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Dancing with Rivers

Finding joy and peace in moving water

International Day of Action for Rivers Special

Something magic happens around moving water.

I should know — I grew up in the Midwest, the land of grand rivers and Great Lakes. As kids, my siblings and I spent so much time swimming that at night, we could lie in our beds and feel the rhythms of the river or lake still vibrating inside us, dancing in our veins.

Photo of Photo courtesy of International Rivers The Ermenek river in Turkey, which has since been lost to a dam.

We came to love water so much that we developed little rituals for it. We’d greet any body of water first thing when we came to it, sticking in a toe and saying hello. And we would thank it and say goodbye when we left it. It’s a habit that has stayed with me to this day. And now I’m seeing that love for flowing water sprout in my own children. 

A few years ago, I visited the California coast with my young son. The beach was blustery and cold, and icy spray was rising off the crashing waves. We turned inland for refuge, exploring the cliffs until we came upon a trickling stream. It was tiny and sparkling — really a streamlet — tumbling down over rocks through a narrow break in the dune.

As we followed it upstream, we came upon a few small boulders and a pool. A profusion of native grasses and flowers had sprung up around it. Protected from the wind, we hid in this magic glade, the sun warm on our skin, and listened to the music of the water burbling over the rocks. We watched dragonflies buzzing over us. We hardly spoke. It was an enchanted moment. We lost track of time — we may have been there for 20 minutes or two hours. We still remind each other about it, years later, whenever one of us needs to connect to a peaceful place. 

That was a quiet moment, but rivers can also get your adrenaline pumping. I’ve rafted down the American River and shrieked as I ran a rapid, sank into a hole, and emerged unscathed — though soaked. You can see that joy in the incredible photos river rafters share. It seems to me that for the time when a rafter is running a river, she is fully present in the moment. Letting her mind wander anywhere else would jeopardize her safety. And then, when she leaves the river, she is joyous, charged, exhausted, challenged, satiated.

Mark Dubois, river defender, veteran rafter, and founder of the nonprofit International Rivers, confirms that impression. He says he doesn’t fight the river, he doesn’t control the river — he dances with it.

Dancing is mastery without domination — a way of being in the world that works with the world, and doesn’t bend it, contort it or kill it to conform to the shape of our will. That is the dance of life.

Photo of Photo courtesy of International Rivers Pink flowers are released into the water at the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum’s boat rally.

Many people still believe in dominating rivers through dams and diversions. But rivers, like nature, bat last. They are powerful, sometimes unpredictable. They are, in fact, very much like life in that way.

When you meet a river on its own terms, it is a living being, capable of giving great joy and great peace. It is a teacher and healer. It creates land, and it changes land. It nourishes fields, but it can also inundate a town.

Rivers are also home to a teeming cast of diverse wildlife — birds, tiny fish, and massive fish, and all the people and animals who depend on them. They play an important role in regulating the climate, transporting and sinking carbon in our oceans. And they recharge our groundwater stores, the best and cheapest form of water storage around.

And because rivers do so much for us, we offer them our songs and prayers. We dip in rivers to be washed clean — both physically and spiritually. We jump into cold rivers and emerge screaming and laughing. We sit near them, we ply their waters with fragile boats, and we are changed. 

That change is always available to us. Just step outside. Find your nearest waterway. And then pay attention to it. Clean it up, if it needs cleaning. Because that river, somehow, will become part of you. And you will grow wiser — and calmer — because of it.

Today, on the 19th International Day of Action for Rivers, people all over the world are gathering to celebrate their waterways. Learn more about the importance of rivers and what you can do to protect them here.

Sarah Bardeen
Sarah Bardeen is a Berkeley-based writer and editor who works for the environmental and human rights nonprofit International Rivers. She has been known to jump into a wild river or two.

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