The world and the river


There’s something remarkable about going to sleep on a boat on a river in the middle of the wilderness, and waking on a boat in the middle of a city.  An old city. 

Kennewick is just downstream from here. In 1996, some bones were found sticking out of the wall of silt along the Columbia River, barely a mile from where I am now. Dated to about 9000 years before the present, the local natives, the Umatilla nation, refer to him as “The Ancient One”.  People have lived here in dense settlements for a long time. When Lewis and Clark passed through in 1806, they found thriving and wealthy communities. 

Those communities are still wealthy. The dams of the Snake and Columbia rivers produce some of the cheapest electrical power in the world: glacial ice of the Rocky Mountains returning to the Pacific Ocean and the high desert between the Cascades and the Rockies as irrigation, wild fish farm, and gravity-powered energy. This water lit the fire of ten thousand suns: the electrical power of the Pacific Northwest fueled the Manhattan Project, refined the uranium and plutonium for the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and smelted the aluminum that built the ships and planes of World War II. 

Today, the electricity produced here for a penny or two per kilowatt-hour gets sold in Los Angeles, CA for 10-17 cents apiece: Hollywood’s blockbuster movies and CGiI special effects are born of this river; so are Seattle’s Amazonian online commercial wonders and Redmond’s Microsoft magic. The bathtub locks and salmon ladders make commerce and fishing possible all the way to Idaho, where Clarkston and Lewiston sit as the easternmost ports on the American Pacific coast, sending timber and grain and paper to the world. Even Silicon Valley’s technological achievements are fished out of this river system like so many salmon of wisdom — rerouted electrons shimmering like so many stars in the heavens, refashioned into to stuff dreams are made of. 
Hail, Columbia!

It occurs to me that Columbia is herself a goddess, but one who shares a certain cachet or category with Cerridwen. The poet-technologists watch her flowing, bubbling cauldron, and withdraw the gifts of prophecy and foresight and poetry and art from these waters. The goddess chases them all the way to the sea, shedding her gifts behind her as she goes, steadily and unhurriedly demanding what is hers— the right to reunite with Great Ocean. I don’t know anything about her identity in Native myth… I’m going to have to find out. 

Reenchanting the world

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There’s something quite magical about passing through a lock. First you’re on a river or a lake.  Then you go into this industrial box or bathtub. The water sinks around the boat. For a brief period of time, you can see the upper waters higher than your boat. Then you’re below the waterline even on the uppermost decks of the boat. 

Then you head forward, and you see the doors part. Daylight shows through the gap in these massive gates. It’s like watching the gates of Mordor open. Except that instead of hordes of orcs pouring through, it’s daylight and the natural world. 

The Pacific Northwest probably has more dams, and more cheap electrical power, than anywhere else in the world. That power comes in part from the extraordinary ruggedness and beauty of the landscape — these steep-sided gorges filled with rushing waters left over from the melting glaciers of North America’s last ice age.   It’s hard to believe that these dams, which are some of the largest concrete structures in the world, may one day run out of water. 

Yet as we pass through these locks on the way downstream, it’s hard not to see the opening gates as a metaphor, a symbol, a road-opening spell. Rivers are only temporarily tamed. Steel and concrete locks and dams work with the river’s flow to allow ships to go up and down stream, and to generate and regulate electricity — but they don’t work without acknowledging the river as the source of the power that makes these things possible. 

Road-opening is pretty powerful, don’t get me wrong. But a lock opening carries another kind of inevitability to it. They’re largely mechanical, these massive bathtubs of water with full pipes and valves from the upper river, and drains to the lower river. But they can carry you up or down stream, to a higher or lower elevation, simply by allowing the water to do what it wants to do.   Hold the water back in a controlled way…. water rises.  Let it go in a controlled way, water falls. Whether you seek the sea or the summit, the lock opening spell takes you there. 

On the Snake River

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It’s nearly impossible for these photos to capture adequately the apparent loneliness and majesty of the Snake River as it winds through eastern Oregon.