A Case for Living Rivers

A river is a thing of grace and beauty, a mystery and a metaphor, a living organism whose processes have been perfecting themselves through the ages, shaping our landscapes into works of art greater than those found in any museum. Rivers feed us physically and spiritually. They determine where we live, what we eat, what we drink, and where we dance. We write songs, stories, and poems about them. We go to them in order to learn about ourselves. They provide a place of meditation, a place for celebration.

A river supports life, carries life, and above all, makes life possible for all living things by supplying them with freshwater. Fulgêncio Manoel da Silva, Brazilian poet and social activist, recently martyred in Brazil by an unknown assailant, said that "the river is life-water. What we do with it affects the life of the people, the life of the animals, the life of the river and the life of the waters. This is true for the world, not just for Brazil, but for the world."

A river is the artery of the watershed. The artery supplies the nutrients neccessary for the body to survive. Poet Gary Snyder describes a watershed as a "kind of familial branching, a chart of relationships, and a definition of place. The watershed is the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable." From the onset of its journey, a river works towards reaching a state of equilibrium between the amount of water it carries and the sediment that it transports downstream. A river’s floodplain, its velocity, its width, its meanders, its sediment load - all are expressions of a river performing with balance and perfection.

At the heart of mountains, humans, and all living things on earth, beats the pulse of water. Anthropoligist and naturalist Loren Eisley wrote about experiencing the "meandering roots of a whole watershed." One day he shed his scientific approach to understanding, along with his clothes, long enough for a short float down the wide and slow Platte River. His description describes the mystery and magic of the living river:

The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea...
A river, like a sunset, does not discriminate between gender, ethnicity or class. Shri Sunderlal Bahuguna, a 71-year-old activist and spiritualist, camped in vigilance to protest the Tehri Dam in the Himilayas, wrote:
Sitting on the lap of Mother Bhagirathi with the inspiring sight of her murmuring flow, gives me unique pleasure. I have the desire to enjoy it until the last breath... A few steps below me is the Sacred River flowing for the well-being of all and a few meters away is the dreadful sound of dynamites and bulldozers. The River, when it flows in its natural course, benefits all irrespective of caste, creed, and colour, wealth or poverty; but as soon as it is dammed she loses her socialist character.
The great cultural hearths of humanity lie on the banks of rivers. A ceremony is performed, a community meeting takes place, the dead are mourned, and souls are cleansed. In India, a sacred text holds that "all sins are washed away by bathing thrice in the Saraswati, seven times in the Yamuna, once in the Ganges, but the mere sight of the Narmada is enough to absolve one of all sins!"

Rivers are woven into humanity’s collective psyche. We go to a river to feel its pace and its power, whether its song is a gentle sonata or Beethoven’s Fifth. Henry David Thoreau once said, "Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything." We go to the river’s edge for comfort, spiritual renewal, meditation, solitude; we go to the river to feel and know the continuance of life.

The relationship between a river and its landscape is reciprocal. A river not only shapes the landscape, but is shaped by it. A river also carves the landscape of cultures. "The Biobío River is our unique river. We all live for the Río Biobío. Río Biobío is us," says José Curriaó, a Pehuenche chief living on the upper Biobío River in Chile.

The definition of a symbiotic relationship is the living together in intimate association of two dissimilar organisms. As Patrick McCully, author of Silenced Rivers points out, "nothing alters a river as totally as a dam. A reservoir is the antithesis of a river - the essence of a river is that it flows, the essence of a reservoir is that it is still." A symbiotic relationship cannot exist when the essential character of one of the organisms is denied.

The symbiotic relationship of rivers to humanity is reflected in this quote by storyteller Mark Twain:

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book - a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.

A river tells a story, the story of the land and the people who loved, laughed, struggled, fought and crossed the river before us. We cross the river with a thousand footsteps to guide our way. In this age of dam building and river engineering, what is the story that we are leaving behind: what will the river say of us?

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