Rivers can teach us patience or fury, stillness, or surging power. They can teach us how snowflakes become glaciers, then rivers, and then they become the produce consumed by an entire subcontinent. They can teach us about unique and diverse eco-systems. They can teach us what happens when we reverse a river; dam a river, divert a river, and/or dry up a river.
They can teach us what happens when we create, and give birth to a river, like the Panama Canal, or kill a river, like Love Canal. Rivers can teach us to learn to sink or swim. Rivers can teach us to bubble up under the ground due to leaching toxins, or to spring up in miraculous waters such as at Lourdes that invoke many a pilgrimage, and not just for Christians. The Ganges is sacred too, as are many a river, maybe even all rivers.
Rivers can teach us, in just one small island nation, what creativity can spring from Stratford upon Avon, or the how the Industrial revolution upon the soot covered Thames, inspires descriptions of how the “Chartered Thames does flow,” and/or “And the dimpling stream runs laughing by.” Rivers are liquid poetry. Rivers are dancing song.
Rivers can teach us where resources are abundant, and access to those resources will lead us to war over fuel, water, food, and power. Thy can teach us the astonishing fractal properties of tributaries and deltas, and even the flora and fauna we find there.
They will also define boundaries where all creatures meet for barter, trade, commerce, and moment to moment exchanges of life sustaining life for countless organisms. They can teach us to believe we harness hydroelectric power,but ultimately they can teach us the natural result of that power. The Nile can teach us what happens when flooding creates the opportunity for civilization. The Amazon can teach us the perils of that same civilization threatening earth’s lungs.
In art and music, rivers teach us everything from how REM can make Find the River a moving tribute to wanderlust, capitulation, embrace, and then surrender to urban obligations. The Beautiful Blue Danube can teach us EXACTLY what a space station should look, float, and feel like, when 2001’s iconic soundtrack is played. That song, is by the way, in at least fifty movies, how many can you count?
Rivers can teach us how birds follow migration patterns along their banks and fish swim, (when not impeded by dams, or depleted by humans), upstream to spawn and die. They reveal mysteries that are bigger than ourselves.
Rivers can teach us where fossil beds display ancient seas and long dead rivers flowed, depositing enough silt, and soil to eventually preserve every kind of living fossil including Lucy, and Ardi, our 4.4 million year old Ardipithesis Ethiopian ancestor who lived along what is believed to be a woodland and river flooding plain, which also preserved her remains for us to be astounded and inspired.
Rivers can teach us how civilization followed rivers all the way from ancient hunting and gathering to agriculture, and now, how rivers of mud, ice, and lava once flowed on distant moons and planets.
Rivers can teach us to slow down and meander through life, to float like a butterfly along a river’s edge, to bend like a willow, to be steadfast and determined enough to create the Grand Canyon. Rivers can teach us the weight of water on our planet, and the courses of blood through our veins, and how we are three quarters water at all times, and sometimes the water is in Niagara Falls, sometimes it is in the beer you drink, sometimes it is in your tears, but more often it is in your pee.
Rivers can teach us we can talk all day about rivers, and still not remember every wonder they impart, because they seem to be wonder itself. There are rivers falling off mountains, the woodlands, the prairies, and even in the ocean. They are music, sculpture, serenity, exploration, discovery, science, beauty, divinity, and more. They are liquid, solid, gas, and they carry ice, mud, rock, and even fire.
Rivers can teach us to respect and revere nature and interpret her metaphors as physical proof that we are all indeed flowing in a vast cosmic river of life that empties to a vast cosmic ocean.
Indeed, it is obvious a far better question would be, “Is there something that the river cannot teach us?”