A large tree, partially covered in Ivy, next to a river. In the background is the other riverbank (plus a tree covered with Ivy) and a bridge that crosses the water.

What The River Says and Sings Workshop

Create your own artistic impression of your local river environment using words, poetry, and song

1. Introduction

Welcome to What The River Says and Sings!

This workshop is an opportunity for you to explore and understand your local river environment, and to create your own word map, poem or song. Through a combination of videos, text and outdoor activities, you will be investigating the sights and sounds of your local river. 

Workshop Part One

Learn about rivers and head outside to explore your local river environment, where you will observe and record what you experience. Listen to our podcast or watch our videos, to guide you through some observation techniques. Be sure to take your time and really enjoy being in nature!  

Workshop Part Two

Inspired by your river observations, you will create a word map, poem or song. This second part can take place indoors, or outdoors, it’s up to you!  

You will need:

  • ‘What The River Says and Sings’ Guide Sheet
  • Phone or camera
  • Paper
  • Pens/pencils 
  • Headphones

2. An Introduction to Rivers

Rivers are vital sources of life for humans and nature, and are integral to the Earth’s environmental processes and systems.

Why Are Rivers Important?

The Water Cycle: Rivers are integral to the water cycle which allows for continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of the Earth. Rivers transport water across long distances, from sources high up in the mountains all the way out to the sea.

Drainage channels: Rivers collect excess water from their surrounding environments to manage flooding and water distribution across the land.

Transportation: Rivers hold and transport large volumes of rock and sediment in their channels. These contain nutrients which supply ecosystems with vital resources.

Habitats: Rivers provide excellent food and water supply. They support different species of plants and provide homes for animals such as ducks, voles, otters, fish and many insects.

Travel routes: Humans have used rivers for centuries to travel across land and to transport goods.

Energy sources: The energy of a river’s flow can be harnessed to power hydroelectric plants and water turbines.

 

Deep green leaves, a gap in which shows a river.

 

 

Underwater photo of a spotted fish and some plantlife.

Factors Affecting a River’s Health

 A natural flow 

Diversity of flow is integral to a river’s health and ecosystem. Obstacles such as rocks, plants and natural debris like fallen branches all contribute to a diverse flow, creating channels, eddies, riffles, runs, pools and glides. These provide different pockets of energy, which keep the river moving, and encourage diversity. Plants, fish, and wildlife evolve to adapt to each river’s unique rhythms and flows. A river which has been cleared of debris and plantlife can disrupt this unique ecosystem and lead to silt deposition and dark murky water which cannot support such abundance of wildlife.

You can read more about river flow features here

Transportation of sediment and nutrients 

Rocks, gravel, sand, silt, and organic debris are important components of a healthy river as they nourish a river’s bed and channels: creating flow; providing nutrients; and habitats for fish like chub who use loose gravel to make their nests close to river banks.

Good water quality

Temperature, oxygen content, salinity, turbidity, hardness, acidity, and alkalinity all contribute to different levels of water quality. These factors need to be maintained within a certain range to sustain a healthy river. For example, if water temperature rises by just 1 degree, this can lead to increased growth of algae, which can block sunlight reaching the river bed, reduce oxygen content in the water, and restrict growth of other organisms.

Strong and varied plant communities

These provide habitats for fish and other animals; regulate water temperatures; prevent excessive erosion of riverbanks; and can remove pollutants from river water. Water crowfoot is a common plant species found in streams and is a great indicator of a healthy river. It grows in blankets which create channels and provide food for wildlife. Decomposing vegetation can also add to habitats and create an important source of nutrients.

Insects 

Insects are the primary food for many river species. So if there are a large amount and variety of species around the river, it can be a strong indicator of river health. The presence of certain species such as Caddis fly larvae can also tell us that the river has not been polluted or run dry in the past year.

Fish and wildlife species 

These will vary with each river, and a diverse number of species is often a good indicator of river health. Fish such as chub, pike, brown trout and crayfish can all be found in the river Darent, along with ducks, water voles, frogs and the odd kingfisher. 

The River Darent Case Study

The River Darent is about 25 miles in length, and rises from springs around the village of Westerham. It then flows east and then north out into the Thames Estuary towards the sea.

This river is one of only 210 chalk streams in the world. Chalk streams can support great ecological diversity, and are said to be like England’s rainforests. 

This is because water that flows in or through chalk is abundant in calcium rich nutrients.  The alkaline nature of chalk can also help to combat acidification, a negative impact caused by climate change and human land use.  

A river, both banks just about visible and covered with plants, at the top and bottom of the frame.

 

 

 

Water, under which small stones are visible, and a moss-type plant that is growing from the bed and surfacing in places.

 

 

A river, and the grassy bank on the far side from the camera. The water is relatively clear and greenery can be seen on the riverbed.

 

 

 

An orange butterfly that has landed on a small white flower. There are lots of plants around them - more white flowers, some yellow flowers behind that, and some larger leaves.

3. Observing Nature

Take a walk out to your local river and choose a stretch of river to see what you can observe. Nature observation is the practice of using our basic human senses to watch, listen, learn and appreciate our local environment while noticing patterns in the life of plants, birds, trees & animals. There is so much going on around us in nature, and in many cases the only reason we don’t notice these things is because we’re moving too fast. By stopping for more than just a few moments, you will notice and observe a lot more. 

Seeing Nature

Start by finding a space by the river where you are comfortable and relaxed. Take in your wider surroundings and notice what colours and patterns are present.  Now focus in on one particular area of the river and really look at it in detail. What colour is the water? Are you looking at reflections on the water, or can you see into the river beneath the surface? How is the light affecting what you can see? Are there any visible flows or currents in the water? How are these affecting what is in the river? Are the flows all going in the same direction, or do they change?

Listening to nature

We often rely on our eyes to guide us, when actually sounds can provide more information about the life around us, as most of it is hidden or too distant to see.  Close your eyes if you feel comfortable to do so, and release any tension in your muscles. Take easy, deep breaths in and out and focus entirely on your breathing. In and out. You may begin to notice the individual ‘notes’ of nature, the wind blowing through the trees, the trickle of water and the song of birds.  

Experiencing Nature

Engage with all of your senses. What can you smell? How does the ground feel to touch?

4. Recording Your Observations

Now record your observations using these techniques:

  • Take photos and videos
  • Note down data like the weather, time, date, area, etc.
  • Look up your exact location using what3words.com 
  • Describe what you can see in your notebook (use adjectives, colours, emotions)
  • Circle words on the key words sheet and add some of your own!

As you do this, focus on:

  • Colours and textures
  • Different flows in the river 
  • The effects of light and wind
  • Wildlife
  • Healthy and unhealthy parts of the river (is the water fast flowing, or stagnant; are there multiple flows; is the river clear, murky or dark in colour; how do the wildlife or plants change?)
  • Where manmade structures influence the river

5. Creating Your Word Map

Now it is time to write your creative piece inspired by the river. A great place to start is by gathering the information and words you have collected in a word map.  

On your guide sheet is an example of a word map. To create your word map, collect your words into your own word map in the space beneath it, or on a separate piece of paper. Map the words out as you saw them in nature. Are there any words that feel more important than others that you feel should stand out? You could make these central or larger as a dominant feature in your word map. Try alternating size, angles, and writing styles to find variety within your word map.

Why not add your what3words to your word map too!

'Word cloud' - collection of different sized words, all in greens or browns. Largest are 'sustainability', 'sustainable', 'environment', 'renewable', 'energy', and 'green'.

6. Writing A Poem

Poems can be written in a variety of styles and lengths. These can range from short 5 line haikus, to epic long narrative poems such as ‘Dante’s Inferno’ or Coleridge’s ‘The Albatross’. A poem can have a very strong and noticeable rhyming structure, or none at all. And just how some forms of poetry can have very strict rules, others need have none at all, and can be written as you choose.  

If you would like to try out a specific style of poetry, here are some examples you may like to use:

Acrostic Poems

In an Acrostic Poem the first last or other letters of each line spell a word or phrase related to your keyword. The key word is written vertically, often in bold or coloured letters. If you want to write an Acrostic Poem try to use lots of adjectives and verbs. Also, horizontal words do not always have to start with the first letter of the vertical word, you can use any letter from the word. 

             Run River Run

                      Into the open sea

                 NeVer forget your mountainous source

   Never forgEt me

            Run River Run

Diamante poems

Diamante poems are seven lines long and take the following structure: 

                   Noun

      Adjective, Adjective

       Verb, Verb, Verb

Noun, Noun, Noun, Noun

       Verb, Verb, Verb

     Adjective, Adjective

                   Noun

The first and last lines have just one word. The second and sixth lines have two words. The third and fifth lines have three words. And the fourth line has four words.

Lines 1, 4, and 7 use nouns. Lines 2 and 6 use adjectives. Lines 3 and 5 use verbs.

                        Sun

             Golden, glorious

    Warming, burning, shining

    Day, bright, night, crescent

Illuminating, shimmering, orbiting

              Silvery, shadowy

                       Moon

Writing Tips 

  • Read other people’s work for inspiration.
  • Try to use as few words as possible – keep your writing lean.
  • Use an active voice wherever possible – the subject of a sentence should appear early. Please see examples below:
    • Active – The bear chased the fish up the river.
    • Passive – The fish were chased by the bear up the river.
  • Don’t obsess over your first line. If you don’t feel you have exactly the right words to open your poem, don’t give up there. Keep writing and come back to the first line when you’re ready. The opening line is just one component of an overall piece of art. Don’t give it more outsized importance than it needs.
  • Embrace tools. If a thesaurus or a rhyming dictionary/website will help you use it. You’d be surprised how many professional writers also make use of these tools. Just be sure you understand the true meaning of the words you insert into your writing. 
  • Start constructing sentences based on your theme and key words. Use broad brush strokes to start off with.
  • Fine tune what you have written, do not be scared of cutting out a lot of words or significantly rearranging what you have written.

If you want you want to use rhyming words you can use a rhyme generator such as Rhymer

7. Writing a Song

If we look at the structure of most songs, there are usually six primary parts to a song:

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Pre-chorus
  • Chorus
  • Bridge 
  • Outro

If you are new to song writing we suggest you focus on a chorus and a verse to start.

The chorus carries the main theme and is the culmination of all the big ideas in your song. Often the chorus is a great place to start – what is the main focus of your song? Can you use some of your key words to write a clear and catchy chorus?

The verse of a song is a chance to tell a story. Lyrically speaking, this is where the story actually develops and advances. Think of the story you are trying to tell – is it the journey of the river? Are you describing any movements or changes you witnessed? In most songs, the chorus and pre-chorus generally use the same lyrics each time, so the verse is your chance to get your message across.

Example:

Chorus:

Oh River, River, where do you go?

Down as the valley steepens your flow

Carrying secrets of pasts we don’t know

Oh River, River, where do you go?

Verse:

Your Water it glistens and shimmers with light

Curling round bends, right out of our sight

The kingfishers follow and launch into flight

Oh River I’ll follow you into the night

Chorus:

Oh River, River, where do you go?

Down as the valley steepens your flow

Carrying secrets of pasts we don’t know

Oh River, River, where do you go?

If you are not sure where to start, try free writing about your experience on the river for 1 minute. See what themes and emotions come up, and pick out phrases, narratives or emotions that you think would work well in your song. How do the sounds of the river filter through into your song? You could also play any field recordings you have while you are writing for inspiration.

Once you have written your poem or song, you can use your cardboard frame from the ReFRAME workshop to frame it!

If you are well practiced in song writing, and would like more of a challenge, you could try writing your own River Shanty by following this video:

Watch How To Write a (Sea) River Shanty

8. Final Reflection

Congratulations on creating your artist’s impression of what the river says and sings!

As you share and reflect on your work, think about the following:

  • Are there recurring themes or words?
  • Do the pieces give an impression of a healthy river?
  • Do you know any songs about your local landscape or river?

We want to hear from you!

Thank you for taking part in What The River Says and Sings! Please take a moment to fill out the evaluation form to the right so that we can continue to provide more workshop resources like this for free. More importantly, we would love to see your creations! Please send us a picture or recording via email to socials@puppetswithguts.com and share on social media @puppetswithguts #AnimatedLandscapes #PuppetsWithGuts.

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