Place and rhythm

In “The Dry Salvages,” part of his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote the following*:

     I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

A large part of my field work over the past summer was taken up by weekly trips to a river near Prince George for work on a project with Dr. Daniel Erasmus and an intrepid NSERC summer student, Claire. On each trip we visited a number of locations along the length of the river and sampled mayfly nymphs and adults, along with whatever else came up in our sampling efforts. Once a week from May until August, rain or shine, two or three of us would set out from UNBC and would spend the day on the river. I was fortunate to be in on most of those trips, and my regular visits to the river’s “strong brown god” reminded me of the importance of not just getting out to do field work, but also getting out to the same location on a regular basis.

My regular trips meant I was able to watch and experience-via-chest-waders the seasonal ebb and flow of the river. We saw the exploding emergence and seeming imploding disappearance of one fascinating insect species after another. Some weeks we would find a few larvae or nymphs on the vegetation. In following weeks we’d find more. And then even more suddenly than they had appeared on the reeds, they were gone. Asters were not blooming, and then they were blooming, and then they were setting seed. Some days were spent mingling with the scent of wild roses on the bank while we worked, and other days the roses were gone. We could watch the bumblebees focus on one flower species, and then another, and then another as the summer progressed. We were greeted many weeks at one site by a loud family of ravens and sometimes a bald eagle as well. Northern pike minnows spawned at our feet while we sampled a site on one afternoon. Some days were blazing hot, on others we shivered in our rain gear.

And the whole time I got to know the river in a way that I could not have if I had only spent a day or two there. Over the course of the summer, the winding course of the river became a place to me. That is, the river is a geographical location that I now know in a way that makes it more than another spot on a map. And even more than that, it has become a spot that I care about in more than just an abstract way.

I have had other “places” like this in my life, as have we all. A stretch of the Bow River right in downtown Calgary that I have fished and walked along more times than I can count. A hillside called McHugh Bluff, across the street from the house that I grew up in in Calgary and where I spent much of my childhood wandering and hunting magpies with a slingshot (for those concerned, I was always unsuccessful, which is either a testament to my aim or to the intelligence of corvids). A nondescript site on the side of a mountain outside of Lytton, British Columbia where I spent many of my Ph.D. spring field seasons trapping Douglas-fir beetles.

The thing that each of these places have in common is the fact that I have not only spent some time in them, but I have spent large amounts of time there, across a season or seasons, being actively engaged in the landscape. I have been to many, many locations in my life. I have only had the time to develop a small number of places.

In his essay, “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner writes about placed and displaced individuals:

To the placed person (the displaced person) seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.

And this takes us back to the snippet from the Eliot poem. Eliot identifies the way that we often interact with nature. That is, we either find it “useful… as a conveyor of commerce” or we cloister ourselves into cities, become “worshippers of the machine.” Then, cloistered in concrete, we not only forget about the river, but we also “unhonour” and “unpropitiate” it and all that it represents.

But Eliot subtly also seems to provide a remedy for the growth of detachment in the several lines that follow. Specifically:

His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

That is, the river’s seasonal rhythm continues to call, even after it has been tamed by bridges. Those who are consumed with technology and modernity in general have the opportunity to listen, or to ignore. Biologists and other naturalists have a unique opportunity to be listeners, to move with the river’s rhythm, and then to carry that rhythm back to those who have not yet responded to it. This, of course, requires that we take the time for regular contemplation of the river, the forest, the soil, the pinned or pressed specimens, and the wise written words of those who have studied these things in times past.

So take some time out of your day or week to hear the rhythm that is calling. And then, once you have listened to it, make the effort to relate it to those who have not yet found the time or inclination to do so. Only then, one place at time, will others also deeply understand the need for conservation of the places that they come love.


*Yes, I’m aware that the “river god” in Eliot’s Four Quartets has larger implications relating to what is knowable and what is unknowable. But I believe that this passage also works in this context. Opinions may vary.