Listen to Ross Thrasher read this article by Scott Lawrance (14:59)
No more tame language about wild things.”
– Martin Shaw
“They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming.”
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
“To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”
– Barry Lopez
“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.”
– David Brower
If I walk out my door and stroll up my street, where not so long ago lived miners who laboured underground here, extracting the black gold that fueled ships of the British Navy in their conquests on behalf of an Empire upon which the sun never set, and keep walking for exactly 613 paces, I come to a wooden footbridge the threshold between village and forest. At around 400 paces, the road has swerved toward the village to the right and I have dropped down the hill to meet the former railroad grade that runs along the wetlands on its way to Royston from Comox Lake. Willows and Big Leaf Maple dominate here and in the summer the depleted bees forage in goldenrod.
When I first came here, an old, rustic, and dilapidated wooden bridge spanned a small flow from a marshy pond into the lower swamp. Now, a newer bridge has been built to accommodate both local walkers and the increasing number of mountain bikers approaching the mecca of bike trails that labyrinth the Cumberland Community Forest. Beneath the bridge are two large black plastic corrugated pipes where previously the water had flowed over a small natural dam. I don’t really understand what they are for but I am fairly certain that they function to somehow manage and control the flow of water within this wetland.
Actually the sight of those two pipes oxygenated my curiosity about these wetlands and their kin water features in this vast and complex system we call a watershed. I hesitate to call this a system because I doubt that the land would refer to itself as a “system”. And I started really to wonder about how to name or describe this being through which the waters run, each so individual, though “composed of the same substance.” How might I find a flowing language that desires not to capture but to release? “Nets” is one metaphor that comes to mind, but while the form bears some analogue, the purpose or function of each seems radically different. Though, if a net is primarily known by its ability to carry, to bear, we may be justified in describing it as a network of channels: latticework, lacework, circulatory system. But what is this collective, this community of flow really, in its own magical presence?
Vanessa Machado de Oliveira reminds us that, “modernity is faster than thought”. While I hesitate to speak for anyone but myself, I would say that we have each been thoroughly conditioned to experience ourselves as separate entities trained to organize our world instrumentally, to maximize our chances of survival, personally, politically, culturally, and as a species. Elements of both hard- and soft-wiring are at play. Here, I hope to step back to resist for a moment the impulse to control, shape and manage. There are some amazing developments here in the K’omoks Valley as we humans seek to engage with its defining waters, but I wish for a moment to pause and re-member our entanglement with the element and its shapes before the need to manage overtakes me.
Now, in the Anthropocene (or perhaps more accurately, the Capitalocene), as the related threats of the climate catastrophe slam into our awareness, Water in its surfeit and in its absence demands attention! Civilization owes its very existence to the management of water. The dams of the Tigris-Euphrates, the Mekong Delta, the Nile and the Yangtse each enabling the expansion of agriculture and the creation of surplus sources of food have conditioned our development as a species for thousands of years, giving rise to the displacement, oppression and enslavement of independent nomadic and pastoral societies. As a species, we have thus taken for granted an instrumental relationship with water.
The website of the Comox Valley Regional District provides us with a case study of this approach. It notes that 49,000 of us are dependent upon this system for our well-being, defining it as follows: “The watershed is 461 square kilo metres and reaches to the top of the Comox Glacier and the mountains surrounding Comox Lake. It is an interconnected system of mountains, forests, rivers, creeks and streams and an ecological corridor that links Vancouver Island mountains with the Salish Sea. All the snow and rain that falls within the Comox Lake watershed flows through forests, rivers, creeks and streams into Comox Lake… Within the Comox Lake watershed there are multiple sub-basins named for the creeks and rivers that flow through them. These include the Upper Puntledge, Cruikshank, Boston Creek and Perseverance Creek sub-basins.”
We read that, “the management of the Comox Lake watershed is made more complex by the multiple land owners and managers in the watershed boundaries… Forests and creeks play a critical role in capturing, storing, filtering and releasing water. These functions are an ‘ecological service’ that nature provides free of charge.” We learn through the language of such documents the centrality of our position in the world of things. Can it be otherwise? Does it matter?
What if the denial of our entanglement with the world begins to erode? Might we discover an unsuspected set of possibilities, of freedom even, that are currently occluded by the neurobiology of modernity? I suggest that Water, freed from its instrumental capture and imprisonment in our own needs, wants, and desires might be welcomed as a messenger, friend, lover even, who opens our eyes to the flow of experience. She may prompt us to resist the temptation to seek solid states of being and invite us to join a dance of joyous movement.
Traces of such a relationship are present in the foundational fragment of Heraclitus: “τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” (ta panta rhei kai ouden menei). It roughly translates to, “everything flows, and nothing stays.” I recall this aphorism while reading a conversation between the archetypal psychologist James Hillman and historian Sonu Shamdasani in “Lament for the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book” on page 103:
“There’s a moment in The Secret of the Golden Flower when he speaks about the realization of the significance of letting things happen, of “Gelassenheit,” which he says is a lesson that Meister Eckhardt taught him, analogous to the wu wei of the Taoists, of allowing psychic events to happen of their own accord. The relativization happens straight off there, which is allowing the spontaneous emergence of figures, stepping back, and then attempting to take stock, to follow what ensues.”
This reference is resonant with other primal images from classical Chinese, for example, Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching, which reads, “The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.”
Hillman reflects upon the parallels within Jung and the analytic process:
“It is a tremendous relief of the sense of guilt or responsibility for everything that’s happened in my life as being my doing, and therefore my rectification, through insight, through introspection, through working on my analysis, seeing my therapist, working through the transference, all the various things that people have been doing for a hundred years. Instead you’re engaged with what you call this flow or stream of deep psychic life, which is at the same time a stream of energy, because this kept Jung going for fifteen years. It wasn’t only the rituals of his daily life, family, military, patients. It was this liveliness of the stream.” (p.103)
From an instrumental point of view, as we struggle to find our way in this fraught time, we must relate to water differently. We must protect our water sources. We must plan for, manage, and develop plans to mitigate the role of water in our world. But, I would like to suggest that we must even more importantly change our relationship with Water, both as the elemental source of Life and also as she is a presence in our lived landscapes. The rebellious, vibrant, courageous activity of indigenous Water Protectors around the globe includes relational ceremony as well as civil disobedience.
In Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa challenges us to engage new ways of acting, knowing, and being: “to explore the boundaries of what we perceive to be real, intelligible, possible, and relevant and look for alternatives…to expand our existing sensibilities, affective landscapes, and constellations of knowledge and relationality.” (p.101)
Dogen, the brilliant 13th century founder of Soto Zen, reminds us that, “All beings do not see mountains and waters in the same way. Some beings see water as a jewelled ornament, but they do not regard jewelled ornaments as water. What in the human realm corresponds to their water? We only see their jewelled ornaments as water. Some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, but they do not use blossoms as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the Dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions. Thus the views of all beings are not the same. You should question this matter now. Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing?” (Mountains and Waters Discourse (1) (Sansui Kyo) By Zen Master Dogen Translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi)
May we take these words to heart! The profoundly relational, animistic ways of knowing, being, and acting of indigenous people worldwide remain open, invitational, and provocative for us all. In the documentary film ‘Aluna’ the Kogi say that the rivers connect everything: “You don’t have to abandon your lives but you must protect the rivers.” May we each discover practices that reveal and feed our entanglement with the living waters of both our transient flesh and magical watershed landscapes.
Let us sing with the Dead that “far gone lullaby / sung many years ago / Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come/ since I first left home… Going home, going home/ by the waterside I will rest my bones/ listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul”
Scott Lawrance, Ed.D., R.C.C.
A retired member of the B.C. Teacher’s Federation, Scott has taught at all levels of public education from grade two to post-Secondary. His current professional interests include Buddhist approaches to eco-therapy. Scott and his Salish Sea Eco-retreats partner, Tara Souch offer annual eco-retreats for wilderness guides and interested professionals. He is the author of four books of poetry and has, in the past, edited two poetry magazines, “Raven” and “Circular Causation”.