Shall We Gather at the River?

An article in the leading scientific journal Nature surveying the damming—and therefore the destruction—of the world’s rivers was reported on widely this week. The authors’ found that only a third of the globe’s 246 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers flow uninterrupted from source to sea. These human interventions exert a devastating effects on ecosystems, drinking water, wildlife, and human populations, especially those living on sinking deltas starved of sediments previously brought by the unimpeded river. The oceans rise while the ground recedes.

That many of these dams produce “clean” energy puts the lie to prevailing ideologies of sustainability. The Tesla drivers of the Pacific Northwest states so rich in “renewable” hydroelectric power will learn again from the Naturearticle that what really needs renewing are the region’s rivers.

My father spent his entire professional career with the EPA, serving as a scientist in the agency from its founding in 1970 until his retirement in 2006. (He was hired by the EPA’s predecessor, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration.) Over his last decade at EPA, he worked on a major study of the Columbia River that concluded that its dams’ impact on water quality (especially temperature) violated the terms of the Clean Water Act. His team recommended the breaching of several dams. For all the data collected and elaborate mathematical models he developed, my father would be the first to admit that you didn’t need all the science to argue for an unobstructed river. Of course, the study’s proposals for starting on the long path to restoring the Columbia’s health have not been adopted.

As a kid canoeing on Washington’s rivers—especially the mighty Skagit—and in the Puget Sound my father would often quiz my brother and me on the names of the succession of dams on the Columbia (Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day … all the way to Grand Coulee), with those on the Snake thrown in for the bonus round (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite …).  As a kid I did not think of that game as the litany of shame that it was. Even though I’d visited some of these dams with my father, the names sounded mythic, like monuments from antiquity—which is indeed what they were.

The annual run of salmon in the Columbia in the nineteenth century has been estimated at around 16 millions.  The forecast for 2019 is just under 160,000.

Countless have been the songs about rivers.  From written and phonographically recorded history, one could single out Palestrina’s exquisite evocation of the lament of the Jewish people by the Rivers of Babylon or Paul Robeson longing for the Shenandoah or Don McLean’s unwittingly prescient American Pie with its dry levee (though it’s an image I’ve never quite understood).

One of the most profound stretch of river music comes from J. S. Bach: the opening movement of his cantata “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam” (Jesus Christ our Lord came to the Jordan) BWV 7.  It was in this river that Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist.

Marking St. John’s June birthday on the liturgical year, Bach’s cantata is based on Martin Lutheran’s then nearly-two-hundred-year-old chorale about baptism.

Bach begins the work with a portentous, minor mode orchestral introduction, the violins and oboes d’amore making sudden leaps up then down, with quick hissing figures in between, like spray off rocks. The cello and bass have churning arpeggios pulled down successfully by step in a well-worn harmonic progression must often symbolic of death and mourning. However treacherous, the churning waters above promise new life: but it will take courage to plunge in.

After this forceful, dizzying two-measure opening, Bach asks the orchestra to play softly. A solo violin emerges from the turbid texture with a rocking figure that seems to evoke quick riffling waters. This respite is interrupted by a return of the opening motto and another stretch of rough water. The solo violin remerges with still more wildly turbulent material. This taxing work with the bow is all frenetic action—as if struggling against the current.

From our of this maelstrom,the austere, antique melody resounds in the tenor, as from the river bed, pulling the three other, more active, vocal parts along, the solo violin swirling  and eddying above:

Christ our Lord came to the Jordan
According to His Father’s will,
He received baptism from Saint John,
To fulfill his work and destiny;
Thus He wishes to give us a bath,
So as to cleanse us from sin,
To drown bitter death as well
Through His own blood and wounds;
It was nothing less than a new life.

The unbound, life-giving river keeps rolling, sweeping the voices downstream. One doesn’t have to subscribe to the religious doctrines Bach epouses to hear in this music the message that we need the river to sustain life.

The Jordan is now among the most impaired rivers on the planet. 95% of its waters taken for agriculture, it is now a sewage clogged trickle.  The Jordan’s source, the Sea Galilee, is at historic lows after five years of drought, holiday homes stranded 100 meters above water’s edge, clumps of land emerging from the surface below. If Jesus were at last to make his return he wouldn’t have to walk on water as he is purported to have done during his First Coming: instead he’d simply be able to get to his dinghy and disciples with some miracle-free island hopping.

When the last of the free-flowing rivers on earth is dammed and canalized, one will have to turn to archival footage and virtual reality theme parks for a dry facsimile of the experience of being near, on, or such a living, life-giving aqueous entity. Bach never went to the Jordan, but he knew the free-flowing rivers of Germany. The Great Thuringia Flood of early seventeenth century was still remembered and preached about during his lifetime. Even for the non-religious, his Jordan music can summon something deep inside of us about the real, sustaining power of rivers.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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