The River Mura

What all belongs to the Mura? The wind does. The wind they call a “wind that makes the Mura freeze”, coming from afar on its Asian horse, hurrying just to give her a silvery virgin belt. The clouds do. The clouds that, instead of going to the skies, go to the Mura “to quench their thirst”. The “Mura swamps and meadows” do. From sacred places all around, fairies, maidens, gnomes and swamp spirits go dance there. “The Mura fish” do. The natural arsenic, washed away by the Mura at its spring is a stimulant in its waters. In small quantities this substance is strengthening, it is a substance for dreaming and flying. That is why they are “the Mura fish”, different from other freshwater fish. They are there or they are not there. “The Mura stone” does, “the Mura air” does, “the Mura sand” does. And “the Mura love” does.  From the blooming of the snowdrops; to the sweet smell of flowering willow; to the first high green grasses among last year’s dried ones; to the woodbine- and bird cherry-filled night; to the fields’ morning dew that drank the wheat pollen; to the shallows where chubs are spawning; to full summer nights, when the moon travels the river on its cobwebby yellow path; to the fog of early autumn, which lay upon the meadow; to the handful of leaves the willows have thrown on the water; to the sound of silence under the snow; to ice that breaks faster than a kingfisher flies, to snowdrops …

From the book The Mura, Where the Soul Might Float, by Štefan Smej



I learned to swim in the Mura. It sounds romantically crazy but that was the decision of my young parents. They have estimated that the dark river, inviting with all its pebbled islands of summer low water levels, is a good enough Pannonian Sea for their only child to start swimming in. I suspect that the nature of this decision was not only practical, but also symbolic and poetic. It was also bold. But they probably thought that what is good for a pike is good for their daughter, too.

Learning to swim in the river has its charm, as its current carries you along, sooner or later helping you learn the strokes. Compared to the frustrating experience of half drowning in the chlorinated pool in Murska Sobota, the descent through the fast river shallows was a light-hearted experience.

In the Mura, I nearly drowned one time as well. It was years later, in hot late spring. An invisible river vortex at the mouth of one of the river’s side channels rotated the plastic canoe and the next thing I remember is my father’s hand pushing me underwater while at the same time pulling me towards the bank, and soon after throwing me to the embankment. And a terrible look of despair in his eyes, due to the absence of my mother. And then an impetuous run along the river when he sees her on the embankment downstream. And finally the comfortable, soaking, grateful and tranquil way home in our black Citroën Dyane.

One time, when they carried the five-year-old me over the shallows, a red shoe slipped off my foot. Silently, as if a river spirit pulled it. Some other girl might have found it a couple of days later, washed ashore somewhere near Croatian Legrad, where the Mura flows into the river Drava, or maybe even further, at the mouth of the Danube, perhaps even in the Black Sea.

All these memories are lessons teaching the river’s language.

In the eighties, when I was learning to swim, swimming in the Mura was rarely done. In the old times it must have been different, as the Prekmurje folk song tells: “Eleven girls went swimming, only seven of them returned …” The beloved progressive Countess Zichy from Beltinci bathed in the Mura as well, inviting her courtiers and noble guests to her bath on the Island of Love near Ižakovci, a natural island among the Mura marshes, overgrown with reeds.


A tale about good people

Due to the permanence of the water’s impermanence, rivers excite people. In their riverbeds they carry not only water and propulsive power but also the memories of the land, its sorrows, and its joys. Central European rivers, especially, are rivers of their peoples. Smetana wrote a musical ode to Slavic culture with Vltava, Strauss sang praise to the Danube with his waltzes, and Claudio Magris presented the history of Central Europe in his book The Danube. Kranjec’s Tale about Good People is set in the Mura marshes and meadows, while Vlado Kreslin sings: “Do not carry away too quickly, Mura, my days …”

Prekmurciare the Slovene people who, for many centuries, lived under foreign, Hungarian rule. For them, the Mura river has always been an important, almost insurmountable barrier separating them from their motherland. Even after the annexation of Prekmurje to Slovenia in 1919, there was no bridge over the Mura yet; the first wooden bridge was built in 1922, a railway link was established in 1924, while the second bridge was built as late as 1940.

Until then, Prekmurje inhabitants and its visitors had to cross the Mura river by rafts. Therefore, the Mura was not travelled up or down the stream, the challenge was rather how to cross it: this is the prekof Prek-murje (prekin Slovene means across, cross, or over). From the left bank, the boy from Prekmurje threw a stone across the river to the Styrian boy on the right bank. A large floating raft on two boats, a metal pulley connecting it to a rope stretched across the Mura, and crossed the river as it creaked. On the boat, there was always a small altar with a cross.

The names of Prekmurje and Pomurje are derived from the Mura river, but where from does the Mura’s name originate? Perhaps from the Slavic root “mur”, which denotes something black, dark, as in the words muren (grig, a small eel) or murka for black animals. Is it a coincidence that the pronunciation of its name sounds like Moira, the Greek goddess of fate? Does the name Mura perhaps come from mud (German Mur)? The Mura, in Prekmurje dialect, sounds almost like morje (sea); murski (relating to the River Mura) almost like morski (marine, relating to the sea).


The world of the Mura

The Mura spreads over the boundaries of ​​its riverbed and as a geographical phenomenon grows into a cultural one, just as Predrag Matvejević writes about the Danube. The stream of the river is not confined to a single riverbed, rather there is a web of overflowing meanders. Literally spilt and moving, the Mura creates wetlands that are a paradoxical expanse: wetlands are a world where the river both is and is not. There is no uniform description of wetlands; each water supply creates wetlands in its own way, whether they are watered by the sea or fresh water. Where there are wetlands, there is also the Mura, even though these wetlands came to be because the Mura no longer flows there. First there are wetlands and then come their benefits: they water their environment and absorb water as well, so they protect from droughts and floods at the same time. They act as small purification plants with their lush growth, while remaining a cradle of nature’s diversity. Wetlands are also shelters of drinking water, and a number of drinking water reservoirs in the Pomurje region are in fact watered by the Mura wetlands. The overflowing Mura river basin, flowing into the Drava and then into the Danube, creates a unique landscape and environment, and is called the European Amazon by naturalists.

The glittering blue kingfisher sometimes embroiders the horizon of the landscape.

“This is the world of the Mura river, which belongs to the Mura, and not to people,” said the philosopher and ecologist Štefan Smej at a public hearing on the impact of planned hydroelectric power plants on the Mura river in Murska Sobota, January 1986.

This opened a new way of viewing the river. Why is it so seemingly self-evident that we own the river, that we feel owning it is our calling, as if everything was ours, when the river was here before us, and will be here even after we are gone. At the same time, the cultural, sociological and ecological truth is: the River Mur has shaped and marked this world. In the Slovene language, the words for the world and sacred are homonyms (svet– world, sacred). Sacredness is understood as that which is not terrestrial, that which is not of this transient world, that which extends into eternity. The world is a whole, comprised of the past, the future, and the present. Just like a river, having just flowed away at every moment while flowing in anew at the same time, so you never know which of the two you step into.


Common benefits

Only a third ofEuropean rivers are free running, and the Mura on Slovenian territory and all the way downstream to the Danube is one of them. In the Slovenian part of the Mura there is only a small hydropower plant at Ceršak, built in 1935 to meet the needs of a nearby cardboard factory. The Mura arrives in Slovenia as an alpine river and descends steeply, becoming a powerful old river, full of silent power. Once there were dozens of working mills along the Mura, designed as floating mills to make use of the changing water levels of the river. The first power plants on theflatland Mura had already been discussed during the Austro-Hungarian period; however, the Hungarian rulers were overtaken by the First World War and the annexation of Prekmurje to Slovenia. After that, such ideas were revived during the post-war construction period in 1963, and then again in 1985, when rather megalomaniac plans were put on the table. These envisaged a 200-meter wide riverbed and 10-meter high, 32-meter wide embankments, which would, strategically, once again separate Prekmurje from central Slovenia. The people of Prekmurje resisted with sound arguments and demonstrated a determined unity unseen in those parts since 1919, when they returned to Slovenia.

Whenever the topic of power plants arises it seems that only the issue of “benefits” are discussed when talking about the protection of the river. At all times, the benefits of electricity are weighed against the benefits of maintaining biodiversity. The benefits of sustainable tourism and agriculture in the Pomurje meadows, versus the benefits of long and straight biking trails along the embankments.

Why should the river always be defending the right to its free flow with some future benefits? Why do we take the right to exploit it for granted, and why do we believe the benefits are really beneficial, even in the long run, for those coming after us, and those coming after them? Even though hydroelectric power plants are commonly classified as renewable energy sources, in such facilities only the water is renewable; the environmental interventions needed for their construction and operation, the consequences for people’s living spaces and the area’s biodiversity are not.

On February 2 1986 the Slovene newspaper Večerpublished a summary of the issues raised at a public hearing in Križevci near Ljutomer, at which energy experts made excuses for their absence in two telegrams. A young girl asked where the children would get bread, while someone else opined that Slovenians had only 1300m2 of arable land per capita already, and it would therefore be impossible to calculate and compare the values of kilowatt hours of electricity and the value of bread with mathematical formulas.

And this is what the then chief project manager of the hydroelectric power plant on the Mura in 1986 told the magazine Mladina about the swamp’s usefulness: “At the Petnaj bridge, we are dealing with so many swamps. To preserve these swamps, excuse me, makes no sense. We have a scourge of mosquitoes here. Let me tell you something about this land. When our geometers worked in these swamps, they were faced with not tens but billions of mosquitoes, they did not even want to go work there … ”


It’s not smart to dam(n) the Mura

The Mura has always been bringing gold and taking lives. In Medjimurje,gold panners would, with the help of jagged boards made of poplar wood, separate the heavy gold dust from light gravel that the Mura had carried from Lungau. The license to conduct this trade had been given by Maria Theresa.

Days would not pass had it not been for the river carrying them away. They would be hanging over hazel and dog rose bushes, smelling the breeze of the long burnt out shepherd’s fires …writes Štefan Smej in his book The Mura. When you look into the river, your gaze is captured. Some get pulled in too heavily, with all their essence. But it was usually not an impulsive pull. People would spruce themselves up, dress up to the nines, and with slow movements step into the river. For eternity.

Long into the 18th century the Slavs made offerings to the rivers. In the folk tradition of the Prekmurje region, there are stories describing the offering of children to the Mura so as to prevent erosion of the river banks.

The Mura, which separates us from our Styrian brothers, has long been eroding the river banks in this area. Many beautiful groves and fields have already been reduced to nothing by the Mura, and it keeps getting closer to the villages. The elders say that the Mura will increasingly erode the land until it reaches the last Slovenian village, Kobilje. When it reaches the village and Slovenes thus come together again, Judgement Day will come. That is: the Mura will stay there until the end of times, and will no longer separate brother from brother (from Common Lore, Štefan Kuhar).

The Mura, separating Prekmurje from other parts of Slovenia, a Slovene semicircle in Hungarian land, contributed to the development of the Prekmurje dialect, structured as a language. In the 18th century a translation of the Bible in the Prekmurje dialect was made. Although under foreign rule, to the people of Prekmurje it had always been self-evident that they remained Slovenes, yet they spoke and preserved their own language. In Prekmurje, how words sound matters.

And to dam the Mura sounds very much like to damn the Mura.So it is not wise to dam the river, as it may be misunderstood. It is better to büjrati it (to dam naturally, in the Prekmurje dialect).

As the Mura is torrential in its upper stream and its waters come from the Alps, every time water levels rose in the past the banks were eroded and new riverbeds created for it to flow through. In doing so, it carried away land and sometimes even houses. Damming naturally has always been a sustainable way of regulating the flow of the river, and büjrin the Prekmurje dialect has a meaning close to that of a dam, except a natural one.

The people who lived along the river and shared its fate dammed it naturally over time, using vegetation and materials from the Mura: thick bundles of lengthy branches were connected to form a kind of natural wall weighed down with gravel stones; these barriers would then be released into the river by the riverbank. This natural barrier eventually became overgrown with aquatic vegetation and silt, providing protection for the bottom of the riverbed. Whirlpools were being destroyed with steel constructions and docks, which would cut across the river current in parts. The Habsburgs paid people to make natural dams from the provincial budget, and today the Mura is being dammed again naturally, as it did not respond well to more artificial structures. The deepening of the riverbed was the result of strong, aggressive regulation in the upper stream, making it flow ever faster and deeper, and thus start to lose its character of a widely overflowing Pannonian river.

However, over the last decade, the various projects of revitalizing the riverbed and its banks have borne fruit, and have been set as a European example: “The removal of rocky or concrete coverings of the shores, revitalization of side channels, addition of gravel to the river, installation of thresholds at the bottom of the river … are only some of many measures contributing to a more gradual and winding flow of water through the landscape, formation of gravel, an improvement of the ecological and biological state of water, soaking of roots of flooded forests as in the past, fish having more spawning ground, birds having more nesting ground, enrichment of groundwater in the gravel surroundings, an increase in space, reversal of the deepening of the river…”

Due to such work on the River Mura both Austria and Slovenia received the European River Prize for Best Achievement of the Year in 2014, notes Stojan Habjanič, construction engineer and coordinator of the Save the Mura campaign.

Stanford scholars led by Mark Z. Jacobson, and their colleagues from California and Berkeley Universities and Aalborg University of Denmark, published a comprehensive study in early 2018 that envisages a stable supply of energy in 2050 for 139 countries, according to which all energy would come from renewable sources, without adding any new turbines to rivers, let alone damming them. In America alone, in 2017, 86 dams were removed from rivers, which are now again free-flowing …


Thirty-three years later, by the same river

But how to explain the meaning of the Mura to someone who did not have their shoe taken away by a river spirit when crossing the shallows, someone who never stepped into the river, so they do not simply shake their head and start reciting the more or less predictable numbers that describe kilowatt-hours, and thus instead of revealing the truth about the river do not see it at all?

They say that we cannot step into the same river twice, as its waters have already flowed away. However, after 33 years we are facing the same questions about the construction of hydroelectric power plants. But it is only because the generations before us have managed to save the Mura once that we have this historic opportunity – and duty – to once again protect it from the short-sightedness of investors.

We can ask ourselves what would have happened if they had not saved her then? Would there still be any opportunities for tourism and organic farming? Would we still be pumping mineral water from the Radenska springs? Would the Mura still be called the European Amazon?

The truth of the river is different for everyone. The lucky ones carry it along when they leave. Wherever they walk it is running under their feet, through their heads and through their chests, says Magris about the Danube, about these waters that once, before flowing into the Danube, were also the Mura. In the end, we all step into the same river.


Mura Biosphere Reserve

In 2016, the Government of the Republic of Slovenia confirmed the application to include the Mura Biosphere Reserve on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The proposed biosphere is a mosaic of the remains of flood plains and cultural landscapes formed by agriculture and settlement. It will include around 29,000 hectares of land and sixteen municipalities positioned along the Mura river. The area is rich in over 600 taxa of plant species, but their natural sites are sensitive and severely endangered habitats, on a global level as well as by this river. In the diversity of its fish fauna the Mura is one of the richest and best-preserved river basins in Slovenia, and probably even in Europe. As many as 22 species of fish in the proposed biosphere are protected by Slovenian and European legislation. More than 50 species of dragonflies live here. The characteristic feature of the Mura river is the diversity of aquatic and waterside habitats, which enables the very high species representation and population density of birds. So far, 200 species of birds have been found in the Mura area.

A thousand-year human presence in this area is the reason for the large number of autochthonous breeds of domestic animals and various sorts of cultivated crops, which also contribute to its biodiversity.

On the international scale, the proposed biosphere area in Slovenia is an integral part of one of the biggest European watersides, which includes the area along the flood plains of the Mura, Drava and Danube in Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. The area, covering more than 1,000 km of free-flowing rivers with exceptional natural and cultural heritage of Europe and the world, would include all five countries, and become one of the world’s largest cross-border biosphere areas.


Valentina Smej Novak

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