An Exploration of Life, Relationships, Movement, and Water
East Branch Trek 2:
East Branch Forest Preserve ~> Churchill Woods Forest Preserve
In no way whatsoever are Andrew Van Gorp, Jason Phillip Halm, Sustain DuPage, or any accompanying affiliates, suggesting that you should walk along the path of the DuPage River. The walk along the river is largely UNSAFE.
How fitting is it that Andrew sought to coin the term hydrain after our last, and first, walk along the East Branch of the DuPage River?
In some senses, the hydrain, or the lay of the water, fits neatly into our preexisting sense of terrain, the lay of the land. After all, the water both follows and forms the land, and vice versa; their relationship is not one of contrasting competition, but of cooperative creation.
In another sense, terrain derives from the middle english terrene, which means “occurring on dry earth, earthly” or, alternatively (but similarly) “of the world, secular rather than spiritual”.
Knowing Andrew as well as I think I do, he crafted the word hydrain with much attention, but I’m not sure if even he realizes the tension the words hydrain and terrain create: if terrain comes to us through a word that means secular, rather than spiritual, does hydrain mean spiritual, but not secular?
I think not. Hydrain, remember, refers first to physical properties of the world we live in –but given that we deal with water, it also works with the way water flows, the way water walks. Though water’s flow has now been subject to science (hydrology) and to harnessing (hydroelectricity), it’s neither comprehended nor completely controlled–evidenced by both brutalities and droughts (Syria, South Africa, Puerto Rico), as well as by more gentle remeanders and reroutes (Mississippi/Atchafalaya River system, some sections of the East Branch).
The truth is that water’s flow, water’s hydrain, is neither solely spiritual nor solely secular. If solely spiritual, how could we sustain ourselves? If solely secular, how could we cleanse ourselves from our past?
This was on my mind as we set out for our second walk, on the first 70 degree day of the year, a marked contrast to our trek on the Vernal Equinox, a braving of 40 degree cloudiness. The sun felt almost as if it’d hang forever in the right spot for golden hour, for us.
In our last trek, I kept getting the claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing feeling that we were going perpendicular to the flow of our society, even though the attempt is to go with the long flow of the landscape. Right off, we had to cross a railroad set up on an enormous incline from the river, scrambling up remarkably handsome boulders to get on top.
We marveled at the perspective that lifting just a bit from a tame and gentle landscape brings, and wondered at the intelligence of blowing up distant mountains to get those handsome boulders, when glaciers carved rock down and left it here–right here–in our rivers and streams for us to use. I feel strongly that if you are going to blow up a landscape to create your own wealth, it ought to be one in which you are answerable to your community for the damage you reap.
The river snaked up to this point then dropped rapidly into a metal culvert, leaving us high on the terrain and with an impaired sense of the hydrain. If a largely neglected river can bring you to see such a well situated metaphor–an American railroad set on imported boulders, bringing coal from the hinterland to the city to burn to enrich already wealthy folks–and show you even just the beginnings of a solution–a walk, a friendship, glacial river rock–imagine how a well-cared for river can be left to cleanse.
Fortuitously, there was less perpendicular crossing in this stretch than in our first walk. We got less of a sense of marked hostility towards the East Branch of the DuPage River, and more of a sense of carelessness; the walk took less the character of a militant crossing in ways we weren’t supposed to and more of the childish playfulness that comes with the first beautiful Spring day spent in an often forgotten forest preserve (and ComEd right of way).
We also passed by a beautiful pond set in the East Branch Forest Preserve, and a matching “No Swimming or Fishing” sign, along with a natural gas pipeline running right through the area. The implication here is clear: although the physical terrain of this land ignores the river, the humanmade flow of life actively constrains the river. We can’t swim here. We can’t fish here. No one can assure us that fossil fuels aren’t leaching into our river. Hell, it is hard to find out where our wastewater is expelled into the river (as far as I know, fully cleaned thanks to a lot of really hardworking people).
The truth is that our chain of life, our circle of bonds breaks here. We cannot pretend to care for one another in any meaningful sense of the word ‘care’ if we lace the waters that our children play in with fossil fuel lines. A river ought to be a playground and a fishing ground, open to people of all backgrounds. When we make outdoor, unstructured, and generally unsupervised play dangerous, frowned upon, or even illegal, we constrain learning to a school or a laboratory–and an entire stage of life becomes commodified, able to be profited from to the detriment of learner, teacher, and the local hydrain.
We walked, though, and talked more about the ways that being outside itself can teach– that species as unlikely and often unwelcomed as Carp, Reed Canary Grass, and Phragmites can give us insights far beyond our ability to teach or learn from lecture. But only if we are there to listen. We admired the ability of phragmites to thrive, to produce so much biomass and so many children– phragmites can grow up to 10 feet in a season. Similarly, Carp are now the most ubiquitous fish in our streams, to the horror of many restorationists.
I admire restorationists, and consider myself one. Reed Canary and Phragmites are here to stay. They are teachable remnants of our past willingness to do whatever we wish to the land, and to the water, in order to fulfill personal fortunes that we thought were manifest in our destiny. Fortunes aren’t explicitly manifest in any destiny, though. Life is work. Young Herons learn to fly high in the sky overhead. A Red Tailed Hawk calls out as it plays with us. Work can be fun–when we get on to it together.
The section of river we walked on likely had been channelized to make row crop farming easier. Straight as a well-made arrow, logjams have just begun to form, with Reed Canary Grass taking root in them and recreating a dynamic hydrain, slowing the flow in places and creating faster, more oxygenated riffles in others.
Human footpaths descend to the river behind humdrum apartment complexes, and deerpaths hew to the curvature of small unnamed tributaries. Friends walk the length of the river, birds watch overhead, and we learn from and with one another. To be aware that our chain extends far beyond our front door and our car door blesses us boundlessly; the whole world is both our playground and our workplace. The terrain, and the hydrain, conspire to flow our energies towards one another in our joyful and real work.
The real work starts here. Name your unnamed tributaries. Find the deerpaths. Follow them. Look up as birds fly in ecstatic workplay, both fully sacred and fully secular at the same time. Walk your logjams–where have you been diverted from your original path, only to find your correct course? Walk along your watershed–and come with us as we do the same.