There are two major rivers that are important in my immediate region. One is known today as the Willamette, and the other as the Columbia.
I grew up with the Columbia as a normal sight along any trip from home to Portland, as the interstate runs along the river for much of that distance.
When I moved back to Oregon last spring, I spent a few weeks with my parents. While I was there, Loki started to get on my case about advancing some of my skills, and um, convinced me to get outside and try learning to see/feel plant auras and energy. The first time I tried Looking at some trees to See their energy, I was rewarded immediately with two things: a faint image over/around the trees – and a stabbing pain in my forehead and eyes. Apparently it took me a little breaking in to do it, because the next time I tried (not the same day, I have some sense), I got the visual phenomena without the pain.
When my parents drove me out to Portland a week or so later to complete my move, and the interstate bent and was suddenly right along the river, I had the brilliant idea to try out my new-found skill and see what I could See of the river.
I got a flash of yellow and a really incredible splitting pain in my head, like an ice pick was jammed into my eye sockets. I had to physically turn my face away to make it stop. Only then did it occur to me to realize that, yes, the Columbia is very much bigger than any of those trees, what was I thinking?? I only just started doing this thing! I did not try again, and I tried to not even contemplate the concept of doing a similar thing when I went to the Pacific for the first time after returning home.
The river originates up in Canada, heads northwest for a little while, and then winds its way south and west until it reaches the Pacific Ocean, cutting through the Cascade range on its way. When you look at a map of its watershed, its area of influence is vast.
The river predates the Cascades, which started to uplift 700,000 – 2 million years ago. It didn’t so much carve down through them as just keep running along as they rose up, creating the area known today as the Columbia Gorge.
The river ended up in its current course between 6 and 17 million years ago. It existed before then.
By volume, it is only the 4th largest river in the United States, but because of the relatively steep angle at which it flows down to the ocean, it carries enormous power. Thus it is dammed to create electricity for the region, and produces more than any other river in the US. (And I thought it would be a fine idea to open myself up to its power . . . )
It is also dammed in places to create easier passage for barges. At its mouth, however, is an area that is one of the most treacherous in the world, known as the “Graveyard of Ships,” and I can’t explain why I find this fact so terribly pleasing.
When I was doing some reading on it earlier this year, I found this poignant fact:
“Entirely within the [Hanford Nuclear] reservation is Hanford Reach, the only U.S. stretch of the river that is completely free-flowing, unimpeded by dams and not a tidal estuary.” (source; also the source for the other facts in this post)
The only stretch of the Columbia that is free-flowing is a stretch running through the most radioactively-contaminated land in the United States.
We haven’t even allowed the river its freedom without another human-caused ecological cost.
The river is old. Almost incomprehensibly ancient.
I thought over this massive, ancient power, and how terrible it is that we’ve blocked it in so many places, leaving it and the creatures it carries free only in contaminated land, and I wondered what the river thinks of all this. I was appalled by the arrogance and short-sightedness of it all.
Then I thought, again, about how very, very old it is. And massive. I thought how it cut through mountains. How it cut through the Bridge of the Gods – a massive landslide, 3.5 miles long and 200 feet thick, that occurred 800-1000 years ago and dammed the river for a while.
I then felt like maybe my concerns were a bit ridiculous. I thought about how relatively fragile our concrete technology is. How recent it is, and how brief a moment in time, in the lifetime of the river. From its perspective, what are we, really? What is all of human history to its life? What is one of these dams?
And it occurred to me that the river probably has incredible patience and endurance. It can and will outwait us. Eventually, those dams that we don’t remove – they will fail.
I still worry for the impacts on the fish and other parts of the affected ecosystems, but I’ve found a sort of grim satisfaction in these later realizations. The river will be just fine.