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Imaging rivers in their true form, and the violence of dams

Lidar map of the Yellowstone River near Hysham, Montana. At almost 700 miles in length, the Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the continental United States. Credit: Daniel Coe 

As a child, I was enchanted by the films of the great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. “My Neighbor Totoro” was the first of his film that I saw, and I’ve been enthralled by his work ever since. Reflecting back on what particular qualities make Miyazaki’s films so special, I’m struck by the way in which their animism isn’t childish at all, but speaks to a deeper truth. I think the way in which this deeper animistic truth resonates with audiences is one of the reasons that he is seen to be one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Given this intersection of both pop-cultural touchstones and potency, I’m going to use one of Miyazaki’s films as I ask you to meditate on the nature of rivers.

What is a river?

River Spirits Enfleshed: Haku and Chihiro in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” 2001

It wasn’t until my second time watching “Spirited Away” that I realized that it is a film about rivers, river spirits, and river gods (thanks to the tip from David Abram). Although the protagonist is a human girl, Chihiro, many of her significant encounters are with non-human entities—especially river spirits. As the story unfolds, we learn that her main companion and accomplice, Haku, spirit of the Kohaku River; the river of Chihiro’s childhood, and the river that saved her life, and a river now displaced by a development. While working in the bath house, Chihiro encounters other river spirits, including one who is initially seen as stink spirit. Chiriho persists in attending to this spirit, and with a proper cleanup, they are revealed as Kawa no Kami, king of the river gods.

King of the River Gods: Kawa no Kami revealed in their true form, “Spirited Away,” 2001

Miyazaki employs the spirit world of Japanese Shinto, “kami,” to illustrate the phased nature of reality. These rivers that have been so vital to Chihiro’s life are also sometimes people, are also sometimes dragons, and require human care to thrive. To speak to this dynamic from another modality, physicist David Bohm describes this higher-dimensional space as the implicate order (more on that in a moment).

If there’s one thing that Miyazaki’s imagery drives home, it is the sense of awe that overtakes us when encountering rivers in their totality. They are almost larger than life, and encounters with them shape Chihiro in ways that will remain with her forever.

Despite fantastical moments in Miyazaki’s story, “Spirited Away” is no overstatement of what rivers truly are. In the world that you and I share, rivers are profoundly powerful and creative beings. When we begin to connect with rivers, emotions of wonder, reverence, and maybe even terror wash over us. It is only once we experience these states that we can begin to engage with rivers as they are.

What kind of language might we use to express the relationship between the human scale and a being so colossal and mysterious as to be almost beyond our comprehension?

In the literature on climate science cosmology, there are precedents from which we can draw. Philosopher Timothy Morton coined the term “hyperobject” in 2010, to refer to the vastness and incomprehensibility of climate change.

Hyperobjects have five characteristics:

  1. Viscous: adhering to other things they touch
  2. Molten: vexing to Newtonian mechanics
  3. Nonlocal: massively distributed in time and space
  4. Phased: existing in high-dimensional space
  5. Interobjective: formed by relationships between multiple objects

Given the meditation above, all of these characteristics start to sound very much like what it is to be a river:

  1. Viscous: in a terrestrial landscape, it is challenging to escape the boundaries of a river, when taking into account their floodplain, tributaries, etc.
  2. Molten: returning to the Lidar maps again, the path of a river is endlessly writhing and snaking through a landscape
  3. Nonlocal: watersheds vary in size from a few acres along craggy coastline, up to more than a million square miles, but are generally vast in time and space from a human perspective
  4. Phased: the beingness of a river only begins to come into focus when viewed from a higher-dimensional perspective
  5. Interobjective: rivers are composed of in-betweens, between earth and sky, between mountains and oceans, between banks, between geological eras

From an animist lineage, a river is very much a being, not an object, and so I we arrive at the term “hyperbeing” to begin to relate to the ontology of rivers.

All of this is necessary background to arrive at the question: what is a dam?

Kawa no Kami before and during dam removal, “Spirited Away,” 2001

To return to the imagery of Miyazaki — Kawa no Kami arrives at the bathhouse smothered by the toxic sludge that builds up behind dams. Chihiro, working in the implicate, is able to remove the dam, clearing the sludge, revealing Kawa no Kami as the magnificent river god that they are. May we all have the fortitude, grace, and subtlety of Chihiro…

In his book, “Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World,” (Patagonia Books, 2023), Steven Hawley enumerates a multitude of assaults towards river hyperbeings perpetrated by dams:

  • Per kilowatt hour of energy production, hydropower can be up to three times worse in regard to emissions as natural gas. This is due to the increased methane emissions of damed area as a result of anaerobic digestion of organic material. Globally, hydropower emits as much CO2e in methane as Germany’s total emissions (the world’s ninth largest emitter).
  • Human habitation has followed watercourses, so dam creation has resulted in a concentrated form of cultural genocide and erasure for Native American communities. These indigenous sacred sites should be drained, rematriated, and restored.
  • The average sizable dam in the United States is 57 years old, while the designed serviceable lifetime of these dams range from 50 to 100 years.
  • To make matters worse, these “designed serviceable lifetimes” have since been downgraded, due to additional risk information now available about cement aging, seismic risk, downstream development, etc.
  • Just in the United States, it would take more than $1 trillion to bring repair these dams to a state of adequate safety.
  • Statistically speaking, the United States is due for a rash of catastrophic dam failures. Historically, there have been catastrophic dam failures in other countries: in 1975, the Banqiao Dam Failure in China may have killed as many as 240,000 people. In 1979, the Machchhu-2 Dam Failure in India may have killed as many as 25,000 people.
  • Climate change increases the frequency of both extreme drought and extreme flood. Many reservoirs are so empty as to be pointless, and many dams will see flood levels beyond their engineered specification, risking failure.
  • The dams of the world hold back enough sediment to cover the state of California fifteen feet deep. The cessation of sediment metabolism caused by dams reduces intertidal environmental habitat and increases costal erosion rates.
  • Costal areas are reliant for sediments currently held behind dams to slow erosion of costal beaches.
  • On average, most dams are a net financial loss. Most large dams only exist due to massive federal subsidies (many of which have come as a result of corporate extortion).
  • Rivers are a primary habitat for aquatic life, and dams destroy this habitat. Think of life in a dammed river like life in Syria: endless razor wire and checkpoints; no space for connectivity, and the monotony of daily life interspersed with seemingly-random killings. According to the WWF, global fish populations declined by 84% between 1970 and 2016, and dams have been a significant contributor to this decline.

All of these things may be true, but unfortunately their weight has not yet burst the cultural dam preventing dam removal on a mass scale. This is where hyperbeings come in.

The concept of rivers as hyperbeings begins to put us in touch with the magnificence and power that rivers possess. Sometimes I hear people say things like, “deer are so stupid; they just freeze in front of moving cars and die.” This is a terrible test of a deer’s intelligence. Humans are dying at catastrophic rates from things like opioid overdose; but this is a poor way to judge the value of our species. Sometimes people will critique animists with accusations of “anthropomorphism;” generally these accusations belie the low regard in which the accuser holds all that isn’t human. But what if deer are intelligent? What if rivers are alive? These ontological shifts require an equivalent shift in our ethics and teleology.

If rivers are hyperbeings, then humans are part of the microbiome—or simply, biome—of these organisms. At the moment, we’re behaving more like parasites than symbionts. If the our host, the rivers, die of our callous disregard, can we remain?

In Robert Bringhurst’s 2023 epic poem, “The Ridge,” he speaks about the ways in which forests have an integrity to them that is sometimes overlooked:

After three hundred years, neither the eastern
nor western white pines planted in Europe
have reached out to the sky like the vanished trees
of Maine and Montana. Trees, like ideas,
you can plant and transplant, but forests
are minds. They are civilizations.
No one has ever transplanted a mind.
And no one, whatever they claim, has ever
transplanted a civilization.
(pages 116–117)

Even within a given place, forests can die. Log a place enough times and the orchids will leave to be replaced by poison ivy, even if some trees come back.

Thankfully, the integrity of rivers is self-evident. No one is going around with bottles of river water claiming they’ve transplanted a river. Rivers, in a fundamental way, are non-displaceable. And yet, like us all, they are mortal—susceptible to being flooded or drained (often times in concert as a form of public water supply).

I think there is something here though about a forest, or a river, being a mind, a civilization, a society. To cite the language of Austin Wade Smith, if we “undual” the human/nature divide, maybe civilizations have always been a holobiont—and amalgam of forest culture, river culture, rock culture, insect culture, lichen culture, human culture. In better understanding the river hyperbeings of our place, we might better understand ourselves. In centering the aliveness of these river hyperbeings, we rejuvenate the heart (or cardiovascular system) of our more-than-human civilizations.

A photo of me and a friend on the Connecticut River in 2016

In this piece, I’ve explored the ontological shift required of us to begin engaging with rivers with the required reverence for right relationship. The Connecticut River Watershed is the hyperbeing of my place, and in a subsequent piece I will explore some of the implications of the the conceptual framework of hyperbeings within this Connecticut River hyperbeing.