What Rivers Know

What Rivers Know, Listening to the Voices of Global Waterways” is a collection of twenty-five essays written in the first person from the perspective of the water by Basia Irland — Prof. Emerita and founder of the Art and Ecology Program at UNM. Each chapter offers important insights into the problems faced by watersheds worldwide and how numerous advocacy and community groups are formulating solutions, conservation ideas, and inspirational methods to aid their streams. The book is scheduled for publication in 2024, by Texas A&M University Press. 212 color images. http://basiairland.com/ (This excerpt from Irland’s preface has been edited for space by Laurie McCann.)

Can we imagine for a moment being the River? If all of us could deeply understand that rivers are living beings, would we treat them with respect and cause them no harm?

Let’s begin with the clouds gathering and releasing moisture. In cold, high elevations, the water freezes and comes down as snow, piling up in winter and beginning to melt in the warmer spring weather. It trickles downhill, joins other brooks and streams, forms cascades, and as the grade grows steeper, plunges over cliffs as waterfalls. So begins one river’s descent to the sea. Above rivers, lakes, and oceans, evaporating water rises again to form new clouds—and the hydrologic cycle continues its ancient dance as it has for millions of years.

Studying meandering dendritic blue lines depicted as maps of rivers and their tributaries printed on paper is totally different from the experience of physically being with the flowing current. Nothing compares to being present with a river, incorporating all the senses; watching a stick caught in swirls and eddies; touching cold glacier melt or floating naked, face-up in a quiet, warm expanse of water; listening to melodic, rhythmic sounds of a brook; smelling ionically charged air near a waterfall; and tasting fresh spring water.

When my son, Derek, and I were hiking along the Virgin River in Zion National Park, Utah, 2013, we were experimenting with a new underwater camera. As I took photographs through that cold water looking up at the cliffs above, I began to wonder how this ancient, millions-of-year-old river might view such an incredible landscape as it flowed downstream. Could we imagine even for a moment being that river? Waterways are alive and have memory, yet most humans simply take them for granted and don’t treat rivers with respect. What if we paid deep attention to these resonate, liquid voices? What would they say?

I’ve dedicated my life and art to water issues and have taken an interdisciplinary approach to the creative process by collaborating with a variety of colleagues, including biologists, stream ecologists, botanists, hydrologists, environmental groups, engineers, poets, musicians, and other artists. The focus on the importance of respecting and preserving water is fundamental to all my documentary films, performances, community actions, water-borne disease scrolls, archival objects, installations, sculptures, and publications.

All the rivers about which I write are ones I have visited in person and had the pleasure and honor with which to spend time. Most of these riparian visits have come as an invitation from groups, institutions, and universities. Wherever I am invited, I meet with community members, activists, Tribal elders, Park Rangers, and scientists who have accumulated deep knowledge of their local streams and who have graciously shared understanding and experience of these places. Among these ways of caring is the growing movement recognizing the rights of rivers. The Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua) in New Zealand, home to Māori tribes for centuries, was the first to be legally recognized as a living whole in the Te Awa Tupua Act of 2017. In most western legal systems humans are placed above all other life forms, but giving rivers legal status as living entities is catching on around the world and having important impacts that can be enforced in a court of law.

Although there is broad international coverage and an expansive spread of river locations, there are also numerous places that are not included [in my book], such as South America. The Amazon is one of the most powerful rivers in the world, and yet it is omitted since I have not yet had the opportunity to visit this mighty being — and as I have explained, I will only write about places where I have been in person, and not simply as a research assignment. There are innumerable fascinating flowing examples that I hope someday to get to know, such as the 45-mile Elwha River in Washington State where dam removal has helped to restore the entire ecosystem in the sediment-deprived delta region.

Indigenous cultural heritage and language in relation to rivers, which are considered sacred, is important and is often overlooked or not even mentioned in writings about waterways, even though there are about 574 federally recognized Tribal Nations in the U. S., and more the 630 First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada, plus thousands of global tribes, most of whom live in proximity to rivers, creeks and streams, and practice ceremonies that celebrate a time-honored deep relationship to a water source. Their history is complex with broken treaties, trails of tears, brutal treatment by colonizers, and significant fights over water rights. Indigenous peoples around the world are moving into the forefront of decision-making power in every discipline, especially in relation to land and water issues at the local, state, provincial, and national levels, helping all of us to better care for this planet.

I am incredibly impassioned by how important it is to understand and appreciate each waterway since we rely on these living bodies for our very survival, and yet they have been mindlessly channelized, dammed, and polluted. In response, what are communities doing to begin the healing process, develop restoration projects, and involve others in the necessity of caring deeply for their local rivers? My life’s work has been devoted to educating and bringing awareness to the urgency of this question.

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