Say Goodbye to a River

It’s the title of John Graves’ 1960 memoir of his trip along the Brazos River before a series of dams forever changed its landscape.  And his. And ours.

I’m reminded of what we all share of rivers altered and mostly forgotten when I see the Rio Grande near Las Cruces, New Mexico “turned off” each year.  Yes, the flow from Caballo Dam near Truth or Consequences is throttled usually in early fall, and by the end of October you cross a bridge over a mostly dry sandy river bed–save for the occasional slowly drying sloughs and bosques–until sometime next spring when the river is released to run again.  I own a home near the river and cross it as it drains dry, always looking up at the sky.  What of the great blue herons, the night herons, the yellow-legs, the lesser sandpipers–all dependent on wetlands?  Where do they go?

It’s an odd feeling, this ebb and flow.

Back home, the Canadian River, a river I grew up with, half as long as the Rio Grande’s 1800 miles, mostly disappears too.  We’ve come to expect it of the Canadian, birthed in southern Colorado, but quickly making its way through droughty New Mexico and Texas, also the victim of several dams.  There’s a lesson here: the Canadian before the coming of the cattle ran deep and narrow.

To see a wild river, if you ever have, is to feel a kind of natural freedom of the sort most of us seldom experience anymore. I think of the Snake River I once rafted.  On the bike trail along my Rio, I turn at the sound of a human voice and see a walker deep in cell phone conversation.  Pick up the kids, don’t forget the burritos, he said he was leaving me–whatever the one-way conversation, I’m startled from the more companioning sounds of meadowlark and finch.  The willows hugging the river bank whisper.  I thought I’d left the bedraggled sounds of domesticity for this shred of wilderness.  But no; we’ve tamed it too.

John Graves took his canoe and his dachshund dog along the Brazos for one last ride, writing a book about those experiences before the dams.  He would have advocated for a later ecological plea to “think like a river.” Donald Worster in his River of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West believes that rivers exercise “a rationale”–a kind of will of water to find a way to the sea.  He calls what we have built instead, “hydraulic societies,” a modern world built on hierarchical power garnered from capturing, diverting, controlling water.  The more industrial we become, the more we contest the will of water, often with disastrous effects (artificial fertilizers and pesticides; extreme irrigation) not keyed to a long-range sensitivity to the limits of the water cycle.

And when we ignore this, we are alienated from the land and its stream of life.  And so we want even more objectifying control.

I want to say hellohello single meadowlark where there once were many; hello little slough where a kingfisher dares stay.  Hello not to memory alone, John Graves, nor eulogy, nor books that remind us how it was, but to those bare wild morsels of our daily, ever changing, lives.

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