We went to where a river is born. We try to go every year, in the dead of winter, at least once. It’s one of my favorite Idaho places. Not everyone has seen the birth of a river. It’s magical and majestic. We often think that rivers are born under the squinting smile of early spring when the sun begins to wear at the snow and ten million rivulets combine like silken threads to make tiny ropes of water that twine together into great knots and swell into a mighty torrent; wild rivers eating away at the land, swollen and devouring as they drop away from the continental divide, and eventually rush to sea. However, some rivers, like Warm River, are born as full rivers from the very beginning and only become more full as they cross the land and collect smaller streams. Some rivers, like Warm River, burst forth from the face of stone in a mad rush of white water, cascade and trout spawn. They call such a thing a spring — and again, we think of springs as tiny, clear and dainty but they can be savage and tumultuous things, wiping clean the black slate of the earth. There are countless springs in Idaho. Water. Bursting forth from stone. On the surface, this state is dry as bone, true desert in some areas, but beneath the sage studded, crusty skin of the land there is water running wildly in every direction. It’s amazing to stop and ponder on all the things that remain just out of sight, the Earth processes that do not always make themselves apparent in broad daylight, or beneath the uncharted expanse of an evening sky.
I am reminded of the Old Testament story involving Moses who, when he loses his temper just before leading the Israelites into the promised land, angrily strikes a stone with his staff and out of that stone gushes a stream of water. I reckon it’s supposed to be regarded as a supernatural phenomenon, the water pouring forth from the rock, but it seems the most natural thing in the world to me, a girl who resides in Idaho, where water pours forth from the faces of stones quite regularly. This isn’t to say that a spring isn’t a magical thing — on the contrary, a spring is mysterious and magical. It is. Miraculous. An apt definition of conception, beginning, impetus, genesis. A curiosity in the most grand sense of the word.
At Warm Spring, I see the birth of the river, I see it rush forward, kinetic and spinning, it is born into rhythm and it cries out at the surprise of the light of day. The steam rises off the water as it meets winter air. The banks are lined in willows and douglas fir, tranquil with hoar frost. Down river, on the first bend, a family of geese is paddling in place. They beep and honk at each other, dunk their heads, waggle their bloomers in the pale gleam of a dawning day. Everything I see as I look downriver depends on the genesis of this river, the loosing of water from rock, the opening wide of the clutching hands of stone, the momentum of gravity, the overflowing of aquifers, the rise of gleaming batholiths, the melting of glaciers, isostatic uplift, general tectonics. I try to imagine this tiny river valley without a river and the very life force of what I see is cut in half, and then cut in half again, reduced in its visible bounty. In my imagination, it is different.
I think of the robust ecosystem Warm River feeds on its way to the Snake River: entire forests, an abundance of wildlife. It is drawn on to water the crops on cultivated lands, fruit trees, livestock. It is a responsible river. Its burden is, very simply, to be itself, to flow where it must. It must go to where it is needed, where it is called. Its waters are for all the wild things and for the tame things too. We drink the river, the sky carries it upward in contemplative streams of evaporation and makes rain, sleet and snowstorms with it. We seek it for its beauty and peacefulness, we swim in the deep bends under summer sun. The mosquitoes lay their eggs in musty backwaters and the trout leap for joy after a delicious caddis fly dinner. The moose sink their roman noses beneath the surface and tear the water plants up by the roots. The list of responsibility is endless. A river has work to do, simply by being, by flowing, by existing, by being born in the first place.