Loire River in France, August 2022
In the global north, in many places it’s dryer than a bone. The American West is suffering its worst drought in 1,200 years, Europe its worst in 500 years, and China its worst on record. 47% of Europe is in ‘Warning’ draught conditions, 17% more listed in ‘Alert’ conditions.
Dryer weather in some regions is one of the impacts of accelerating climate change. Droughts can persist through a vicious in which very dry soils and diminished plant cover absorb more solar radiation and heat up, encouraging the formation of high-pressure systems that further suppress rainfall, leading an already dry area to become even drier.
As drought intensifies, 66 rivers around the world have vanished. The Loire, the longest river in France, has evaporated. That hasn’t happened in at least 2000 years, and likely not at any time in recorded human history. In the country’s Burgundy region, the Tille River is a wide trench of white dust. Ships creep down the middle of the Yangtze River in China. The 766-mile Rhine River has crept down to levels unsustainable for barge or river cruise boats.
The drought is affecting Europe’s energy supply, already buffeted by the conflict with Russia — from lack of hydropower in Finland to flushing of nuclear reactors in France and transport of coal by barge in Germany. Factories in Sichuan China shut down as hydroelectric power from the Yangtze dried up. Agriculture along the dry Po River in Italy has been severely affected.
In the growing imbalance of weather created by climate change, rising temperatures is putting more moisture in the air, so elsewhere heavy rains and flash flooding is becoming more common. Elsewhere in China, In the western province of Qinghai, heavy rain has driven floods and landslides, leaving at least 16 people dead. Some rivers were running so high that they changed course, contributing to floods affecting more than 6,200 people. And while the Colorado River shrinks down to levels threatening agriculture across the Southwest United States, monsoon rains are dropping annual precipitation in a day in Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. Afghanistan and Pakistan are getting hit hard right now with flash flooding.
To and fro goes the way, as it says in the I Ching: but the seesaw is becoming a nauseating fact of life in the 21st century.
The Hindu river goddess Ma Ganga
Rivers have played a central role in human history from the beginnings of civilization and agriculture. The Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Indus in India and the Yellow River in China all flowed with life-giving waters. Power went to those who controlled access to these waters; to that flow the rise and fall of hydraulic empires.
The world’s religions all drew life from rivers. In Nigeria, the river goddess Osun is the giver of fertility. The salmon of Columbia River in the (US) Pacific Northwest are a “first food” of indigenous tribes living along its waters. The oldest texts of the Hindu Rig-Veda mention the river goddesss Sarasvati, a holy river that dried up and become later identified with the heavenly river of the Milky Way. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, now only a trickle. In the Irish dindschenchas, sacred wisdom is grown in hazel nuts hanging over a well at the source of the River Shannon; salmon eat the nuts and then swim down the river, carrying that wisdom throughout the land.
In the Palelothic-Mesolithic period, a tree was placed in the center of the shaman’s tent, and shamans climbed it in their trances to visit the spirit-inhabited islands of the clan’s mythological road, the river. The craft of shamanizing was practices in a ritual space between the worlds, ie. a liminal isle built on water. Depositions in the water would then be in the name of the craft, ie. that of recalling the dreamtime.
Deer antler frontlet deposited at Star Carr, a mesolithic ritual site at the former outflow of Lake Flixton in Britain.
That dreamtime is now emerging as rivers dry up. In July, a Roman bridge built during the first century BC was uncovered in the Tiber River, and in in August, a village that had been deliberately flooded in 1963 to build a dam appeared from the Belesar reservoir in Spain.
The Dolmens of Guadalperal
The so-called “Spanish Stonehenge” come to view as unrelenting heat wave is making the Iberian Peninsula drier than any time in the last 1,200 years. A drying reservoir in central Spain has exposed dozens of prehistoric stones in a reservoir in central Spain. The dolmens of Guadalperal, known as the Spanish Stonehenge, are believed to date back to 5000 B.C.
In Iraq, to prevent crops from drying out along the shrinking Tigris River, the country’s main reservoir in Mosul has been tapped, and as those waters recede the Bronze-Age settlement of Zakhiku, which was once a part of the 3,400 year old Mittani Empire. An earthquake destroyed the city in 1350 BC and was flooded 40 years ago when the Mosul Dam was created.
Nazi warship emerges in the Danube
Recently, low water levels on the Serbian section of the Danube River exposed a graveyard of sunken German warships filled with explosives and ammunition. The vessels, which emerged near the port town of Prahovo, were part of a Nazi Black Sea fleet that sank in 1944 while fleeing Soviet forces. More ships are expected to be found lodged in the river’s sandbanks, loaded with unexploded ordnance.
As the Earth hurtles into this dryer, wetter, wilder and more contrariarn future, I wonder
For this week’s challenge, write something about rivers, their symbolic complexity, their vanishing and what depositions now coming to view tell us about what waters giveth and taketh away.
THE OUTLET (#162)
My River runs to thee –
Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?
My River wait reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously!
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks –
Say Sea – take Me!
THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS
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.
— from Collected Works of Langston Hughes, 2002
THE WAY TO THE RIVER
The way to the river leads past the names of
Ash the sleeves the wreaths of hinges
Through the song of the bandage vendor
I lay your name by my voice
As I go
The way to the river leads past the late
Doors and the games of the children born looking backwards
They play that they are broken glass
The numbers wait in the halls and the clouds
They play that they are old they are putting the horizon
Into baskets they are escaping they are
I step over the sleepers the fires the calendars
My voice turns to you
I go past the juggler’s condemned building the hollow
Of invisible presidents the same motion in them all
In a parked cab by the sealed wall the hats are playing
Sort of poker with somebody’s
Old snapshots game I don’t understand they lose
The rivers one
After the other I begin to know where I am
I am home
Be here the flies from the house of the mapmaker
Walk on our letters I can tell
And the days hang medals between us
I have lit our room with a glove of yours be
Here I turn
To your name and the hour remembers
Its one word
Be here what can we
Do for the dead the footsteps full of money
I offer you what I have my
To the city of wires I have brought home a handful
Of water I walk slowly
In front of me they are building the empty
Ages I see them reflected not for long
Be here I am no longer ashamed of time it is too brief its hands
Have no names
I have passed it I know
Oh Necessity you with the face you with
All the faces
This is written on the back of everything
Will read it together
— from The Moving Target, 1963
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
THE VANISHED RIVER
The tribes believed a river of beasts
Flowed underground eternally,
that rumbled under earth’s dark breasts,
And looked out on its way to the sea.
Somewhere in the mysterious south,
An enormous mountain cave belched forth
A shaggy maelstrom from its mouth,
That spread in turbulence to the north.
No river known as thunderous
As this upon the prime of plains —
It still is too miraculous
To mock the myth, and this remains:
That never eyes were more amazed
Than those to watch its mad wave pass,
Or see its body’s spread that grazed
In eddies on the blue-stemmed grass.
And I have wondered on this river’s
Marvel more than I can tell:
But I would be with those believers
Of the fabled miracle,
Rather than stand without the wonder
On its imaged prairie shore,
Nor listen for the fearful thunder
Man may hear no more.
— Poetry, August 1934
We’re in the thick of it now. I am thinking of that quote that in future (from now on, really), wars will be fought over water instead of oil. Our oil addiction has brought us to the brink. And no one is moving fast enough. I love the bit about the shamans climbing the tree in the shaman’s tent. I hardly dare wonder where we are heading. I sit, deer in the headlights, awaiting the next ominous report. Great challenge, Brendan.
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Thanks Sherry — drought and flood are water’s war, I suppose, and show that human engineering and weaponry only make them worse. I suppose we’ll grow immune to the next ominous report as they come faster and more intense. Climb higher in our trees.
this last weekend here in colorado, we broke a 64 year record for most rainfall in a single day. this last summer we have broken more records for daily and nighttime temperature highs then i can count. but i don’t need to quote endless facts here on this blog, that’s preaching to the choir, i know that. water wars have already begun, not with bullets and tanks, not yet anyway, but with legal cases. 5 states are already fighting over established water rights from the colorado river, nebraska, kansas, and colorado are fighting to, or not to, redirect water flows from the platte river. all civil suites at the moment, but i fear we have a lot of weird mad max style bullshit ahead of us in perhaps a not-so-distant future.
sorry, i’m ranting. great articles, and great poems (langston hughes and william stafford are two personal favs) keep’em coming
Thanks Philip – I hadn’t even heard of the daily rainfall record breaking in Colorado, Dallas was just in the news with the same (“five different thousand-year rain events in a matter of weeks”). The pairing of witched dry rivers with demonic storms is such a weird headdress for this summer. And the Colorado River’s drying (sucking down the reservoirs in Lakes Mead and Powell) is like a slow-motion train wreck human habitation can’t avoid. Water, not oil, became the true hammer and mace in the last Mad Max installment …
Greetings, Brendan et al! Late to the party but I will catch up reading this evening. Thank you for the challenge.
One of my favourite songs… at least of his. He was a poet extraordinaire. I owe much to him. I knew of all the droughts but have not peeked at any news for ages. Your photos are shocking. So although I am late, I will try to write something.
Late but written in empathy