The river without a river-bed

A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to get away from my urban life for the weekend. I escaped the concrete and the cars, I abandoned my WiFi and my WorRies, and I dwelt for two days in a secluded retreat, far from civilisation, amidst a tranquil rainforest-like reserve.

I sat by a river one morning, and watched it for some time. It was a beautiful river: from where I sat, looking upstream, the water was perfectly still and tranquil. Almost like a frozen lake, like the ones you see on the backs of postcards that people send when vacationing in Canada. The tranquil waters were confined by a wide ledge, over which they cascaded in a sleek, thin waterfall. Past the waterfall, the river flowed messily and noisily through a maze of rocks and boulders - sometimes into little rock-pools, sometimes through crevasses and cracks - always onwards and downstream.

It was on one of these boulders, immediately downstream of the waterfall, that I sat and cogitated. I thought about how rivers usually flow from the mountains to the sea (as this one seemed to be doing); about how river valleys are usually V-shaped and steep-sided (as opposed to glacier-formed valleys, which are usually U-shaped and gentle-sided); about how the water flows down the river-bed, constantly, continuously, along the exact same path, for hundreds of millions of years.

How transient, then, is man, who cannot even maintain a constant course for a few thousand years. A man could sit by a river, and watch it for all the days of his life; and in dedicating his entire life (of 80 or so years) thusly, he would have shared in less than a second of the river's life. All the 10,000 or so years of civilised man's time upon this Earth, would equate to about 10 minutes in the passing of the river. Barely long enough to qualify a mention, in nature's reckoning. Blink and you've missed us.

A river is very much a metaphor for the cycle of all things in nature. A river flows from its source, down its long-established river-bed, until it reaches its destination; the water then journeys until it once again reaches its source, and so the cycle continues. The animal kingdom, like a river, is based upon cycles: animals are born, they live out their lives; and when they pass on, their offspring live on to continue the great cycle that is life.

As with a river, the animal kingdom flows steadily down a long-established course; the cycle is the same from one generation to the next. But, also like a river, the animal kingdom may alter its course slightly, from time to time, as external factors force it to adapt to new conditions. If a boulder lands in the middle of a river, the course will change so that the water flows around the boulder; similarly, if food diminishes in the middle of an animal group's grazing area, the group will migrate to a nearby area where food is still plentiful. But the river will never change its course radically, and never of its own accord. The same can be said of the animal kingdom.

But what of mankind?

Mankind was once a member of the animal kingdom. In those times, our lives changed only very gradually (if at all) from one generation to the next. We were but drops in the flow of the great river, endlessly coursing downstream, endlessly being reborn upstream, part of the symmetrical and seemingly perpetual cycle of nature. Like the rest of our animal brethren, we adapted to new conditions when necessary, but we took no steps to instigate change of our own accord. We were subject to the law of inertia: that is, the law that nothing changes unless forced to do so by an external force.

And so it was, that Australopithecus evolved into Homo Erectus, which in turn evolved into Homo Sapiens; that is, the species that is the mankind of today. But when we reached the end of that line of human evolution, something begun that had never happened before. The river, which had altered its course only according to the law of inertia thus far, reached a point where it began to diverge, but without the encouragement of any apparent external force. Mankind began to cascade off in a new direction, when it had no urgent need to do so. It was almost as if the river was flowing uphill.

We have followed this divergence from the natural cyclic flow, unto the present day, and seem if anything to be following it ever more vigorously as the years march on. From the invention of the wheel, to the age of farming and tilling the Earth, to the age of iron and steel, to the industrial revolution, to the space age, and now to the information age: with an ambition fuelled by naught but the sweetness of our own success, we are ploughing ever on, into the unknown.

Mankind is now a river that plots its own course, oblivious to the rocks and the dirt that try feebly to gird it. The river flows as erratically as it does fiercely: the only certainty, it seems, is that it will always flow somewhere new with its next turn. And so there is no cycle: for the waves upon which one generation ride, the next generation never sees; and the new waves are so different in composition from the old, that the two bear little or no resemblance to each other.

A river sans a river-bed,
We craft our muddy track,
Whither will the current lead?

None know, except not back.

We dash the rocks with vigour,
We drown the shrubs and trees,
Destroying all that's in our way,

Not least our memories.

The river-banks once led us,
Along a certain way,
Who leads us now in darkness?

Whatever fool that may.

What is our destination?
What beacon do we seek?
A tower of enlightenment,

Or a desert, dead and bleak.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing, this unstoppable torrent upon which for 10,000 years we have ridden, and which it seems is only just beginning? Is it progress? Is it natural? I would argue with (what I suspect is) the majority: I say that it is a good thing, even if it goes against the example set to us by every single other entity, living or non-living, that we see around us. I advocate progress. I advocate moving forward, and living in times of innovation - even if such times are also inevitably times of uncertainty.

The only thing I don't advocate, is the cost of our progress on the natural environment. If we're going to break free of the law of inertia, and move ever onwards, we have a responsibility to do so without damaging the other forms of life around us. As the threats of global warming and of rising pollution levels are telling us, we are still a part of the natural ecosystem, no matter how hard we try to diverge and isolate ourselves from it. We depend on our planet: we need it to be living, breathing, and healthy; we need to get serious about conservation, for our own sake, if not for nature's.

Nature is a beautiful thing; but it is also filled with a profound and subtle wisdom. I sat upon a rock and watched the river flow by, and thought about life for a while. Those that come after me should be able to do the same. We've laid waste to enough rivers, streams, and (even) seas in our time. Let's be neighbours with those that still remain.

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