Old Roads, New Stories: In the Beginning was a River, by Rob Carney

In the Beginning was a River

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


People who know me know this: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the legal codes of New Zealand.

But back in March something happened there that keeps on running through my mind. Their House of Representatives, which must be a whole bunch different than ours, passed a bill giving human rights to the Whanganui River. How’s that for treatment of a natural resource? Pretty good. And what I keep thinking—now that a river can claim personhood and dignity—is: What do I want to suggest for human rights next?

Probably stars. They deserve to be noticed. Once a month we’ll have darkness by decree. We’ll have 12 new ways to look up, a dozen needed oases.

And Puget Sound, of course. Whether seen from a ferry or not. Whether or not it’s sundown on Seattle’s million windows so the skyline is mirroring gold-orange, rose, and red, and the Olympic Mountains are both in front of you and behind you, and seagulls ride rivers of updraft, and this time and place and wind should be vested with rights.

The trees near Crescent City too—they’re older than Christianity. I’ll call each sequoia a cathedral, drinking fog, which truly is Holy Water.

The snowmelt I drank in an ice cave… rights.

Those ghost-conversations of coyotes… rights.

That soul-blown sound of a train at night—part love, part loss, and part Coltrane—couldn’t be more human, with the human right to quiet, so that everyone who needs to hear can hear.          

Or “Fall On Me” by R.E.M.; let’s pass a bill declaring it our Elegiac Anthem. Rapid eye movement is connected to dreaming, so making this suggestion seems, by definition, called for.

And what about you? Isn’t there a lakeshore somewhere? Or a night in some December? Or a time you saw some pronghorn and were doubly surprised—first by their nearness, then a second time by how they leapt away: too squat to be bounding like that? Isn’t there a long-distance drive you’ve taken with a good enough reason at the end of it? Or a kiss that lives in your memory, that goes on rivering and rivering? Or a view from the porch of a lightning storm coursing the sky?

Anyway, it’s April, soon to be summer in Utah, where most aren’t yelling and opposed to helping refugees. Most don’t think it’s okay to zero them out, leave them trapped in their national horrors. In New Zealand they’ve granted more rights than that to a river, which ought to be an elemental lesson.

Here’s hoping it flows all the way from there to D.C.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Photo of New Zealand’s Whanganui River by Kathrin and Stefan Marks (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.