Rivers: they run though it, yes, they run through everything

Posted August 29th, 2013 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Okay, sorry for the long silence. August was very intense, trying to finish a book manuscript, trying to raise some money to keep this project afloat, preparing for the big Athabasca River adventure (see Athabasca River: from the Columbia Icefields of Jasper National Park to the Arctic Ocean, a Journey), trying to plan for some things to follow that journey.

The Meaning of Rivers

And so, about rivers. Imagine the earth without them. You can’t, because without them we would not exist. They are essential to the life cycles of the planet, the gooey places where life first emerged, and the hydrological cycle that spreads water to all the places that keep the planet alive.

I have always loved rivers. I can spend hours sitting along their banks doing nothing – and learning everything.

Really, this planet is brilliant. We know of nothing like it, and we have been exploring a lot of the observable universe seeking something, anything, similar. The atmosphere that makes rain, for example, was evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and billions more creating the valleys and lakes and oceans that are so familiar to us we mostly take them for granted. Using heat from the planet’s surface rising to meet the cold air aloft, the earth forms clouds and they build until rain begins to fall from them. Then the planet uses the force of gravity to spread it around, all across the planet water seeping into the next lower point, the next indentation, the next ravine, the next valley, into which it can flow and water emergent life – from cactus where the water is little to vast tropical forests where it is abundant.

Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

Athabasca River – Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

Rivers in the mountains, rivers across the plains, rivers spilling from our coasts into the oceans, rivers underground filling aquifers and feeding our inland lakes.

How is it possible that we have so abused our rivers that most of them are suffering from some manifestation of human exploitation, contamination, overuse, and despoiling of all sorts?

Next Tuesday I leave to go visit a river. For two weeks, I will travel with several other pilgrims along the Athabasca River from the Rocky Mountains through the boreal forests north and east to Ft. McMurray and Ft. McKay. The journey begins in a place to which I have always wanted to return since my only other trip there more than 40 years ago. I know it only from where it begins – in the Columbia Icefield of Jasper National Park, a glacier that I imagine has receded quite a lot since I first saw it. I remember Athabasca Falls like it was yesterday, can still remember the sound, the glory of it, on a magnificent sunny day in August. But to follow it out of the mountains and into the forest where it meanders, twisting and turning, gaining force and strength along the way, as rivers do – this will be undoubtedly a deep meditation on one of our primary sources of life.

That – and the boreal forest, the vast swath of unbroken forest across northern Canada that is often called “the lungs of North America.”

What we will also see is the worst abuse that humans can dish out to a river and its magnificent ecosystem when we arrive at the oil tar sands industrial site, when we come upon the scene where the river becomes toxic, and where all life, including human life, is being harmed by that abuse.

Because the oil and gas transport systems now crisscross North America, including here in the U.S., including here in the Upper Midwest, and because those systems are in place to fuel human economics of endless growth and consumption, like it or not, we are all, sadly, involved in the dynamisms that support that abuse, that enable it. We are like people in abusive relationships, those in which the one doing the abusing can only go on abusing because of being partner with an enabler.

Remember that whatever we put into the rivers does not remain where we dump it. Like the water it joins, it flows. It flows wherever the river flows.

We are spreading our contaminants, our abuse, all across the planet where few rivers remain pristine and free-flowing. How can we do this to the very systems that give us life?

athabasca small insert




Some other thoughts on the meaning of rivers – and then about this project

Rivers are fed by other rivers, and those rivers are fed by streams and creeks and rivulets that flow when the rain falls, or by springs that bubble up from the earth. Each flow, by force of gravity, feeds the larger flow, and on to the oceans. From there, sun and evaporation take over and again the clouds form, and the rain, and the creeks and rivulets and rivers and aquifers are fed one more time – and over and over again.

It’s a confluence, and it’s a selfless pouring of earth-self into the greater Earth-Self of which we are all part and aspect and expression. We pour that water into our bodies every day, and we eliminate some of it every day.

Confluence is what we are. Confluence is what creation is. Confluence, separation, individuation, back into confluence over and over again, the ongoing cycle which, if interrupted, could fatally disrupt the whole of the confluence – which begins to end life wherever that happens (like draining the High Plains aquifer in places like southern Oklahoma or northern Texas where the land is turning to salt, forever ruined, because we stopped the confluence, the replenishment – we took too much in our greed and selfishness and ignorance).

We live in a western culture that has grown, nurtured, and now imposes across the globe an economics of exploitation and separation, of individual consumption and lifestyle where only what takes care of me and my own is considered important. The genius of the individual consumer is precisely this – that the individual will just keep on consuming for its own needs and pleasures without any constraint imposed by a sense of responsibility to the whole. And this, as much as anything, is what is consuming the planet.

And if that doesn’t stop, we are all doomed – and I wish that was mere hyperbole. We all feel the doom coming, whether conscious or not, whether in denial or not. It’s a deep disquiet and fear settling over the human species all across the world.

Friends, about this project. It needs – I need – a burst of some new vision and life. Since creating it, and through several years of really good work with a lot of really good people, it seems we are still far from one of the things I consider most important now – to start really articulating, envisioning, and bringing into creation the new way of life that this ecological crisis demands of us (and I certainly include myself in that “we”). Every extreme example of danger has only worsened since 2006. Here in Milwaukee, we are a long way – in this segregated, fragmented, cautious, culture that I know so well from my birth – from being prepared to leave behind the caution and fragmentation (the “ego-self,” if you will) that these times require of us – to begin surrendering the small self to the larger confluence that can help replenish and restore the ecosystems that created us and in which we are completely embedded.

I suspect this is not just a Milwaukee problem.

I am reconsidering how to approach this by way of spirituality and culture. I am rethinking the work I do. I am seeking the necessary community in which to do that pondering and reinvention. These two weeks begin to look like more than a learning experience with stories to share when I return (and hopefully work to do with others on all that crude oil stuff). It looks also like a deep retreat, in solitude and with these several others, all of us seekers, each of us willing to put some self behind to share hostels and hotel rooms and van space and food, to participate in something larger than each of us, with no other agenda than to allow this experience to reshape us in whatever direction that reshaping takes place.

I am trying to not anticipate what that means for me and for this project. I just know that something new needs to emerge.

What is happening to our world is happening also to and within us. We are manifestations of crises, of fear, of tumult, of confusion, of loss of direction and meaning and of the search for those very things, of uncertainty and insecurity, of the tendency to pull the blinders in and the desire to open out completely. We are a bundle of contradictions and fears as we try to imagine our lives into even the near future.

So what do we want to do now? How do we want to live?

I’m going to a great North American river flowing through an incredible forest into a toxic wasteland and back again in part to ponder those questions. I hope I come back with some sense of direction. Mostly, I hope to come back for the purpose of connection with others asking the same questions – not because we will find answers but because there is really only one way to deal with the questions – by living into them, as the saying goes, fully, forthrightly, and as bravely as we can.

little light logoFriends, if you wish to follow our journey, we are setting up a blog for that purpose. The address:


It is not yet active. Please check from time to time starting Tuesday Sept. 3.

Also, we are still asking donations for our part in this pilgrimage, not only for the journey itself, but the work to emerge from it. If you can, please help by sending a tax-deductible contribution to the Center for New Creation, the sponsor of this project.



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