Shall we gather at the river? From a biologist’s perspective, at least, a mountain spine forms a better political border than does a river. Through its watershed, a river draws resources together, toward a common avenue through the landscape. With a river, just where does one draw a border, exactly, anyway? On a constantly changing shoreline? Or somehow down its shifting middle? Yet a glance at a map of American states makes all too clear how our rivers have been used as dividers rather than as common denominators. Michael Gowell, a friend who treasures this observation, is also a skilled mariner, quite at home working his way around in a dory as he explores tidal inlets. His perspective of crossing the water is quite different from mine, stuck as I usually am to roads and bridges. Maybe it’s a legacy of farmers, rather than ferrymen. Still, living as I now do near the ocean, I should also say something of my growing awareness of how different a landscape conjoins – and functions – when viewed from the water. Even conceptualizing a place from a sailing chart, rather than a road map, can become confusing. Nevertheless, before the rise of railroads, our great cities germinated along navigable waterways, which remain part of their legacy and soul.
While I argue that America has no sense of a holy river along the lines of those, say, in India, where a river may carry the name of a god or be simply “Son of the Creator,” there are in our nation pockets a recognition of at least gratitude and spirituality. While many of the Native names, for instance, carry names such as “place of many fish” or “the gathering of waters,” the meaning also conveys an awareness of survival and feasting.
Among my own ancestors in the Church of the Brethren stream, there would have been another special connection with the water, too: earlier known as Dunker or German Baptist Brethren for their insistence on an adult’s immersion in the river as a rite of joining the church – often in the depth of winter, requiring the breaking of ice – the practice also suggested a journey into the wilderness and the work of John the Immerser: “And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).
While my Quaker lines eschewed all forms of ritual, their movement nevertheless also expressed an awareness of the mystery of water as they moved inland, as the naming of some of their Friends Meetings conveys: Black Creek, Pagan Creek, Goose Creek, Cedar Creek, Herring Run, Gunpowder (for Gunpowder Falls, with its series of rapids), Indian Spring, Sandy Spring, Patapsco, Little Falls, West River, South River, Bush River, Deer Creek, Pipe Creek, Monocacy, Dunnings Creek, West Branch, Crooked Run, Cane Creek, Deep River, Back Springs, Short Creek, Stillwater, Miami, Caesars Creek, Whitewater, Clear Creek, Blue River – the litany goes on, and with it, an image of water (Living Water, in New Testament terms) expressing the motion and working of Holy Spirit. One may turn, too, to the angel in Revelation 22:1-2, as well: “And he showed me a pure river … On either side of the river, was there the tree of life.” And, as the chorus of Robert Lowry’s 1864 hymn rings, drawing on that text, “Gather with the saints at the river, That flows by the throne of God.”
In writing of rivers in the United States, I have found my meditations moving from a sense of specific place, to the streaming of seasons (I compose, from experience, largely from northern rivers, subject to icing and thaw), to other waters as well – from small streams and ponds to lakes (legally, in New Hampshire, the “Great Ponds”) and seacoast. In this collection, these explorations come together.
With the growing awareness of environmental concerns in America has also come a turning in many cities – an embrace and redevelopment of waterfronts that had become ugly afterthoughts of urban life. As the waters are cleansed, children play and couples once again stroll along the riverbank. New restaurants face the shimmering surface. Tour boats and short cruises ply stretches from downtown. There’s an evening concert or a professional ballgame. All, gathering at the river. At least the fishermen have been there all along, watched by a kingfisher or heron.
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