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. 

2 comments

  1. Thank you, Robert.

    I talked with Roger, a local expert, who told me that the Native community at Celilo Falls upstream from The Dalles, OR was about 9,000 people in 1805 when Lewis and Clark visited. In 1800 Salem, Massachusetts was #7 of the list of the ten largest cities in the fledging United States with about 9700 people… I think we haven’t done a good job of acknowledging the density of population of native communities nor of the change that America brought to the rest of the continent. This trip has really brought that home to me.

  2. Art is in the eye, not in the hand. Many is the great artist with workmanlike hands but the eyes of a genius. This piece of yours reveals a clever hand and the eyes of Horus. So insightful, so bright, fun to read!

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