It’s election day, so let’s talk about rivers.
It’s going to be sort of a strange election day for me, personally. I’ll be traveling for work this afternoon and have early meetings tomorrow. Not sure if I’ll be able to be liveblogging tonight. Who knows, maybe it is for the best. I expect Hillary to win, of course, but am still torn by that nagging fear that we’re finally living in that movie, that one where everything goes to hell, and this is the opening montage.
Can’t you see it? The flickering TV in the background, the snatches of newscaster voices “In a surprising upset, billionaire outsider Donald Trump has…”, followed by staticky shots of liberated militias whooping and hollering, riot police in the streets, jackbooting protestors, decrees of new laws, rivers of jagged-glass partisans facing off in the streets, fires in the streets…terrible, obscene images. A new pornography of terror, brought in by millions of people in ecstatic grade school libraries.
That’s why I’d rather focus on this. It’s a few months old, but I just saw it yesterday- it’s a representation, based on satellite imagery, of all the rivers that flow to create the Mississippi. It’s 21 seconds, and it is beautiful.
Watch it start at the headwaters of the Missouri, just east of the Rockies, picking up steam through hundreds of tributaries. Watch the main branch start from seemingly out of nowhere in Minnesota, where tiny streams and small rivers from Canada begin to cut a path, as it twists and turns slowly before straightening.
It’s just as amazing to look at the major river systems of the east, and see how they all eventually pay homage. The wild and barely-tamed Tennessee, which runs itself north and south, around great bends and wild shoals toward the Ohio. The Ohio, which starts in Pittsburgh as the confluence of two other great rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, which themselves receive tribute from a series of rivers and streams stretching to the border of the Great Lakes basin.
It is an enormity. It’s wonderful and beautiful to think that headwaters from a Pennsylvania farmers field or a stream near the Adirondacks or lazy mosquito-ridden swamps in a Minnesota summer and waters barely trickling through the badlands can all converge. The whole great middle of the country is, in ways that we can’t tell from our small experience, tilted that way. Every drop of water spilled in the whole vastness of the basin, if left untouched, will eventually end up in the Mississippi, and then spill out into the Gulf.
Please don’t think this as a metaphor for how we’re all united. We’re not united, and that water doesn’t go untouched. We’re all trying to figure out how to live in this vast land, which we often think we’ve tamed, but which constantly reminds us we haven’t. There’s an uncontrollable and raring wildness in the earth, which follows a system of which we’re barely a part.
It’s that system–the tiniest gradations of elevation, the slightest tilt of sea level, that determined these rivers, which determined our politics. It determined where cities are built and why. They opened up communities to the world or cut them off. They formed classes and parties. They helped create cultures, which through the tiniest of changes, piece by piece and year by year, led us to where we are today. Our music, our literature, our ideas about ourselves. They flowed through the years, and we flowed along with them. They created this country.
When you reflect on how deeply divided and perhaps, ultimately ungovernable we are as a country, look at this map. It certainly isn’t the only reason, but the sheer size and inhuman majesty of these systems put lie to any claims to greatness. At best we can hope for a measure of grace, something that can rise above. We’ve somehow had that for eight years. Let’s not just throw even the smallest kindnesses away.