“I’ve known rivers.” That’s Langston Hughes. Perhaps the human soul has known rivers forever. Certainly there are soulful songs about rivers in our lives today. There’s Paul Robeson’s Old Man River, and Moon River and Billy Joel’s River of Dreams, and Joni Mitchell’s “wish I were a river,” and the “by the waters of Babylon,” and “one more river to cross,” and rowing our boat gently down, floating our boats. If we “slow” down, we can get into the flow. You know how I like to say about our show, the news we need, the news we need to heed, the news in between the late-breaking, fast-breaking, heart-breaking news, the news that William Carlos Williams, the good doctor, says we need to find in difficult and despised poems, without which “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there?” Well, soooooooo, in the news, is good news this week, how people like you decided to do something on behalf of earth flow: down by the river bank. How does it happen? In every state, communities are calling to citizenry for “vision” of transformation of our rivers from industrial catastrophes. They are calling for a vision of health and beauty. What does poetry have to do with it?
Now, I am partial to river bank, perhaps because of the immortal words of Wind in the Willows, its riverbank world of an alive universe from the perspective of deep earth-dwelling creatures who have earth mud in their nostrils and live in and by the river, and for that matter, partial to wind AND to willows, if not also Moles, do you remember our show about moles, I loved that, a labor of moles, a love labor, well perhaps because of those immortal words by Kenneth Graham, on my first date with my husband do you know what we did? Well first of all we exchanged books, of course, and I gave him Wind in the Willowsand he gave me Knut Hamsun’s Pan, isn’t that interesting, Pan is in both books, the mystical force of nature, I just realized that, well, we drove in the country roads on a cold winter day with pale light, and we sat on a muddy riverbank, do you remember that B? and looked at the river flowing by. Don’t you think this is one of our earliest human memories, watching a river flow by? The view from the riverbank. And the wind in the trees, in the willows, in the oaks, in the pines, in the cedars. . .[at this point our radio host waves and waxes effusively and philosophically on the topic of Wind and the Human Psychomythic, Ecospiritual Imagination, History, and Experience, with illustrations from world literature and culture].
It’s all flow . . . Well sooooooooo, anyhousals, as I was reading the newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, front page news, people are ingeniously figuring out ways to keep California state parks open, redefining what we mean by “public” and the polis, for our access to rivers and watershed and forests and nature’s beauty and peace, and in the process, our favorite water birds, and salmon, and all the life that free rivers represent.
These are restoration efforts, reclamation efforts, resurrection efforts, new life efforts, efforts that give hope to us, in these our darkest days of the year. This is news we need: news of people not taking bad news lying down, news of illness and injury to earth; we are not helpless—that is the story! Yes, tell us, O news bearers, stories that encourage us, give us courage and hope and belief in what is possible to do good and make right! In this case, the river is the Napa River, river nourishing vineyards, and cranes and frogs and salmon: it is one of our country’s most significant riparian revitalization projects, green and alive and flowing, so we’re flowing down, I mean slowing down, I do mean, flowing down.
We’ll hear poetry from the Mountains-River tradition of ancient Chinese poetry, the great Li Po, drinking alone beneath the moon in his own mental river dance,
I’ve found a joy that must infuse spring:
I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.
Sober, we’re together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:
intimates forever, we’ll wander carefree
and meet again in Milky Way distances
I like that Mr. Li Po.
There were some poems I wanted to include and promised to mention here: Gary Snyder’s “For All,” Bin Ramke’s “Into Bad Weather Bounding,” “Balance,” by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavangh, “Becoming Weather, 21,” by Chris Martin, poetry by Tu Fu, “Flood,” by Miyazawa Kenji, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
We also hear a shout out for the River of Words poetry contest sponsored by the Library of Congress, and the literary venture,Teaching the Poetry of Rivers, an online resource integrating poetry, water resource science, and the humanities for teachers who promote literacy and environmental education. There is a great website coordinated by the Colorado Center for the Book through the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities, provided for free by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.
We hear Teresa Cader reflect on both wind and river flows, and “Flood,” by Eliza Griswold.
This engagement of our brains with atmosphere and finding in what is out there, outside of us, inside our minds, a mood, a wondering, a wondering, a flow of thought: Henry Taylor finds much to think about in the flow of “A Crosstown Breeze,” Victor Hernandez Cruz finds comedy in “Hurricane,” “An Octave Above Thunder,” by Carol Muske-Dukes (for which we then read from Milton’s “When I consider how my light is spent” and Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us) imagines her teacher confronting a storm by reciting poetry, two poems are twisting and turning, her mind is all shook up in its own weather turbulence, and in the process, she sees them coming all together or splitting apart . . . .
The news, Poetry Slow Down, is that a river is coming back to life: 15 miles of river and 135 acres of floodplains: California’s largest floodplain and wildlife habitat restoration project. The Environmental Protection Agency contributed to the project, which, and I’m quoting, “would never have gotten off the ground without the cooperation of 43 landowners who agreed to take vineyard property out of production so that the river could be widened to create floodplains and riverside habitat.” The Water Resources Control Board and Napa County have contributed. The whole project is a tribute to government and citizens working together—and we see that the Rutherford Dust Society, an association of nearly 100 growers and wineries, say, “We hope we can repeat this on every river, in every state and every community in the world, but we’re starting here.” So Poetry Slow Down, I am so inspired by this news! Good news is contagious. Napa River once had as many as 8000 migrating steelhead and Chinook salmon . . . which nearly all disappeared . . . there was the danger of catastrophic floods. People came together and are supported with state and federal grants. “Everyone should know about this,” a visiting official said.
So Poetry Slow Down, now we have slowed down and now we know about it, and the question is, what is it that prompts citizen action, to take on a hopeful, helpful, grand project of trying to right a wrong, do things better, wiser, on behalf of earth and each other? Well, and this may not surprise you, I believe that poetry gives us a way of thinking that awakens our wise conscience.
Thus, for example, W.S. Merwin, who just finished his term as Poet Laureate of the United States, of Library of Congress has gotten involved in efforts to restore tropical rain forest in Hawaii. “Hear” he is, and as we hear his words, we realize that he was talking about the Wao Kele o Puna which was threatened by geothermic drilling. It is as a poet that he is addressing the California Academy of Sciences. We hear his case for the fusion of literary arts and scientific knowledge, and a way of seeing our earth that poets can contribute to science. We note that he addresses the Academy of Science in 1992 about this issue on behalf of the Wal Kele o Puna, and by 2006 it was purchased by the Trust for Public Land.
In fact, there are community efforts calling for “vision” in which poets and poetry play a role, for city and rural projects revitalizing riparian habitat. We hear about the Animas River Corridor project: The purpose of this project is to create a community vision to guide clean up, revitalization and reuse of a two-mile section of the Animas River Corridor that incorporates Silverton’s mining history, recognizes our mountain community spirit, and respects the natural beauty of the Animas River. The project has three phases: (I) create a community vision for a Revitalization Plan, (II) conduct a Remediation and Restoration Activity Assessment, and (III) research Funding Opportunities to support the Revitalization Plan.
During the past decade, the Los Angeles River has become a subject of intense re-examination, a major topic of policy debate, and a new kind of environmental icon. “It increasingly symbolizes the quest to transform the built and natural urbanenvironment from a place seen as representing violence and hostility for communities and for Nature, to one of rebirth and opportunity.”
CITY HALL LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA 90012
The development of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan can be traced to a bold neighborhood vision in the early 1990s to convert an old rail yard, known as Taylor Yard, to benefit the community. In this neglected riverfront, just north of downtown, residents saw more than just a 200+ acre industrial lot. They saw parks. They saw natural habitat. They saw neighborhood revitalization.
The result: Today the City and California State Parks are transforming Taylor Yard into a 40-acre state park, a key link in the River revitalization. Parks cleanse the air, create a sense of community and provide a source of relief in some of the City’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
But just as important, the intensive community process, which allowed residents to create a vision for Taylor Yard in the early 1990s, became the template used a decade later to renew more than 32 miles of the Los Angeles River.
With this in mind, in June 2002, the Los Angeles City Council established the Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River to work with stakeholders on major revitalization efforts such as recreation, neighborhood identity, wildlife habitat, water replenishment, jobs, tourism and civic pride.
In October 2005, we launched a series of public workshops that have drawn thousands of people – from Canoga Park to Boyle Heights – of diverse ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, to weigh in on the River renewal. Their vision is captured in this master plan, one of the greatest opportunities to change the face of L.A. Even beyond City boundaries, it is a 25-year blueprint that weaves in environmental enhancement, green space and economic development that impacts the region.
The master plan is the result of tireless efforts by residents, community leaders, environmentalists and others who never stopped believing that the River, a trench entombed in cement, could be renewed, brought back to life.
Our communities want parks. They want wildlife habitat. They want neighborhood revitalization for our families and children. No one deserves it more than them.
After all, it is their vision. Sincerely,
ED P. REYES
Chair, Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River
The Re-Envisioning series was also a multi-disciplinary, community-oriented undertaking, with 56 co-sponsors as well as the host Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and its co-host, the Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR). Through the Re-Envisioning program with its more than forty lectures, forums, art installations, poetry readings and other events, the historical, cultural, political, community, environmental, and engineering perspectives about the evolution of the L.A. River were explored. Many of the co-sponsors played a lead role in hosting one or more of the events (for example, the Arroyo Arts Collective sponsored a weekend-long art installation along a two-mile stretch of the River).
We are seeing examples of citizen projects all over the country to restore rivers! And the role of poetry in awakening our love of rivers and habitat and our senses of hope in what can be done. Thus there is an inextricable connection between the capacity of citizens to envision riparian repair and the poetry of rivers. We hear W. S. Merwin’s poems about rivers, “The River of Bees” and “The Way to River,” and Mark Jarman’s “Spell” for the Encanto Creek, the “Riparian series, and the poem “Beautiful Ohio” by James Wright.
Those old Winnebago men knew what they were singing All summer long and all alone, I had found a way to sit on a railway tie above the sewer main. It spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe somebody had gouged through the slanted earth. Sixteen thousand five hundred more or less people In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country, quickened the river with the speed of light. And the light caught there the solid speed of their lives in the instant of that waterfall. I know what we call it most of the time. But I have my own song for it and sometimes, even today, I call it beauty.
James Wright’s poem illustrates the transformational vision at the heart of riparian reform and awakening on the part of all of us. Like Elizabeth Bishop who sees “rainbow!” in a dock spill, Wright sees “beauty” in a sewer pipe entering a river. Like the spoiled Prince in Beauty and the Beast, the river needs to be seen and loved for itself; then it can recover from the spell put upon it and once again be restored to its true (beautiful) nature. It is the poet’s redemptive vision that can save the day (and the river).
In “To a skylark,” Shelley finds in Nature the voice of the poet embodied in a bird, “Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow The world should listen then – as I am listening now.”
FLOW! And there is a wonderful study,
FINDING THE RIVERS: POETRY IN ECOLOGICAL EDUCATION
A Study of The Rhode Island River of Words Project
by Colin Walker Plumb Cheney when he was a student at Brown University. We cite Cheney’s quoting Wendell Berry:
We are in trouble just now because we don’t have a good story. We are between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.
The poets provide such a “new” story. On this theme, another Poet Laureate of the U.S., Library of Congress, Robert Haas, who has been in the news—our show featured him recently as he was injured at Berkeley when he was checking on his students during Occupy Berkeley–shows the rivers in his mind as intrinsic to every part of our lives in “Spring Rain.”
The belief is that our sense of beauty that poets inspire can lead to a love that unleashes our human courage and conscience and creativity.
We conclude with a medley of words on river knowledge from the poets: T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edward Abbey.
And here are words I love, taking us back to the riverbank: it was on the riverbank that Lewis Carroll imagined Alice in Wonderland, and that Kenneth Graham set Wind in the Willows, and Abbey visualizes as he writes,
Joy, shipmates, joy. Edward Abbey, The Hidden Canyon — A River Journey, and Benedicto: ”May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl. . . .”
We conclude with Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things.
I thank you for joining me on this current of air, this river of thought, as we contemplate good news of rivers being saved by the likes of you, by the love of you, all who love and live poetry: a message of hope in these days, for what words and thoughts can do, and next week, on that note, we will celebrate a man whose poetic words literally helped save earth, John Muir, who died, writing “behold!”, pages strewn around him on his hospital bed, almost 100 years ago this coming Saturday, in Los Angeles, we will have a program broadcast from there, a program on hope and rejoicing and joy and beholding, a program about light, and love, until then, Ralph Waldo Emerson bids us on our flowy, slowy, way, of Poetry Slow Down, waves, waving to you,
in the flow of things, the belief is that our sense of beauty that poets inspire can lead to a love that unleashes our human courage and conscience and creativity for sustaining life itself.
© Barbara Mossberg 2011.