The Secret History of Rivers

By Ian Kerstetter


Photo courtesy Tess Kerstetter

Photo courtesy Tess Kerstetter

I am nine or ten years old and the biggest centipede I’ve ever seen is writhing around in the bucket at my feet.

On a wall, a centipede is frightening. The other kids say that even its feet will leave painful welts across your skin, and I believe them. But here, trapped in this bucket with a week’s worth of fallen leaves, a centipede is a fascinating creature.

I am on a school field trip that we make once a month to help a local conservation group collect biological data from the Rio Grande and it’s surrounding cottonwood forest, which is called bosque in both Spanish and English. This centipede has fallen into one of the many large rubber buckets that we check each month to capture a snapshot of the bosque’s growth and decay. We record what we find and cautiously return the centipede and leaves and dusty white twigs to the forest. The mysteries we uncover each day here begin to suggest to us the larger mysteries of nature, and we come to understand the bosque as a living, breathing organism.

The white cottonwoods stretch out all around us, a humming maze of green and gold that I have always felt safe in. The meandering bosque and the quiet Rio Grande within offer a vast sanctuary for the living creatures here. Its endless silence and endless hum of life make an impression on my youth of an ancient, wild being, an impression I suspect children by the coast understand when thinking of the ocean.

This impression only grows as I grow, and I travel to see the river from its origins in the Rockies to the Chihuahua desert in northern Mexico. It appears in my mind as a monumental compass; a great line drawn through the soil that points from north to south, from mountain to ocean. Every time I cross it, I look north and think, Colorado, and look south and think, The Gulf of Mexico. With the river below my feet, I feel connected.

But in the same moments that I learned of the river’s life as a child, I learned of its struggle. The Rio Grande holds an open secret; it is a contradiction. Its many dams prevent sacred flooding that sustains the cottonwoods and fish and many other organisms at the same time that they provide irrigation for countless crops. It’s banks have been narrowed and it’s bed deepened to protect cities from falling into its currents, sweeping away the fertile soil it once deposited across its valley. Its once mighty path is marred by pollution and drought; if you drive far enough south it goes completely dry in places. Its very existence depends on the activity of humans.

Now, thirteen-hundred miles away, I find myself over the Chicago River looking for the same connection. The Chicago is a mighty river, easily two or three times as wide as the Rio Grande, and who knows how much deeper. Rather than meandering, it follows the grid of the city around it, becoming a glittering street of its own. Its very existence has become a part of the grand plan of Chicago– the river I stand over today is an engineering project that shares only its name with the living thing that came before. It doesn’t even flow in the same direction as it once did. There is no bosque here, no centipedes or porcupines. This river is a modern municipal sewage and transportation project.

The Chicago River yields its secret to me: no river flows how it once did. The rivers in our country have been yoked to urbanization, to agriculture, to civilization. Like the Rio Grande, the Chicago exists as it does because humans redesigned it. Living beings, now domesticated.

As I search the air above the Jackson street bridge for a sense of connection, the lazy river below me tells me another secret. The Chicago River once fed into Lake Michigan. In an effort to wash away pollution and waste from the growing metropolis, the city reversed its flow and fed it into the Des Plaines River, which joins the Kankakke River to form the Illinois River, which pours into the mighty Mississippi and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, the same sea to which the Rio Grande ultimate leads. If I put a finger into the Chicago, I would be connected by water molecules to the place I was born.

This river, like the Rio Grande and many other waterways across this land, holds the contradictions of health and sickness, of wild and urban. But I recall the magic secrets the Rio Grande used to whisper in my ear as a child; the sight of people planting young cottonwoods in lieu of the annual floods; the ecstatic abundance of a desert farm watered by the Rio. In contradiction, I see hybridity. The river– the idea of the river as living being and controlled resource– lives on. The waters carry life, they carry history, they carry our future. Many rivers may be sick from pollution and drought. But they flow on as living prayers for healing. Their secret is that they live on, but for how long? More than ever, I stand in awe and reverence of the river. I find I cannot see its water without praying they might be cleaned one day soon, that they might flow freely and support not just cities and crops but cities and crops and trout and porcupines and forests.

The river of my childhood flows brightly though my mind. It is constantly moving, washing the old with the ever new. It is not the river below my feet, but this river moves too. I hear it tell me one last secret as I turn to leave;

move. always move.