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Bethany Dawson

Author // Writer // Editor

Upstream

February 22, 2023

Upstream

Upstream is an offering of essays that map the landscape as I see it. Subscribers get full access to my work. If you are already a member, please login below.

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The trail from the underpass into the woodland is thick with mud and pockmarked with puddles. We do our best to dodge mountain bike trenches full of last night’s rain. I warn the kids that they will enjoy our eight mile walk a lot more with dry feet. At a particularly boggy section of the path, I shout over my shoulder that they should follow me, the bank is higher on the right-hand side. When I turn around, they are nowhere to be seen.

“Don’t worry, mum,” my eldest shouts. “We’ve found our own way.”

I travel in the direction of his reassurance and find him inching across a tree trunk bridging a very swollen river. I told him not to fall, then took a photo.

We reached the sixth mile of our cross country walk from Helen’s Bay to Conlig before their feet got wet. That was plenty of time for me to settle on a name for my current work: Upstream*.

Once, I stood at the mouth of a great river. It was sluggish and opaque as it branched into many small tributaries. The rising tide swept seawater into the channel, infusing the river with just enough energy to make it home.

Upstream is an offering of essays that map the landscape as I see it. It is the cartography of places we, as a culture, left behind in our hurry to reach the sea. I will tell some old stories, a few borrowed stories and one or two that explore why walking against the weight of water is a beautiful calling.

I am learning how to value my work. My compensation for the things to which I give most of my time looks like this: an electric guitar serenade at 8am; a Lego castle tour after breakfast; his tiny hand gripping a pencil; impossible riddles; underwater cartwheels; carved wooden fishing lures and the synopsis of every library book in the pile. I have a very well-paid job.

The work I produce for Upstream is something to which I am asking readers to subscribe. It’s less than the cost of a coffee and a traybake but it honours the work I put into crafting my words. This is also my work.  

The river above the waterfall filled five deep pools with water so clear I could see the pebbles on the bed. We hiked three hours to get there in 26-degree heat. Our skinny dip was instinctive. We slipped into the river and imagined ourselves as hot pokers hissing in a barrel of cold water.

I write in the margins, that narrow band of white space surrounding the text of my day. In the morning, before my feet touch the floor, I write several pages of freehand dreamscapes and intentions for the day. I carry a notebook in my pocket when I feed my ducks and collect pale blue eggs from their nest. Once, I had no pencil and had to make do with a piece of charcoal from the fire pit.

I do some of my best work in the car, sitting outside church halls, sports fields and drama classes. Something about the confines of the driver’s seat in a car that smells of crisps forces me to inhabit my imagination. While the dinner cooks, I thumb through my thesaurus and see the story of our family meals smudged on its pages. I hover between stove and keyboard, grasping at thoughts as they are interrupted by requests for the TV code and pre-dinner snacks.

There is a file in my cabinet full of rejection letters. There are as many again in a folder on my computer. These are competitions I entered, manuscripts I submitted and journals to which I sent my stories. I have had to work at my relationship with failure. I suffered a particularly difficult disappointment last year and have found it hard to get writing again. This is one attempt to put the words in; the other is a wonderful novel in gestation behind the scenes.

I looked for the source of the Lagan. Some said it was on Slieve Croob but I listened to a woman who walks the hills daily who sent me to Drumkeeragh Forest. There, the soil is springy from pine needles and wild blueberries ripen in the gaps between branches. The forest shuts the sky out completely at its centre, so I crawled in search of water. I think I found it, claggy and unremarkable, a quiet leak of water with a long course to Belfast Lough. It tasted metallic, like water from a flask. I splashed it on my eyes to help me see.

Regardless of how many people subscribe (I will have at least one – thanks, mum), I will write for the love of it. I will also write because I have spent most of my life travelling upstream, sometimes against the tug of water, sometimes along the bank. When I discovered the writing of the late Mary Oliver, I learned to pay closer attention to my surroundings. She taught me devotion to the song thrush and the sunflower, and how to take responsibility for my own life. What if she had decided that her writing was not good enough to share?

She has a collection of prose entitled Upstream which equipped me to stay my course and inspired the name for my work – I don’t think she would mind me borrowing it. She writes:

‘Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do…Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this space they live in…Attention is the beginning of devotion.’

I walk upstream for myself, because it has always been my course. I walk upstream for my children so they can see there are many ways to explore a river. Now, I will write Upstream for you. Take it as a piece of storytelling to deepen your day or an alternative to thoughtless scrolling. Perhaps some of you will hear it as a shout to follow in my footsteps and simply knowing I am here will give you courage to respond, “Don’t worry, I’ve found my own way’.

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*Subscribers to Upstream will receive a monthly essay in their inbox – no spam, I promise.

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