Ancient Rivers

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“What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt – it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Hal Boyle, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist

 Water

Rivers have been with us for millions of years; their age is estimated by the mountains from which they come and the sea to which they flow.  When a river dissects a mountain range, this suggests that it existed prior to the mountains. What I have found through my limited research is that there is  debate on which river is the oldest.

According to one source, the Meuse River rising in France and flowing through Belgium and Netherlands to the North Sea is considered to be the oldest river in the world.  The Yangtze River that runs from the Tanggula Mountains, Qinghai to the East China Sea, is the second oldest and, at 6,300 kilometers, the third longest in the world.  In third place and fourth place, according to age, is The Kanawha River (aka New River) and the Sasquehanna River, both of which dissect the Appalachian Mountains.   The Nile takes fifth position, the Rhine sixth and the Amazon seventh.  According to some geologists, the Kanawha/New River is the one of the oldest, second only to the Nile.  And to add complexity, a recent study has just mapped a network, perhaps the oldest, of ancient rivers and streams that once flowed beneath Australia’s Simpson Desert.

We take great delight in numerical positioning, yet the overriding consideration is that rivers, which have been functioning for millennia, are in grave danger.  The risk goes beyond water extraction to include disruptive dams and channels, pollution and climate changes.    Yet, there is hope.  We can start thinking differently.  As individuals, we can make small changes that lead to a groundswell.  As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Rivers of Creative Fantasy

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Water

Carl Jung once wrote, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.” Over the centuries, rivers have taken a vital position in our stories, artwork and mythologies.  Rivers are a symbol of fertility, giving water to the soil so that it brings forth life and nourishment.  Yet, the water is in constant movement, forging a pathway through harsh landscapes marked by boulders to exultantly merge with the ocean, the waters of creation.   Rivers represent life and the passage of time; a beginning and end.

The Greeks embraced a magnificent mythology that included five main rivers, representing the emotions associated with the journey of transition.  The famed Styx, named after the goddess Styx, is said to have circled the underworld seven times, outlining the border between earth and the underworld.   Achilles, as an infant, was dipped into the dark waters by his mother who wanted to ensure his immortality.  Alas, she held him by the heel, the one spot that left him vulnerable to poisoned arrow of Paris, during the Trojan war.

The Acheron is known as the river of pain. According to Euripides, Charon, the Ferryman waits patiently to transport the dead across the river to Hades.  The Lethe River is connected to Lethe, the goddess of forgetfulness and oblivion.  It is said that it flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the underworld.  Woe betide any who drank from its waters for they would lose all memory.   However, ancient Greeks who believed in reincarnation said it was to erase all memory of a previous life so as to begin anew.

According to Plato, the Phlegethon known as the river of fire, led to the depths of Tartarus, thought to be as far below Hades as the earth is below the sky. And the last is Cocytus or the river of wailing, that flows into the river Acheron.

These five rivers are evidence that the ancient Greeks had a belief that our journey continued beyond our mortal existence.  They were the symbols used “to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.”

 “All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy.  What right have we then to depreciate imagination.”

Carl Jung

I’ve Seen Rivers

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Rivers

I’ve seen rivers, and heard the rushing sound of water sweep past me on the journey to the ocean.    Rivers are the bloodstreams of our world for they give us the gift of fresh water, food, energy, transportation.   When calm, they symbolize peace and serenity; when enraged, their destructive power cannot be withstood.  And yet, with climate change, pollution and over extraction, our rivers are in danger of dying.

This week, I want to explore our rivers from the very beginning.  Langston Hughes once said, “I’ve known rivers. ” Perhaps we have all known rivers, but it would be a good idea to see them one more time.

 

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

By Langston Hughes

 

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve
 known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

 

I’ve known rivers:Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 

 

Victor & Juliette

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“To love another person is to see the face of God.” 
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Paris

Victor Hugo is considered one of the greatest and most beloved of French writers.  Les Misérables, and Notre-Dame de Paris, (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) set forth universal themes that continue to stimulate and challenge.

Victor Hugo had a great love – Juliette Drouet, a French actress who left her theatrical career to devote her life entirely to him.   She was his secretary and travelling companion.  Some would even say that she lived a secluded existence; she would only go into public in his company.  Their letters spanned decades and demonstrated a profound and enduring love.  Following are excerpts from their correspondence.

Love Letter to Victor Hugo, dated 1831

“I love you, I love you, my Victor; I cannot reiterate it too often; I can never express it as much as I feel it. I recognize you in all the beauty that surrounds me – in form, in colour, in perfume, in harmonious sound: all of these mean you to me.  You are superior to all.  I see and admire – you are all!  You are not only the solar spectrum with the seven luminous colours, but the sun himself, that illumines, warms, and revivifies!  This is what you are, and I am the lowly woman that adores you.”

Juliette

Love Letter to Juliette Drouet, dated 1851

(Recall that in 1851, Victor Hugo was sentenced to a fine of 500 francs and six months imprisonment for his article condemning capital punishment.  That same year, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte become Napoleon III of France, ending the Second Republic)

“You have been wonderful, my Juliette, all through these dark and violent days. If I needed love, you brought it to me, bless you!   When, in my hiding places, always dangerous, after a night of waiting, I heard the key of my door trembling in your fingers, peril and darkness were no longer round me – what entered then was light!  We must never forget those terrible, but so sweet, hours when you were close to me in the intervals of fighting. Let us remember all our lives that dark little room, the ancient hangings, the two armchairs, side by side, the meal we ate off the corner of the table….”

Victor

 

The Best of Friends

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But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”   John Adams, 2nd President of the United States

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”  Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States

A Pathway

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the best of friends, even though their ideas and political viewpoints were not in sync.  From their first meeting at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia, they formed a strong affinity, respect and liking for each other.  In 1776, they worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Eight years later, they were both in France on diplomatic service.  Throughout their long friendship they continued a lively dialogue through letters.  They had a falling out during the transition of presidency in 1801, when John Adams made some last-minute political appointments that displeased Thomas Jefferson.   The letters stopped for a time and then resumed in 1811 after a welcomed reconciliation.

John Adam’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” unaware that his dear friend had died only a few hours before.  They were friends until the last, both dying on July 4th, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This is the letter, dated November 13, 1818, from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, upon hearing of the death of Abigail Adams:

MONTICELLO, November 13, 1818.

The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding. Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medi­cine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.

Thomas Jefferson

The Last Letter

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Marie Antoinette

Several years ago I read Évelyne Lever’s, “Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France.”  Her writing style was compelling, transporting me back in time, enabling me to pass through the magnificent entrance of Versailles into the living quarters of the iconic Queen.  Under Évelyne Lever’s meticulous research and detail, Marie Antoinette came alive – it was as if I was sitting beside her during all of the transitions.  I confess that I broke down and cried when I read the last letter that Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister-in–law,  Princess Elizabeth (Louis XVI’s sister) at 4:30 a.m. on October 16, 1793, just hours before her execution.  The letter was given to Robespierre.  Princess Elizabeth never received the letter and met her fate the next year.

This is an excerpt of that letter that has been translated into English.

“It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time.  I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother.  Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments.  I am calm as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.  I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister.  You who out of love have sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position do I leave you!  I have learned from the proceedings at my trial that my daughter was separated from you…Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths….”

Marie Antoinette lived during a time of economic uncertainty and political instability. During her last years, she became the symbol of lavish wealth and tyranny.  Even so, I often think of her as a women imprisoned, her children taken from her, waiting to rejoin her husband.