Dream of the River

I have a story to tell you and it has two characters, the river, and the salmon. Both are metaphors for the same thing, as both are the same thing, and we are both. We move down the river, from the headwaters of our cradle to the ocean and if we are lucky, back again. I would like to call love, the river. Our home that connects all things to all things. The river moves through a watershed, the watershed is defined by two ridgelines, one is hope and the other is truth. The ridgelines determine the course of the river. Whether in the river or on the ridge, there we’ve got time. There isn’t any time in the city. Everything is right now and that is poison for our perspective. The resource that is time, perhaps our most valuable resource yields inevitably, inextricably its ethic child, hope. In fact, time is hope. If there is time, there is hope.

Obi Kaufmann

I have a recurring dream and in it I am either a young boy or an old man, maybe both. I have it when I am awake and when I am asleep, maybe both. I am in the water, in a river, there are mountains on both sides. It is the Sacramento river. I can’t see how wide it is, but somehow, I know that it is flooded and wild, thirty-five miles wide. It must be spring, it is always spring, or fall, maybe both. The sky is not shadowed by clouds but by birds on the flyway, their non-descript forms touching the edge of the troposphere. The river is a writhing blanket of glinting nickels, a million people-sized Chinook headed in the same direction I am going. I walk up a side canyon headed east towards the melting snow and the muddy ground is tilled with the raking prints of hundreds of grizzlies.

Obi Kaufmann

From that earth, activated as it is by our returned friend Ursus arctos californicus, California’s lost bear, a blinding spray of orange and purple in the full sun and blue dots in the shade under the budding oaks erupts in botanical delight, a cape for a thousand species of pollinators, one for each flower. Up the staircase of beaver terraces – two or three per kilometer – engineered ponds of exquisite efficiency and lavish abundance, the gathering place of the forest where even the trees come to work in a unionized factory whose only product is biodiversity, where the dance of cooperation and competition is a niche market so detailed, so complex and so ancient that its structure has no obligation for my apprehension.

Finally, then, the dream ends in the cold, clear and clean, perfectly graveled headwaters, where the old fish have come to claim their prize, their immortality. Their immortality, offered in reciprocation for their mighty gift, the millions of metric tons of phosphorus and nitrogen offered to the arboreal carbon sink.

Obi Kaufmann

I can’t tell then if this dream occurred two hundred years ago or two hundred years in the future. Maybe both. Whether rafting in the river, which is love at the bottom of the canyon or hiking the top of the ridgeline, which is hope and truth – what we find there, what the perspective affords us is our most precious resource, time. The wild will wait us out. The history of life is a long waiting game of abundance pocked with moments of calamity. Humans love to live in moments of calamity – it is the agency of our nature and it is the curse of our function.

Our bodies are written across the watershed, our right hand is the east hand that holds the sunrise, that holds the secret of now, where there is no time but there is dutiful purpose. Our left hand is the west hand that holds the direction of the ocean, where the salmon go, where we go in our own private anadromous journey, out and back again by way of our own sense of deep time, present finally at the end of our long day in the arms of the headwaters where we are born and where we forever return.



To see and read more from Obi Kaufmann you can visit his website or follow him on instagram at @coyotethunder.


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


The Learned Pig

Obi Kaufmann

For poet, painter and naturalist Obi Kaufmann, California is a magic network of living systems that connect in a grand, quilted array of ecology and beauty that holds enough science, mythology, and language for a hundred field atlases to come. He is the author of the best-selling California Field Atlas, and the award-winning State of Water, Understanding California’s most precious Resource. He third book, the Forests of California, will be published Fall 2020 by Heyday Books, Berkeley.