I have not, until recently, lived in an area where the rivers were a dominant feature of the landscape. Further west in Washington state the landscapes are dominated by great forests. Mysterious and magical places where great Douglas firs and western red cedars are the norm. Great forest floors of moss and fern. There is also the quiet presence of the distant Olympic mountains, and on clear days the noble peak of Rainier. In addition to this is the power of the ocean when one travels far west enough to come to the Pacific Ocean.
But the landscape where I currently live, unlike any I’ve known before, is dominated by two large forks of a great river which runs from the upper reaches of the North Cascade mountain range and empties into one of the many inlets of the Pacific Ocean on the aforementioned westerly edge of Washington state.
The many forests which spring up alongside the waterways cut by the ceaseless movements of the river currents consist largely of great and twisted big leaf maples and immense black cottonwoods. But as beautiful as these riverside forests are, the presence of the river is the grand note in the symphonies of this remarkable landscape.
While walking recently along the northern fork of this river I came to an area where one is able to look down a length of the river, along the great trees of its forested banks, along its rocky shores which it has cut through its endless movements through the landscape, and up to the great hills and distant mountains from which it has flown.
This river is an ancient thing. It has run its course for far longer than I, merely human, am able to understand. And it seemed to me then that this ancient place, with its vast and incomprehensible history, must surely have been a dwelling place of the gods. And if not a dwelling place of the gods then most certainly a channel of communion with that vast and ineffable glory of the earth which moves in all things.
I sat in this place for some time, sitting quietly, absorbing the presence of the river. I did not say anything. If I am honest I do not think that we have much to say to the earth. There are some that talk of speaking to the earth. If it does listen I don’t believe that it cares for anything we have to say to it. The eternity of this river is a testament to that. It has flown from the great Cascades before the region had ever known of men. It has flown through the ages of the people for whom it is named, a subset of the Southern Coastal Salish peoples. It has flown through the coming of Europeans. It has flown through the decline of the Stillaguamish peoples who lived by its grace. It has flown through the rise of the lumber industry, agriculture, and the spread of modernity. And still it flows, and will continue to flow. The earth has no need of humanity. “And you too shall pass. As with all things. And I will remain” it seems to say with a contented smile.
And though I find that I have nothing to say to the river, it seems to me that there is much that it has to say to me. We may have nothing to say to the gods, to the nameless. But that what we may glean from the ineffable is beyond measure seems to me to be without doubt. There is a wisdom in the ceaseless currents of the river, in the ancient traces it has cut across the landscape of the lowlands of the Puget Sound for countless thousands of years. It teaches the way of things. It teaches of that final indomitable reality. By its enduring presence it illumines the smallness and the transience of man and the lasting glory of the earth. It speaks of that eternal, quiet glory of the wild earth. That salvation of the inhuman which it preaches is given unto us by the dissolution of ourselves into the grand beauty of the whole. From Robinson Jeffer’s The Tower Beyond Tragedy:
… To-night, lying on the hillside, sick
with those visions, I remembered
The knife in the stalk of my humanity; I drew and it broke;
I entered the life of the brown forest
And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone,
I felt the changes in the veins
In the throat of the mountain, a grain in many centuries, we have
our own time, not yours; and I was the stream
Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking; and I was
Boiling with light, wandering alone, each one the lord of his own
summit; and I was the darkness
Outside the stars, I included them, they were a part of me. I was
mankind also, a moving lichen
On the cheek of the round stone . . . they have not made words
for it, to go behind things, beyond hours and ages,
And be all things in all time, in their returns and passages, in the
motionless and timeless center …