The Life Riparian

(Cross-posted from Hilltown Families)

Riparian is a strange sounding word that denotes “river bank”: the meeting point of river and land. We enter the “riparian zone” when we get close to a river. It is a place we want to be, because it brims with exuberant sounds and smells, and because it often harbors wild plant populations that flower and fruit, attracting pollinators and all sorts of other hungry creatures. In fact, when I think “riparian” I think of food. The riparian zone is where the food is, and where the food is, life is. It is possible to trace this living landform from where it almost touches the sky all the way down to the sea.

A few weeks ago, two miles high in the Chilean Andes with my friends at Superfun, I became dangerously dehydrated. Careful to avoid water that might have bad bacteria in it, I found what I thought was a perfect source. Beneath a melting ice field I filled my canteen and drank until I gasped in pain. So cold, the water sang in my skull; so pure it tasted like breath. For half an hour I sat on a rock, loving the fact that this straight-from-the-glacier water was as perfect as water can be. The purest of the pure, cleanest of the clean, the supreme goal of bottled water drinkers achieved. Woo!

Turns out: perfectly clean water strips our bodies of minerals, calories and electrolytes. That’s great, if we want to detoxify. Mountaineers court death if they don’t replace the “essentials” after rehydrating with ice-melt, a companero admonished. I didn’t pack superfood supplements. Next time!

We returned to the valley. Rivulets joined into snaky streams, then brooks flipflopping over scree. As we left the barren alpine zone of hardy lichens and mosses, wild flowers of the most delicious colors appeared and amazed us. The brooks converged into a small river the same time that bushes, grasses and small trees appeared. Scat, feathers and bones on the slopes signaled the presence of “higher” forms of life: soon we came upon wild horses and some shepherdless sheep. Astral Blackbirds called, curious, with something to say. Condors wooshed overhead, locked onto us, then returned to their voyages, surfing thermal-energy waves with eight-foot wingspans.

I didn’t drink the water at these altitudes, fearing I’d get sick. My companions did, because they could stomach the microflora it carried. The riparian zone, I learned, is where the food is, and it’s where the food is because the waters that flow through it carry parts of the bodies of what once lived upriver. The “essentials” of life are passed on from one generation to the next in what we call the “nutrient cycle“; as William Blake said: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” (How many Valley farmers have plowed up arrowheads?) And Aldo Leopold: “Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”

Living the life riparian—what does it mean? What could it mean? How can we live it?

The best place to consider these questions is by the river side. Every river drains a unique watershed, collects unique nutrients, which in turn become habitat and food for unique creatures, which eventually become nutrients themselves, again. And all tumble down to the sea from mountain heights, carried by streams, brooks and rivers.

Perhaps the best way to enter the life riparian is think of the water cycle, which loops the oceans with the clouds with the rivers, and the nutrient cycle; together they provide the living soil, and body, of a myriad-species superorganism we become aware of as we look at the tea-brown microflora-rich water of our local brooks and rivers, and we smell—as winter ends and spring begins—the unique perfume it sends off, and witness and learn the ways of the creatures and plants who depend upon, and are part of, it