The Ripple: The Language of Rivers

When Rivers Talk, They Speak River, Not English

Last summer a great non-profit that spends all its time and resources trying to keep our rivers and streams healthy, the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance (MRA), put out a short and illuminating educational video called “If Rivers Could Talk.” It features scientists, activists and recreationalists from around the state sharing their tales of how they love their rivers, and what they are doing to care for them.

The field environmental philosophy school I run, Biocitizen, was asked by MRA to participate in this educational project, in part because of the “citizen science” Rapid Biotic Assessments we do with Hilltown Families every year in the late Summer, and in part because we are always using the Westfield River as an outdoor classroom. It was an honor and joy to express our love for the Westfield, which is one of cleanest and wildest rivers in southern New England. 

When the video was launched I watched it with trepidation because the content I shared was matched by content provided by other folks with backgrounds in science, civil engineering and urban planning and development. Compared to their input, mine came off as wildly New Age, untethered by empiricism and practical fact-based contexts. Hearing myself gush in ecstasy, rhapsodizing about the biotic splendors and intensities of the Westfield made me feel embarrassed—because compared to the other interviewees I sound flaky and insubstantial, a cast member of Portlandia. I am fully capable of speaking like a technocrat, college professor and/or conservation biologist, and as I watched the video I kind of wished I had expressed less ecstasy and more science. But I didn’t, and there I am in that educational video being the spaced-out tree-hugging nature-nut.

I am writing about this because the split identity I have is a expression of the time, and culture, we live in. Our kids go to schools where STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curricula is getting tons of top-down funding, and is forming the basis for the tests that all too many students are taught to. I’m not anti-science by any means, but I am very critical of scientism, the quasi-religious belief that science provides the answers to all of life’s mysteries. Science is a tool we use to the extent it is useful. It is limited because, for all of its claim to objectivity, it is language-and-culture-based—a limitation we can see, for example, when we compare Western to Non-Western medicine. Because we are taught to believe in scientism, even though science is limited and subjective, we are put into many situations of danger by the technocrats who pretend to do good things with science when actually they are doing something awful. For example, nuclear physicists are considered to be among the most intelligent scientists, but when Fukushima’s three reactors melted down, they suddenly became really dumb—and those reactors are still melting down and will do so for another 25,000 years. Who knows what Japan is going to do; presently their technocratic elite are pretending they can fix the mess they’ve made, even though they can’t.

We can come up with other examples of how scientism is dangerous and destructive, but the best example is the weather today. Scientism has for at least a century promoted the re-carbonization of our planet’s atmosphere creating global warming, and as a result we have entered a new era of species’ evolution, the Anthropocene. Little we learned in the past 200 years from our institutional education systems will prepare us for, say, the abandonment of industrial agriculture in California’s Imperial Valley due to drought, and the massive population migrations and empty supermarket shelves that will follow it.

Although there is so much that science allows us to understand, it is really important to know that whenever we project scientific constructs upon nature, those constructs also filter out and block what nature is actually expressing: life. There is no scientific idea or word that accurately or fully expresses the reality of the connection we share with the great big life we call nature—mainly because science re-presents nature. We cannot mistake the difference between the word “tree” and the actual tree; yet this game of what nature presents and science re-presents is core to our culture.

Or was core, since we have entered the Anthropocene, and are finding that scientism has created a new evolutionary challenge for us: how to survive what scientism has done to our planet and the ecological systems that supported our ancestors and now might no longer support us.

When, in the MRA video, I spoke “New Age” I was practicing the conscious avoidance of STEM concepts, because science looks upon rivers as mechanisms instead of living beings. This is ironic, because when we do Rapid Biotic Assessments we learn that the river is a living being whose life is the sum of climate, geology, and the biophysicalities that inhabit it. The language of Rapid Biotic Assessments is technocratic and it is only by moving beyond without forgetting it that we are able to share and celebrate the great big life that is a river. Celebrating this big life, and our consubstantiality with it, is not what scientism does. Yet.

Apprehending, understanding and learning to adapt our ways to the biome—the great big life—we live in is, I am certain, the key to our survival in the Anthropocene. To apprehend what our biome is expressing we have to remove the cognitive filters—scientific, economic, cultural—that we have been taught to use to apprehend it, because these filters clog and predetermine our perceptions.

As we remove these filters, we will hear the river talk and recognize it has a language that is not English, or even human. And when we try to use that language it is very possible we will sound like a cast member of Portlandia.

So let us go out with good humor and high hopes and listen, and learn the language of the great lives we live in—because we can’t depend on on scientism to solve the problems it has made, pretending it knows everything.


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!



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