The Ripple: Listening to a River Speak

What We Can Give to Our Rivers

The lesson of Kerouac at Big Sur is, first, nature doesn’t use words to communicate what it is conveying, and second, that to “hear” what it is “speaking” requires us to “give” and not “take.

This summer I was lucky enough to visit the West Coast, and spent two days in Big Sur, that rugged part of the California coast where cliff and ocean try to work things out. The history of Jack Kerouac, the Beatniks and the Hippies, and of the collective yearning for freedom and spirituality and ecstasy that begins centuries earlier in Europe and in Plymouth and Concord, haunt the vertical redwood forests, the tiny artsy enclaves and the kelp-strewn beaches that lace our continent’s edge. One of the things I contemplated there was Kerouac’s attempt to record the language of the Pacific ocean, and to translate its message. I’ve asked you to listen to our rivers, and I was interested to see how he’d approached the task; if worthy, his strategy might be employed by us all.

What I learned is that Kerouac would go down to a beach and listen for words in the surf. You’ve listened to a river, and you know that when it speaks it doesn’t use words (if it did it would be writing its own column). His disappointment crushed him, as he confessed in the poem, “Sea,” that he wrote about his travail. The experience was for him so traumatic it ended his career as a writer as he, and many a biographer have, explained.

Nature does not speak to us in the language we write with, obviously. I’m not sure why Kerouac wasn’t aware of this, but if somebody had clued him, he would not have been so disappointed and his poem would have been happy. Often enough, the language we write with actually gets in the way of our apprehending what nature is communicating.

“Listening to a river speak” actually requires us to “listen” with all of our senses. It “speaks” synaesthetically—casting vapors that, by sweetness or mustiness or both, tell us what it conveys; a river in spring smells different than it does in the fall. It “speaks” through its vigor, which we see because it is incapable of hiding; through white water it conveys the gravity and burden of clouds; in trickle, it conveys the persistence of the same great circling masses which, having departed, do return. In ice, the river “speaks” the continuity of essence through all permutations—for ice is fog clothed in the same (just colder) air. By its sounds, a river conveys either a welcome or a warning; its welcome sounds like children just out of eyeshot playing in the back yard; its warning sounds like an engine, woodchipper or airplane, exhaling. If you have to yell to be heard as you stand by a river, listen up, for you are being told to remain ashore.

To hear a river “speak,” though, you must immerse yourself and give into it, let it carry you. Of course, this is a summer activity—but even in summer courses the winter river; there’s always a wintery spot in the river where the native brook trout gather and ride out the heat wave. Next summer, immerse yourself in the rapids and hear the clangor and tumult that rubs rocks round; then sink into an eddy or deep, and hear the soft pulse of your own heart steeping into the bios itself—from water to water, and not “ashes to ashes?” Immersion brings new sounds to us, who too often do not “give into,” but instead—like poor Jack Kerouac—”take from.”

The lesson of Kerouac at Big Sur is, first, nature doesn’t use words to communicate what it is conveying, and second, that to “hear” what it is “speaking” requires us to “give” and not “take.” What we have taken from our rivers I have written about—the Atlantic Salmon, for starters. What terrified Kerouac is what terrifies those who take too much: by projecting our desires, our hungers, our urge to absorb and possess, upon nature, we lose nature and end up with only the projection, which we invented and has no life of its own. At Big Sur, Kerouac was consumed not by a terror caused or communicated by the ocean; he was consumed by his own thoughts and words. His story is as ancient and as instructive as Icarus’s, who was not killed by the sun, but by his desire to absorb it. “Beware the urge to consume, lest it consume thee.”

What we can give our rivers are our senses. Only two hundred years ago, every stream and river we live next to harbored life beyond our present imagining. They still do. There is no reason our rivers cannot one day again return to their former vivacity—except that we are not “listening” to them and all that they convey. A way to start, an opening exercise—don’t think of “rivers”; think of “blood vessels.” Soon enough, I promise, among many other things you’ll hear it say “you’re much more than you have ever been taught that you are.”


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) Ed Yourdon]

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