It’s an obscure track by a broken-up punk band, but nonetheless Sydney City Trash’s Just The Country Coming Out In Me is a song that I deeply love. And among its verses of country pride is a line that has always stayed with me – “I prefer rivers to the sea.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the ocean too, with its heaving breaths of tides and its endless horizons. But everyone loves the ocean. Like Sydney City Trash, the bodies of water that truly stirs my heart are rivers.
I grew up a long way from the ocean in central-west New South Wales. Rivers to me bring memories of hot days relieved by oases of cold water, shaded by lines of eucalypt and casuarina trees, often fitted out with a rope swing for entering the water in style. But over the years rivers have come to mean more to me than just childhood nostalgia or a cool place to swim.
I take a real delight in seeing rivers wherever they are. When I travel I note the rivers on the journey; look out over the water as I cross. Sometimes when hitching I get the extra joy of being dropped on one side of a river and walking across the bridge in search of the next hitching spot. Not all these bridges are built with the intention of pedestrian use; but even as I have to hug the railing and take off my hat to stop it being blown off into the abyss by passing trucks, I get a thrill from crossing beautiful and iconic rivers like the Hunter, the Lachlan or the Clarence.
As I’ve come to see national borders as illegitimate and arbitrary impositions on free movement, rivers retain a power as a natural border – markers that have been slowly formed by the movement of water over thousands of years. Crossing a river signals moving into a different place. The Wiradjuri nation, traditional owners of the land where I grew up, see themselves as the people of three rivers – the land dissected by what we now know as the Macquarie, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers. The southern boundary of their land is marked by the vast Murray River – a tradition which is emulated in the border between NSW and Victoria.
Most of our major cities in Australia are bisected by rivers running through them, from the Swan to the Yarra and the Parramatta. Even Alice Springs is split by the Todd, despite the fact it never has any water in it. The twisting and turning Brisbane River is less clear a demarcation than any of these, yet the city is resolutely divided into north and south sides, even when the categorisation seemingly defies logic (for instance, Bulimba is north of the CBD but on the “south side”, while Toowong is south of the city but on the “north side”). Bull sharks and pollution make swimming in the Brisbane River unwise, and the 2011 floods were a reminder of how destructive it can be. Yet that waterway is integral to any idea of Brisbane geographically or socially. Parks line the banks wherever it goes, ferries transport people along its snaking bends.
Rivers are forces of nature that (partly at least) defy human domination – we are forced to build around them, build bridges to cross them. This is surely one of the reasons we are drawn to them as things of beauty. But they are also bringers of life – transporting the water all species require for life from the mountains where the rain falls (or snow melts, depending on where you are) to the ocean where it evaporates; along the way giving life to every area they touch. Even in Australia’s dry and dusty centre, rivers flow deep underground – allowing life to survive where rain never falls.
A combination of these two factors could explain why rivers have often held so much spiritual significance to all kinds of cultures. I’ve already mentioned aboriginal culture, who have often based creation myths on rivers (which, given the role of the river as bringer of life, makes perfect sense). In Hinduism, the Ganga (aka Ganges) is completely sacred – personified as a goddess, used to symbolise the cleansing of sins, a symbol of the afterlife (leading to the somewhat confronting sight of dead bodies often floating down the river).
The Jewish story of Naaman the Aramean leper being healed in the Jordan river by the prophet Elisha became a ritual of rebirth led by John The Baptist, the camel-skin clad prophet wandering the banks of the same river centuries later. From him it was adopted by Christians, and for two thousand years the ritual of baptism has represented death to one way of life and rebirth to another.
The nature of rivers easily lend them spiritual significance. They bring life and fertility (and sometimes death and disaster), they cleanse us, and their perpetual motion and key role in the water cycle symbolise the cyclic nature of life and death.
For slave cultures in North America, the river took on another kind of spiritual resonance. Black gospel tradition is rich with river metaphors (songs like Down By The Riverside, Down To The River To Pray, Wade In The Water; Martin Luther King’s famous biblical allusion to “justice flowing like a river”). You can read all the reasons I’ve already listed into this, but another very practical reason is that rivers provided a rare opportunity of escape from the slave-driven economies of the southern states to the abolitionist north. As stowaways, on rafts or running across the ice in winter; rivers offered a route to the promised land, and those songs gave a subversive wink to other slaves and a symbol of resistance to their owners.
In Australian politics too, the river is an almost mythologised symbol of resistance. The Franklin river, which winds its way through one of the world’s wildest frontiers in south-western Tasmania; was the setting for a dramatic, much publicised and now legendary blockade in the early ’80s. 1,500 people braved the elements to be arrested trying to stop the Franklin being dammed for hydro-electricity. The river was saved when a Labor party with its arm twisted into a policy of conservation won the federal election. But the blockade was pivotal in establishing the Greens party, as well as the culture of “forest ferals” and environmental blockades that have been rolling almost continually since then somewhere around the country. Hardly anyone actually goes to the Franklin River, but direct action advocates in campaigns against deforestation, coal and gas, uranium, even refugee detention will often look back to that river story as an inspiration and heritage.
That story though brings up an important point to be made about rivers. Forces of nature they may be, but these literal and symbolic bringers of life are constantly under threat from human greed and its exploitation of nature. Rivers are dammed, polluted, over-fished; their banks eroded by land clearing and over-grazing; their waters commodified for private usage. Chemical run-off from farms has killed all life in vast swathes of America’s iconic Mississippi, while Australian mining company BHP destroyed over 1000km of the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea by routinely discharging mine tailings.
Where am I going with all this? This article is a bit like a river really, twisting and turning through different ideas, hopefully spreading bit of new life to all of them before it empties out into a bigger body of water. One more lesson that we can all learn from rivers is that they usually end with neither a dramatic conclusion nor pithy wrap-up. They run their course and then mix into the wash of vast oceans of water, ready to one day be re-evaporated and do it all again.
The point of this article I guess is to celebrate rivers and all their significance. Rivers are under threat from our greed and exploitation, and at the same time the practice of seeking out meaning and significance from the things around us is endangered by a world of pre-ordained answers, information overload and technotopia. I can’t help feeling that the two things are linked, and that maybe the best hope for both humans and waterways is in a recognition of the value of all things and our symbiotic interconnectedness.