Whether we accept it or not, the land itself is our earliest predecessor, the main character of all our stories, and listening to it, after all, is not a onetime undertaking but a practice.
At its uppermost source, this book began as a love song to the rivers on which I’ve guided for 25 years and the land through which they pulse like veins. “Land” here means everything from the cloud-hung peaks down to our toenails, antlers, and beaks made of reconstituted earth; means the ever-evolving relationships between these things; means us. As the songwriter Jeffrey Foucault once told me, “a true love song succeeds on the element of doubt.” Per Foucault’s prerequisite, this oarsman’s ode is rife with apprehension: a young father’s fear of ushering children into a periled world, his awareness of his own complicity in the destruction of that which he claims to adore, as well as that pervading sense of dread that seems a preexisting condition in our overinformed epoch.
Chris Dombrowski begins the highly anticipated The River You Touch with a question as timely as it is profound: “What does a meaningful, mindful, sustainable inhabitance on this small planet look like in the Anthropocene?”
But as a wise elder once remarked, our doubts are our traitors. It is of course easier to nestle beneath the goose down comforter of irony in our age of complicity than to entertain the hard questions. “What does a mindful, sustainable inhabitance on this small planet look like in the Anthropocene?” is no longer an academic question but rather a necessary qualifier to each step we take. For answers, we who have proven ourselves such untrustworthy stewards of our home might look to what Barry Lopez called “myriad enduring relationships of the landscape,” to our predecessors, in other words, whose voices are the bells that must sound before any gritty ceremony of community can truly begin. Whether we accept it or not, the land itself is our earliest predecessor, the main character of all our stories, and listening to it, after all, is not a onetime undertaking but a practice.
Lest I imply some shoddy metaphysics here: “listening,” refers to direct contact, engagement, what the forager Jenna Rozelle calls the “primacy of immediate experience.” Callouses on palms formed by friction between human skin and oar handle. Shoulder muscles straining to pull oar blade through current, the oar stroke negotiating with the wave train’s brute liquid force. After thousands of days in such physical dialogue—as much of my adult life spent on moving water as on solid ground—I have come to know a single Montana watershed better than I know most of my human acquaintances, which is to say I am intimate with the rivers’ daily and seasonal rhythms, and altered by the way the watershed has moved around and through me.
Despite the nontraditional lifestyle that my occupation affords, however, I have lately fallen prey to the plague of screens and a generic brand of informed cynicism, to an existence that appears rife with concentration but that in truth is fragmented and increasingly short on profound impression. I live among the homogenized throngs chained to the assumption that our moment-to-moment ability to “virtually connect” literally connects us, but as our collective actions exhibit, we have failed to truly comprehend our infinite ties. What are we if not inextricably linked, and yet blind to this blunt fact? Day by day, at nearly mythic speed, our failure to face this truth brings forth bold consequences.
Pre-fatherhood, I might have blamed my succumbing to such trends on domesticity, but there is nothing as wild and vital in my life as our children: three free beings in whom flourishes an essential kind of knowing—what David Abram called “a sensorial empathy for the living land”—and whose capacity for wonder may be the beacon by which we see ourselves through this dark epoch. The faculty of wonder— which, in this context, is simply the unsentimental ability to identify with astonishment the earth and its inhabitants as relational—is diminishing as quickly as any endangered species. If it vanishes as an inevitable byproduct of decreased direct encounters with the physical world, so, too, may go the instinct to protect the very places that sustain us.
By purest chance, our family has come to live a few hundred yards from just such a place, a creek called Rattlesnake that descends from peaks and snow-fed lakes in an undeveloped wilderness and flows, by way of the Clark Fork of the Columbia, to the Pacific. On summer days, especially these recent blowtorch-hot ones, we swim in the creek nearly every afternoon. I call it “our creek,” a phrase that I realize is rife with postcolonial complications, because it is our creek: mine and yours and whomever swam in it before, human beings of all ages and genders, trout and whitefish, deer and elk and bear, mayflies and stoneflies, leeches and dragonflies, ouzels and migratory ducks, gloriously interpenetrated from time immemorial by native species and invasive ones alike.
Most evenings after guiding, I walk leisurely down to the swimming hole, taking a steep, tight trail on the west bank over the bulbous roots of cottonwoods, a cumbersome and shady way the kids call the “elf path.” But other days, as when I’ve been watching the news on my phone, I have to bike down, so desperate am I for a brief immersion, the icy kick of an elemental martini, what my grandmother would have called “a good belt.” This drought-racked August has been particularly choked with haze from forest fires, embers blown all the way from California or Washington: “not our smoke,” I’m tempted to say, except that it’s all our smoke, and I refuse to indulge another foolish round of us-versus-them.
One recent morning, we took a chilly family dip in the creek, all feral five of us, then jumped into the car and followed the floodplain down Interstate 90, aimed west when the big river bent north, and wound through the beetle-blighted forests and over two steep passes, across the Palouse and the parched agricultural plains, up and over another mountain pass, then finally down through sprawl, city, and more sprawl, until we eventually reached the Pacific. Good friends were there to greet us on the gravelly shore of a bay with a meal of fresh-caught Dungeness crab and spot prawns. Starved as we were after nearly 500 miles in the car, though, we found the gently breaking waves too inviting to resist, and one by one we changed into our suits and dove in. Treading breathless in the chilly waters of the sound, cooled to the core after nine hours at the wheel, I pondered a deliciously unsolvable equation: How long would it take for, say, a gallon of the creek we swam in this morning to reach the same body of water we were floating in now?
Sixteen years a parent, and I had just now arrived at the notion that our three children have served as my guides, and not the other way around?
Like a child, moving water is a treatise on impermanence, a constant reminder of the ungraspable. I was in my late 20s when our firstborn arrived. Suddenly (or what seemed like it), facing the far side of my 40s, I found myself wondering how to properly celebrate our son’s 16th birthday. The answer was a midnight paddle in a borrowed sea kayak on a bay come wildly alive with bioluminescence. Above us, perched somewhere in the moss-draped cedars, a heron rasped out its frightful call, and far above bird and boat, the stars convened. Somehow on this new-moon August night we had timed our paddle with the peak light emission from trillions of marine invertebrates, and as we entered the darkest recess of a cove, our paddles stirred emerald whirlpools above scintillating creatures: fracturing schools of salmon smolt, undulating moon jellyfish, and frantic backstroking crabs.
“Liquid phosphorus,” Darwin had called the spectacle while aboard the HMS Beagle in the Strait of Magellan, but I read on my smartphone’s blinding screen that the unicellular organisms’ emission of light was actually a seven-chemical reaction that produced oxidized luciferin, and that organisms from dinoflagellates to giant squids use the process for attraction, defense, warning, even mimicry. I was of a mind to share some of my research with Luca when there was a thunk on the bottom of the boat.
Raw fright struck the body first. Then the adrenaline-quickened brain calculated known dangers (very rare orcas, even rarer blue whales, and scantly aggressive seals) in relation to my makeshift weapon (a small paddle to be wielded against ocean-borne tooth and muscle) versus possibility of flight. We had life vests and the distance from shore was a swimmable 70 yards, though the 58-degree water would make muscles seize. Then rational thought nudged in. As a tingling wash of nerves receded, I guessed harbor seal: we’d seen several basking at sunset on a nearby island. Apparently curious, the mysterious creature circled us with a fish’s fluidity, disappeared again, and, after a moment in hiding, popped its head up to regard us, its bristled whiskers gleaming like a lathered moustache.
I doubted my cell phone’s camera could capture an image at such a low aperture, but I was determined to commemorate the encounter, a birthday visitation of sorts. Holding the paddle in one hand, I defiled the night with the phone’s flash and with my thumb snapped the shot.
To reconstitute an old haiku: Cold ocean, phone falls in: the sound of water.
The kayak tipped precariously starboard as I reached for the phone.
“Dad,” Luca gasped, as he steadied the rocking craft with his hands. Together we watched a spiraling line of light afford a momentary visual connection to the plummeting device.
“Well, that’s that,” I said, surprised at my instantaneous detachment, considering how tightly I usually clung to the device. The pang of material loss and self-chiding would arrive in the morning when, at dead-low tide, we’d find the phone comically lodged in a purple urchin’s spines, the saltwater having already corroded volume buttons and rendered the system unusable despite the device’s protective case. But for the moment, watching our craft push a pale wake, I felt pleasantly unmoored.
How might it have felt, I wondered, to encounter this phenomenon millennia ago, before science explained it, and epochs before I’d access some scant understanding of it via costly feed from a billion-dollar satellite? Could a man steering a small cedar dugout across a coastal bay have paused from his paddling, reached down, turned the rippling water to a ghostly flame, and not felt himself a holy part of the living world, the animate universe?
I scanned our ambit for further sign of the otter, weighing the value of what I’d beamed in on 4G versus the salt drying on the hand Luca had dragged through the water. I sensed the latter would form a more lasting kind of knowing.
And sudden as the otter’s tail-thwack against our boat, I stopped paddling, gobsmacked. What hubris! Sixteen years a parent, and I had just now arrived at the notion that our three children have served as my guides, and not the other way around? Momentarily, as the bow of the kayak slowed and stalled against the shoreline, I saw with clarity how they have—progressing meander by meander, discovery by discovery—sustained me, often sparing me from my own mind. Once ashore, Luca knelt, ran his fingers through the waveworn pebbles, the stones sparking and crackling, and dug out a skipper stone. As a yearling his first word was “light,” and long before he could speak, before he was a bright form tumbling weightlessly through the galaxy of Mary’s womb, our frantic bodies making him made light.
Slung out, the stone hopped several times across the water and, glowing as it fell, left a pale, unspooling thread in its wake.
In pursuit of that thread, I launched this boat made of words: a chronicle of wonder at the place we humbly call home and an attempt to preserve the quality of attention that our children, those messengers of a hopeful reality, so often emit, without which we will find ourselves mortally far out at sea.