excellent chutney and carefully wrapped it in waxed paper. As expected, a towel sits folded toward the top of the bag, but underneath it my fingers encounter only a small pair of binoculars. I rummage deeper. No sandwich. I can picture it so vividly: the thin slather of mango chutney, the lovely granary bread. Suddenly, I’m ravenously hungry. No banana either, which I’d also laid aside. They’ll be on the wooden table in our bungalow’s front hall, patiently awaiting my return.

Without a word—he’s been munching on an energy bar—John draws an apple from the pocket of his windbreaker and tosses it to me. Standing on the little elevation of wet sand, sun and breeze on my face, I bite gratefully almost to the core. The fruit’s firm and tart. Rarely has a taste given me such delight.

 

We’re making our way through another of the estuary’s distinct regions—divisions one would never glimpse ashore—this one with fine, soft, treacherous sand. As we draw closer to the eastern bank, we discover some of the shell beds John had been expecting farther downstream. Yet even here, few mussels appear among them. Mostly it’s small-shell cockles and winkles and clams. The kind that garnish pasta dishes as much for show as for a quick briny stab of flavor.

Noticing something that startles him, John bends to tug a huge oyster out of the sand. It seems entirely alien to the place. Grey and craggy as a rock, the shell’s at least ten inches across and heavily barnacled. He hands it across to me. The creature weighs, I’d guess, a good five pounds. He snaps several photos, with my hands providing a visual scale.

On we push, and it soon comes clear that the giant mollusk was only an outlier, not a singularity. Hefty oysters are appearing at our feet, some nearly as gargantuan as the ancient creature we’d spied first. Soon we’ve entered a region of the river absolutely thronging with them.

“I’ve never seen them in numbers like this,” says John in wonder. “Even a year ago, this entire area would have been covered mostly in mussels.” He sounds half fascinated, half aghast. “These oysters must have escaped from the nets of newer farms farther upstream.”

“What do you think—maybe that’s what happened to the mussels? Overwhelmed by rogue oysters? Or changes in warmth or salinity?”

“Offhand, there’s no way to know. It’ll take some serious study.” His tone’s gone suddenly boyish, and he shoots me a wry grin. His coarse brown thatch of hair lifts, tousled by a gust of breeze. “I’d say my project for winter research has been handed right to me.”

 

Soon our lunch break seems a long time past. Exhaustion saps my lungs. Thick, viscous mud continues to claw at our every step. But Lympstone’s dark red cliffs rise almost within reach. I’ll be damned if I complain aloud.

In the final stretch—perhaps it’s fifty yards—there’s no slowing, no plea or peeking at my companion, my rival, straining hard toward the finish, clog by muddy clog.

 

[Purchase Issue 21 here.]

 

David H. Lynn is editor emeritus of the Kenyon Review, which he edited from 1994 to 2020. He is also a professor of English and special assistant to the president of Kenyon College. His most recent book is Children of God: New and Selected Stories, which appeared in 2019. One of its stories, “Divergence,” received an O. Henry Prize.

A Journey Up The Exe

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