Thursday, January 24, 2008

The River of Life

You can never step twice into the same river.

There is a river, they say, at the bottom of some oceans. A current aswarm with life below fathoms of sterile water. I have never seen it. But here, six thousand feet above the top of the ocean, I have seen its like.

One day this place, for all I could tell, could have been the bottom of the ocean. Even here at six thousand feet, an ocean of air floats above us. The foothills slopes nearby suddenly became undersea cliffs and canyons. Between me and those canyons, the river of life flowed, drifted rather, slowly northward. Millions of minute creatures were made visible by the setting sun behind it. Trapped in the current, they moved generally northward, while indulging a random dance of their own. Bottom-dwellers such as I could only sit and watch the river go by. Under the sudden weight of a mile of atmosphere, it would have been difficult to move. The perception was so abrupt, and so complete, I wanted to gasp for air.

The second time I saw the river, it was invisible, so the perceptual shift was less abrupt. Only the presence of the birds, darting in and out of the current as if they were sharks or huge plankton feeders, made it visible. Hundreds of gulls and nighthawks and swallows swirling southward. The aerial plankton were on the move again-- this could only be a feeding frenzy. I never saw the creatures on which the birds fed, presumably insects; only the river of birds moving down the valley between the hogback and the foothills, spiraling with the current from one side of its channel to the other.

Seeing the river will never, I hope, become commonplace. By the third time, however, I recognized it immediately. A nighthawk or two might be allowed; a swarm of them in midday is a clear omen. We walked into the river this time, and stood in its path. Hundreds of nighthawks swirled around us, some almost brushing our shoulders, all oblivious to our presence. They seemed equally oblivious to passing cars, but I saw none hit despite their bold dives and swoops. An apparent hatch of insects along the wetter Gunnison River had invoked this river, clearly another aerial feeding frenzy.

As a biologist, I had been taught of the existence of an aerial biota. I "knew" that scientists had found insects, spores and seeds thousands of feet above earth. But that was book learning, second-hand knowledge. My mind knew, but it had never told my heart. I had never seen the river.

In these days, when the word "media" has come to mean TV, radio and newspaper, we forget that the contact between land and air is as dramatic as that between water and air or land and water. These are the true media with which we live. We live in such an empty world most of the time. Why do we trick ourselves into believing that the air is a void, that the rivers and lakes contain only water, that the very earth, the soil itself, is sterile? Science tells us otherwise, but it does not tell our hearts.

We are rightly fascinated by the underwater discoveries Jacques Cousteau brings into our living rooms, but we know so little, experience so little, of our own every day media. The air and water and land around us, close at home, are equally alive. For the most part that life is unseen and unappreciated.

Our 20th-century media cannot tell our hearts the real news. Some evening before sunset, go out into the media that are as old as time. Perhaps you will also see the river of life firsthand. Perhaps you too will see that our "empty" air is as full of life as any ocean. Then you will know that we live within a river of life, surrounded by more than we ever know.

but look! round about you beings live their life,
and to whatever point you turn you come upon being.

—Martin Buber, I and Thou

Originally written 1992.

No comments: