My River Ramblings
It’s safe to say that my armchair anthropology is unlikely to garner any Nobel nominations but still, at the risk of offending Margaret Mead, I can’t help but offer my thoughts of the relationship between rivers and people. From the first Bedouins settling in the Fertile Crescent, through the Yangtze, the Nile, the Thames, the Danube, and even Mark Twain’s Mighty Mississippi, people gravitate to rivers regardless of religious, cultural or political persuasion. Rivers transcend us.
More and more I’m beginning to think that the scribes made a transcription error and perhaps the proverb was supposed to read: “Where there are no rivers, the people perish.” For at every turn and around every bend, rivers have proven as adaptable to man’s purposes as they are to the boulders, logs and bogs that interrupt their flow. Rivers have provided people with a source of nourishment, security, commerce and inspiration. Even today, as the once prominent role of rivers to move commerce and power industry has waned, rivers court us with a new gift; a gift of place. Rivers are sacred spaces to reconnect with nature and with ourselves in moments of reflection and personal contemplation.
In an era when unlimited information access has brought down the Berlin wall of the 40 hour week, contemplation seems to have become the sacrificial lamb left at the alter of Workus Maximus, the god of productivity. Work has ridden the coattails of the information contagion and has spread into every aspect of our lives like the viruses that roam within the networks themselves. With cyber-space preempting personal space, contemplation is relegated to luxury status that no one can seem to afford.
Perhaps naively I reminisce for the rhythms of the bygone agricultural and industrial eras, where people at least had the benefit of seasonal and industrial production cycles to catch their breath. But information doesn’t breathe – much less need to eat, take a break or sleep – so we push onward, swept up in the current, driving to achieve greater efficiency and productivity by working our brains harder and longer, held hostage to video cell phones, beepers, blackberry email, and internet access at home, on the road, and even at wi-fi coffee shops – which were ironically created as places to get away and take a break from work in the first place.
Somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten what the old farmers knew about rotating crops to keep the soil fertile. Instead we push harder and harder to harvest knowledge from the same plot of land with less time than ever before to actually think about what we are doing. In a knowledge based economy, thinking should be the focus not the distraction; yet at a time when we need it most, we do it the least.
For all the promise of conscious thought, it takes equally conscious effort to set aside time to use that gift and think about life’s important matters. I have never forgotten the tenet that a life unstudied is hardly a life worth living – yet in rushing to reach our professional summits, contemplative time has become lost beneath the storm surge of tasks that exhaust our energy from paddling like hell to stay afloat.
Talk about swimming against a rip tide. If fighting City Hall was hard try resisting the cultural phenomenon of the Information Age. Despite the benefit of thousand of years of evolution we don’t really seem to be faring any better than our ancestors who were helpless against the tectonic push of the Ice Age. Swimming in a sea of data, I have a new appreciation for the old adage, “ignorance is bliss.”
Yet still we paddle. And I guess that’s what bothers me. I can’t help but wonder whether we have really been assigned this fate or whether we have accepted this fate without giving it much thought. Worse yet, maybe we have paddled for so long we’ve forgotten how to float – and in an ironic way we may have manufactured our own fate.
Although I can’t prove it, I personally think that we are hardwired to hear the rivers song. From Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens, the evolution of the human animal never seems to have strayed far from its river roots. Rivers occupy sacred spaces in our cultural mythology borne from a legacy of nurturing our physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Rivers fed the oceans that gave birth to our single celled ancestors and river water hydrates our multi-celled biology today. Rivers sustain us at many levels.
As rivers flow around and through us they keep us connected to our ecological heritage and re-affirm our seat at nature’s table. Rivers challenge civilized minds to see man as a natural and evolving outgrowth of everything that preceded him; another quantum in the trajectory of life; a conscious animal. Rivers offer hope that the price of consciousness did not include exile from nature’s garden, and despite our distance traveled, man remains a part of the river’s flow.
Rivers have always been there to take us places. Rivers transported settlers to the frontier, providing both a ways and a means to get through rugged mountainsides. Rivers became our first gathering places that supported farm communities that grew into the towns that eventually grew into America’s great cities thanks to the river’s ability to transport people and commerce. In time, commerce grew into manufacturing that harnessed the river’s power to turn turbines and fuel industry. When we let them, rivers still have the power to transport us today; as they take us away from our crazy world and help us find safe passage through our travails.
Meandering rivers represent the pinnacle of effective strategy. Rivers evidence the wisdom of knowing when to “go with the flow” to move around rocks while simultaneously moving mountains one grain of sand at a time. At a time when bigger, stronger, and tougher appear to be the formula for achieving success in our increasingly competitive world, the river suggests that adaptation and ability to change hold the keys to understanding the true meaning behind Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.
But rivers are more than adaptation – they are regenerative. Rivers invite us renew and refresh ourselves. River water baptizes, inspires and soothes.
I enlisted to serve on the good ship USS Kent with a thirst for adventure, excited by the prospect of seeing exotic locales where few cities had ventured, and to be a part of a place that was committed to be all that it could be. When I signed-up I knew the journey would be hard and would lead through unchartered waters but I thought it was a risk worth taking.
I came to Kent optimistic that the my energy would be better served when combined with the energy of the entire community and together we could move the ship forward in the name of progress rather than suffering an endless fate of bobbing up and down individually on the open sea. After a year on the job I stiill believe. And whenever I start to feel worn out I head down to the river and I am reminded that even when things look the same, they never are, the river changes every day and so does Kent.