Water is “the reservoir of all possibilities”
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs.
(Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories)
My grandparents’ farm, homesteaded by my great-great-grandfather in Kansas, is bisected by the Solomon River whose waters are now the color of rich chocolate, but in my granddad’s youth were as transparent as a mountain stream.
The Solomon meanders across the plains, sometimes making big “S” curves, looking from the air like an artery, its life evident by the oaks, maples, elms, cottonwoods, and sumac along its banks.
For many years, that river, that farm served as my centering place where I would go after a semester of intense teaching.
Now, other waterways help center me. Since many of our family members live in St. George, I’ve become familiar with that area.
I’m not a fan of its superheated summers or congested streets, but the landscape surrounding the city is spectacular with canyons, mountains, dormant volcanoes, and desert terrain.
Three geographical regions – the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau – create the topography with the signature red rocks sometimes topped by chunks of black lava, which also cover vast fields.
When we’re there, Oggie and I mostly walk the paths along the Virgin River where we’ve spotted a number of birds, including greater road runners, trumpeter swans, and Gambel’s quails. Once we saw a gray fox family hunting the jackrabbits and cottontails along the shore.
When we’re home, of course, we walk in Westwater. One day, grateful for the solitude and silence, I sat under a juniper near the stream, breathing in the fragrance of fall and pressing my boots into the duff along with the deer tracks.
I yearned to sit by the stream for hours, listening to its subtle voice, but soon juniper berries started raining down all around me.
I looked up, trying to identify the birds flitting in and out of the branches, but they moved so quickly I couldn’t tell what they were. Fortunately, since I had laundry to do and a house to clean, the falling berries catalyzed me into moving, and Oggie and I jumped the stream and headed home.
Two days later, I traveled to Yellowstone with a friend who worked there as a ranger in the 1980s. Since we’re collaborating on a book about that diverse landscape, we wanted to gather a few more experiences before we moved into the final stages of drafting.
My friend refers to Yellowstone as her heartland. For centuries, it’s also been the heartland for many Native tribes who traditionally used it for hunting, fishing, toolmaking, and ceremonies with the Sheepeaters or Mountain Shoshone, the only tribe who lived there full time.
A few years ago, as we researched information about Yellowstone, we spoke with a Shoshone woman who told us the hot waters were holy.
I’ve since wondered if the first mountain men who explored the area realized its holiness.
Certainly, they knew it was a place like no other and brought back stories about geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud, hot and cold rivers, waterfalls, and canyons, but since they were infamous for tall tales, few people believed them.
Eventually, however, the wonders they described initiated white exploration parties in 1869, 1870, and 1871, the last one armed with scientists, cartographers, photographers, and artists, so they could document the wonders.
Then, because of the work of Nathaniel Pitt Langford, a member of the 1869 party, and others who wanted to protect the area, Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant established the park in 1872.
A century and a half later, on a hike along a beautiful trail, my friend and I stopped by a small geyser and watched the erupting water against the backdrop of the setting sun.
The only sounds came from the water percolating and heaving, and I understood in a new way why the boiling waters were holy.
Other waters also seemed hallowed as we sat by the Soda Butte River, waded across Pebble Creek’s icy stream, and watched a herd of bison cross the Lamar River.
Water, “the reservoir of all possibilities” as Mircea Eliade says, flows as a common denominator across the landscapes I love.
Six generations of Bradburys and Austins have farmed the rich “bottom” land in the Solomon River Valley, and despite the fact that the Virgin River runs through desert terrain, it fosters large wildlife, plant, and aquatic populations. Some fish, such as the endangered woundfin, are found only in its waters.
In Yellowstone, thermophiles, microorganisms which thrive in springs hot enough to kill humans, create dazzling colors while the more conventional animals and plants are nourished by the cooler rivers and lakes.
Now that we’re home again, Oggie and I take up our Westwater walks. The cottonwoods are in their glory with a backdrop of yellow willows, bronze oakbrush, and orange sumac.
When I sit by the stream and listen to its language, I also hear the voices of the other rivers I love – the Solomon, the Virgin, and the Yellowstone – as all things merge into one.