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Michael McCarthy: Look closely into the depths of a river ...

Nature Notebook: A simple stream is so much more to its creatures: trout world, mallard chick playground, dipper workplace

Just watching life go by is not an activity with an awful lot of social sanction attached; admit to it and the commonest reaction will probably be that you're a lazy sod. But last week, for the first time in what seemed like years, I engaged in just sitting and watching, and I found it could open your eyes to a lot of life you might otherwise be missing.

I was in Keswick, the handsome Victorian town spectacularly sited in the midst of the Lake District's mountains, with stirring views at every angle, and I had a couple of hours to kill. So I looked at Derwentwater, and the new Theatre By The Lake, and the attractive tourist office in the Moot Hall, and eventually I found myself away from the crowds, walking by the River Greta that encircles the town, and I sat down, and decided to simply look (pardon the split infinitive, but it seems unavoidable).

A river is just a river when you give it a casual glance, but when you sit still and let its essence enter your perception, it is transformed. A shadow on the bottom is suddenly no longer a shadow; with a flick of the tail it shifts sideways, and resolves into a trout. A mother mallard with six tiny chicks appeared from the weeds on the far bank. The chicks were jumping up and snapping at overhanging leaves, like boys heading footballs. I'd never seen that before. And then the dipper appeared.

Imagine a round, fat blackbird with a white breast like a starched waistcoat. It's standing on a rock, bobbing up and down as if it is doing old-fashioned keep-fit exercises: up down, up down! And then, stone the crows, it walks straight into the water and disappears. You can just see it: it's walking on the bottom, holding its breath, and pecking the pebbles.

That's how it makes a living, finding bottom-dwelling insects like caddis fly larvae. It slowly worked the river from rock to rock until it was right opposite me, and watching it intently I realised how a simple stream was so much more to its creatures: trout world, mallard chick playground, dipper workplace. And none of that is apparent in the passing glance.

Verse to read as life goes by

It may not have social sanction, but there is a wee bit of literary sanction for just watching life go by; it's in the best-known piece of verse by the once-celebrated tramp-turned-poet of a century ago, WH Davies. ("What is this life, if, full of care/We have no time to stand and stare?"). Go on, give it a Google. He's another one who has completely forgotten today. But Edward Thomas was his friend, and there's no higher recommendation than that.