Rivers We Have Known

Exploring waterways and the question: “Where are we?”

It was the poet Gary Snyder whom I first heard try to answer the question “Where are we?” by speaking not in terms of towns or regions but rivers. We were in the Czech Republic, in the region of Moravia, in the city of Brno, near the banks of the Svratka and the Svitava (not far from a dig where paleontologists recently unearthed a pit that appears to have been used by prehistoric chefs for barbecueing mammoths), tributaries to the Dyje that flows into the Morava that defines the border between Czechs and Slovaks and Austrians and flows into the more-brown-than-blue-Danube, which waltzes its way south to the Black Sea.

An interesting thing happens when you begin to speak in terms of rivers and their tributaries bubbling up from springs in the highlands—this liquid geography overflowing with metaphor and flowing down over millennia: We find connections thousands of miles upstream, with moments of stillness and thunderous roaring waterfalls and mile-wide deltas to come.

Wrapped around the cover of this issue of SCM is the Colorado River, majestic sculptor of one of the world’s natural wonders, the Grand Canyon, offering lessons in beauty and wonder and humility in the face of creation. It’s a river I have known in a few ways: from weeks in the Anza-Borrego Desert and the mistake of a saline lake there, the Salton Sea; and from years in balmy San Diego, whose thirst is quenched by that river, too, thanks to a brokered arrangement between states, since the river demarcates where Nevada and then California end and Arizona begins, before the river flows, much diminished, into Mexico and toward but no longer into the Gulf of California.

The first waterway I knew—really knew, intimately, washing through me and over me and tugging me downstream in an icy brown torrent of February ice melt—is a nameless brook on the fringes of Chicagoland. That rivulet flows into Grassy Lake, part of the Flint Creek Watershed, which pours into the Fox River, which flows into the Illinois River, a tributary of the mighty Mississippi on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. That nameless brook nearly killed me. Age 5: I stood on the slushy bank with my buddy Mike Maurer, the two of us hefting found tree limbs and lowering them into the water to test its depth. My stick lost its perch on the bottom, and I went in. Drifted downstream, around a bend. Caught hold of a root. Hoisted myself out with Mike’s help. Stood shivering in the twilight, glad to be alive, and if not quite understanding how close I’d come to death, then at least grasping a thread of how close I had come to something terribly irrevocable.

I have known other rivers since then but none quite like that. And learned a little respect for the waters that have filled our glasses and slaked the thirst of crops, carried our commerce and swallowed our sludge, served as spawning grounds for salmon and trout, shimmered and caught fire. These sparkling arteries that were flowing tens of thousands of years before we built condominiums and zócalos and Jet Skis and post offices and dry cleaners. That will, if we care enough to make it so, still be flowing years hence when the Jet Skis have been replaced by personal jet packs powered by static electricity.

Keep the faith,
Steven Boyd Saum signature
Steven Boyd Saum
Managing Editor

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