A comment in a book I was reading yesterday made me think about rivers, about their origins, their flow and destinations. A river’s origin or source may be a spring, or a set of creeks which serve as tributaries into a channel which flows along toward a broader body of water such as great lake, gulf or ocean.
Here in Minnesota we have the headwaters of the Mississippi, the starting point of the world’s third longest river. Twenty-five years ago I used to run along this same river bank three mornings a week when I lived for a time in Bloomington. Over a century ago young Sam Clemens swam in this same river further south, traveling much of its length from Missouri to the Mississippi Delta.
And near two centuries ago the elderly Daniel Boone, who had moved most of his family to Missouri from Kentucky in order to escape the encroachments on his freedom by our U.S. legal system, decided to explore the Mississippi northward with a Negro via canoe. A brutal snowstorm from the north bore down upon them as they neared the headwaters here in Minnesota and for three days it appeared that he was about to die as they lay beneath the canoe striving to survive. He recited to his dark skinned companion his last will and testament, but the storm broke and he found himself recovering. They got back into the canoe returned to Missouri where he lived out the rest of his years.
Rivers have been part of human history for ages, serving as transportation routes, power generators, geographic barriers, political boundaries, and more. Rivers have also served as a source of inspiration for poets, writers, artists and philosophers.
An interesting feature of the Mississippi is that not far from its source there is an unusual triple watershed. Watersheds are high points where rain drainage diverges in different directions or to separate destinies. In the Colorado Rockies, for example, there is a divide where water falling to the West flows to the Pacific Ocean, and to the East it flows to the mighty Mississippi and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. But here, not far from where I am sitting, there is a triple point which Native Americans recognized long before the white man came, and held council meetings there.
Rain that falls in this small area can have one of three outcomes once it joins other creeks, streams and tributaries. It can flow into Lake Superior and into the St. Lawrence Seaway system, or it can flow into the headwaters of the Mississippi, or it can drain northward to the Arctic Ocean… a truly diverse set of destinies.
Our minds are like rivers sometimes. Ideas fall like rain into our mental landscape. Some drops evaporate quickly and are gone. Others merge with existing streams and make them more powerful as they cut deeper channels through the interior of our souls. Occasionally, due to weather patterns chiefly, there are floods which overflow their banks and spill across the landscape, sometimes tearing down trees and buildings and causing great upheavals.
The river’s origins are simple and small, bearing no resemblance to the mile wide expanse downstream.
When the river is flowing hard and fast, it energizes us. When the river becomes wide, flowing lazily through time and space, it relaxes us. So too, our minds and mental states.
The flowing river is a theme upon which many minds have meditated. Twain, Hesse, Annie Dillard, Norman Maclean have all included reflections on rivers. Here is the culmination of Hesse’s Siddhartha as the great wise man contemplates the meaning of his life while watching, and listening to, the river.
Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala's picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river's voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reaced and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew. But the yearning voice had altered. It still echoed sorrowfully, searcingly, but other voices accompanied it, voices of pleasure and sorrow, good and evil voices, laughing and lamenting voices, hundreds of voices, thousands of voices.
Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything... He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.