Yesterday, as I was laying on a blanket in the grass, I was listening to a great song, The River Knows Your Name, by John Hiatt. I stretched out fully, in a relaxed fashion befitting the splendid September day, and pictured myself as a leaf floating down a river.
Let the river take away… All the words… That you and I could never say… In the silence Darling let us pray… Let the river take it all away…
Hiatt mentions particular rivers in his song: the Brazos, the Wabash, the Seine. If the song were mine, I’d sing the Skagit, the Methow, the Nooksak, the Skykomish, the Baker, the Thompson. For some people I know, it would be the Colorado, or the Dolores, or the Nushagak.
But no matter; it is the archetypal river, the river of your soul. It flows not only past you, but through you.
Here is a genuine vision of something I would like to do in the year 2040: I would like to take my hypothetical grand-daughter, the one who does not yet exist, out to a mellow spot by a river, maybe the Skykomish, where I know of a great swimming hole. Or, if we find ourselves in Arizona, maybe Oak Creek.
A place where the light is dappled by the flitting leaves of birch or sycamore. Where the sunlight perceived through closed eyelids is the warmest and kindest color imaginable.
I’d like to catch crawdads in a cup. Splash in the river, skip flat stones. Notice the herring-bone pattern on a spider’s abdomen. Teach her to identify trees by the bark. Help her work up the courage to jump off a rock into the water. Find ripe berries and the prettiest autumn leaves.
Then, when we get hungry, grill some burgers. Maybe they will be kelp burgers, which will perhaps not be weird for either her or me in 2040. Baked beans and watermelon. On a nice tablecloth, in honor of my mother who taught me that any picnic, even if you are eating on a log, benefits from such presentation. Dos Equis for me, sweet tea for her.
After dinner, I’d teach my grand-daughter the guitar riffs from Back In Black and the solo from Stairway to Heaven (well, air guitar). Some music never dies. I’d teach her the backing vocals on Midnight Train to Georgia (You and me, girl, we’re The Pips.)
She might be amused at the kind of music that floated the boat of her 78-year-old grandpa. She’d fall asleep in the car on the way home. Maybe dreams would swirl around in her head, like trout in the shadowy place beneath a cutbank.
An electric car, to go with the kelp burger.
This is what I would like to do, in 2040.
Is it possible to look forward and backward at the same time? And to still be—solidly and peacefully—in the present moment? My life is tethered to those who came before me and those who will come after.
Time is sort of like a river. I apologize for the cliche; this is not a new observation. But still. It is, with each instant, a different river, but you can revisit rivers from your youth. How easily I can close my eyes and be cliff jumping at Grasshopper Point, or playing in the rusty mud at Grand Falls.
In the same way, my daughter Jordan might remember a nice swimming hole on the Snoqualmie River, right by the bridge, with a rope swing, where we stopped for a dip after a day of sweaty and dusty rock climbing at Exit 38.
As I get older, it seems that the years go by so quickly.
It is remarkable to me how vivid and visceral my memories of childhood remain.
We are, each of us, part of a chain.
My mother is 91 years old. She grew up in a time and place with an outhouse and no running water. She remembers how, on Saturday night, the whole family (seven girls and a boy) would go to a certain creek in the Michigan woods and take their weekly baths.
She remembers stealing watermelons from a neighbor’s garden, and how she and her sisters in the magical thinking of childhood assumed that if they took their shoes off, they would leave no footprints. And how the crusty old neighbor discovered their shoes at the garden’s edge, and left a sloppy goober of chewing tobacco in every shoe.
That’ll learn ya.
She remembers working as a teenager in cherry orchards and a perfume factory. With her twin sister Rhoda, she sang duets in churches. Once, she sang for Brenda Lee, who was in the front pew. At a certain point, a few decades ago, she quit singing out loud, afraid to be that old lady soprano who goes flat on the high notes.
A few years ago, we went ambling down an endless network of country roads in Plainfield Township, looking for that particular bathing spot in the woods. The memory was so clear in my mother’s mind, but hard to reconcile to the actual landscape.
I wonder if, in her mind, time is compressed. If it all seems not so long ago, or even if it will on her deathbed seem that everything in her life will be present all at once. As if she is a leaf on a river.
These different currents flow into us, make us who we are. The currents move through us, and contribute to someone else’s story. Downstream.
My father listened to Jim Reeves near the end of his life, when things had become very confusing. Take My Hand, Precious Lord was a favorite. “Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”
On the final road trip of his life, we rode together in a moving van across New Mexico. He insisted on it, even though I was sick with the Swine Flu, and I gave it to him, and it hit his old body very hard.
As we drove, he remembered all he could of Zuni in the 1950s. Names of kids. The choir, the track team, the basketball team.
The Zuni River is a most-often dry wash, leading eventually to the usually dry river bed of the Little Colorado, winding its dusty orange way through the desert. But maybe every dry arroyo holds the memory of the water that once filled it.
My father was a modest man in every respect. He had an open ear and an open heart. He was gentle. He loved the earth and all of its creatures. He loved the Grand Canyon with all of his very large heart.
As a mathematician, he believed in an orderly and logical universe and he wanted to understand things. When the Apollo astronauts came out to Flagstaff to train on the lava flows, He worked with computers in an attempt to predict what the surface of the moon might be like, and how vehicles could navigate it.
He believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, but he was doubtful that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. He was in some ways paradoxical.
As my father lost himself to Alzheimer’s, he didn’t remember much. He could no longer clearly tell me about the work he did for USGS with the space program. He forgot who my mother was.
The riverbed of his memory went dry, but I can’t help but think that in his body was residual memory. In the body itself, not just in the brain’s neural connections.
Maybe the Zuni River remembered his name.
In the year 2040, my daughters Jordan and Monty will be 50 and 41, respectively. I suspect I’ll have grandchildren, but I have no precise idea when. Maybe I’ll have a grand-daughter, and she’ll be, oh, say, ten years old in 2040.
Maybe I’ll take her down to the river. Any river. It might be a river that means the world to me, or it might be a river that will come to mean the world to her, and that she, in due time, will want to share with her children.
In the year 2060, my daughter Monty will be 61—about the same age that my wife is right now. The hypothetical daughter who was 10 in 2040 will be only 30 in 2060. I say only. This is not very old; this grandchild of mine might be ready to have a baby of her own.
It is strange to think of it, but in the year 2090, that grandchild may be the same age that I am right now. Maybe she’ll be noticing, also, how time seems to go by so quickly. I think of my grandparents. It is amazing to be interwoven with someone who lived in 1900, and someone else who may be alive in 2090.
How easily the lives of those we love stretch into the future. How fleeting the time, and how present we will still be in the memories of those who follow—even if we have passed away by then.
I can go to the sycamore tree by the river where my father’s ashes are scattered, and still feel him there.
The town of Lytton, British Columbia, sits at the confluence of two of North America’s great rivers, the Fraser and the Thompson. Among rivers, they are jewels, on par with the Colorado, the Columbia, the Stikine, and the Yukon. They are the arteries of Western Canada. Although it doesn’t carry the number of fish it used to, the Fraser historically is one of the great salmon rivers of the world.
Both are large and forceful, especially in spring when swollen with snowmelt. Both cut through deep, dramatic canyons and offer powerful, exciting rapids. Both are borne of glaciers in the Canadian Rockies.
When Jordan was a teenager, she and I took a guided raft trip down the Thompson. I remember the rugged bluffs, the noble ponderosas, the roller-coaster ride through huge standing waves. Massive pillows of water. But mostly I remember this:
On a calm stretch, as we drifted past some streaked, rusty hills, we looked up at some mine shafts, black holes bored into the slope. Cinnabar, I presumed. “What are those?” asked a woman on the raft. “Paprika mines,” answered the guide. The woman looked up at the hill in wonder and appreciation. “Ooohh,” she said slowly. “So that’s where it comes from!” The guide didn’t even crack a smile.
About 100 miles due south of Lytton, as the crow flies, is the Baker River. It is just shy of the Canada/US border, smack-dab in the pocket of the world that feels most like home to me. It is one of my favorite rivers. It is small, unlike the Fraser and the Thompson. It has a small watershed. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in sheer loveliness and richness of life.
In its lower half, the Baker is impounded by dams. But in its upper half, the Baker runs wild and free through some of the most rugged alpine terrain in North America. Its upper watershed is roadless and trail-less. Pristine. Wet, steep, and green.
The river moves through enormous old-growth trees, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, and many other species, both deciduous and conifers. In the cool forest, lichens and mushrooms and mosses do their all-important work. Everything is layered, intricate, interwoven.
Somewhere there is ground, but it’s hard to find it. Woodland flowers such as red columbine, bunchberry, and false Solomon’s seal. Red huckleberries and purple ones, thimbleberries, salmonberries.
The Baker is birthed under the aptly-named Picket Range, a row of serrated peaks in the hard-to-reach heart of the North Cascades. The peaks that surround the upper Baker watershed have names like Mount Despair and Mount Fury. Snowpack tends to be deeper and last longer here than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. More than a dozen glaciers feed the stream.
By late summer, in a dry year, glaciers might account for as much as half of the river’s flow. The beautiful blue-green tinge of the water is due to suspended silt from the glaciers that feed it. Such silt, called glacial flour, is so fine that the water appears crystal-clear up close, but imparts a slight milkiness when seen from greater distance.
The Baker supports runs of all five kinds of Pacific salmon: Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Chum, and Pink. Also Steelhead. This is a point of distinction for such a small river. A river fed by glaciers is advantageous for salmon. It has a more even flow and a reliably colder temperature than a river fed primarily by snow and rain.
That color. Glacial water flowing over stones. Clear with a hint of teal, deepening where there are pools.
This past year I hiked up the Baker River with Monty. She seemed part of the forest to me. Belonging there as much as the berries and mushrooms and towering Western Hemlock. Belonging there as much as the nurse logs.
A nurse log is a fallen tree that decomposes into the ground, in the process providing a nutrient-rich place for saplings to grow. A nurse log holds, pound for pound, more life than any place in the forest. A nurse log is how one generation of trees passes along its life force to the next, how it nurtures the young, even in death.
I would like to do this hike with her every year, for as long as my legs work. In 2040, if I’m still around, I’ll be 78. Monty will be 41.
It is expected that in in 2040, unless our path changes in a significant way, all summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will be a thing of the past. Oceans will be increasingly acidic and increasingly bereft of life. All across the globe, mountain glaciers will vanish.
The most important word in the previous paragraph is the word unless.
It may seem that I’ve made, with no transition, an abrupt shift from personal stories to the “political” issue of climate change. My view is that I didn’t change the subject.
Because this is precisely how I understand the subject: My daughters will be 50 and 41 in 2040. My grandchildren may be the age I am now in 2090.
This past summer, the temperature reached 121.3 Fahrenheit in Lytton, where the Thompson meets the Fraser. The day after this modest town at the confluence of two majestic rivers set this unenviable Canadian record, it burned to the ground.
Lytton is (was) on the east side of the mountains, so it can get hot. Hotter than Seattle or Vancouver, anyway. But historically, hot has meant 95 and, more rarely, 100 or 105. More akin to Missoula, Montana, than to Phoenix or Bagdad. Lytton’s average high in July is a mere 82. That means that on June 29, 2021, Lytton was 40 degrees hotter than their average high for July.
In forested places, especially in arid regions, temperature should never be considered by itself. It should always be coupled with soil moisture. Think about soil moisture as a critical measure of the land’s health. Its ability to sustain plant life, fungal life, insect life, and microbial soil life. Human life.
The scenery and topography surrounding what once was Lytton is stellar. Snowcapped mountains rise nine thousand feet above the Fraser. It’s a bit like western Montana on steroids. It is hard to over-praise this country. The slopes are draped in ponderosa pine at the bottom of the canyon, transitioning with elevation to spruce and fir and eventually alpine tundra and glaciers.
A temperature 40 degrees above the average July high. Imagine that, wherever you live. In Phoenix, that would be a temperature of 146. In Denver, 132. In Dallas, 136. In Las Vegas, 147. In Washington DC, 129. And in the mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona, where I grew up, 122.
A “freak” heatwave. Words like “unprecedented” and “historic” were used to describe it. But will it be unusual in 2040? Temperatures 40 or even 50 degrees above normal have been occurring with some frequency in the Arctic for several years now.
Climate change is not in the far distance. It is bearing down on us now. It will get persistently worse in the next few decades. What we could lose is incalculable, and cannot be reduced to dollars. I think, for most of us, it is inconceivable. But we had better conceive of it.
There is no clear line separating the personal from the political. My love of a river is personal. The Baker. The Thompson. The Skykomish. Nothing in my life is more personal and more important than my children and their future.
2040 is not that far away. The path we are on is not in doubt—at least not to anyone who has their eyes open. It’s not my intent, in this note, to go into too much detail about the global consequences of this change. I’ve done that elsewhere, and I’ll do it again.
I will say this. The Baker River will be different in 20 years. Unless we change the path we are on, it won’t support five species of salmon. Will it support even one? I don’t know. The Thompson will be different too, although the paprika mines will still be there.
The year 2040 does not seem imminent, but it will come upon us before we know it. The current is moving quickly. Twenty years ago seems like yesterday to me. Heck, I played some Fleetwood Mac on Spotify, and 40 years ago seemed like yesterday.
Maybe 2090 seems like really a long ways off, but people you love will inhabit that year. Unless our path changes, they will inherit a world damaged beyond what we are willing to think about.
Unless. Unless is the key word.
What that future will be like is determined not just by me or you, but by the whole society. It is not at all clear that Americans—or humans generally, for that matter—truly grasp the nature and the scope of this challenge. If we did fully grasp it, what would we do differently?
I don’t know. Eschew cheeseburgers? Travel by horse? Change lightbulbs? There is no single action. No single answer. Many things can be done; taken alone, none of them are adequate, or even very measurable.
If creativity and money and political influence are necessary to lead us toward solutions, then I wonder how the people who have the creativity and money and influence can be moved by love to apply it. Where is the fulcrum?
It may be that the most impactful thing we can do is to refuse to extend power to leaders who are neither generous nor careful. It is an unfortunate truth that some people really don’t give a shit about the future—even though their own children may inhabit it.
We need to not allow such people to advance beyond high school student council in their political aspirations.
Beyond that, it is not my intention (at least in this note) to tell people what I think they should do about climate change. We will all decide for ourselves. Feeling guilty and distraught and filled with dread doesn’t help. (Trust me on that one.)
The future is not set in stone. Consequence is always downstream from choice. Think of a river. We are not only riding the current; we are the current.
Maybe my only point is this: Action is rooted in love.
We are connected to those who came before us—and to those who come after. I would like to walk with Monty up the Baker River in 2040, and see salmon in the pools.
I don’t know if my father’s spirit is somewhere in the universe, sentient still. If so, it would make him smile if he could see me catching crawdads with my grand-daughter.
That is what I would like to be doing in 2040.
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