By the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going and it said to itself, “there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
Many of us grew up with the tales of Winnie the Pooh, and have relived the stories with our children. There is an ageless wisdom from the characters living at Pooh Corner. I thought of Winnie the Pooh sitting beside the Tassajara Creek. I thought of the simplicity, yet not simpleness, of Rabbit, Piglet, Pooh, and Roo playing the game of “Pooh Sticks” as I tossed two twigs into the creek and watched as the current carried them downstream. It didn’t matter which stick went faster–they will float downstream together for a while, then they may go their separate ways. They will reach their destination, someday, and perhaps meet again in the vast blue sea.
I came to Tassajara Zen Monastery in the Ventana National Wilderness to practice walking meditation and to deepen my meditation in nature. In my hut next to the creek, I woke each morning and drifted into sleep each night listening to the water babbling, constant and calming, like a mantra. During the day, I wandered alongside the creek watching it leap over round rocks and fall down larger boulders. The water deepened my understanding that everything is connected and each of us–my fellow retreaters, the Zen leader, and the Monks living at Tassajara–is alone and yet together, connected: a passing smile along the path, soaking in the hot springs with a calm mind, attending to the current of daily life cleaning, cooking, and caring for the property, or sitting as still as a stone in silence together. We create ripples; we share energy. Being there amongst monks in a working monastery, the importance of ritual made sense to me as I began to embrace the purposefulness of Zen practice. I realize how each person is a part of the whole community; together they sit in silence and together they flow in breath and unity. The creek taught me how all matter leaves traces and that we all influence each other. I realized our interconnectedness with nature.
From rivers we learn to observe the flux and change of our world both internally and externally. Everything changes, all is in flux, and we cannot stop the current of change—therefore, embrace it. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” stated Heraclitus.
The rain and snow melt runs down the hills and through the plains into rivulets, brooks, creeks, streams, and majestic rivers flowing into the vast blue seas. The water sometimes runs swiftly, crashing with forceful energy into boulders, pounding the rocks into new formations, eventually breaking them down into sediment. At other times, it drifts at a gentle pace, smoothly gliding over the rocks and boulders, creating a mirror to the sky and trees along the way as it travels downstream. In return, the rocks change the flow of the river. Big boulders form walls creating deep pools, scattered boulders create mini waterfalls in the river’s rapids and a fallen tree limb may provide a restful eddy for upstream swimmers where the water curls into a bend along the shore. Its energy and rhythm changes, sculpting with its continuous flow. Whether fast or slow, it carves into the landscape, flexing and shifting the banks creating a new path from the past and a new one for the future. I wonder, do I change like the river, broadening and deepening?
This leads me to think of a poem by David Whyte, “Where Many Rivers Meet”.
All the water below came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains gave it to the rivers
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.
And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
clouds fall and stream rush, tree root and tide bank
leading to the river’s mouths.
And the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back
from the depths
where nothing is forgotten.
Stories of history flow down a river, from exploration to settlement, to trade and transport, to life and death. Water is the lifeblood of our earth. From the Nile, the Amazon, the Euphrates, the Thames, the Colorado, the Mekong, and to the Sacred Headwaters in Canada, around the globe rivers have inspired timeless symbolisms and metaphors. Each river as it winds through the landscape plays a part of human history. In his stirring ode to nature, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, “The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers are not small themes.” And many a writer, poet, musician, and artist has extolled on this theme to reveal both personal and universal meaningfulness to life.
The poet Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as an insightful young man with an old soul telling the interconnected story of rivers he had never traveled on yet sharing the interconnectedness they held for him. This poem reflects on ancient rivers, holding a depth of history older than civilization. These four important rivers of the world were important in human existence; they not only provided passageways for people traveling but also served to traffic humans in slavery from Asia to Africa to America. The lyrical lines in Hughes’ poem flows like the water.
I’ve known rivers
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Mary Oliver in her poem “Of What Surrounds Me” sings the praises of the essential presence of nature to inspire her poetics,
Whatever it is I am saying, I always
need a leaf or a flower, if not an
entire field. As for sky, I am so wildly
in love with each day’s intentions, cool blue
or cat gray or full
of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t
say whatever it is I am saying without
at least one skyful. That leaves water, a
creek, or a well, river or ocean, it has to be
there. For the heart to be there. For the pen
to be poised. For the idea to come.
Looking towards visual artists, they too sourced from rivers to create art that shares both a singular resonance as well as timeless messages. From the river they found creative inspiration akin to spiritualism, a sense of identity, nationalism, and union with nature.
Thomas Cole journeyed up the Hudson River from New York City to Catskill; enthralled by the natural beauty, he painted sketches along the route just as today, passengers taking the Hudson-bound Metro-North train are inspired by the same beauty to snap images of the scenery on their smartphones. Cole’s documentation of the changing light reflected in the wide, watery surface gained popularity and began an artistic movement known as the Hudson River School, which celebrated the splendor of nature as a spiritual renewal. Sunny Morning On The Hudson River (1827) is one example of his paintings in which he romanticizes the sublime American wilderness and the tamed pastoral farmlands by the river. Focusing on the ominous dark mountain, the stark leafless tree, and the windblown limbs of the sparsely leafed tree creates drama depicting a merciless danger within nature’s throes, while at the same time he shows movement in the wispy fog and clouds which offer a sense of passing of the tumultuous weather. There is a promise of peacefulness in the oncoming sunny skies illuminating the river beyond, surrounded by tranquil pastures. Weather, like the river below, constantly changing, constantly flowing.
German artist Andreas Gursky, in his photograph, Rhine II (1999), shows the Rhine from nostalgia. Recreating the river landscape, he allows the viewer to imagine an idyll: a serene, surreal landscape without trees, buildings, or the effects of urbanization. He manipulates the photograph to create an abstract, minimalistic, painterly image with texture and tone. The Rhine River, to many, is associated with German nationalism. Rhineland is a pseudonym for Germany, and Gursky’s Rhine II, with its horizontal stripes of sky, grass, and river could serve as a national flag.
Andreas Gursky, Rhine II (1999) c-print. image courtesy of http://www.tate.org
Anselm Kiefer, also a German artist historically considers the Rhine with a nod towards melancholy, in relation to Germany’s history and identity. With dark ash like marks his drawing Der Rhein (1982) reveals the Rhine through an ominous forest of charred, leafless trees, a devastation of the German landscape, ruins from the era of the Third Reich. For both artists, the Rhine holds importance as symbolic in German history, culture and identity.
Anselm Keifer, Der Rhein (The Rhine) 1982. woodcut and ink on paper mounted on canvas. image courtesy of SFMOMA
Olafur Eliasson captured on film the entire 100-kilometer length of the Markarfljot River in Iceland as it winds through mountainous glaciers and broadens, spilling out on the plains until mixes in with he waters of the Atlantic ocean in The Aerial River Series (2000). Eliasson’s photographic series reads more as a study documenting a place before time changes its course. One could say it was a sketch leading to his Riverbed sculpture in 2014, where he brought nature into the gallery, recreating a river with snakelike curves, boulders, and stepping stones. It has a direct link to the Earthworks movement (which I discuss in this essay), particularly Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977). Often when looking at a painting, I wonder, what might it be like to enter into the painting; with Riverbed, the viewer is required to enter the art. The viewer, in fact, is a part of the landscape. Yet, what is Eliasson aiming at? I consider the artwork a critique on how one experiences nature in the world, and how man has altered both nature and wilderness. Is going to a manmade manicured park experiencing nature any more authentic than going to a museum and wandering alongside a riverbed?
Oluar Eliasson, The Aerial River Series, 2000. image courtesy SFMOMA
Olufar Eliasson, Riverbed 2014. image courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (www.en.louisiana.dk)
Susan Derges created photograms of water’s movement and form by submerging large sheets of photographic paper into rivers, using the night sky as a darkroom and the moon and a flashlight for exposure. Within these still images, she apprehends an almost ghostlike effect, the trace of a life within the river that remains as a palimpsest. These photograms capture the dynamic, imaginative, and magical word of nature.
Susan Derges, Waxing Moon, 2013 30X17 inch digital c-print. image courtesy of Danzinger Gallery
Two British artists, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, are both considered part of the Earthworks art movement in which the intention is to use material from nature (mud, stone, water, twigs, leaves) to create impermanent sculptures that depend upon earth’s elements to decompose and alter the artwork. Ideally, these works are made site-specific or outside the traditional gallery setting. Richard Long paints on walls using his hands in place of a paintbrush and mud sourced from the Avon River in lieu of paint. The Avon River runs through Bristol, his childhood home; perhaps with each new rendition he is performing a ritual to memorialize his origins, leaving traces behind of his past along with the traces of history residing in the sediment.
Richard Long, image courtesy of pinterest.
Similarly, there is a form of ritual in his performance and subsequent art piece, A Hundred Mile Walk (1971-72). In this interactional performance within nature, he documents in photograph and words things seen and thoughts evoked while walking a circuitous route along a river in Dartmoor, England. His art is a true discourse between the artist and nature, he records his perceptions, both internal thoughts and external sounds, for example, “In and out the sound of rivers over familiar stepping stones” (Day 5)
Richard Long, A Hundred Mile Walk, 1972. offset printing on paper
Andy Goldsworthy (not unlike Pooh and his pals) gathers leaves, makes ropes or chains from them, and sends them adrift in rivers floating downstream creating a chain that ebbs and flows with the current and eventually dissipates, each leaf eventually going its own journey to the sea. For Goldswothy, nature is his material and he recognizes there is no perfect beyond nature, yet he works with that ideal form to create his manmade ‘natural’ object. This, too, he knows will be reformed and changed by nature. Within hours, perhaps, days, his work leaves little to no trace. In the end, nature claims the process of the artist to change its form. Both artists in their own way express beauty in the certainty of impermanence and, in their manner, a performance or ritual with nature.
Hazel leaves each stitched together to the next with grass stalks gently pulled by the river out of a rock pool floating downstream low water. SCAUR WATER, DUMFRIESSHIRE 5 June 1991. Andy Goldsworthy
Albert Einstein advised to “look deep within nature and then you will understand everything.” These artists, in word and image, reveal varied and multiple meanings, metaphors that sprung from observation of brooks, creeks, and rivers. We are reminded of history, of letting go, going with the flow, and allowing everything to drift on by.
Returning to Tassajara, while there I read a Zen proverb about two monks and a woman by a river.
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.
The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.
Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.
The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.
Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself no longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”
The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”
As I sat by the creek watching the two twigs drift downstream, I let go of my thoughts, allowing them to drift away. By letting go of the thoughts from the past and planning for the future, we can better be (inter)connected with the world around us. Most importantly, we should be mindful of the present. What we contribute to the flowing waters have an effect on what is downstream just as those who contributed to the waters upstream affect where we stand now. River time is now time, the water flows by, and each moment drifts by with it. Be with it.