Building a dam – Mirwart

Up in the village, the sun beat down relentlessly. Occupying a spot on the crest of a hill, the view stretched out for miles in all directions, and everywhere we looked were trees. The forests filled every hillside and fold in the land, valleys formed between ancient mountains by rivers and streams. The roads that ran between the trees were undulating and at times incredibly steep. We were a long way from the Alps or the Pyrenees, but it was easy to see why this part of the world produced so many cyclists who would later star in the high mountains on the tours of Italy, Spain and France.

At least on the roads there would be some shade. In the village, there was none. The only option was to go down, to follow the road out the back of the village and down to the depths of one of the folds in the landscape. It was when we reached the bottom that we found the stream. It ran out from a series of carp ponds, formed by dams and protected from birds of prey with wires and nets strung out above the surface. There were walking trails here, following forest tracks between the trees. Sometimes the sun made it through the canopy, but for the most part the forest and the steep hillside offered respite from the heat.

Our trail looped back round to where we started, not far from where the stream passed through beneath a viaduct that carried a local railway line over the valley floor alongside the treetops. We followed the water, shallow but not exactly slow moving, curling over rocks and forming pools and eddies. As we’d walked we’d noticed the carp pools were full, threatening to breach the neat embankments. The sun was shining now, but for days it had been raining, the view from the village obscured by mist. We joked that if the dams failed we would all be washed away, and we imagined our journey as we were taken from stream to river to estuary to sea.

A bend in the stream had formed a kind of half-moon beach, and we stopped to rest for a while, sitting on the grass with our bare feet in the water. Some of the younger ones stripped down, walking out uneasily on slippery rocks into the current that buffeted their ankles. Something or someone had begun to build a barrier across the stream here. Some large rocks moved into place. Gaps filled with smaller rocks, twigs and other forest debris that had found its way into the stream. It did not take long before we started to continue the work. It was unspoken, but seemed like a natural thing to do. 

In the speckled light of an afternoon sun only partially finding its way through the trees, we worked away. Behind our dam a pool began to form, deep enough for us to sit in up to the chests of some of the smaller members of our party. Every so often one of us would stand back and admire the handiwork. The stream had slowed beneath our dam, it was certainly true, but the water still found a way. After a while there was nothing left to add. We sat back on the grass.

The man, as he approached, was friendly, but unfortunately we didn’t really share a language. He pointed at our makeshift dam and smiled, said something. He was a ranger or a forestry worker, something to do with the park that surrounded us or maybe the carp ponds. Did he want us to take down our dam? After a while we felt we understood that he wanted us to clear it when it was time to leave. It seemed like the right thing to do. After all:  leave no trace.

He left us with a grin and another smile, stalking off along the path that followed the stream down from the ponds on the other side of the railway bridge. 

It took about ten more minutes to realise exactly what it was he had been telling us. Somewhere, out of sight, he was pressing a button or turning a handle, or doing whatever it was that released the water from the ponds that had been threatening to breach their banks. We heard the wave before we saw it, the sound of a hundred pebbles and small stones on the stream bed suddenly disturbed by the volume of water. It rolled past us like a tiny tsunami, overwhelming our dam as it went. The stream ran deep for a while and then the volume of water passing by reduced once more. Presumably our friend had closed the valve above, the pressure now released.

Our dam was no more. Even the larger stones had been displaced. It didn’t really matter. There would be another sunny afternoon. Another day when we, or someone else, sought shelter from the heat at the bottom of the valley and in the coolness of the water. Another dam would be built. It just seemed like the thing to do.

50°03’18.5″N 5°15’14.3″E
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton