By Philip Martin
For much of my life the Grand River has been a wandering stranger. I knew the river existed, and would occasionally nod to its beauty while riding my bike along its shores or dipping my body in the coolness of the Kauffman flats. But I did not know the river as a friend, recognize its life-giving presence in our midst, or seek it out as a source of wisdom winding through my days.
For much of my life the river has remained at a distance. Its otherness allowed me to pivot easily from ecological concerns that might be raised, or to dismiss troubling historical facts about Indigenous ownership of six miles of land on each side of the river as being way too complex and time-bound to warrant sustained attention.
Yet somehow, in recent years, I have come to know the Grand River in a more intimate and cosmic sense. It no longer skirts the edges of my awareness. The river now runs through me.
Early Morning On The Grand
As usual, my Grade 5 students were at the heart of this change; pulling me, and being pulled by me, down paths of learning.
Throughout my career as an elementary school teacher I worked hard to connect kids to the natural world around them. In his book, The Last Child In The Woods, Richard Louv diagnoses a common condition among children, which he labels “nature deficit disorder”. Children are increasingly disconnected from nature, he claims. Even though they may know more about the rain forest than their predecessors, their experience and tactile love of real natural places is thin. Only this kind of embodied love can give us the courage we need to make deep changes required if we are to survive as a species.
I resonated with Louv’s analysis, but how could I help my students connect with the natural world in this deep way? Over the years I tried a number of approaches, from schoolyard nature spots to three-day immersion visits at a local Earth Keepers camp, with varying degrees of success. The experience that changed me the most was “Early Morning On The Grand”.
I would meet a group of six or seven students and a volunteer parent driver at 6:30 AM in the school parking lot. We would go to the Grand River where, armed with binoculars and whatever energy we could muster at that hour, we would enjoy the river and catalogue what we had seen and heard. Back at school by 9 AM, with the whole class present, we would share our impressions and experiences. Over the course of a week, each child in the class would have a chance for an early morning on the Grand.
After a couple of days, even the reluctant students who were initially unwilling to participate, signed up. By the end of the week my class convinced me that we should try this two more times during the year: once in the winter and once in the spring.
Our experience of the river evolved and deepened over the course of that year. In the spring we learned how to use the macro lens on the school’s fleet of small digital cameras. This changed our experience of the river dramatically. Instead of being oriented to the long view through binoculars, we were now looking at very small things right in front of us. Seed pods, snails and spider webs caught our attention. After one early morning on the Grand, Janelle sparked a writing frenzy with her haiku:
dew diamonds dancing
on sunny silk necklaces
a world of wonder
Even though it took a lot of energy for me to conduct Early Morning On The Grand for an entire week, I arrived back at school each day by 9:00 AM strangely refreshed. I remember thinking that mornings at the river were good for me.
In the fall of 2011 my father was dying and I began to think about retirement. In an act that was part resistance, part inspiration, I decided to write my report cards down by the river.
Years earlier I had conducted my Masters research on the topic of elementary teachers’ experience of writing report cards. I concluded that these documents, situated at the busy crossroads of educational discourse, carried far too much weight to be alive with truth.
While kingfishers chortled on the other side of the river, I compared each student’s learning skills to the animal spirit they had adopted in September as guardian of their life dreams. There, beside the stream, I learned that it was possible, even delightful, almost inevitable to tell the truth.
When my principal declared, only partly in jest, “No more animals in your report cards,” I knew that it was time to retire. That spring I buried my father and said goodbye to a life work that wound its way through my heart and soul. Yet I knew that when the dust settled, I would be returning to the river to watch and listen and write, that beside this stream I could find new life in a world of wonder!
Amidst the grief and loss of that summer, I found some solace by going down to the river. I happened upon a perfect “office”. It was a secluded section of riverbank, well shaded by trees on both sides, with an amazing window out onto the river. I came with my bike, books, a journal, binoculars and of course, a steaming thermos of tea. Often I would just sit, looking out my window. At first this riverside world, so alive with purpose and meaning, highlighted my own deep emptiness.
This is always what I longed to do: sit by the river and be one with the unfolding universe. Yet, I am strangely unsettled. While all around me know what they are doing, I remain ignorant. While all around me maintain a focus on survival and work, my mind is untethered and tangled in random observations and vague desires. I wish I had brought more tea. I’m tired. I need a hammock. Did I buy the right bike? What am I going to make Chris for supper? What am I going to do with my life?
Gradually, this riverside world began to speak to me.
Today, I came to my office, wondering how I was going to find direction. As I sat there, I caught a glimpse of movement close by to my left. A small bird skittered along the shore — a water thrush! The little bird disappeared under the branch in front of me so I stood up slowly to catch another glimpse. The water thrush must have seen my shadow or something, and she quickly, but casually, slipped off. And I wondered, is direction a skittish bird, not easily forced or hurried or controlled?
Across the river I caught another movement. A great blue heron was stalking its prey. Every 30 seconds or so the heron would take another silent step forward and then stop, every fibre in its body perfectly still, waiting. Direction may be something that I need to stalk with patience and intelligence.
Suddenly my reverie was broken by the sound of air and wind. Past my window glided a flock of geese, mere centimetres from the surface of the water, in a perfect V. I heard them splash land upstream. And I thought, I am also part of a family, a community. Maybe my people can help me find direction.
I love the dialogue that can happen when I set myself down beside the river. Conversation usually begins after periods of silence, when some seemingly random element of the riverside world connects with something inside of me. Reading a book at my riverside office can expand the possibilities of dialogue immensely. This fall I had many three-way conversations between myself, the river and Richard Wagamese, through his wonderful book, Embers. This book ignited numerous tongues of fire, which I recorded in my journal:
“Aki. Earth. I will walk her skin today attuned to her heartbeat, the feel of her thrumming against the soles of my feet.”~ Richard Wagamese, Embers, p.35
Walking her ‘skin’ and feeling her ‘heartbeat’. These can be meditational challenges for a day, a week, a month, a lifetime.
To sense that the earth is alive, a single living being, is a gift. For me, this is one of the gifts of the river. Riding my bike beside the river, with the sun slanting through trees , bands of insects high above the water streaming with the wind, framed by branches, leaves and bark ~ a window into an interconnected world.
Insects. Food for birds like cedar waxwings hawking aggressively, sun flashing off yellow-banded tails, skrilling in delight at suppertime. These same insects, food for fish who rise and flash at the surface of the stream. These same insects alighting amidst greenery and bands of colour, pollen-mules pulling life’s seeds from flowers and sharing this new life in their gregarious way.
Osprey circles, cocks her head, dives, at the last moment plunging feet-first, grasping that fish with that insect inside its belly, osprey rising high, triumphant squawk louder than the chirk of cedar waxwings, banking off towards her nest above the bridge.
This grand stream flows ~ a host of life, an expression of love, a heartbeat. Time, patience and attention, these are things that it takes to feel the heartbeat of the earth, to touch and be transformed by the touch of the earth’s skin.
“We live because everything else does. If we choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us ~ and heal the planet. We belong to each other.”~ Richard Wagamese, Embers, p.36.
Since that summer I have continued to go to my office on the river, changing the location several times to escape the encroachments of civilization. In the midst of Covid-19 self-isolation, I have noticed a movement of more people towards the river. At first I resented these incursions on my privacy, but I have come to enjoy the enjoyment of others down at my office. One recent morning, while down at my office with my grandchildren, we saw a woman who comes regularly to meditate, a father and son enjoying the geese, two office workers sharing food together, a number of people walking their dogs and four kayakers skittering downstream.
The All Nations Grand River Water Walk has changed the way I come to the river. I met Mary Anne Caibaiosai in the summer of 2018. She was planning the first Water Walk alongside the Grand River that fall. Cycling Into The Future, the organization that I founded (Yes, I got some direction down by the water!), decided to host a fundraising bike ride along the Grand in support of the Water Walk.
Many things about this Water Walk resonated with me. Here were people deeply concerned about the Grand River. They were planning to give the whole watershed a loving embrace, from start to finish to start again! Mary Anne’s practice of water walking is based on the teachings of Josephine Mandamin, an Anishnaabe Elder who honoured the water by walking around the Great Lakes.
The Water Walk coincided with our busy season for Cycling Into The Future, so I could not become a core walker. I did, however, have the honour of walking with Mary Anne one beautiful (and very early) September morning. Mary Anne carried the copper pail with water from the source of the Grand. I walked slightly behind her and to the left, carrying the eagle staff. Interspersed with periods of ceremonial walking together, which ended by handing off the copper pail and eagle staff to other water walkers, we had plenty of time to talk.
In talking with Mary Anne, it became clear to me that the Water Walk has a central purpose that seems different from what I am used to. I am used to people acting from political or environmental motivations, where our actions are hinged on some very practical purposes. Mary Anne is not unaware of the political or environmental implications of the Water Walk, but she is moved by a central spiritual purpose. “We are going to honour the water, pray for the water, sing to the water,” she said.
The practical purposes of the Water Walk are not tangible. What is tangible is the quality of relationship between the walkers and “Nibi” (the water). There is a definite sense of being friends with the water, something that I could identify with because of my riverside practice. But beyond this is an understanding that we are utterly dependent on water, water is our life, and in some crucial way we are part of the “Nibi”. We are all connected, and this ceremony of honouring the water vibrates with these interconnections.
There is much in Mary Anne’s teaching that I do not understand. But since my first Water Walk, when I go down to the river, I carry with me a deep sense of gratitude and belonging.
Now, when I arrive at my office, I offer tobacco, sprinkling it into the stream that dances over rocks as it feeds the larger body, and then into the river itself as it slowly moves by. Some may consider this to be a shallow and improper cultural appropriation. For me it recognizes the truth of Mary Anne’s teaching, that water is life. It also helps me to acknowledge and live within the tension around the historical/political situation of this very water. While I am increasingly able to call this riverside “home,” I also know that great injustice has been done, and is still being done, to Indigenous peoples for whom this watershed is an actual and promised “home.” Offering tobacco challenges me to find strands of creation-centred spirituality that wander, often as strangers, through my own faith tradition. It challenges me to work for shalom (justice and wholeness) in relationship with my Indigenous neighbours and with this whole ecosystem of the Grand River.
About a year ago I decided to make a pilgrimage down the Grand River. I wanted to decompress, unwind, and simply enjoy the river from a different perspective.
Mid-June I loaded up my canoe with everything I would need (including way too much food), hooked it up to a trailer behind my bicycle and, on one of the hottest days of the year, rode up to Elora.
Two weeks of meandering slowly down the Grand River to Lake Erie were wonderful, and having a bike and canoe trailer increased my mobility. At any point I could leave the river and ride to a conservation area or into town. Along the way I ended up talking with a lot of people.
During this journey I was struck by the diversity of the Grand, in both the qualities of the river itself and in the many people who live along it. I understood that my own experience of the Grand River is quite privileged – every meaning of that word intended. I came to realize there is a wide world out there beyond the bubble of my riverside office.
“What does this river mean to you?” is a question that I asked about a hundred times, and it’s a question that was answered in about a hundred different ways.
A woman in Elora described, in painful detail, the utter destruction of her trailer by flooding waters of the Grand.
A man stopped his pickup truck in front of my bike and canoe tandem in Ohsweken to snap a picture of my traveling system. It was something he’d been dreaming of all his life, and in return he gave me a rumpled copy of “Land Rights: A Global Solution for the Six Nations of the Grand River.”
Five kids and their teacher in some kind of behaviour program met me in Cayuga’s Tim Hortons and ended up telling me how to deal with the frustration I was experiencing as I battled wind on the river (“Count to 10.” “Breath deeply.” “Just let it go!”).
“What does this river mean to you?” is an invitation for storytelling. It comes with a second question, “What do you mean to this river?”, which is an invitation for living.
The river is always moving; that is part of its being. In my life, the Grand River begins as “wandering stranger” and moves towards “sacred presence.” I am moving too, and the river is often mid-wife of this change, providing a sacred space of orientation, silence, conversation and friendship. In a very real sense, the river runs through me.
I’d love to hear your stories.