I grew up in the city of Petaling Jaya, in the Klang Valley in Malaysia, just outside of the Malaysian capital city Kuala Lumpur. Kuala in Malay means estuary, mouth of a river and Lumpur refers to mud. Kuala Lumpur lies at the estuary where the River Klang and Gombak meet. Klang River then flows all the way to the Straits of Melaka passing through Petaling Jaya, ending at the port city of Klang. Like many cities and places in the world, people gather together to live by a River because it provides water, to drink and irrigate crops, as well as to provide a means of transportation, of connection. My experience of Rivers till then was that they were dirty and polluted, which unfortunately is still true, and that you should never go to swim in it, much less explore it and its surroundings. The Klang has a brownish colour that looks like Teh Tarik, (a milk tea from Malaysia) which is a combination of the mud and silt washed down stream as well as industrial pollution. I have never been anywhere near this River except in a car driving alongside it on the highway or on its concrete bank in the city, which I now find sad. Yet it was this River that was providing me with the water that I was drinking and washing all through my childhood.
This past week, I went on an exploration of the River where I live, the Birs. It is surrounded by industry, forest greenery and urban housing. It begins in the mountains in canton Jura and flows downward to feed the Rhine, which then flows all the way to the North Sea. The Birs provides drinking-water and electricity for the region of the Birseck, where I live, and I had never been aware that it was flowing right under the roads and highway that I often use. I am told that it used to be too polluted from industry until the past 20 years, where there have been efforts to re-naturalise the River and its surroundings. It has a greenish-brownish tinge to its colour, which gives me a feeling that it is not completely back to its natural state, though fish and crab have begun to breed once again in these waters. The Birs as it approaches Birsfelden seems unnaturally straight, as it was cut to fit our human 'want' for straight and organized arrangements. In doing so, the wetland areas began to dry out and animal habitats destroyed. Further upstream, where I have not yet explored, in Zwingen a dam was built in 1890, to harness the power of the water; this too limited the flow of the River. When you see pictures from the archives of the Birs from the 19th century, you will understand how much we humans have changed this River and its environment.
One of my teachers, Nathaniel Hughes describes,
"In our march of 'progress,' I feel we have acted more than we have listened, taken more than we have given and done so without sufficient respect or gratitude. In response, the wild places are diminishing. However, we can each, individually, renew this ancient honouring of the land should we wish. I have long been a believer that real change starts on an individual level, that personal responsibility, personal integrity, small steps towards living in our world harmoniously, are ultimately powerful. (Hughes, Owen, 2014, 4-5)
As I walk beside this living being, I hear its trickle, its gush, its torrent. This relaxes my spirit and I am thankful that this water flows and nourishes us physically as well as mentally. At the same time, I hear the competing hum of the highway, the trains and the jet planes. I know that these too are part of our world but they do not have to be the dominant force. We have a choice in this. We can slow down, to listen, to give space to the subtle and the placid. It does not have to be about competition, it can be about collaboration; that we create together, rather than destroy to dominate another. I observe a heron on my walk standing stoically on a rock, enduring the spray of cold, winter flow of the Birs on its feathers, seeking its next meal, possibly.
Hughes, Nathaniel / Owen, Fiona (2014): Intuitive Herbalism - Weeds in the Heart. England: Quintessence Press
Image by Elaine