The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “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. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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What Can We Learn from Leviticus, Wealth, and the Monkees?

As a historian, my job is to urge greater understanding of where we are through offering fresh perspectives on where we’ve been. My humble efforts constantly have me discovering things I never knew while challenging myself to reconsider things I thought I knew for sure. The curiosity quest has led to more questions than answers, which, I think, is as it should be. The following are among those issues and queries currently furrowing my brow.

Questions(Photo: http://www.cedar-rapids.org)

Science: In grade 4, Miss Haney taught me that man very early made jars stand up nearly perpendicular. The mnemonic device allowed me to remember the nine planets and their order from the sun. Look back and see what I mean; I’ll wait.

All was well until 2006 when scientists demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status because it had an unsteady orbit and was unable to “dominate its neighbourhood”. Then, thanks largely to the Hubble telescope, it was discovered that beyond our solar system there are perhaps a trillion planets. I don’t really know what a trillion is but it’s a lot more than eight. These new facts laid waste to Miss Haney’s old facts and ruined her perfectly charming memorization trick.

So, is science based not on facts but our best guess at the moment? If that is true, then what of mathematics, economics or anything else resting upon quantifiable truths?

Music: I used to sneak a small transistor radio into my bed every night. From beneath my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear, I nodded off to a Buffalo radio station that skipped the latest rock ‘n’ roll across Lake Ontario just for me. I was ripe for the Monkees. I bought the records and every week enjoyed their TV show.

Although an enamoured nine-year old, I noticed that what I was hearing did not match what they were playing; especially Micky the drummer. It ends up that the Monkees sang but the music was played by a group of crack LA studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They were the same talented group we really heard when listening to The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys, Association, Partridge Family, Grass Roots, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more.

So, can music be enjoyed while accepting deceit in its creation? If so, does the same acceptance apply to other forms of artistic endeavour? If we accept deception in art, then where else will we wink at irony tilting toward lies – perhaps business and governance?

Bible: Until we stopped going to church for some reason, I attended Sunday school. Every week I fidgeted with the adults before we kids were led downstairs for a snack and lesson that we could actually understand. The rather violent portrayal of Jesus upstairs and the equally gruesome representation in the basement frightened me. The stories of God were thankfully reassuring as we were encouraged to consider Him as an old man who not only looked like Santa Claus but also acted a lot like him. Both had lists of naughty and nice and both meted out rewards and punishments although God seemed more quick to anger and a whole lot more spiteful and violent. I recall being shaken by the thought that I was apparently under constant surveillance.

I later enjoyed a university World Religions course, read a great deal, and, over the years, I have re-read the Bible four times. I learned to accept that Jesus was likely not the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond man with whom I’d grown up. I learned that crucifixion was the Roman’s chosen form of capital punishment. So wearing a cross as jewellery then would be like wearing an electric chair now. Further, I learned that God is no more a man than Santa but, rather, a concept.

All this was fine but I was more troubled to find myself cherry picking from the Bible. I read that Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Ok, I disagreed, but it was clearly stated that homosexuality is a sin. But wait, 25:44 says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” So slavery, alternatively, is not a sin but, in fact, encouraged. It must be so because Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

So, can we accept the good things a religion proffers while ignoring the questionable stuff? Can we use a part of the Bible to justify a particular belief while ignoring other parts? Can we treat the Bible as a smorgasbord without cheapening or even rejecting its core message?

Wealth: I once worked at a school for teenagers who were damaged, learning disabled, culture shocked, lost in the criminal justice system, or just lost. Later, I worked in a private school where those of means could buy their children’s peers and opportunities no longer available in the ideologically besieged and fiscally starved public system. I found about the same percentage of happy and unhappy kids in both schools.

Happiness, it turns out, has little to do with money. Last year, University of San Francisco psychology professor Ryan Howell determined that buying more stuff, having more clothes and cars and living in bigger houses do not make people happier. His findings supported a 2010 Princeton study showing that happiness rises until income hits about $75,000. After that, it was found that happiness goes up not one whit even if one’s income soars higher than poor old Pluto.

So, was John Lennon right? Is love really all we need? If the studies are true then should we re-examine the meaning of success, the efficacy of ambition, and the value of materialism?

There are folks I know who are deeply offended by questions that invite an exploration of opinions that they have hardened into facts. The questions should none the less be asked. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to ask questions of ourselves, even if the answers are difficult, illusive, or impossible.

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