River Dreams: A Paean to Water – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

by on September 6th, 2009
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A Newly Revised Section from our Upcoming Book:  “Home: Reinhabiting Self, Place & Purpose”


River Dreams:
A Paean to Water
by Jesse Wolf Hardin




Sleeping outdoors as we do, the sound of the flowing river course through our dreams as through our lives.  Last night I awoke to rains that failed to come during the normal July and August monsoon season, the musical rhythms of the season’s first torrents.  It is hard to imagine it, given that the Rio Frisco is currently low and narrow enough in places to leap over… but it was just such conditions in 1983 that resulted in an early October flood that filled the canyon from one side to the other.  At any given point we know we could be encountering either a deluge or a drought.

But let no one ever say that we don’t have running water.  Whenever it storms, the sweet water runs off our metal roof, runs down the gutter and into waiting containers.  When they overflow we run out to transfer buckets from one barrel to the next, and when we run out of water in the house we run outside to get more!

Dipping out a cup full, it’s hard not to be affected by its crystalline clarity, intrigued with the way the surface curves up the sides like a cat rubbing against a leg.  We remember that without this most vital liquid the digestion and assimilation of nutrients would be impossible.  The universal solvent, water reduces the nutrients necessary for both plant and animal life, dissolving them in the bowels of the soil as in the twists and turns of the human digestive tract.  It’s capable of penetrating most barriers, and when flowing it can wear down even the hardest stone daring to impede its willful passage.  Water constitutes up to three fourths of a person or animal’s total weight, and similarly three fourths of the planet’s surface is covered with it– three hundred million cubic miles of fresh and salt water.  The soil is full of it, it flows beneath the driest deserts, and even the most solid of rocks harbor some moisture within.  Looking at satellite images of the mostly blue covered planet, one might be tempted to name it Oceanus instead of Earth…. a world of water.

On the other hand, while the deepest trenches of the Western Pacific could easily swallow the breadth of the tallest mountain, the oceans are but a shallow film relative to the mass of the Earth, similar to the thin skin on an apple.  Competition has gotten fierce for the ever scarcer fresh water supplies, and underground aquifers are fast being depleted through wasteful surface irrigation and the growing demands of industry, urban golf courses and suburban lawns.

Like so many others in the arid Southwest, the Rio Frisco is drained of every drop long before it gets to the sea.  In the United States three hundred and fifty billion gallons of ground and surface water are removed per day, from reservoirs that are increasingly polluted, depleted and despoiled.  Counting the water used for the production of their food as well as their household usage, citizens here on average require an astounding fifteen hundred gallons per person per day.  It can take up to two thousand gallons just to produce a pound of Western beef steak.  During recent court wrangling over the disposition of the Rio Grande, it was revealed that more water was being demanded by the growing cities than the area’s farmers – mostly to water ornamental non-native grass and keep the state’s many hotel and motel showers flowing.



Arriving in this remote canyon in the Fall of 1979, I was literally the first protector of its precious river in 1,000 years, fencing off parts of the land to protect it from the free ranging cattle.  For years I had no partners, no focused land-loving mate or offspring devoted to and helping me protect and serve this special place, replanting and restoring its banks until at least one section of the canyon was a thriving riparian forest again.  In time, willows stabilized the banks, wildflowers attracted pollinators like bees and songbirds from afar.  Before long, blue heron alighted to nest, and noisy flocks of ducks chose this part of the river for a rest stop on their lengthy migrations.  Beaver have built dams, preparing the area for the possible reintroduction of endangered otters.  Close on the heels of this the influx of vegetation and critters, came our students and retreat guests, touching their authentic natural selves, awakening to their needs and dreams, and each discovering in their own way the river that runs through them. Once loved and healed itself, the Rio Frisco offered the chance of healing to all those coming open to her gifts.


In the Frisco, as perhaps in all rivers, we witness the rise and fall of dream and fortune and the passage of our gifted mortal lives.  We discover ourselves in its reflection, our moods ranging from shallow to deep, alert or asleep.  Like the river, we can be full of ourselves, spilling out over our edges, exceeding the capacity of our containers, expanding beyond our imagined limitations as we seek to penetrate and inundate the universe.  It’s at this point that it becomes a magical or spiritual thing, as we join in as participants in the ongoing riparian Chautauqua, the riverine revival.  Freed of rational constraint and incessant doubt we partner with the crowds of buzzing bees and spinning dragonflies, rapt grass and attendant trees made whole by its touch.

The rivers, in turn, need our tending, not only protection but attention and celebration.  Thus the was it blooms and shares its bounty at Kiva’s healing touch, and responds to Loba’s cascading voice of gratitude echoing off the cliffs.  It may be that all things natural have an intrinsic sacred value, but through ritual, attention and intent we make them even more so.  Investing the rocks with centuries of prayer, nourishing the soil with our promises.  Swelling the river with generations of practiced magic and directed love.  It’s often a part of the belief systems of those peoples living closest to the land — that the river knows when we’re singing to it, and knows when we’ve stopped.  And that it holds in its bowels, the memories of all life’s songs.

Ancient river-informed peoples from the Euphrates to the Rio Grande spoke of something like water, continuous and contiguous, that we’re all a lasting part of: what we call the “anima.”  They saw the similarity between the physical/spiritual cycles of life and death, and the water cycle’s endless circling back into itself, the balance-within-change that so personifies nature… sometimes symbolized by a “Round River,” a circular watercourse with each part feeding the other.  Here perhaps is the real meaning of the expression “going with the flow”… not malleable or easily coerced, indifferent or directionless, but rather, willingly and intentionally choosing to move in the cyclic course of our own true natures, and that of evolving life and purposeful spirit. Students of the river know that we, like it, are forever changing… and yet, in some manner or capacity, that we also stay, that something of us remains.  That we, too, are dissolved by an energy like the sun, returning homeward like the rain.

So do we of many cultures and colors speak of the power of the “healing waters.”  The sinuous touch of a “holy river” blesses as well as baptizes, the chill embrace of a beckoning lake cleanses the mind of the worrisome wordage that can take us out of our bodies and present time.  Mineral seeps and hot pools are considered therapeutic to bathe in or even drink, and we can benefit from ingesting generous amounts of liver-flushing and flesh-hydrating fluid.  But just as important may be the way we are affected by simple proximity to the example, gentle sounds and relaxing negative ions of running water.


A favorite thing for me to do after a day of typing on this laptop is to walk down the the river, stand in the gently moving current, then falling backwards into its welcoming aquarian arms.  Falling, in fact, back into balance, and into sensate myself.  My mind hushed, the cool flow commands the attention of my entire being, and I find myself tripping-out on the shifting opal patterns of the river surface.  Like the dynamic flow of life and death, the forms, the ripples, the glimpses of the faces of slaughtered creation and departed loved ones wash downstream before my very eyes— and yet continue to exist there, flowing, in front of and around me.  With my hands in the river I can feel the water moving through my fingers.  I can neither grasp it nor hold it back, but when opening my hand it becomes instantly full again.

Tears become rain that becomes a stream, and then turn into anxious rivers filling the oceans’ bed to the brim — though only to be called back to the clouds once again.  Molecules of water dance in the lightless subterranean tunnels as well as on the bright mountain winds, participating in a vast and constant migration without ever really leaving the Earth that host them.  If contained or restrained they immediately seek to leak out or evaporate.  If swallowed they’re soon spilt back upon the earth.  Thus water, like spirit itself, is consumed without diminishment, and changes form without depletion.

Who can say which to call the origin, the ocean or the cloud?  Or the both joyous and grieving human heart.

(post and forward this piece freely)

(photos (C)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales

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