I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries on this planet earth over the past 30 years. I have never really liked the idea of being a tourist, and whenever I have accidentally found myself in such a guise, I rush to hide it in some obscure and often hilarious (to my travelling companions, at least) way. What I really want is for any journey to give me opportunities to literally experience life and death, suffering and grief, poverty and prosperity, fear and violence, laughter and beauty, order and chaos in all their extreme forms. What a remarkable place we inhabit that carries such contrasts and yet delivers such extremes in every human emotion.

On many occasions I have wondered what it would be like to be born in a different culture, time, background, gender, economic demographic, and this childish thought alone has shaped my passion and unrelenting desire to learn more and be challenged – changed by the encounters that each day, year, month brings.

One of the almost obsessive desires I have everywhere I go, is to find water, and the question I ask first is – where is the nearest river? Specifically, I search for rivers because rivers shape lives. A river never stays the same. A body of water that stays the same is nothing – at best it is a nice pond; at worst it is a stagnant puddle. 

Most of the world’s major cities were built on or around areas of fresh water. Our ancestors chose to settle near these areas as rivers were a means of supplying drinking water for their families and livestock, as a food supply, used for irrigating crops and as a means of transport in order to aid commerce. Most of the world’s capital cities have their respective main areas of fresh water, be it either a river, a lake, a canal or an oasis. 

As transport has moved from boats to planes, trains and multiple vehicles, the geographic norm of fresh water at the heart of communities has changed, but the climate emergency is sending everyone back to simplicity, locality, sustainability and reality. Water will become the new oil and gas and its scarcity or abundance the new contention and bargaining tool of nations and cultures of the world. 

Water and the power to create change

Rivers are remarkable illustrations of so many things. Time, rhythm, direction, strength, tranquility, rage, and so much more. They seemingly start from nothing and yet, during the course of their journey, can create whole new places, locations and landscapes. Their ability to endlessly capture our attention and to still pulsating thoughts is a remarkable phenomenon. 

When we are actively engaging in timeless moments in life, we are following nature’s design for rivers. Rivers seem neither rushed or bothered by holding to set patterns but can ebb and flow as they please to their own existential paradigm. They can flow gently or cut new paths and forge new places, locations and even habitats. Their unrestrained nature speaks of freedom and release, beauty and devastation, new worlds and ancient paths. Some rivers are shifted by tides in certain patterns but that is a small restraint to a larger and more profound existence. 

A river is a clear way to illustrate change. Rivers exist to change everything and to sustain everything. They turn nothing to everything. They start with rain, ice and melting snow, a trickle that can’t be called a river. Led by gravity, the trickle follows cracks and folds in the land as it descends. A river sustains and erodes. It carries sediment, soil and rocks; it deposits sediment, soil and rocks. It reshapes the land and cuts into the soil to form channels. Rivers merge and diversify, creating wider stretches of water, streams and islands. They are fast-moving and slow-moving, young and old.

The river bed, the river and the river bank are important breeding sites for many creatures. Human life, too, has gathered around rivers. Clearly, humans need access to water for drinking and growing crops. A location near to a large body of water is also useful for transportation, communication and trade. Local access to a plethora of natural resources is obviously highly beneficial, because we need this stuff to build cities. Rivers bring life; they are designed to move and create.

Egypt’s first known settlements occurred mostly around the Nile River at around 5000 BC. Egypt’s naturally hot and arid climate drew people towards the Nile’s lush flood plains to begin farming and building a community.

The Nile’s 6693 kilometres are a resource shared by 11 African countries. 

The river which flows through the most capital cities is Europe’s River Danube, which runs through the four cities of  Belgrade, which is the capital of Serbia, Bratislava the capital of Slovakia, Budapest which is the capital of Hungary and Vienna the capital of Austria.  

About 70% of the earth’s surface is made up of water.

At least 40 major cities around the world have rivers that run through them. They pass through not only the geographic boundaries of the related country, but often move on to cross multiple city and country borders. They are the cross-fertilisers and boundary-crossing phenomena of the natural world.  

‘Lost’ rivers

Although it is often rivers that attract people, the development of that population can also make rivers a victim of the successful conurbation. Rapid industrialisation in Yonkers, New York, meant that a succession of bigger and bigger bridges were built, eventually covering the river completely. In some cities, Moscow, for example, the river has posed a threat to the city and attempts to tame it have led to intervention to divert it to a new course or force the river into tunnels. ‘Lost’ rivers like these show us how the power of a river to change the landscape has been matched by the power of humans to change the river.

In these hidden rivers we encounter paths and histories that occasionally emerge for a brief moment then hide again to take their path and their destiny in new directions. Have we lost something fundamental when a river is lost like this?

The National Geographic film ‘The Mission to Save Africa’s Okavango Delta’ charts the incredible journey of the world’s greatest delta regions. The filmmakers say, 

The water comes almost entirely from Angola, Botswana’s complicated neighbor, two countries away. It begins in the moist highlands of Angola’s rainy center and flows toward the country’s southeast, quickly in one major drainage, the Cubango, and more slowly in another, the Cuito, where it pools into source lakes; percolates slowly through grassy floodplains, peat deposits, and underlying sand; and seeps into tributaries. 

It continues:

Take away that liquid gift, rendered by Angola to Botswana each year, and the Okavango Delta would cease to exist. It would become something else, and that something would not include hippos, sitatungas, or African fish eagles. If southern Africa were a vast golf course, Okavango with the faucets closed would be one of its sand traps.

This kind of transformation of landscapes, river systems and delta regions, change life forever. Large sections of human, ecological and living species either cease to exist or adapt to new possibilities somewhere else. 

Let’s exemplify this picture of a river as a creative channel and force. A river enables us to make connections between past and present, nature and need, gravity and generosity, artifice and repetition, wilderness and domesticity. By studying rivers we are not applauding a simpler past but celebrating how the river captures a way of thinking and acting across boundaries.

Water is an elemental root of the universe, along with fire, earth, and air, nature, ice, light and darkness. These elements are strong illustrations of very deep-rooted things in our psyche. 

The wind is always moving, going where it likes, complex, invisible and unpredictable.

Fire’s inability to be restrained has led to a human fascination with heat that combines its devastating power and its domestic comfort.

Earth is the essence of who we are. We are 90% carbon.

Water represents an ‘in between’ (transitional) state between ice and steam/air. 

It’s not surprising that those elements fascinated early Zorastrian understanding of the planet. Each element has incredible capacity for unleashing the power of nature. They illustrate life and the earth’s power. They all exist and co-exist as elemental parts of our planet.

Re-thinking through re-wilding

In the UK and many parts of the world, there is a move towards re-wilding. Isabella Tree in her excellent book Wilding, talks of saving her farm by a process of ecology, conservation and the reintroduction of wildlife and livestock. The Knepp estate in Sussex has turned from a semi-barren piece of farmland into 2000 acres of wild trees, plants, streams, ponds, rivers – all wonderfully connecting wildlife and multitudes of inquisitive tourists. Again, this is a metaphor of boundary-crossing; multiple and complex layers all interacting, seemingly serving one another with complimentary planting, all gifting each other to live more wild-ly and live more adventurously, to thrive and co-exist for the benefit of each other. 

This might seem a rather romantic notion of how things can work but maybe it also unravels the possibility of boundary-crossing as we call out ‘nothing is everything’. Perhaps when we get to ‘nothing’ anything else seems a long way away out of reach, an impossibility, a dream of another world. Yet in Isabella’s case, the appearance of untamed, unfarmed ‘nothing’ – wilderness – shows us the possibility of ‘everything’.  

Is that what re-wilding is? Re-thinking? We choose to let this relationship between wildness and change stand unapologetically! (The next section of this project – Silence – will explore how silence is portrayed as wild and dangerous.) The options for Isabella Tree and her failing farmland, initially seemed already familiar: she says it seemed like picking up an ancient book and saying “It was okay one time, shall we just try it again?” The river may lead us into lots of different territory and unfold for us a journey quite unexpected at times.

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