Why are we spending millions of dollars to bring back a river that stopped running a long time ago? Why are we trying to return salmon to parts of the river where they haven’t been seen for half a century? And why are we taking precious water from farmers who depend on it to irrigate their crops? In short, why does this dammed-up, siphoned-off, dried-out river matter? Why do we bother? Why do I care?
I watched the colors change as the sun set on a lazy bend of the San Joaquin River. And I was calmed by silky water reflections of trees along the riverbank as I watched the morning sun rise behind them. (I know, it’s the earth turning and not the sun going up and down.) Long before the friendly wake-up call at the small town motel, I woke to the music of the river and a chorus of birds greeting the first light. The river was elegant in the early morning sun.
From swimming, canoeing, skipping stones and catching crawfish to following trails along the water’s edge, I’ve loved rivers as far back as I can remember. My mother wove baskets from reeds that grew along the riverbed, as Native tribes have done for more than a thousand years. There’s peace of mind in the sounds and beauty of the water rushing over the rocks. And as I sat on a porch chair in Firebaugh gazing at the San Joaquin River flowing peacefully by, I thought about the history and meaning that rivers have for people everywhere. Rivers are the veins of the planet, a source of life and connection to the world. Rivers have been pathways to freedom and an eternal source of splendor and song.
I remembered as a child seeing Paul Robeson sing “Old Man River”, and hearing my father recite Langston Hughes’ poem, “I’ve Seen Rivers” by heart. I thought about Huck Finn and relived playing my guitar on the banks of the Mississippi in Missouri (Hannibal) when I was 18, hitchhiking around the country with my best friend. I played and sang “Lazy River,” “Moon River,” and “Deep River” while my high school buddy played harmonica. The unstoppable river rolled past as we paid tribute with “Down by the riverside, I’m gonna lay my burden down,” “Wade in the water,” and “Jordan River is chilly and cold. Chills the body, but not the soul.” (“Proud Mary” hadn’t yet been written or it would’ve been part of our river repertoire back in 1964… And I’m sure we would have let wailed a soulful “Many Rivers to Cross”, but Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come” wasn’t released until ’65.)
Sorry to digress. Unlike the proud rivers in stories and songs, the San Joaquin is a mighty river that’s been brought to its knees, and drained of its life blood. But what gives this story the stuff legends and ballads are made of is that, after a long battle for its survival, this once great river has a chance to regain much of the power of its past, and to bring back a bounty of wildlife that once thrived in its cool currents and along hundreds of miles of riverbank. Because of this historic restoration project, the San Joaquin is becoming a living river again. It’s a big job and a big deal. It’s not every day we can say we brought something back to life! Looks like I’m going to have to write a song about it—maybe a kind of bluesy, country corrido.
Watch the Restoration of the San Joaquin River television story online.