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River rafting, seriously.


AMID THE UNENDING political turmoil and in spite of the constant calls to political and social action, I’ve moved into the rafting company guide-house in south-western Oregon and filled my days with loading trucks, rigging boats, rowing rapids, and sleeping on the banks of rivers. I’ve traded meeting with organizers in Oakland cafes for meeting with river guides on the boats at night, once our guests have gone to sleep.

The American Note“I am a whitewater river guide.” I attach that detail to the end of every serious little bio note I have an excuse to write because it sounds funny, an unexpected contrast, it seems to me, to my academic background and interests. I laugh a little when I tell professors and political activists how I’m spending my summer; I cringe at the apparent frivolity when I tell potential employers that I can’t start until September because I’ll be on the river until then.

And yet, nothing I do out here seems frivolous to me.

Edward Abbey—admittedly a sometimes unreliable source to which to turn for political wisdom—has written, “Be as I am…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic… It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still there. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space.”

I read that passage to all my guests, because it seems to offer the clearest sense of what we’re doing out here. For it is only through such messing around, such rambling, such encountering that we can finally connect to this planet that we so often take utterly for granted. It is only once you have been moved simply by being out here that you can understand how you fit into this largest scheme of things.

Families, schools, community groups, political organizations, nation-states—these all offer us the sense that we’re not hopelessly alone, not irrelevant, that we belong to something larger than ourselves. But all of them work by circumscription: they make us feel like insiders by drawing lines and excluding others.

The community into which we enter when we come into the wild draws no such borders. Beyond all human artifice, more fundamental than anything else, the planet belongs to us all.

To be sure, our wilderness can feel inaccessible: that omnipresent trifecta of division—race, class, and gender—can shade our ideas of who belongs out here. But ultimately, those are human creations, and this is not a human world; it is as much a bears’ world, or snakes’ world, or a grain of sand’s world.

Wallace Stegner has written that the wilderness offers us the chance to see ourselves as “part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”

With every pull of the oar or kick of the feet, we realize our place in the pecking order of nature, so far down the ladder, so much weaker than the water…

With every pull of the oar or kick of the feet, we realize our place in the pecking order of nature, so far down the ladder, so much weaker than the water, so much smaller than the canyon, so much less capable than the wildlife around us, but part of the scheme nevertheless. Through all of our fun and games, we are learning how to fit into the world around us, how to work with it, how to simultaneously worship it and protect ourselves from it. And just as we learn how to relate to the water currents and the rocky beaches, we learn how to relate to the humans out there with us—how to rely on one another, how to support one another, how to work together when a fun moment turns dangerous.

And so every week when the river canyon walls flatten and we find ourselves on the boat ramp, frantically unloading bags and hugging guests goodbye, I have only one hope: that I offered my guests the chance to experience that sense of connection, to realize as Walt Whitman did, “The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,” how interwoven our lives are with the lives of other people and of animals and trees and rivers.

There is nothing frivolous about that; though I laugh when I describe my summer job to professors, I do not mock it. And though I won’t attend a protest all summer long, I do not fear that I’m neglecting my political obligations: this political climate only makes our work here feel more critical.

Mary Oliver is the only poet other than Whitman that I can read on rivers, and having already quoted the latter, I’ll end with her. She writes,

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. An archive of her Notes is here.

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