The Ripple: Reassuring Voice of the River

Get Into the Flow Like a Mayfly

We measure our lives in decades, which is fine; but what if we measured our lives like the mayfly, who reappears in the same place for tens of thousands of years, each individual a facet of single transgenerational being, each individual a carrier of the baton-of-life in the finish-line-less relay-race of the species in time?

“Rivers can take this—don’t worry!” said Jason Johnson, who works with Masswildlife’s Caleb Slater to stock our streams with trout and salmon, after hearing me whine about the drought.

“Most droughts occur in late summer. The fact that this one is happening as the leaves come out…” I’d worried.

“The tree species that are native to our area can handle this. It happened a few years ago—the buds dried and fell off, but new leaves appeared,” he retorted, determined to make me cheerful.

It’s good to know that; I don’t mind being reassured. Words are just words, though. Real assurance requires the real.

Reassurance can be found, for example, in the flocks of blackflies that greet you when you step into the woods. As a native species, they’re tough survivors—at least as old as the mammal species they’ve supped upon for plus or minus fifteen millenia. Ah, but this is just more blather! To the river we go, sure our blackflies will follow.

At the river, we find the aerial bobbings of the longtailed mayfly. Up and down they flit, yoyo-ing as if played with by kids. They are older as a native species than the blackfly, and form the basis of the aquatic food chain of which trout and salmon are the hungriest. biggest-mouthed predators. Find a boulder to sit on, exposed in mid-stream—a perch fit for a Zen monk or an osprey. Look closely: the twin tails of the mayfly straighten to parallel as they rocket upwards. They linger at zenith for a moment of motionless poise, then drop; their tails split and become V-shaped parachutes they sit on, like children on swings. Wings of chrome-fuzz in the sunlight, bodies slender and dark, they ride for seconds like William Blake’s cherubim: miraculous beyond the ken of science. How can the value of these lives be over-estimated as they do this, as their ancestors have done since before the Ice Age, and the arrival of mammals? We measure our lives in decades, which is fine; but what if we measured our lives like the mayfly, who reappears in the same place for tens of thousands of years, each individual a facet of single transgenerational being, each individual a carrier of the baton-of-life in the finish-line-less relay-race of the species in time?

This is what the river asks us through its tumbling hiss of water against stone, and answers with the yoyo-ing mayfly. In the same place the river speaks its soothing words of white water, the mayfly does its courtship dance, and lays its eggs from which next years dancers will emerge. The kinetic force that gives voice to white water also trebles the oxygen content, and mayfly nymphs—and hungry trout and salmon—need an oxygen-rich environment.

In this way, the voice of the river—even in drought—is voice that reassures. As long as there’s flow, there are the mayflies.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) Marko Kivelä]

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