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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a River–Part 1

blogslice13Variations of Wallace Stevens’ iconic “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” are legion.  In fact, when I was just finding a poetry side for the link above, one of the possible “answers” was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tortilla.”  I shudder to think what else is out there.

Nevertheless, I want to use the Stevens poem as a base for some reflections on rivers.  Over a couple of blog posts, I want to sketch a few ways of thinking about rivers, or, to use another common trope in humanistic scholarship, “what we really talk about when we talk about rivers.”

OK, I’ll stop now, I promise.

In no particular order the first batch of ways of looking at a river:

One apparent, and commonly overlooked, way of looking at a river is as a particular kind of aquatic habitat.  All kinds of things live in rivers, from the fish that many of us go to rivers to catch, to the things that the fish live off, and the other things that live off the fish.  I once had an aquatic ecologist explain a river to me in terms of suitability for fish by making an analogy to a house: fish need a kitchen, a place to rest, and a place to breed/hatch their young.  Different species need different conditions for all of these, and all of these characteristics are affected by factors such as bed materials, water speed, temperature, and the like.  So our first way of looking at a river is as aquatic habitat.

Second, we need to look at rivers as central spines of important corridors of terrestrial habitat.  Much is made, for example, of the fact that the Mississippi flyway serves some 40% of the migratory birds in North America.  Part of that flyway characteristic is the trees along the river that birds rest in, trees and riverside vegetation that provide food for birds, and the host of other functions that are associated with healthy riverside vegetation.  It should be self-evident that the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are closely connected, but unpacking that relationship is another story.  The consequences of disturbed riverine habitat is a subject for other blog posts also.

Finally (for today anyway) is the fact that rivers are extraordinary carriers of water and all manner of sand, rocks, and other debris.  So we should look at rivers as shapers of the surface of the earth.  This characteristic most often comes to our attention when there is a flood, or an alarm is raised about sediment filling in parts of a river stretch.  In the Mississippi Delta on the Gulf Coast, though, many see the sediments carried by the big river as their salvation from rising sea level and sinking bayous.  So, as with the other ways of looking, this way of looking at a river has multiple complicated aspects.

What holds these three perspectives together?  I think two attributes come to mind.  First all of these are characteristics of rivers (or, more correctly, river systems) regardless of human presence or not.  Humans certainly affect these processes, but they were taking place long before human beings were on the earth and they will likely be taking place after we have all gone away.

Second, these are river characteristics that can be described through the inquiries that we often refer to as science.  Scientific investigations can give us very precise descriptions, and can tell us with some degree of certainty, how these processes are working and what the likely impacts of interventions in those processes might be.

That’s all for now, stanzas if you will 1-3 of our 13 ways of looking.  Stay tuned; more to follow.

View the Whole Thirteen Ways Series

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  1. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a River–Part 3 | River LifeJuly 12, 2013 at 9:27 am

    […] Part One […]

  2. More Ways of Looking at a River | River LifeJuly 12, 2013 at 10:33 am

    […] Part One of this Series […]

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