Looking Upstream

“I was warmed by the sun, rocked by the winds, and sheltered by the trees as other Indian babes. I can go everywhere with a good feeling.”
    - Apache Chief Geronimo

“The frog does not  drink up the pond in which he lives”.

Native American saying

“As for you, my flock . . .  Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also foul the rest with your feet?”
    - Ezekiel 34:18

“We human primates have used our brains and hands to transform the world, before our DNA could change us. If we were to live in tune with the distribution curves that apply to other species, our total population would be fewer than a million [rather than 6 billion plus]. We have swapped biology for history, nature for technology. But this very ingenuity is creating it’s own limits. Cities - our greatest invention - are choking the planets skies and threatening the delicate balance of climate that makes life possible.

All human cultures tell the same stories - of the man punished for stealing fire, of the flood that sweeps away all we have built. Only stories, and the imagination that feeds them, may be strong enough to save us from the endless ingenuity of our hands.”

    - from The Book of Animal Ignorance by John Lloyd

Witness a miracle.

In this room, outside these windows, we see the wonder of creation.

Life in it’s many forms, nature in it’s majestic beauty.

The miracle is existence itself.

We get to experience this miracle, this privilege beyond measure, just by the circumstance of our birth.

The sun, the sky, the trees, the hills, the prairies, the lakes, the streams, the rivers, all ours to embrace, all there to provide the sublime stagecraft for the brief continuum that is our life.

Mother Earth provides all we need for our journey, air, food, water, shelter, warmth, the very ground we live our lives upon.

We neglect this truth, but it is important to remember that the manmade objects around us, buildings, appliances, chairs, computers, automobiles, airplanes, glass, steel - all are made of things extracted from the earth - minerals and stone, iron and vegetation, water and sand, gases and oil - processed, refined, milled, pressed, shaped, assembled.

Everything, simply everything, is of the earth.

So what do we do for mother earth in return for the miracle of existence, for providing us the means of the astonishing privilege of life? Just what is our responsibility to mother earth? 

Visible outside these windows, just a few hundred yards away, is Rock Run Creek, which flows into the du Page River, which flows in turn to the des Plaines River, which is itself a branch of the Illinois River. I could throw a twig into Rock Run Creek and it can follow the current all the way to an island 250 miles south on the Illinois River, just a few miles upstream from the tiny river town of Pearl, Illinois.

The stretch of river between that small island and Joliet is the wellspring for today’s homily.

The mythology of rivers looms large in Western Illinois, where I grew up. The great glaciers that scraped much of Illinois flat, creating the vast prairies Illinois is so famous for, stopped short of our corner of the state. We were left with a more rolling landscape, divided by streams and river valleys. 

Something of an economic after thought now, affectionately called Forgottonia by it’s inhabitants, the area’s combination of streams, woodlands, and small, cultivatable prairies made it highly sought after for homesteads during the great influx of white settlers in the early 1800’s. The landscape is defined by the watershed of the Illinois River, which itself is part of the watershed of the Mississippi river. As the Illinois nears it’s intersection with the Mississippi, the rivers run almost parallel for 50 miles or so, separated by the limestone bluffs that define beautiful and isolated Calhoun county. 

In this age it is an area of struggling small towns, modest cultivated fields separated by hills and hollows, wide river flood plains, and of course, the rivers themselves. The rivers are such a pervasive part of the terrain, and the population so sparse, that even today river ferries can be more cost effective than bridges, and Calhoun County, having only one bridge, has 5 separate ferries crossing the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

When I was growing up, my family’s recreation revolved around camping and boating on the Illinois River. We would set up a tent and leave it all summer on an island in the river, and use it for weekend skiing and fishing adventures.

As a result I developed a love for the outdoors that has been a constant in my life, and throughout my life I have hiked, biked, camped, kayaked, and sailed my way from one satisfying experience to another.

I now live a few blocks from the Illinois River in northern Illinois, allowing me to do all the outdoorsy things I enjoy a few steps from my front door, providing a rewarding symmetry to my life.

One of the largest archeological digs in North America is located a few miles from my hometown, not far from the island we camped on. It is named the Koster site after the owner of the farm it is located on and lies at the base of the Illinois river bluff. The dig, initiated by Northwestern University, has revealed that indigenous peoples lived along the Illinois River at the site for 14,000 years. Research shows that they survived that long because of the stunning amount of resources available to hunter/gatherers during that time period, including bountiful fish and game, fruits, nuts, berries, and all sort of sustenance for the resourceful people who chose to settle along the limestone bluffs. The assumption has long been that complex human cultures did not develop until crops began to be cultivated, allowing local cultures the spare time to develop elaborate society, time that hunter/gatherers shouldn’t have. Research at the Koster site shows that food was so plentiful in the Illinois river valley that the natives only had to spend a few hours a day gathering sustenance, yet their culture stayed contentedly static for thousands of years in spite of the abundant spare time they had. And, of course, part of the reason they flourished for so long was because of their grateful stewardship of the land and water. Their religion was earth based, it relied on a reverence for nature, an acknowledgment that they were inextricably tied to the nurturing qualities of a healthy mother earth.

Marquette and Joliet were among the first westerners to document the Illinois River Valley, Marquette noting, and I quote:  “We have seen nothing like this river that we enter, as regards it’s fertility of soil, it’s prairies and woods, it’s elk, deer, wildcats, beaver, and bison.” In fact, one of Marquette’s fellow missionaries was almost overturned in his canoe on the Illinois by a herd of buffalo crossing the river, covering it’s surface from shore to shore.

The area of my youth was blessed by great writers whose literature was informed by the land and rivers. Carl Sandberg grew up in western Illinois, and camped on the Illinois River with his childhood friends on many occasions.

The Spoon River, another tributary of the Illinois, provided the geographical context for one of America’s greatest works of literature, the Spoon River Anthology, written by Edgar Lee Masters, who grew up near the Illinois in Lewiston.

America’s greatest hero, Abraham Lincoln, no slouch with a quill pen himself, came of age 40 miles or so north of my hometown, in New Salem, a small village on the Sangamon River, which is a tributary of the Illinois River. Lincoln had one of his greatest adventures taking a flat boat down the Sangamon, to the Illinois, then the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans, calling it one of the defining experiences of his life, allowing him to intimately witness the terrible mechanics of a slave auction.

America’s seminal writer, Samuel Clemens, grew up just across the Mississippi River, less than 50 miles, as the crow flies, from my hometown. His stories about life on the river captivated me when I was a kid, and were never far from my mind when we camped on the island. I realize now that I had the unique blessing of growing up in a landscape that was literally famous throughout the world because of books like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Life on the Mississippi. 

I hope you see that it is an area with a demonstrably rich natural, historical, and cultural heritage, a heritage rooted it’s geography and natural resources.

Spending so much time on the river I became fascinated by the giant barges that would pass our island, some of them hundreds of yards long. In our little fishing boat they seemed immense, otherworldly, like moving cities. We would always wave at the captain on the bridge and would be thrilled when someone so obviously grave and important would take the time to wave back at us.

Lying in the tent at night listening to the towboat’s lonely foghorn echoing down the river valley was to experience one of the most wonderfully mournful sounds on earth. It is a sound that burrows into your marrow, a sound that I can hear most any night of the year now, living so blessedly close to the river.

When I was young and spent my summers skiing, and swimming, and camping on the river and heard the sound of the foghorn I always dreamed of working on the river, of experiencing the river on a huge boat just like Mark Twain.

After college a few friends and I spent a nostalgic post-graduation week on the island, mainly drinking beer and stumbling into trees in the dark, but the experience did renew my dream of working on a riverboat. I promptly applied for a job on a barge and to my surprise was hired. In a matter of days I found myself boarding a towboat on the Mississippi at Alton, just below the mouth of the Illinois River, in sight of the drawing of the mythical Piasa Bird famed explorers Lewis and Clark had noted on a bluff above the river 200 years earlier.

Counter intuitively, a river towboat doesn’t tow, it pushes interconnected barges, called the tow, up and down the river. The towboat I was on, The Reliance, pushed it’s load along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers between Alton and Joliet. It was 140 feet long, and had a crew of ten, with two shifts consisting of a pilot, a first mate, and two deckhands each, as well as a cook and, finally, a machinist to care for the giant engines. I, of course, was a deckhand, low man in the boat’s hierarchy. 

The deckhand I was paired with filled me in on life on the river. I quickly learned about a quirk in working on a towboat. Each work shift lasted six hours, meaning you were on six, off six. This meant each day had two sleep/wake cycles, with only a few hours sleep at a time. This effectively served to make each day seem like two days, somehow warping time, playing havoc with your circadian rhythm, giving an hallucinatory quality to the work day.

Never having more than a few hours of sleep at a time, combined with the fact that motors the size of buses roar 24 hours a day a few     feet below your bunk, adds up to spending one’s working day in a perpetual state of sleep deprivation.

On a positive note, the food on a towboat was extraordinary, a veritable orgy of every manner of country cooking, available around the clock. Work on the river is physically demanding, the alternatives to work and eating were non-existent in those days before cell phones and wireless internet, so the food was vital to keeping up energy and moral.

Over my first extravagant meal on the boat, my partner was compelled to tell me all the many ways it is possible to die on the river. He got animated describing a recent accident on another boat in which a steel cable holding barges together snapped, swung wildly, and hit a deck hand at the eyebrows, removing most of his head. He told me about people slipping into the spaces between barges in the dark unnoticed and their bodies being lost until spring, about people getting brained by the giant ratchets that secure the tow, of workers losing limbs when crushed between two barges, and so on. Having just learned that  I would be perpetually sleep deprived and exhausted in an environment filled with countless ways to die or be crippled wasn’t exactly reassuring.

But you don’t think about dying every moment on the boat, your mind is otherwise engaged, and soon I was reveling in the real reason I was there - to take in the sensual bounty of the river setting. 

One of the blessings of the trip, due to the around the clock work, was seeing the river in all it’s moods. It changed throughout the day with the slant of the light, became magical and mysterious at night, and was at it’s most captivating at dawn, when the ambience of the river coursed like a symphony of sight and sound and smell.

Speaking of smell, the Illinois river has a smell unlike any other body of water, foremost a smell of silt, the musty smell of the prairie farmland that constantly erodes into the river, mingled with a faint whiff of the oil residue exuded by the countless two stroke motors roaring up and down the river. To me it’s bliss, a familiar smell that inexplicably cheers me up every time I go down to the river bank.

Their is a magical quality to one task on the river and that is standing at the very front of the tow, a hundred yards in front of the towboat and it’s noisy engines, with a sweeping view of the river and it’s banks, using a walkie talkie to guide the pilot through narrow passages between bridge abutments. The experience recalls the scene in Titanic, where DiCaprio stood at the bow, wind blowing in his face, declaring himself king of the world. I felt the same sense of motion and beauty and freedom, excepting I was paired with my ghoulish work mate rather than Kate Winslet.

But even the most beautiful landscape is taken for granted after a time, and I was paid, after all, to work, not to gaze reverently at God’s creation all day. Soon the river scenery simply became the background to the perpetual physical labor of the boat. 

One assumes that on a boat traveling hundreds of miles through the backwaters and woods of Illinois would be an expansive experience, a liberating outdoor adventure.

I soon learned it was just the contrary. My environment, excepting the view, was the inside of a boat. It was big as boats go, but was mostly filled with machinery and had the overall living space of a large mobile home. With ten people and a just a handful of public spaces, I quickly realized that the environment wasn’t so much liberating as it was claustrophobic. It occurred to me that if you had a conflict with someone, it would be impossible to avoid them. 

And so, in a matter of days I discovered that life on the river inescapably shares qualities with life on land. As on land, it is the human interaction that provides all the real drama. Imagine the personalities you must interact with each day at your workplace, the often exasperating conflicts that inevitably arise, then imagine that you don’t go home each evening and leave them behind, but rather spend each day and night with them for a month or more at a time in a confined space.

Soon I learned of a drama playing out on my shift.

Work on the boat paid fairly well, especially given that you had no way to spend money during the time you were on the boat. But the real money was earned by the river pilots. Everyone starts as a lowly deckhand, and if they have a good work ethic, exhibit some minimal leadership qualities, and receive a recommendation from a pilot, one can become a first mate, making a modest move up the ladder of salary and responsibility. Skillful and ambitious first mates can seek the sponsorship of a pilot, do a lengthy apprenticeship, take a series of exams, and become a river pilot themselves. The rub, however is in finding a pilot to sponsor you. You must have enough years on the river to have the experience and skills necessary to show promise, and somehow have cultivated a relationship with a pilot . . . who has little motivation to create a competitor for the limited number of high paying pilot jobs.

My immediate supervisor, as it turns out, was on the ripe end of his career as a first mate and was angling to get our captain to sponsor his apprenticeship. As I became aware of this little drama it became obvious that he knew this was his last chance to grasp the status and substantial salary of a river pilot. I began to sense an air of desperation.

So it was that one day, after being directed to clean the captain’s unused bathroom for the second time in a six hour span, I was commanded to polish the brass doorknob on the captain’s cabin. Each time I considered the door knob sufficiently polished, the first mate would exclaim “I want him to be able to see his face in it”. So I spent an hour and a half polishing a door knob while pondering the value of the college degree I had recently obtained.

One of my duties involved taking the captain coffee during the midnight to six shift. I came to look forward to this brief respite from serving as an agent of my mate’s ambitions. The captain’s bridge is high above the river, offering a magical view of the river and it’s shores, especially at night. Bathed in soft amber light to allow the eyes to adjust to scanning the river for obstructions, while simultaneously monitoring the radar, the bridge is an oasis of calm and quiet and beauty on the towboat.

In the course of this daily task, the captain, a white bearded fellow from central casting, asked me about my background and interests. We began to talk, and soon discovered a shared interest in philosophy and literature. Since a captain had minions like me doing every task for him other than actually piloting the boat, he alone on a boat had free time, time this captain spent voraciously reading.

So the captain began to enjoy my company, as I did his, and each evening our conversations would last a little longer, as would my time on the bridge. 

This drove the mate crazy. 

He implied that I was stealing his imagined mentor. He began to quiz me about my conversations with the captain. He inquired if the captain ever mentioned his name. He had not. The mate ordered me to cut the visits short.

I began to try to leave the bridge immediately after dropping off the coffee, but the captain insisted I stay. His was the ultimate authority on the boat so I stayed. The mate wasn’t pleased. Each night this drama played out. The captain soon guessed something was up and asked if the mate was directing me to avoid the bridge. I replied in the affirmative. “He thinks he can use the deckhands to suck up to me.” the captain said. “He would be mistaken”. He chuckled and said, “Stunning work on the doorknob though.” And so I learned that I had polished that damn door knob for nothing other than the captain’s perverse amusement.

Isn’t it remarkable how often we find ourselves entangled in entertaining and diverting little dramas like this?

It is mankind’s fate to cruise down the river of life, caught up in the minutiae of daily living, hypnotized by triviality. But just upstream, less innocent souls leverage these human qualities for their own purposes. Powerful people, representing powerful economic forces, know that most people are caught up in the struggle of daily life, and have no time or interest in monitoring the goings on upstream, a reality folks drunk with greed use to great and wicked effect.

The huge engines on the towboat had correspondingly huge oil filters, filters that had to be changed regularly. One fine sunny day on the river, the mate directed me to help him change the filters. They were large metallic mesh contraptions, congealed with oil and dirt, which we quickly removed, set aside, and replaced. I puzzled over what we would do with them, as I had seen no space on the boat for waste storage. We took them out of the engine room onto the deck at the rear of the boat. I asked what we were going to do with them. “i’m never thrilled about this” he said, “but they go over the stern”.

You recall that I spent my youth swimming, skiing, and camping in and on the river. His statement hit me like a thunderbolt. “Please tell me you are kidding,” I said. 

“I wish I were”.

To his everlasting credit, he didn’t force me to throw the filters overboard. I simply couldn’t have lived with myself had I done so. Ever chasing his dream, not wanting to make waves, he did throw them overboard, the sight of which left me in a state of shock. I asked the mate about the other voluminous trash of all sorts generated by life on the boat and discovered that it all went over the stern, all ended up tumbling in the current along the bottom of the channel. It turns out that the barge industry had deemed proper waste disposal too expensive for consideration. I quickly thought of the literally hundreds of towboats plying Illinois rivers, boats I had just learned create vast amounts of poisonous waste, silently calculating the tons of waste that must go into the river each year, silently calculating the many years this had gone on, thinking of all the western Illinois communities that drew water from the river, silently thinking of the countless times I had immersed my body in that water, of the many fish I had eaten from the river.

Later in the trip, near Joliet, Illinois, I learned that if you fell in the river there, the water quality was such that the boat’s insurance underwriter required that you had to be taken to a hospital for observation.

At the end of one month I had earned enough, combined with an assistantship,  to get me through a year of work on a masters degree. I said my goodbyes to my pal the captain and never went back. I didn’t feel like I had the power to fix this outrage, but I did have the power to not to participate in it.

When I was in junior high in my small downstate community, our history book told the amazing story of how the city of Chicago, suffering epidemics of illness and death caused by pollutants and human waste emptying into Lake Michigan, reversed the direction of Chicago River to carry those poisons away from the city and it’s lakefront. It is considered one of the great engineered feats in human history. How fortunate for the good people of Chicago.

What the history book failed to mention, and what we didn’t consider in class, what I didn’t learn until I was an adult, is that the waste and poisons that no longer ended up in Lake Michigan were diverted upstream on the Chicago river to a manmade canal, then to the des Plaines river, which empties into the Illinois River, eventually flowing downstate past the island my family camped on for so many years. You begin to understand the less than Christian sentiments downstaters have towards Chicago.

When I moved to my current home, 10 miles from the confluence of the des Plaines and Kankakee rivers, which, combined, form the Illinois River, I learned that the oldest commercial nuclear reactor in the world sits at that confluence.

My beloved river has a reactor containment building overlooking it’s very source. Of course that isn’t all bad. Nuclear energy, despite it’s inherent dangers, is among the cleanest energy sources available, and statistically speaking, in the absence of a catastrophic screw up, is among the safest.

Excepting that screw ups do happen, and the aging reactor complex at the origin of the Illinois has repeatedly leaked radioactive tritium far exceeding federal limits into the groundwater, groundwater that drains into the Illinois river, and eventually flows past my current home, on it’s slow but persistent path to the island of my youth.

I also learned that every single spent radioactive fuel rod ever used in the oldest commercial reactor in the world, going back to the day it opened some 50 years ago, radioactive fuel rods with a poisonous half life of biblical length, still rest in a shallow pool on the floodplain next to the river. 

These outrages have been inflicted on the river and valley that president and world traveler Theodore Roosevelt once said is the most beautiful in the world.

Don’t you think we have established that modern man has committed the most astonishing insults to mother earth along the length of the Illinois River? How does it benefit humanity for children to swim and fish in a body of water polluted by industrial toxins, the accrued waste of a metropolis, the radioactive by-products of a nuclear reactor? 

The native peoples who lived for 14,000 years at the Koster site saw their tribal culture abruptly end when my people, the European settlers, used a combination of force, ready access to alcohol, and deceptive treaties to squeeze the natives out, once and forever. A culture stretching back 700 generations was effectively destroyed in a handful of generations - by a culture that somehow considered itself spiritually superior.

In 150 short years the landscape that had been so nurturing for so many thousands of years has been reshaped by the white settlers and their descendants, retaining something of it’s natural beauty, but, under the surface of the land and the water, far too much of the landscape has been crudely poisoned.

The shame is all ours.

Multiply my story by tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, all around this life giving planet, and you begin to understand the scope of betrayal of mother earth and it’s inhabitants by cultural narcissism and a few short sighted scoundrels choosing expediency and wealth ahead of the future of a planet miraculously filled with life.


There is a spot along the Illinois River bluffs, a few miles from my boyhood home, that I visit as often as I can. At an unassuming spot at the base of the bluff, a spring pours from a crevice into a basin of limestone that the early white settlers used for easy access to fresh water, a water source the natives surely used as well.

A short walk from the spring leads to a cleft in the bluff, and a faint trail leads uphill, winding through brush and trees, looping behind the steep face of the promontory, eventually leading to one of the unusual bald hillocks that occasionally rest atop the steepest and highest sections of bluff that parallel the river.

I climb to the top and position myself at the highest point, looking out over the floodplain to the distant bluffs on the other side of the river. Thousands of years ago the river covered that entire distance, stretching more than ten miles wide at some points. On this trip, as is often the case, huge hawks soar on updrafts where the southwest wind that has swept for miles across the flood plain abruptly hits the face of the bluff and bends upward with great force.

The floodplain below me is a checkerboard of fields, forming a striking geometric pattern that here and there is interrupted by meandering tree lines that indicate small streams winding their way from the bluff to the river. Off in the distance, above the ancient cottonwoods that line the channel, I can just make out the top of a towboat pushing it’s tow upriver.

I look out over the river valley and take a moment to perform a brief ritual, taking part in a sacrament that serves as my personal acknowledgment of the beauty and wonder and miracle of this special place, and of life itself. I think of the people that lived here for so very long, who left nothing but footprints, the people who sustained a way of life here for thousands of years by treating the earth as the mother that it is.

I think about what has happened since they were forced from this beautiful land, about what was silently drifting by the island just to the west, where I so innocently embraced the beauty of nature as a child. 

I think to myself, “We can do better.”

“We must do better.”

As people of Faith we must all do better.

What could define Faith more fittingly than a belief that Mother Earth will care for us if we show care in return?

Conversely, what could more fittingly define a breach of Faith than poisoning the air and soil and water that gives us life? 

Our economy, our way of life, our very existence, is utterly dependent on a healthy environment, and the cost to the human race will increase exponentially the longer we ignore this fact. 

As you consider how best to support enlightened stewardship of our life giving environment, let’s not give into cynicism, but rather recall the words of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who wrote: “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.”

Let’s all open our doors and grab a broom.

We are spectacularly blessed to be participants in, and observers of, the miracle of existence. An inexorable truth of existence is that all of creation is irrevocably interconnected, everything affecting everything else. We must be ever diligent, ever on our guard against insults to the natural resources that nurture all of precious life. On the river, indeed in life itself, it’s wise to pay attention to what is going on upstream, because eventually the current will bring it your way.

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