A great river has only one mission, and that is to find the shortest and quickest route to the sea. It sounds simple enough, and many rivers accomplish this mission efficiently. In Hawaii, for example, water races down steep volcanic slopes, courses through lush tropical rainforest valleys, and plummets over steep cliffs into the ocean. Mission accomplished. End of story. However, Hawaiian islands are small and the distance a river has to cross is unbelievably short. Some rivers are not as geographically advantaged as Hawaiian streams. Some rivers have formidable obstacles in their paths.
For instance, the mighty Colorado once was faced with a high continental plateau that it couldn’t find a way down from. So the Colorado chose to carve through bedrock rather than take a long circuitous way around. That’s how tourist attractions and sacred places such as the Grand Canyon are born--a river’s urgency to reach the sea.
Other rivers are more patient. After beginning as meltwater atop some high mountain peak, and rapidly descending in torrents down steep slopes, some rivers are just faced with thousands of miles of topography that they have no choice but to contend with. As the land levels out, it becomes harder to find a clear downward path. Some rivers give up, spread out over huge areas or sinks, and percolate into the soil, becoming groundwater--which contrary to popular belief, doesn’t just sit still in aquifers waiting to be tapped for midwestern agriculture. Groundwater seeps and flows too, albeit excruciatingly slowly, but it eventually finds its way through underground cracks or fissures or faults to the sea. But the more clever rivers do find steady downward courses over land. In some more level areas, the river actively searches--meanders--for the most direct route. Many people speak of lazy rivers, slowly meandering along, in no hurry, with no aim. These people are just ignorant. Nothing about a river’s journey to the sea is lazy. And nothing about meandering is an afternoon stroll in the park without direction or any goal but simply to pass away the time. And if proof is what you desire, just look at the existence of oxbow lakes--former sections of a river’s course left isolated when the river’s constant searching finds a quicker downward route and it abandons part of its former course for the quicker, shorter path it has just discovered. Oxbow lakes, when cut off by the river that fed them, quickly turn to marshland and eventually dry up.
Nevertheless, meandering is a peaceful time for a river. While the river is actively searching, often it doesn’t know what for. While it’s goal is a short, quick route to the sea, finding that route remains elusive. A river can meander in any direction, even the wrong direction, in its search. It’s a process of trial and error. Errors are eventually corrected. Oxbow lakes dry up. The river is patient now. It’s no longer a question of finding a route to the sea, but refining it.
Thanks for reading.
technorati tags: Matthew S. Urdan, Authors, Writing, novels, River Metaphors
Posted by Matthew S. Urdan on Monday, March 27, 2006 at 8:25 AM