“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
―Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
I live in New York City (you may know this), and every day I long for the depths of wildness I’ve known in past chapters: Yellowstone, Georgia, Canyonlands, Dakota, the Great Salt Lake, our family farm. As I struggle to dwell in “the city,” I miss that proximity to wild spaces, ecologically literate community, and critterly spirit.
But a writer must carry a bag of tricks. For soul-solace, to get unstuck, I run; I list things.
One recent writer-blocked morning I jogged to Inwood Hill Park, where the Hudson River splays wide as a lake. Gulls, mallards and buffleheads swam the edges; mockingbirds and bluejays haggled for territory in nearby trees. Across the river, the Palisades stood sentry: sheer black columns of feldspar and augite, they called to mind Yellowstone’s Tower and Sheepeater Cliffs.
So few of us, I thought, pay this mighty river any mind. So few of us 12 million metro-New Yorkers recognize our city’s importance as an overlanding spit for more than 350 species of birds, many of them champion migrators. So many of us even forget we’re an ocean city, wrapped by marine and estuary ecosystems that in good health match rainforests inch-for-inch in biodiversity.
I thought about this river, then others: rivers I’ve known, loved, sunk naked into while my campmates were sleeping. Rivers I hiked to, rivers that boiled; city rivers, rivers whose names and human stories intrigued. Sites for grown-up baptisms. Rivers I wept into, rivers past, rivers of adventure.
In The Sense of Place, theorist Fritz Steele defines sense of place as “the pattern of reactions that a setting stimulates for a person.” He calls people who have an innate place sensitivity, place people.
I am one of these. I hold my rivers close, list them with reverence. To recall, to recite, is to conjure—memory has that power. They are: The Genesee, Potomac, Little Missouri, Yellowstone, Gardner, Madison, Firehole, Boiling River, Lamar. Slough Creek, Mill Creek, Pigeon Creek. The Po, Green, Colorado, Ocmulgee, Oconee, Ohoopee, Flint and Altamaha. And others.
We speak of our rivers by name, though they are all arms and legs of the same great body, flowing into and out of one another, regenerated and regenerating. Rivers flow to ocean, creeks into rivers, draws into creeks. We speak of ourselves by name, though beneath the carbon and gray matter, we are water, too.
Rivers stitch, connect, and carry. They shape their lands and bounds and people. Rivers do not linger or look back; they know nothing of guilt, regret, or fear. And they’ve washed me back to life more times than I can remember.
Water time (like all time) is nonlinear. We see in desert rock where water has been, is not, will be. Banks are drawn and redrawn, memory created, sediment transported. A river’s focus is clear: on being. Change is its only constant. Left alone, a river runs to freedom, to the sea. If only we could know such wild ends.
We’ve watched the world with broken hearts, as legal environmental protections we fought for and won are negated, and as “protectors” are installed in their new roles. We’ve wept, rivers of tears, words, will, prayer and action.
Last week I uncovered an email chain I’d missed from my grad school cohort. This cadre of crafty coyotes has influenced the world in glorious ways: legal battles, creative campaigns, enviro-activist art and scalpel-sharp writing. Their words, at this moment, were sorely needed. In the letter one of our program founders comforted us, and charged us with the wisdom of women: Be water, she wrote. Soften, and flow. Be gloriously creative. Find the cracks, and fill them. Saturate. Take the shapes of new containers. Bring life to potholes, to ephemeral pools. Then, when it is time, unite, in tides and pulses, flood and fury.
Be water, I thought, as we marched, so many of us, so pink, across Midtown Manhattan. Be water, I thought, as we gathered outside the office of the Army Corps of Engineers. Be water, I’ll think, as we march all over the country for climate action on April 29th. Be water, I think as I write, pray, scheme, incubate, make calls, sign petitions.
I remember Utah, red-rock, desert. Arches and spires and Canyonlands. Time is never so fluid as in desert rock, where water was, and is not. And will be, again.
“As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems.”
—Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger