Rivers, like trees, are irrepressibly themselves and, in being so, more than themselves — sources and symbols of life, impartial witnesses imbued not merely with the elemental but with the existential. “There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the meaning of rivers after she walked the River Ouse from source to sea.
Several decades earlier and several hundred miles north, the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) — another woman of uncommon poetic insight and peripatetic determination — considered the mystery and might of water in her forgotten masterpiece The Living Mountain (public library).
Wading into the Wells of Dee — the pools at the spring of the River Dee in the Cairngorm Mountains, the highest source of any major river in Britain — Shepherd contemplates the enigmatic vigor of the element:
This is the river. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at…
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