“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
— Norman Maclean.
In many ways all things in the mountains are more acute. They are sharper, more severe. The lines on a topographic map lie closer together — reflecting the sheerness of the terrain. Variations in temperature, and precipitation both frozen and liquid, make popular many variations of the phrase “if you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes.”
Lifestyles mix and match, or don’t, in unique ways, particularly in small purportedly idyllic mountain hamlets. While perhaps not so ethnically diverse, the mountains provide a mixing bowl of views and perspectives, some softer and a bit more contemplative like the meadows of a gentle valley, but more often in my experience stridently narrow, and rigidly unadorned, like the granite face of a vertical canyon wall.
In today’s economically stratified world, the geologic upheaval of earth and stone provides a metaphor for the dramatic differences in prosperity represented by the many groups who seek to make the mountains home. Industrialists, environmentalists, spiritualists, the cerebral and the emotional of all economic echelons seek purpose or escape, or both, in the high terrain.
Less and less, in these ephemeral times, do the mountains provide solitude, or solace. More and more, our mountain communities struggle with the same problems, disagreements, and heartbreak of the densely populated and geographically moderate places.
One consistent characteristic of almost every mountain community remains the river; the source, the giver of all things terrestrial. In Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical novel, “A River Runs Through It,” set in early 20th century Missoula, Mont., the river represents life; literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical.
“The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters,” he wrote.
The river is time relentlessly passing. Never stopping, it concurrently carries us toward and away from the essential, the irrelevant, and everything in between. With every bend in the riverbank a new and heretofore unknown landscape emerges for our use or misuse, for us to explore with our curiosity or to exploit with our misunderstanding.
Sometimes, around the next bend, even in the idyllic mountains, the river brings us face to face with tragedy. In small communities, even death feels more severe, particularly when it manifests itself in ways that seem unfair; a loving but troubled son, two daughters yet to cross the threshold of womanhood, a maestro who enveloped our mountain valley with the beauty of his music that he cared only to make ours.
Each occurrence tears a thread from the tapestry of our intersected lives. Our connections are beautiful but fragile. Bound by our separate yet intertwined mortality, we seek grace in the material, sometimes believing that the beauty of nature, or the opportunity provided by wealth, or the benefit delivered from benevolence can provide a shortcut to personal fulfillment, even to salvation. If only salvation were so self-defined.
Compared to our mortality, the river is without end, but its ability to sustain us is not without jeopardy. It will outlast us all, which is as it should be. Ultimately our overuse of the river’s generosity threatens only us.
As with us, our literal river, the Roaring Fork, does not survive alone. Its tributaries, Fryingpan, Crystal, Maroon, and Castle among others, merge and provide strength. But theirs is not the kind of strength immune to the almost imperceptibly slow degradation that comes with overuse and diversion.
Farther downstream our river merges with the indomitable Colorado, the most endangered in the United States because of our overuse. In taking life from the river, we face the need for balance. No terrestrial river can provide life if it cannot sustain itself.
In this sense, the river can, metaphorically, take many forms; it is our air, our water, our treasure, our friends, our family, our faith. Its totality is beyond mortal grasp.
Again, Maclean: “I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. ... Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”
Without the river, our lives are not impossible — our lives are elsewhere, separate and disconnected. We cease to be one; one with the river, one with the continuous chain or reliance we call humanity. Without each other, what is our purpose? We may not think of ourselves as one, in fact I am pretty sure most of us don’t, but ultimately we are.
Maclean’s novel, in a nod to the metaphysical, carries the tenor of a resigned faithfulness; an understanding that those things that matter most are often not meant to be understood.
“At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. You can love completely without complete understanding.”
We are the river, and the river is us. We may not understand it, or each other, but sometimes understanding is not the most important thing.