This is the last post of my Watson year. It comes as the first drop in a river that will grow and meander from here forward. Before we dive in, I want to thank you for reading – writing is solitary only in action, but in larger scope, it is shared and made possible by all who inspire and all who read and pass it forward.
Israeli writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, questions how a species of big headed, relatively weak apes could take over as the dominant species on the planet in a fairly short period of time. Harari credits our immense success to our ability to organize ourselves in masses around particular intersubjective fictions – money, myth, and law to name a few. Homo sapiens means “wise humans” in latin, and I am humored to think that maybe we should call ourselves Homo fictas, “humans of fiction.”
As a writer, storyteller, and student of language, I am concerned with words – their purpose and manipulation to form interpretations of the world, to compel action and incite emotion, to unify, to uplift, and to protest, to tear down. Language and writing are the fertile ground on which the great narratives of humanity are built and stratified, fortified with time and power.
Part of the work for survival is to compete, to make it in a harsh world, and there is only so much room for one species before others begin to disappear; we are seeing extinction at a rate unprecedented by any other blossoming of a single species ever. The planetary impact of humanity is staggering, and we must honestly weigh the components of life.
Because of our ability to tell stories, we are not only prone to biological evolution, but to the evolution of consciousness. In just 20 years, the internet shifted the paradigm, becoming a global phenomena and bursting culture at the seams. Can we cocreate a story about sustainability as compelling as that of technology? As common vocabulary loses terms from nature and expands into digital reality, is it possible to entwine strands of our ancient reliance on land, water, flora, and fauna into the sphere of binary code and complex computation?
One metaphor of the river has to do with the movement of time: a child growing up along a certain stretch of river cannot perceive the full scale of the river or the time it takes to reach the sea, but a pilgrim who has walked the river’s length many times will have a longview and will see the interconnection of said river with the ocean. We must work for the longview.
With science & technology making great contributions to civilization, there is potential to overlook the catastrophic consequences of over-consuming and polluting the earth, and we cannot do this. We must use the tools of science and technology as well as our body of knowledge about nature and its dynamic systems to strive for a sustainable future. This includes building institutions around these tenets and working to transform certain norms.
I think in the shadow of Buckminster Fuller, a human of extraordinary courage who worked during World War II as a naval engineer. Post-war, depressed and losing capacity to live well, Fuller decided to take his own life. Standing on the shore of Lake Michigan pointing a gun at his own head, he had a revelation. He thought, why take my own life and cause suffering to those around me, when I could similarly sacrifice myself but for the good of others? From that moment on, Fuller dedicated himself to a 50 year experiment – how much good could he do for the rest of humanity and the earth in his life?
Fuller’s experiment lasted 56 years until he passed away and left the foundation of nanotech, the language of synergetics, a plea to prevent buildup of greenhouse gases in the 1970s – an inspiring legacy as ripe fruit for the world to pick and carry forward. Cultivating a positive future, like growing a garden, requires time, discipline, revitalization, and effort.
Presently I am working as a farm hand, with soil, water, and plants. The act of growing food is one I wish everyone could experience, for the dynamic process and the work required to farm will make every bite of life more flavorful. Perhaps next year I will be a student of law, exploring one of the great stories that shape our actions in the world. Angela Davis, wrote that “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” Whether in a story or in the soil, roots connect to the substance that makes life possible, to grasp for that is a wonderful life’s work.
Jumbled as all of this may sound, it is a document of my life view from the age of 22 as I land on homeground with a rich year abroad steady on the mind. The urgency and difficulty of many situations we face on earth give powerful motivation to carry on downstream seeking solutions.
What are we looking for Standing on sand or stone Fishing into the waves Getting our feet wet What are we looking for
When we turn our eye To the orange moon The ironbound cliff Fire in the place Where fire burns
When we look at our hands Lined with life Telling stories that nobody writes Our hands are truth Look at your hands
When stars And shadows on the deck Don’t point North or South And a dead reckon Is all we have
When I was so afraid of the water What the burning sun Says to the corn When it decides to grow When grandma opens The canned corn And you take the kernels To go fishing in the river When the river fishes back And pulls you in
What is it in the river That speaks To the soul About moving on About the ocean About no end beginning About loving the dirt About what moves Earth
We begin when the Ganges River descended from Heaven.
When King Sagar wished more power, he decided to sacrifice a great horse. Jealous, Indra, the King of Gods, stole King Sagar’s chosen horse. To find the horse, Sagar sent his 60,000 sons who interrupted the great Sage Kapila in meditation, mistaking Kapila for the horse thief. Infuriated, Kapila incinerated the 60,000 sons. When Sagar found out, he broke down weeping, and Sage Kapila told him that to purify the incident, he must bring River Ganga to earth for salvation. Bhagiratha, the great-grandson of Sagar, convinced Brahma that Ganga must descend to Earth. Insulted to be expelled from heaven, Ganga wreaked havoc, flooding the world. Bhagiratha prayed urgently to Shiva, please entwine Ganga in your hair to hold her back, to save us. Hearing the call, Shiva agreed, and braided the great river as seven streams into his matted locks. Pleased at the union with Shiva, Ganga washed away the ashes of Sagar’s sons and filled the oceans and continues to bring salvation to India to this day.
Here is where she begins.
In June two years ago, I went looking for a book by environmentalist, Edward Abbey. Instead, I found Abbey’s friend Jack Loeffler – his big white beard and blue eyes. Jack Loeffler is a river man who spent his life recording geomythic mapping songs of people all over the world. He urged me as he urges everyone to think like a watershed.
A watershed is a community of life and land unified by water. A watershed is the whole body of a river system, and surely in that there is some soul.
This year, I wanted to find terra incognita and anima incognita, the margins of my map and the margins of humanity only charted with wild creatures and ideas, with water at the center. I wanted to map the unmappable, a sort of anthrocartoraphy to find out what anchors us in place. Of course, mostly I failed, hindered by so many human things. But, like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, I had the opportunity to listen to the great river when I felt lost.
To think like a river. Like a mountain. Like the wind. First, one must listen.
The youth of India. Do they see Ganga as a goddess? Do they feel salvation in her waters?
In India, it was at times difficult to hear the river, for the fugue of humanity there is a lot to attend to. I do not have images of the garbage and sewage and bodies that Ganga carries, but one can imagine.
A river, a goddess.
There is Ganga and there is Torne.
Mikael rowing on Torne.
And Mikael skiing on Torne.
Mikael is on the river everyday. He rows, swims, iceskates, and skis. Mikael has surely listened a lot to the river; he picks berries and mushrooms to feed his family and knows the forest as a neighbor; he can name the things all about and he knows where the ice will be thin and how to survive in the winter woods. He is a philosopher, a naturalist.
We drank Torne’s water in confidence, without purification, a rare privilege. I think Torne is divine like Ganga, though she has less humanity to carry and no dams to clog her up. I also think that Hinduism is wise to anchor the gods in natural phenomena, for what miracle is more available to all of us than the gangetic river dolphin, mycelium, a blueberry, a pine tree, or a man on skis.
Another miracle, in Atacama one can find towns where no rain fell for 40 years. It’s as surprising to see green and water in Atacama as seeing a sadhu acetic on a cellphone.
Rio Loa, river in the great expanse of Pacific-bound desert serves the needs of a very large hole in the ground.
Chuquicamata, one of the largest open pit mines on earth is Loa’s neighbor, producing copper to electrify the world. Calmly, Loa quenches Chuqui’s thirst, and carries away Chuqui’s toxic detritus.
In Werner Herzog’s film Lo and Behold, about internet and connectivity, Ted Nelson explains the internet as dragging one’s hand through water. The most interesting thing about Chuquicamata is how it physically links water with the web.
These days, as we here testify, humans are globalizing. To think like a watershed leads to the realization that all water is cycling, interconnectivity is. And so seems the path of global civilization.
Ralph Waldo Emerson considers ethics as a system of human duties like religion but without the personality of God.I feel that the imaginings of Gods are but human personalities divined to voice human ethics in the face of Nature which does not observe morality with human eyes but rather offers us eyes and intelligence to observe the universe. Yuval Noah Harari suggests that Silicon Valley is a new sort of Vatican. And I agree, but what will be our book of Proverbs?
Our ethics about technology and our ethics about rivers are part of the same phenomenon; reformation. We are a species overwhelmed by our inventions and we need a philosophy of nature that includes the internet and smartphones and plastic garbage.
My grandmother Irene says this is Planet Life; we are in the terrarium of divinity, and in that, if in anything, we are unified. If the true cost of a thing is the amount of life expended to make it, what is the true cost of life? This is a question we must ask ourselves as rivers are declared dead and black, as the vocabulary of nature is disappearing from mouths and minds into libraries or worse.
My quest to create a linguistic cartography of humans and rivers was futile, alone. It is asking a painter to paint her soul. Such work is a worthy endeavor, but to be a force of nature it must be done together. We are all charting a cartography of place all the time, we are all painting our souls. We are poets of existence. Along with the rest of the universe, we create nature along this rapid of time we happen to be paddling. As messy as it will be, as dissonant as jazz, I want a poetry, a manifesto, to synergize nature and technology.
Let’s be the manifesto, let’s be the poetry to merge nature and technology, lets call on Shiva and Ganga to help braid this flood into a river of salvation.
I am here, and here comes a poem. Excavating potatoes, and excavating poems. These are not so different in fact. Both, for me, are currently the fruit of living. Finding poetry in sentience, finding papas in sand.
Last year, about this time, my dear friend Haleigh Paquette and I went on a walk in the woods. We wandered about in the lowlands, looking at beech and oak and spruce forests, ferns for minutes. Then we climbed up a gorge between familiar mountains, seeking views from the heights. At the notch, in the quiet spruce stand, the path no longer led on as one, but formed an intersection. Left up – right up – straight ahead the belly of the beast. We wandered straight, and encountering nobody but ourselves as we shared a world of a conversation.
Haleigh and I, when we get to talking, there is no evading the substance of mind, and so, this particular day, with no distraction but the sunshine and the forest, the wonderful spring of coastal mountain, we talked. As we wandered and wondered, and time passed as only time can when nobody is there to talk about it, Haleigh asked me questions, and I asked Haleigh questions. I started to feel something quite powerful during this talk. I was finishing school at the time, nearly graduated, and heading into the unknown. But I knew something. I knew something in the way that truth leaps up like a fire stoked.
It was poetry.
Not a poem. But rather a call. Like a spring wind beckoning to the fisherman, lapping the shore and stirring the fish to begin their festivities of summer. It was in the most wonderful way a natural sensation, a reciprocity.
Now, after a year of time, in the confusion of austral winter, and the staggering yet wonderful realization that we indeed live on a flying globe, I am harvesting potatoes, cutting alfalfa, walking with sheep and goats, feeding rabbits, and laughing at llamas. I am becoming friends with Doña Maria, an 82 year old woman who has lived here all her life, a cultivator of the soil and a pastora of animals, a hiladora who spins wool and weaves and knits. Also with Don Antonio, son of Doña Maria, a man of steady humor and grin who relinquished the life of the city to work the earth with his mother.
We three are living in a valley ringed by volcanoes to the north and east, a fractured canyonland of springs that arise from a series of geysers to the southeast, the canyon of the Rio Salado to the south, and the open desert to the west where in the night one can see the lights of the Chuquicamata Mine envying the scale of the stars above–Southern Cross, Orion, Scorpio, Taurus.
Turi, where we are, is a hermitage of sorts, home to a few that cultivate the land and run animals. There is a geothermal bath in the town, that leads to a canal which brings water to the house here, and to the east, just across the road is an enormous series of small hills covered by a lost city, a stone lattice of massive extent called la Pucará de Turi, the largest of the settlements left by the Atacameño culture.
While I am here, I am going to experiment in poetry. These poems will come spontaneously, and may not come with narrative such as this. But please, dear readers, let this be a turn of chapter as I enter the final months of this riparian journey.
In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
I am in between river journeys now, a perfect time to write about what these last months in the wintery north have held.
The Torne River flows in a landscape of taiga forest marked by the Baltic Sea to the south and the pitched mountains along the Norwegian coast to the north, a region dramatically affected by glaciation from Earth’s most recent ice age and is today frozen half the year. When I met Kjell Kangas who grew up in the region, he told me that he thinks of Tornedalen, Torne Valley, more as archipelago than river valley. Over the heaths and bogs of land still upwelling, lightened from the weight of billions of tons of ice, flow five large rivers — Torne, Kalix, Lainio, Tarendo, and Muonio. Each river is connected to the four others as if the water is weaving a web around the taiga forest, and most impressively, none of these rivers has a dam.
In winter, Torne is a 550 km blanket of snow covering a foundation of blue, crystal ice that in many places will support the weight of a tractor. Elsewhere, long tumbling rapids prohibit the ice from forming, and the black river bursts through its icy ceiling, raging white over stones and reminding the traveler of caution, that this is indeed a lively river.
For 200 km, Torne marks the boundary between Sweden and Finland, and many of the Tornedaleners who generously invited me into their homes and shared stories of the place, told of the compelling history that entwines itself through the borderland. Linguistically, Tornedalen is home to Swedish, Sámish, Finnish, Miënkieli, and most recently English. Miënkieli literally means “our language,” and it is a form of antiquated Finnish that has absorbed some Swedish over the years. It is the living, breathing reminder that just over 200 years ago, there was no boundary in Tornedalen, and the residents were northern Finns, Sámi, and Kvener, not Swedish speakers, living within the Swedish Kingdom that maintained sovereignty over the region since the middle ages.
Then suddenly in 1809 Russia annexed Finland from the Swedish Crown, maintaining influence until the Russian Revolution when Finland took the opportunity to become a sovereign nation in 1917. Through the Great Wars and the rest of the last century, Tornedalen evolved under the auspices of neighboring nation states, at once being torn apart and maintaining a quiet unity across the water, probably aided by the fact that the river becomes lined with ice roads from bank to bank for six months of the year when ice dominates its surface.
My experience in this region cannot be summarized easily, and the reflections will last a lifetime. I was confronted with fragments of nature, myself, and human society around every corner. The fundamental state of this river — a clean, damfree, fishfull, peaceful boundary water — is an uncommon circumstance, and it hosts the largest salmon run in western Europe. It is truly a sanctuary for life.
After I finished skiing, I taught in the Pajala school, midway along the river’s course, grades 4-9, thanks to Kjell who works there. When speaking with the students, telling them about the dire situation along the Ganges River and its tributaries in Nepal, I asked them to consider what it would be like if the Swedish city upstream, Kiruna, was home to 10,000,000 people instead of 20,000 and had no proper sewage treatment. This gained some exasperated reactions, especially when I showed them an aerial view of Varanasi and one of the sewage drains into the Ganges. But in that moment it occurred to me that it doesn’t take 10,000,000 to pollute a river. Kiruna’s 20,000 people could make Torne’s waters ripe with harmful bacteria and protozoa, at least enough to make the water not potable, while now it is.
A thorough and regulated mode of processing sewage and strict regulations for pollution and on damming can maintain the abundance of life in a river and keep it pure enough to drink right out of the flow. For many of the Swedish born students in Pajala, the reality of Torne River’s purity was an unimpressive fact. But in the school are many refugees, and the students from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not believe the bounty of fresh water when they arrived.
A river is not unlike a person; if confined by artificial boundaries, literal like prison bars or figurative like debt, one is stifled even to a tragic degree; if overwhelmed with toxins — sugar, alcohol, drugs, chemicals — the body will unravel dispelling potential for life, especially without modern medical convenience. If one attains the nebulous yet rich heart of freedom, there is opportunity to flourish and to carry others in the wake. I am not trying to say that a dirty river cannot be free, or for that matter a person who takes drugs or is in prison cannot be free, but that perhaps we can form an ideology that places the very land, water, and resources that sustain us in a position of power, with rights, as a gift to ourselves.
Is not freedom the heart of worldly attainment, the foundational goal of so many of our collective ideologies? Is freedom just for us, or can a river be free, a forest, a mountain? Freedom is not achieved alone, but as part of a web of life. Can we work our way in a global world to at once engage our hunger for technology and imbue ourselves with morals embedded in nature, imbue the landscape with its own rights and economy? In a world fissuring at the folds of religion and polarized by nationalism, there is one place that human spirit lies which is common to all of us, in nature.
These journeys are showing me how to rewild myself, my vocabulary, my interactions; how to unlearn the manicured social contracts, lawns of the imagination, that I have with the earth in order to see with fresh eyes that there are bountiful opportunities for us humans to reconnect with one another and our shared landscapes. It’s a matter of revaluing “sense not cents” and thinking like a river, like a bed of soil, to think of gardeners as the aristocracy of connectedness, those who understand the relationships that enable life.
I’ve recognized something about my project that is fitting to close this letter. In many ways I am a pilgrim, searching for everything and nothing, partial only to the path of the river and nature, and the people who happen into my life as a result. I am not trying to unearth anything in particular, to inform a literal map of any area, but rather I will my conscious effort into a rivercentric perambulation that is trying to get at the poetry of land that Barry Lopez writes about, at the heart of nature, that strives so intently to pursue a natural flow, a force among forces.
As I move about, letting the ineffability of the landscape and other people fill this time, I cannot express the gratitude I feel for the opportunity. Thank you.
From the flow,