I’m going to take you on a journey down the Missouri River — from the mountain headwaters in Montana to the meandering path along the Dakota sloughs and grassy plains to the confluence where it meets the Mississippi River to the cleansing wetlands of the Louisiana Delta where the river meets the ocean.
You are the water. Always moving– sometimes moving fast and sometimes barely moving at all yet always what it is – water — the same water whatever its form – fluid, ice or the waterfall’s vaporous mist – whatever its color – clear blue, iron red, algal green, clay orange or mud brown — the water is what it is. It is the same water that has existed over the millennia – ever moving, ever changing yet always what it is – life giving sacred water.
What we notice, the thoughts we choose and the decisions we make – whether consciously or unconsciously – are like the channel – also ever changing – changed not only by the water but also the wind and rain – wildlife and vegetation – and human activity. Unlike the water that is always the water, once changed the channel becomes a different channel so that each time the paddler returns the river is a new creation.
Where the narrow, rocky channel plummets down the Montana mountain side, the rushing water wears away the rocks, gradually cutting ever deeper ravines and valleys. The frigid snow melt combined with spring rain rages over the rocks, creating waves and eddy currents. Flood water uproots trees and uplifts rocks long wedged in place, carrying with it anything in its path – depositing its payload willy-nilly as the flood water recedes – sometimes changing the course of the main channel, sometimes creating log jams or dangerous sweepers – even as the channel changes the water remains exactly what it is.
As the Montana mountains turn to Dakota rolling hills, the water moves more slowly, creating riffles as it moves over the smooth surfaces of the river rocks, gradually eroding the rocks into gravel and gravel into sand, depositing them to create gravel and sand bars that shape the water’s path. In some places, beavers create dams, backing up the water into shallow pools. In other places, the water erodes the base of a cliff, creating deep pools of still water.
Coming out of the hills onto the Great Plains, the channel meanders through the broad flood plains. The water moves even slower here, carrying and depositing silt from its mud banks. When the rains come, the water rises out of its banks flooding the grass covered sloughs and open range.
As the Missouri grows on its journey east, the channel widens on the vast flat floodplain. The channel that once meandered has been altered. Humans erect levies to control flood waters, lay down rip rap to control erosion and dredge channels for barge traffic. Most of the time, the water moves even slower here, carrying and depositing silt from farmers’ fields. In the spring, however, the deceptively slow moving water can give way to raging flood waters in a matter of days, cutting through and pouring over levies, inundating farm fields, leaving silt, uprooted trees and debris in its path. Just the same — the water is the same water it’s always been.
South of the confluence where the Missouri and Illinois Rivers join the mighty Mississippi, the flood plain spreads out for miles in each direction. The lower Mississippi is a complex human-altered, natural system with a deep and complex history. Where bottomland hardwoods once stood in vast wetlands, farmland with tile drained, nutrient rich alluvial soils now predominates. Yet in spite of monumental changes humans have wrought – locks & dams, levies, channelized rip rap banks, constant dredging — the water remains the water – the same water that raged down the mountain sides of Montana.
Before the water meets the Gulf, the channel fans out. But the once expansive wetlands are but a ghost of times past. Yet still this is where the fresh and salt water mix before meeting the open waters of the Gulf.
It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the
path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But there is no other
The river cannot go back.
Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.
The river needs to take the
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
Fear, Khalil Gibran
The water is still the water – ever moving forward, never flowing backward, ever changing its form – yet always being what it is. The water and the channel are inextricably intertwined. The paradox is the water shapes the channel that contains the water that shapes the channel and on it goes – a never ending cycle of one changing the other changing the other.
Humans are like that also – ever changing, inexorably moving forward from childhood through adulthood to old age, never going backward. In each moment we are both different and the same. Like the river, we are a paradox. We die and are reborn moment to moment while the ground of our existence simply is. We are a constant work in progress – a becoming — a letting go of self and becoming one with the spirit of life.. Simply accepting I am.
To become one we must practice. What we notice, the thoughts we choose and the decisions we make – whether consciously or unconsciously – we become. We become the person we are constantly practicing to become. And in becoming we have the opportunity to let go of our fears and become the ocean.
Here is a song to end your meditation – An Ocean Refuses No River.