The Spirit of A River

By Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director Photos © Alison M Jones

The dedicated Dust Bowl Era photographers were the first to nudge me towards using my camera for more than family portraits and travel-scapes. A specific focus evolved as I read James Agee’s words that accompany the haunting Depression Era imagery of Walker Evans in their joint book Now Let Us Praise These Famous Men (1941).

The Red River in the Texas Dust Bowl region, en route to the Mississippi River

There is no need to personify a river: it is much too literally alive in its own way, and like air and earth themselves is a creature more powerful, more basic, than any living thing the earth has born. It is one of those few, huge, casual and aloof creatures by the mercy of whose existence our own existence was made possible.
–James Agee, Now Let Us Praise These Famous Men

Yes, sparkling riverine strands drape this planet; but Agee also underlined that rivers are the workhorses that supply our quotidian need for water. Agee’s challenge to me was to capture the beauty of free-flowing water as well as the consequences of our existential need for water from our glaciers, snowfields, rivers, brooks, streams, and widening deltas and estuaries. 

For me, the “Spirit of a River” conjures a tumble of images: wild and scenic hidden brooks, crashing falls enveloped in mist and rainbows, and the calm determination of a braided river readjusting its muddy patterns. It’s easy to anthropomorphize the spirit of a river; but on re-reading Agee’s quote, it seems that perhaps the true spirit of a river is in the mood, the gasp, the aha! that rivers elicit from us as we round a bend or crest a hill.

The Awe of Alberta’s Sunwapta Falls, Canada

The source of the Mississippi River is a slight slump in the Lake Itasca shoreline, where a bit of water slips out over several worn stones. I quietly crossed those stones, just like those I’d straddled a shady stream near my childhood home. In just a few steps I’d crossed the Mississippi! The Spirit of the Mississippi, represented then by the spirit of a solitary sandpiper, would forever guide unsuspecting rivulets on their 2,348-mile run downstream. 

A Solitary Sandpiper at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, watching the Mississippi River form

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River is the Lower Mississippi’s western-most route into the Gulf of Mexico. It has the flavor of a Cajun gumbo and is much more capable than I of executing a snappy Zydeco two-step. Yet, while alligators create lines in the sand in the Atchafalaya’s bayou, the river’s gusto is greatly tamed by spillways and levees built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to protect New Orleans from flooding. In each high-flood year I’ve watched, this “upstart” distributary comes closer and closer to overcoming infrastructure meant to stop it from becoming the main channel to the Gulf. But America’s economic investment in The Port of New Orleans demands we deter that natural deltaic swing westward. Still, increasingly-high, downstream floods keep raising the ante.  

In  California’s Central Valley, a great blue heron stood where the San Joaquin River river ended in 2014 – 160 miles short of the San Francisco Bay, its natural destination. After listing the San Joaquin as the “Most Endangered US River,” American Rivers asked me to document how drought and heavy irrigation had stopped its flow. From a bridge between two huge Mendota farms, I gazed at its last puddles in the sand. As I mulled over what we’d done to the spirit of this river, the heron lifted itself out of the willows and flew off with a raucous cry.

The San Joaquin River can no longer water the Central Valley’s fruits and nuts, California

I first grasped that Pacific Northwest salmon are the icons of the Columbia River as I walked down Seattle airport’s concourse paved with mosaics of salmon. Since, I’ve seen spawning salmon shimmering in their anadromous migrations from ocean to headwater creeks, as they carry ocean nutrients to enrich upstream forests. Then their hatched fingerlings carry forest nutrients back to the sea. But, unlike sandpipers and herons, fish can’t fly over the Columbia’s monumental hydro-dams. Thus, some salmon migrations are now below 10% of their pre-dam numbers. Yet even so, the spirit of salmon being so plentiful that one could walk across the river on their backs is still more powerful and unifying than any Grand Coulee Dam. We could revive that salmon-spirit of the Columbia by breaching or removing obsolete dams and by adding fish ladders or bypasses to other more essential dams.

A student’s support for salmon on a USGS wall channelizing the Palouse River, Colfax WA

In documenting watersheds worldwide, I’ve watched tugboats chugging out of a pearly mist. To me that image symbolizes the steady and powerful spirit of resilience within our rivers. In one of the oldest rivers of N. America, white-water rapids humble kayakers as they rush under the exultant high arches of West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge – despite the toxic sediments that have spilled from riverside coalfields since 1870.

Like the proverbial postman, tugboats and rivers seem undeterred by weather, Louisiana

New Jersey’s Lower Raritan River today is flanked by monocultures of invasive phragmites. Colorful… yes. But they replace diverse reeds and emergents that provided marsh habitat for many species of birds, fish and small mammals. These monotone phragmites sit atop brownfields and capped remediation sites, where waste is no longer dumped in the river due to 21 Raritan Basin EPA Superfund Sites addressing centuries of toxins. Yet the Raritan’s meanders maintain their grace. That’s spirit.

Lower Raritan phragmites, Sayreville, NJ © Alison M Jones, with aerial support by LightHawk  

Mules, winding footpaths, paddle-wheelers, amphibian plains, rental cars, canoes and friends’ kayaks have carried me along more river miles than I can count. The spirit of hundreds of rills, streams, brooks and rivers inspires me to keep documenting their values and vulnerabilities. Decades ago I understood Maya Angelou’s comment in All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes:  “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.” Today I feel that even more strongly.  

The wild Deschutes River sprays light and wonder on its scenic run through Oregon

POST-SCRIPT:  With the joy of documenting river-spirit comes despair over misuse and disregard for our critical freshwater resources. The answer to that is for us to gather together to protect the spirit of our rivers – whether by social media, around a kitchen table or in letter-writing to editors. Good governance can help protect our watersheds, so let’s all reach out to elected officials since their duty is to cast votes based on what we want them to do.  

On a grassroots level, reducing our daily water use will reduce energy needed to pump, heat and treat our water. That keeps water in our rivers as well as reduces CO2 emissions. The EPA says if 1% of US homes had water-efficient fixtures, we’d avoid 80,000 tons of global warming pollution as well as save water. Working together, we can ensure the future of our water resources and be the spirit-guardians of our rivers.

Glacial melt from Canadian Rockies starts the Columbia on its route to the Pacific

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