River language

Can a river speak, and, if so, are we listening?

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Felix Engelhardt

In August 2014, Whanganui Māori and the Crown signed a deed of settlement covering treaty claims relating to the Whanganui River. A remarkable and unusual part of that settlement is that it declares the ancestral river to be “a legal person”, with “all the rights, powers and duties” of a person. Legislation to give effect to the settlement is currently before parliament.

The Whanganui River was on my mind as I walked beside another river, far to the south, a very different river from the deep, muscular waterway that coils through forested hinterland west of the North Island volcanic plateau. This river, the Waitaha, is a rushing, frothing West Coast torrent beloved of kayakers and coveted by a Greymouth power company. As I described in the last issue, the fate of the Waitaha’s prized Morgan Gorge is to be decided by the Minister of Conservation in the next few months.

What I was thinking as I crossed the Waitaha’s braided channels and clambered along its boulder-strewn banks was that, if the Whanganui River is a person, is the Waitaha River a person also? Are all rivers persons? Or are some merely a water resource—a flow of molecules to spin a turbine or give a kayaker a thrilling ride down a rocky chute? If some rivers are sacred ancestors, are others just landscape features?

In the Whanganui’s case, the settlement is emphatic in that, from mountains to sea, the river is a living being with its own personality and life force. It possesses both physical and spiritual properties and is in continual conversation with the people who trace their ancestry to it. “People speak and listen to it, for the water is so much their blood as to produce a state of communication,” wrote the Waitangi Tribunal in its report on the Whanganui claim.

That relationship, nourished over multiple generations, is embodied in the profound statement, “I am the River, the River is me”—an expression of oneness that is increasingly heard, with variations, on the lips not just of river tribes, but of those who whakapapa to forests, mountains and sea.

Such statements throw down a deep challenge to Western ways of thinking that assume a split between humans and the non-human world—an ancient divide based on the illusion of human superiority and entitlement. It has become the master narrative of Western culture. It has led to a narcissism so deep that deafness to the world is the result. The river’s voice is inaudible to us.

The Whanganui settlement, as with the Te Urewera settlement that preceded it, takes a step towards bridging this divide. It prises open—by a crack—the clenched fist of human exceptionalism, the belief that the Earth is ours to dominate and exploit. By declaring that the river is beyond ownership, possession or control, the settlement points to a new way of dwelling in the world: a new ethics of respect and reciprocity, recognising our dependency on the Earth and responsibility to it.

“Acknowledging the human–nature relationship is one of the great existential responsibilities of contemporary life, both for individuals and for collective human cultures,” writes the American ecopsychologist Will Adams. “Interrelating is our essence, our calling and our path.”

Aboriginal Australians, whose tenure on that continent stretches back more than 50,000 years, practice the same ethic of relationship and respect. “The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our humanness,” says Aboriginal philosopher Mary Graham.

So strong is their conviction about the primacy of relationship, Aboriginal people believe that unless they sing to the land it will deteriorate and become barren. The nurturing land must be nurtured in return. So when they move through landscape they are in constant conversation with it: calling out to it, singing its songs, acknowledging its ancestry, right back to its Dreaming creators. What is this conversation if not the epitome of a preservative love for the Earth?

I knelt beside the Waitaha to admire the rings of coloured silt left as pools drained and evaporated. I savoured the ice-cold freshness of its water from cupped hands. My legs shook like twigs during a thigh-deep crossing of a swift river channel. I was responding to the place, even if I lacked the words to converse with it.

My moment of clearest contact came while crossing a swingbridge high above the head of Morgan Gorge, where the entire Waitaha River funnels into a slot in the polished rock. I started across, but the sway of the wires and vertigo brought on by the fearsome surge and roar of the river far below caused me to backtrack, drop my pack and make my first crossing without that extra weight on my back. As I crossed, gripping the wires for dear life, a bird shot beneath me, flying straight as an arrow into the gorge, and my heart leapt. Whio! Blue duck, emblem of New Zealand’s wild rivers.

This time I did find some words. Bubbling to my lips came a Māori karanga used to welcome honoured guests to a marae:

Haere mai te ihi

Haere mai te wehi

Haere mai te mana

Haere mai te tapu

Welcome the excellence

Welcome the awesomeness

Welcome the authority

Welcome the sacredness

This was my offering of acknowledgement and invocation. I spoke it to the river, then picked up my pack and walked on.

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