Viewed from the sky, rivers are among the last nongeometric features of the landscape. Roads diagram the land in lines and right angles, towns and cities are made of squares and rectangles, farmers’ fields are laid out in patterns of cubist artistry. Even many forests have squared-off borders.
Only rivers appear inviolable. They travel without plan, twisting like tendrils, as roundabout as idle conversation. Protected within corridors of vegetation, they can seem immune from encroachment–until you look closer and see a length of river that has been “channelized” for the convenience of barges, its bends ironed out like wrinkles. Then you see the sudden widening of a reservoir, the broad end blunted by the slash of a concrete dam, and all arguments of utility lose their force. A river interrupted is a travesty, a violation, an outrage. If you want to see people enraged, strangle the rivers they love.
Our love of rivers runs deep. Poets, painters, and composers have expressed it for thousands of years, for reasons most of us understand instinctively. While every star and snowflake and towheaded child is winding down to stillness, rivers win our hearts for seeming to defy universal laws. We are stirred by the perpetual flow of current, the effortless partnership with gravity, the easily observed truth that you can never, as Heraclitus said, step into the same river twice. Like us, rivers spring from obscure sources and flow toward unavoidable destinations. If the sea represents eternity, the rivers that flow into it are the twisting, bold, and unstoppable currents of time.
It’s hardly possible to speak of time without using the same words we use to describe moving water. Rivers and time both pass. They flow, sweep, run, hurry, and lag. They both change constantly yet never change. The connection between the two is fundamental and has inspired much comment:
“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”–Thoreau, Walden
“By the waters of life, by time, by time…”–Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River.
“To live by a river is to live by an image of Time.”–William Gass, “Mississippi”
“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river…”–Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
To travel by river you must adjust to river time. Follow that winding route and it becomes easy to believe it is a random, unpredictable course laid down by chance encounters, and that current and terrain prevent the river from getting on with the natural business of flowing straight and true. It is only when you study a river from an elevation or examine it portrayed on a map that you recognize there is a pattern to its meandering.
Our word meander is derived from the old Roman name for Turkey’s Menderes River, the Maeander, a waterway with a course so tortuous and winding that in ancient times it was thought it turned around and flowed backward. There is no strict definition of meandering, except that it is the sinuous pattern of river channels everywhere. It is a defining characteristic of rivers–a river with no bends, after all, is a canal–and is among the qualities we find most enchanting about them.
Their habit of meandering is one reason rivers are so often irresistible both for poets who celebrate nature’s magic and scientists who explore its machinery. When conservationist Aldo Leopold turned his attention to meandering rivers he wrote, “For the last word in procrastination, go travel with a river reluctant to lose his freedom in the sea.” His son, the renowned hydrologist Luna B. Leopold, studied the same phenomenon and wrote, “The typical meander shape is assumed because, in the absence of any other constraints, the sine-generated curve is the most probable path of a fixed length between two fixed points.” With rivers, the magic and the machinery are so closely blended they cannot be separated.
Our appreciation of rivers originated, no doubt, in their usefulness. Rivers bring our freshwater to us and carry our wastes away. They water our fields and power our mills. They are highways to be traveled upon and fisheries to be plundered. Because they are so useful, they pass through history like the threads in a tapestry. The Amazon and the Mississippi, the Hudson and the Thames, the Yellow, Rhine, Missouri, Tigris, Orinoco, Rio Grande, Indus, Jordon, Ohio, Euphrates, Columbia, Congo, and Nile–rivers have shaped human history as surely as they have shaped the land. They have given birth to civilizations, powered the growth of cities, transported explorers and invaders. They have been the source of sustenance and the cause of sorrows. The greatness of the great rivers is often obscured–up close they too often reek of urine and fuel oil and are stained with the wastes of industry and agriculture–but their influence on human life has been immeasurable.
Rivers give the illusion of progress, an inevitable and easily charted progression from origin to ending. From sufficient height and perspective we can see otherwise–a river that from the bank seems defined and permanent is actually temporary and easily directed. Even the water itself does not go anywhere, not in any final sense. That unstable liquid flows and tumbles downstream, mingles with the sea, disintegrates into component molecules that rise skyward, join with others, condense, fall, form rivulets, then creeks, then rivers again. Rivers are segments of a larger cycle but they are among the most visible and appealing of those segments, more accessible than ground water, more dependable than rain, more easily fathomed than oceans or lakes. Water is at its best when winding downhill between banks.