Living Rivers: Hometown Rivers

This month, Kurt presents an essay by Rika Tsuji from Osaka Japan, who river-walked two summers ago with Western MA youth. Rika is a Fulbright Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Texas finishing her dissertation on Environmental Philosophy for Children. 


It had been almost a year and a half since I was an intern training to teach Field Environmental Philosophy in western Massachusetts. Yet, my memory in the rich biocultural environment is still fresh like the water of the dead branch of Westfield River. While I have no clue why the branch is called “dead,” the river is very lively and home to brook trout and other species. During my internship, I was very fortunate to stay at a beautiful lodge in Chesterfield, MA from where I could see and hear the river every day. Connecting with the constantly changing landscape of the Westfield River, I was able to walk this living river with the Biocitizen Field Environmental Philosophy students.

I was born and raised in Osaka city, Japan and currently live in Denton, Texas as a Ph.D. student. Osaka is known as a water city, being blessed with many rivers and ocean. Yet, while the rivers in Osaka are home to different species and a necessary water source for the livelihood of the community, we often think of these rivers as stinky and dirty. It’s ironically more suitable to receive the name “dead” instead of the dead branch of Westfield River! Not because the rivers are contaminated nor filled with plastic waste, but because people lost their connections with the rivers. Biocultural stories about rivers are not part of our contemporary cultural narrative. Even though we live along the rivers, we are not bonded with the rivers in our memory nor our stories.

In the Studio Ghibli animation film, Spirit Away, one of the main characters is names Haku, who was once a spirit of the Kohaku river (spoiler alert!). In his former life, the river was reclaimed for the sake of housing development, and the spirit became Haku, losing his identity as a spirit and its whole memory. Haku, along with the help and friendship from another main character, Chihiro, came to remember who he was at the end of the story.

This film makes me reflect that if there is a sprit that lives in a river, did we kill the spirits of the rivers in Osaka? If we did, what does it mean to kill a river spirit? In Spirit Away, Haku could not regain his memory without the help of Chihiro, who happened to fall in the river and yet were saved—perhaps by the river. Her childhood memory of the experience with the river seem to put life back into Haku. This is a great film to watch to inspire contemplation about our relationships to the living rivers around us.

Do rivers in your hometown river live in your memory?

[Photo credit: (cc) Osaka River, Felix Bautz]


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 3rd week of every month to hear stories about rivers from river lovers from around the world. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!



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