Natural Springs - Metaphors for Life

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 10th October 2017

Maddy explores how natural springs occur in the landscape and how rivers can become metaphors for our lives, helping us to recognise and honour rites of passage. This is an important dimension of cultural emergence and designing regenerative cultures.

I am fascinated by natural springs. They are a result of surface water seeping into the Earth and filling a recharge area like a cave or aquifer (a geologic layer of porous and permeable material such as sand and gravel, limestone, or sandstone, through which water flows and is stored). When an aquifer is confined by impermeable rock layers in certain orientations, hydrostatic pressure can force water upwards through a network of cracks and fissures and the water eventually emerges at the surface. These are called artesian wells. Non-artesian springs flow from a higher elevation through the earth to a lower elevation and exit in the form of a spring, using the ground like a drainage pipe. Other springs result from pressure from an underground source in the earth, in the form of volcanic activity. The result can be a hot spring.

I live on the South Downs in southern England near the rising of the River Meon. Here the chalk ridge of the Downs forms a great natural amphitheatre beneath the South Downs Way. The rainwater seeps down through the permeable chalk into the aquifer. At the bottom of the bowl, where the groundwater table intercepts the surface, the water emerges upwards out of the ground. The Meon rises in a muddy patch of yellow flag irises and then quickly, within a short distance, becomes a wide stream that flows out, is fed by more springs, and swells into a river on a steeper gradient. It feels miraculous, such is the vigour of its rising.

It is no wonder that our ancestors regarded natural springs as ‘holy wells’, sacred places revered for millennia. They were named, associated with legends and were attributed with healing qualities. They were reputed to cure illness or make the barren fertile. More prosaically, before mechanised sewage treatment systems and piped water, the most foolish thing a community could do was to dry up their life giving spring by poor land management or poison its water. Water is life and we all live downstream.

Wild brown trout in a chalk stream

Our lives can be likened to rivers. Our birth is as miraculous as the rising of a spring in the landscape. Once we have arrived, with the right conditions, our growth gathers pace and we flow outwards into our lives. We merge with other streams and the river of our lives becomes a confluence. Ideally, in full flow, we are in full relationship with our family, friends, colleagues and our community. The latter isn’t just the human world. If we are to become fully functional, actualised humans beings, we need to be in relationship with the natural world as well. Here we can learn the lessons of life as effectively as we learn them in our relationships with fellow human beings. Here also can be our sanctuary from life’s inevitable challenges and difficulties we encounter.

As our lives flow, significant rites of passage occur, like streams and rivers in confluence. These need to be consciously honoured in ways that mark them appropriately so that we carry forward the lessons they provide. Modern society is often poor at honouring and indeed understanding rites of passage. Part of our journey towards a more permanent culture is to develop our skills at celebrating these rites. We need to bring their significance into our consciousness. The final rite is the great transition, when our individual lives have taken their course and merge back into the source, like rivers to the ocean.

Tim and I are at the point of a number of confluences. Twenty-five years ago, Permaculture magazine was born, coming into my life with a great surge of power, like an emerging spring, changing the way we thought and lived. At that time, I had two books in print, but my writer’s life was put on hold when I started to edit magazines and the first books in the world about applying permaculture to temperate climates. I am breaking my silence now with a new book, Fertile Edges: Regenerating Land, Culture and Hope, published to celebrate those 25 years. It collects many of my past editorials and contextualises them with new writings.

At the same time, my family’s life events are converging. My eldest daughter has just married and we welcome a son-in-law into our family. My youngest daughter has completed her education, graduating with the highest honours. Her final year was spent exploring regenerative agriculture, permaculture, carbon sequestration and climate change solutions with words and photography. It is beautiful to watch the next generation step forward into their power. May they flourish. The river swells and reaches out to the future as we continue to mark and celebrate the importance of all our relationships with gratitude for being a part of this flow.

Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine and the author of Fertile Edges - Regenerating Land, Culture and Hope“Breathtaking and strangely rollicking good fun.” John D Liu, Green Gold film maker.

To see Maddy's forthcoming talks, events and workshops please visit Participatory Permaculture Conversations.