Abandoned channels: Elkhorn to Lockport
By Wesley Houp
North of Center
To say a river is a living system is a scientific truism that even the most scientifically uninitiated intellect can grasp with minimal cognitive stretching: rivers teem with life, from unicellular diatoms to aquatic invertebrates and on up to vertebrata, fish, amphibian, avian, mammalian. Watersheds branch like trees, only their life-force moves in reverse from tiniest green-shoot to broad trunk, the faintest spring or rill gaining momentum, joining forces with other rivulets, debouching into larger creeks that eventually embolden the flow of master streams. Geologists, taking the long view of things, give rivers human-like agency, noting how they “capture” and “pirate” this or that watershed, or “desert” and “abandon” this or that channel, ever insisting on a course of least resistance. Rivers, like so much of life on earth, adapt to physiographic vagaries and persist through course of time as if accumulating the knowledge of experience.
But to say a river is alive, animated by a sort of conscious but unknowable will is not so easily grasped, particularly by those who have spent little time bankside or adrift on one. What is this consciousness but the pull of gravity, the swell of storm-water, and the turbulence of headwinds? What is it but cold, blind nudgings of fish barbels along some deep ledge? Perhaps the bioturbations of gastropods inching through fine-silted shallows and eddies, or the plashing of kingfishers and the winging acrobatics of thirsty bank swallows? Certainly it is these things. But certainly it is something else, particularly with a river as old as the Kentucky, whose origin reaches back to the far cusp of the Mesozoic world (perhaps even into Paleozoic time), whose waters were flowing a northwesterly course when giant reptiles held dominion, and later when large mammals, long of tooth, tusk, and trunk, grazed on grass of the rolling, featureless peneplains. The Kentucky, whose deeply entrenched meanders appeared to prehistoric nomads precisely as they appear to us today, is witness to hundreds of millions of years of earth’s evolution and, barring cosmic cataclysm, shall be witness to hundreds of millions more.
Now having paddled nearly the entire mainstream of the Kentucky, in all weathers, in every season, I can say with surety the river is a living system, governed by immutable geologic laws, and the river is alive—a singular entity that breaths and speaks a language all its own, perhaps the oldest tongue on earth—words we never knew for things long vanished, for things yet to come long after we, ourselves, have vanished. We catch the utterances in bits and pieces, like children overhearing hushed conversation between parents in the next room. And like children, the messages we construe are all preposterously self-serving. We hear conversation about ourselves; we want the river to echo our significance back to us. From the earliest record, humans have nominalized themselves as masters and victims of, along, beside, upon the river.
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