In the Beginning Was a River
But back in March something happened there that keeps on running through my mind. Their House of Representatives, which must be a whole bunch different than ours, passed a bill giving human rights to the Whanganui River. How’s that for treatment of a natural resource? Pretty good.
And what I keep thinking – now that a river can claim personhood and dignity – is, What do I want to suggest for human rights next?
Probably stars. They deserve to be noticed. Once a month we’ll have darkness by decree. We’ll have twelve new ways to look up, a dozen needed oases.
And Puget Sound, of course. Whether seen from a ferry or not. Whether or not it’s sundown on Seattle’s million windows so the skyline is mirroring gold-orange, rose, and red, and the Olympic Mountains are both in front of you and behind you, and seagulls ride rivers of updraft, and this time and place and wind should be vested with rights.
The trees near Crescent City too – they’re older than Christianity. I’ll call each sequoia a cathedral, drinking fog, which truly is Holy Water.
The snowmelt I drank in an ice cave: rights.
Those ghost-conversations of coyotes: rights.
That soul-blown sound of a train at night – part love, part loss, and part Coltrane – couldn’t be more human, with the human right to quiet, so that everyone who needs to hear can hear.
And what about you? Isn’t there a lakeshore somewhere? Or a night in some December? Or a time you saw some pronghorn and were doubly surprised – first by their nearness, then a second time by how they leapt away: too squat to be bounding like that? Isn’t there a long-distance drive you’ve taken with a good enough reason at the end of it? Or a kiss that lives in your memory, that goes on rivering and rivering? Or a view from the porch of a lightning storm coursing the sky?
Anyway, it’s April, soon to be summer in Utah, where most aren’t yelling and opposed to helping refugees. Most don’t think it’s OK to zero them out, leave them trapped in their national horrors.
In New Zealand they’ve granted more rights than that to a river, which ought to be an elemental lesson.
Here’s hoping it flows all the way from there to DC.
Some things, even important things, like another news day of scandal – the whole ditch-flow of murk where there ought to be a president – flow by, and you don’t hear them. But throw a rock – throw 90 – in a river, and you listen every time: that splash, that splunk, that ricochet-click off a boulder, the pa-lop from a bigger rock lofted where it’s deeper . . . every time . . . and four crows scrawking; I guess they like it too.
This could be any river. It doesn’t have to be the Cowlitz. You don’t have to be a kid like I was, spending the weekend with my friend’s family at their cabin: an A-frame somewhere called Packwood, close to White Pass.
I went to sleep wondering, would your thoughts be different if you lived by a river? Colder, maybe? Always moving? Knowing the way?
Of course, this happened a long time ago. There might have been three crows, or five, not four. They were blacker than the ones on the playground at our school. There were boulders in the river stacked with snowcaps. And the sky seemed grayer, like the clouds were lower, but they weren’t. We were just in the mountains.
Maybe what’s needed is a flipbook so the president can understand, can flip ahead to see the outcome in advance: Pick Betsy DeVos for Education – flip – and see it gone, defunded, thrown away; or pick Scott Pruitt, make him EPA Director – flip – and now we’re in Alaska by a poisoned Bristol Bay. Who knew? Who could have predicted? – that a gold mine called Northern Dynasty Minerals would ever cause harm, would toxify a watershed, would fill up streams with chemicals, would starve the tribal nations and force them to move?
Sixty million salmon knew. And 4,000 acres of tundra. And an earthquake zone. And a flipbook. Everyone knew.
Well, maybe not Wayne LaPierre. He’s pretty single-minded. Here’s Wayne LaPierre as Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat machine guns.’
I know a man named Lee Boulet. I’ve known him my whole life. He’s the opposite. When he goes to the mountains in the fall, he fills his truck with a load of pumpkins.
Elk step out from the trees when he gets there. Like solid ghosts. Like antlered thankfulness. They stand around eating for an hour, rinds and stems and all.
The Boulet’s back yard slopes down to Clark’s Creek, and one time Lee was in his waders, fishing. In books, fish lived in the ocean, so this wasn’t right, wasn’t true; I was a kid; I thought he was teasing me, but no. Salmon would swim right by sometimes, back to spawn, probably near the hatchery. First-graders went there on field trips, so I should have known: thousands and thousands of fingerlings released in Clark’s Creek ~ the Puyallup River ~ Commencement Bay ~ Puget Sound ~ the Strait of Juan de Fuca ~ then the open ocean ~ then back again. It’s quite a journey. Even without all the concrete dams. Even without a kid on the bank with a net.
The dams are a problem, so people try solutions, some of them simple as a fish ladder, some of them not.
I like the one with the vacuum system, and a tube like a giant straw. Salmon get drawn from the base of the dam, water and all – sucked up and pumped over. What a weird story to pass on as archetype, imprint on the next generation: Then you shall come to the Place of Reversal, where the river suddenly pulls, and you rise and you’re launched into flying, but do not fear.
Another way isn’t so magical. They’re just driven around in trucks: into the bed, up the road, then dumped back out, which sounds boring till you think about it; who does that job, and what is their title? Ichthyological taxi driver, endangered-salmon chauffer, the perfect gig for a Pisces, the catcher in the rye? . . . well, not rye but the river. Someone with Salinger’s book on the dashboard, reading a bit between runs, and Holden calling out the phonies for doing this to fish, to water, to the ocean’s pulse: goddamn.
There’s this dove outside now, picking up twigs and the bleached leaves of last year’s irises. He’s setting them down again, picking them up. He’s not acting on impulse; he’s weighing.
Then he flies to my roof, then somewhere else, then back for more. He’s building a nest. He’s putting his beak to good use, a real purpose, while the president can’t use his own mouth for anything but lies and slurs and a stream of idiot-splutter.
‘You know, I really believe,’ he said, ‘you don’t know this until you test it . . . but I think I . . . I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.’ This about a high school massacre, 17 murdered in Florida.
And then this about teachers bringing guns to work, another thing for their supply lists: whiteboard markers, and a three-hole punch, and construction paper, and an EpiPen, and the number for Family Services, and patience as long as river, and now also guns: ‘I want highly trained people,’ he says, ‘that have a natural talent. Like hitting a baseball, or hitting a golf ball, or putting. How come some people always make the four-footer?’
I don’t know. But that’s not the question. The question is, what sort of bird would build a nest with that?
The dove’s been at it all day; that’s one thing. And my cat’s been patient; that’s another. He knows that sometimes birds forget he’s there, stray close and get lazy. He can move like a river when he wants to, swift, a cascade over his foreclaws, then a heavy stillness like water piled behind a log fallen down across the current.
This could be any river. It doesn’t have to be the Cowlitz – like the Methow in the Okanogans, flowing past Twisp; or the Pearl; or the Green in central Utah . . . you can fill in whatever name you want; that’s what water would do.
But don’t forget this: By now some seeds have taken root up there, hidden in the Cascade Mountains, all those evergreens and ferns now dotted with orange. A patch of pumpkins. I can copy my map for you. That way we’ll have a secret, our own good thing that keeps growing, where we can go back.
Washington’s state bird is the goldfinch, but as a kid growing up there I always thought that seemed wrong. Robins you saw everywhere, especially after rain, hopping around and unspooling worms from the lawn – night crawlers long as a shoelace – but goldfinches? Almost never. They were mostly just pictures in books.
So imagine my surprise last month when I spotted a goldfinch in my Salt Lake City yard. No, two . . . no, three . . . wait, there’s another one. Four. Parent with fledglings? Boyfriend and girlfriends? I wasn’t sure. One had vivid feathers, black and yellow. The other three were more muted, with coloring less like exclamation points.
I’d been reading the Friday Salt Lake Tribune, skimming the recaps of politics, and was heading out to clear the wind-snapped branches from the yard, and there they were, riding these wire-thin tensile stems that rise up out of a plant near the sidewalk, see-sawing on the ends and eating the flowers, or maybe just the bugs on the flowers, I don’t know.
What I do know is they didn’t give a crap about Donald Trump.
‘First-ism’; trans., ‘isolationism’. Always forever hollering about this: banning Muslims, rounding up aliens (their word; not mine), talk of shakin’ down NATO for ‘protection money’, reneging on international trade pacts, and tweets about reneging on more. And so on.
A lot gets said about the ethical/economic sinkhole this will cause, but I don’t hear much about it being bad for the environment, and it is. The environment isn’t American, isn’t an our-side/your-side attitude. I mean, who’s going to work with us on long-term fixes if we’ve traded away good will for an unfounded claim on a baseball hat?
The day I saw those goldfinches was another in a long stretch of 100+ degrees. And there were algal blooms too, turning water into warnings, signs going up along shorelines, basically saying: STAY AWAY OR THIS WILL KILL YOU.
Add air-pollution advisories, and other examples year ’round, and we should be concerned.
Each state knows what I’m talking about. We can’t deport rising temperatures. We can’t turn our backs on the water and the air.
I’m dodging a moth while I write this, which strikes me as kind of funny. It’s drinking the condensation, I think, off the can of Rainier beside me on the table, then berzerking its way from lamp to lamp, then coming back to flap in my face, in my ear, then finally land in the crook of my elbow. It’s as graceless as those goldfinches were graceful, and I’m glad I got to see them. They aren’t commonplace in Utah, but even the worst ornithologist would never call them ‘aliens’. And this moth on my beer is a nuisance, yes, but I like it way more than I like Jeff Sessions.
Did you see that? Somehow it seeped in again – politics like Thought Smog – when all I wanted was to offer you a poem. It’s environmental, and it goes like this:
The Mother of the Mountains
If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Mountains.
Mess with Her children, She’ll dust off an avalanche;
step out of line, She’ll realign your bones.
She’s a blue-eyed beauty,
and the mountains have their Mother’s eyes: deep lakes.
Gaze into them, you’ll see their thoughts like fish –
quick schools, slow rainbows – look deeper,
and you’ll learn to dream like a stone.
What does She feed them? Rain for breakfast.
Anything else? She peels them the sun for lunch.
And at night? Big helpings of quiet,
then the Mother of the Mountains sings them to sleep with snow.
The trees are Her grandkids; She brings them birds to play with.
Whenever it’s their birthday, She gives them an owl
’cause though She’s a blue-eyed beauty, She’s still kind.
Even soft . . . even fragile . . .
Wolves howl to Her to show their gratitude. What about you?