Friday, April 12, 2013

WITH THE FLOW – An Appreciation of Rivers

There are ocean people; there are lake people; and then there are river people.
I’m a river person.

When I was seven, my parents bought a summer home, an old white frame farmstead nestled in the valley of the St. Croix River, the beautiful, largely unspoiled stream that for its last 125 miles forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

There were other kids in our little settlement, and I enjoyed playing, hiking and exploring with them. Among them, a couple of very sweet girls my age infused this mix of fun and adventure with a note of unfamiliar urgency. But it was the river that became my best friend.

      In it and along it dwelt all the characters who 
    taught me to be quiet, curious and reverent.

It was out there, on the water, where I escaped from whatever demons might possess a pretty happy,  privileged boy. That’s where I did my thinking, or, as became the case more and more for me, turned off my thinking.

The St. Croix defined certain stages of my growth: the first fish I caught; my first unaided swim across to the Wisconsin shore and back (required of all the kids in the village before they were allowed to take a boat out alone); the first time I got up on water skis; the first—and I hope only—time I helped drag for the body of a drowning victim.

The river was also my conveyance, not just to sand bars, fishing holes and meandering sloughs, but also, in a very real sense, to wonder. In it and along it dwelt all the characters who taught me to be quiet, curious and reverent.

What is it about rivers that gets into a boy’s blood? Sea lovers talk of the ocean’s power and mystery, its rhythms of swell and surf and tides. Rivers, too, have their rhythms, winding, rising and falling, rushing and slowing, freezing and thawing. But the power that most resonates with me is their constancy, their sheer inevitability.

The sea can take you places, but usually it takes a sail, oars, an engine or some other device to power you. A river is the power that moves you.

At least theoretically, you could fill in a portion of the sea bed and all it would do is to raise the level of the rest of the sea a fraction of a millimeter. But block a portion of a river and, like a channeled tsunami, it just keeps coming. Just ask someone whose home sat this morning a mile from the Red River of the North and just got swept away like so much flotsam.

Perhaps it’s this silent, inexorable power that hooked me as a boy and still moves me today. Part of the fascination, I suppose, is the danger, one I’ve never sensed from any but the biggest, most wind-prone lakes. Along with our amazing Midwest thunderstorms and the occasional tornado, rivers taught me to not just embrace and trust Nature, but to respect her.

        Lake waves are like joy suppressed,  
        slipping out in mere muffled snickers.

A river is always new. The water—and everything on or in it—that’s here now will all be 100 miles downstream by this time tomorrow.

The ocean’s too ponderous, too serious, to countenance water’s playful side; a river invites it to frolic, leaping over rocks, dodging deadheads, carving corners, chortling through rapids. And embedded in all these antics are some practical physics lessons, the kind one absorbs best when more aware of the fun than the learning.
And I’ll stack the roar of a waterfall up against the crash of surf any day. As pleasant as those rollers—or the gentle lapping of lake waves—can be, they’re like joy suppressed, slipping out in mere muffled snickers. A waterfall lets it all out, one constant, exuberant belly laugh.

On the other hand, for all this repression, the sea does have its breaking point. Then it erupts—overreacting in stormy snits, heavy-handed hurricanes, tsunami tantrums. Here rivers prove the shrewd, resolute adults of the waters family, exerting their influence, their discipline, with deep wisdom and eternal patience.

If the sea is the heart of earth’s weather, rivers are its veins, collecting and channeling the very same molecules of water back to the sea, the clouds and the land, again and again, forever.

              There the rivers are, lacing together a 
         patchwork quilt of browns, yellows and 
         greens—quite literally watercolors.

This elemental, nourishing flow is never more evident to me than when I’m  flying. I look down and there the rivers are, lacing together a patchwork quilt of browns, yellows and greens—quite literally watercolors.

Perhaps it’s part of the wonder of that timeless flow that, while the sea wages its constant tug-of-war between earth’s and moon’s gravity, a river answers to just one master, its flow so fundamental, so uncontested. It simply takes the shortest path it can find to lower ground, stopping only at the sea, which can only sit and await its constant arrival.

So, what’s your relationship with rivers? Is there one that’s scoured and shaped your life? How does its magic stream over, around and through you? And how do you celebrate its wonders? We’d love to hear your comments...


Anonymous said...

I remember being in a remote cabin upon the Selawik River in the arctic circle of Alaska. It wasn't quite break up time for the ice, but the river was rising since spring temperatures were melting the snow.

Because of this, moats were developing on both banks of the river with a solid stream of ice firmly planted in the center strip of the river. What was really fascinating were the caribou swimming firstly across the southern moat only to be afraid to cross the northern moat.

A few caribou then developed the courage to cross the second body of water only to realize that the bulk of the herd didn't follow them. And so their courage was in a way negated only to swim back to the center ice to be stymied with the rest of the herd. Hours would pass with the caribou either resting or walking up and down the middle of the river ice, not quite knowing how to deal with the fear that blocked their forward progress.

Unknown said...

Loved this! I live on the shores of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Genesee River. The lake is vast and when you are out far enough, it seems endless. But the river is full of life.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Bern'e - Glad you like my post. Thanks for sharing your dramatic memory of the Selawik. As you suggest, rivers that far north have a very different life from those down here, or even more so in the tropics.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey there, Yvonne -- Thanks so much for visiting One Man's Wonder and for your kind words. After having just posted a reflection on change at Google+, it's no wonder post on rivers caught your eye -- they're all about change, right? Never the same river.
May you walk in ways of wonder. If you haven't checked out my book, "Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder," I think you might really enjoy it :-) (Link is at top of this page in the right-hand sidebar.

Vishnu said...

All right Jeff - you've mada me a convert to rivers:) I grew up in Malaysia, a peninsula, surrounded by oceans and it was pretty scary. YOu never knew what the ocean had in store for you! But there's a certain degree of certainty about rivers. I like how you described it as discipline, wisdom and patience.

There are several extremely holy rivers in India which are sacred, healing and have a lot of mythological importance. Their safety and cleaniness are a different story all together:) but I do hope to visit them some day.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Many thanks, Vishnu - Glad I converted you, but I realize there's an equally strong case to be made for the sea. It's just that I think rivers, for their slender, meandering presence, too often get short shrift.
Now that you mention it, I forgot the include something of the spiritual power we've bestowed on rivers -- the Ganges and other Indian rivers being good examples. Be well, my friend!

Sara said...

I grew up with the ocean as my teacher. I haven't around very many rivers and so I can't really speak to the impact they would have on my life, but reading this post was so enjoyable because you shared the impact this river had on your life. Through your words and pictures, I could imagine what it would be like.

These words you wrote are beautiful: "If the sea is the heart of earth’s weather, rivers are its veins, collecting and channeling the very same molecules of water back to the sea, the clouds and the land, again and again, forever."

They will stay in my mind and heart for some time. If I do visit a river, I hope I remember them.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Sara. I think nearly everyone has been taught by water -- in one form or another. I'm fascinated by the sea too, but it intimidates me; seems so boundless and impersonal. Perhaps there are lessons in that too.
I enjoy your blog -- your current post on the thorns and honeysuckle is wonderful! Keep up the good work...

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