“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24
The Willamette River flows by my hometown. She flows by, but we’re like strangers. We’re more like acquaintances, like a friend of the family I might wave at and say hello to if I saw her in the grocery store, but not much more. What’s more, she’s a friend of the family with a bad reputation, but she’s working on getting herself cleaned up. “Don’t go near her,” we were warned as kids, “you might come out glowing, or grow a third eye!” I used her as a recreation space every once in a while, always careful not to swallow any water and to not spend too much time immersed in her.
Recently I participated in an experience called the River’s Lament. A group called EcoFaith Recovery put together a reading, told in first person as the voice of the Willamette River. My co-teacher and I took a group of seminary students to a bluff overlooking the Willamette’s Superfund site and industrial park. We attended to the reading, stopping at seven stations overlooking the Willamette, and in between many of the stations we shared pieces of our own story with others in the group.
We heard the voice of the Willamette River, as if she had a voice, telling us about her life before people came.
We heard the voice of the Willamette River, as if she had a voice, telling us about her life before people came. Her perspective on the changes that came with the first people in this area, and her understanding of what industrialization has done to her in the 160 years of Oregon’s statehood. Within the River’s Lament was a section listing all the toxic chemicals found in the water, sediment, and soil in and around the river. This area of the Willamette is a Superfund Site, an area so toxic that the federal government promised to throw huge amounts of money at it to attempt to clean it up. It’s cleaner than it’s been in recent memory, but it’s still not advisable to drink the water. Hearing her voice and her story, her experience as an object of power to be controlled, of a resource to be exploited, to be sullied and then ridiculed for her dirtiness, I recognized in her not a stranger, but my sister. I recognized her voice, calling out to God in righteous query, setting forth her petitions to the God of justice and mercy.
I empathized with the lament of my sister. Have I not been treated this way? Have not all my sisters experienced this corseted attempt at reshaping our bodies? Haven’t we all fallen victim to this desire to smooth our unsightly curves and flow, to straighten our shoulders and mediate our torrent of gushing waters? Have we not been reduced to objects over whom power can be asserted?
And yet, do I have the right to call her my sister? Have I not treated her in just this same way?
That day on the bluff, she lamented to us. She cried out to us in righteous anger and dignified quiet. She queried us, why had we done this to her? Did we achieve what we desired, using her body, taking its nutrients, forcing its shape into our own design? Had we purified ourselves by dumping our waste into her? Was our desire for power sated now that she’d given us her all?
I cried out for her against injustice, I cried out against myself, I confessed to her my anguish about the part I’d played. Though I have not personally dumped chemicals into her or dammed up her waters or moved the course of her flow to match my urban planning needs, neither have I spoken up for her. I have hardly recognized her existence, never speaking up for her, participating in whispered gossip sessions about her shame.
One of the questions in the River’s Lament asked us to tell the story of our family in relationship to water, at least three generations back. My story includes ignorance, misuse, and turning a blind eye to the plight of our area’s water. My maternal great-grandparents moved to the Idaho-Oregon border from the Midwest, the first homesteaders on their land, clearing it of sagebrush and digging irrigation ditches that filled with water controlled by the American Falls Dam. This water flowed from the Snake River, which combines with the Columbia River downstream. Further on, the Willamette then joins the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. In some ways, I’m proud of the hard work and ingenuity of my forebears. They helped create a fertile valley where it had been difficult for people to live before.
In other ways, all I can see is their ignorance and misuse of the rivers. It’s incredibly sad what we’ve done to rivers and the creatures living in them. It’s sad what we’ve done to ourselves in the process. Further, this indictment against my great-grandparents is nothing compared to the blind eye I have turned against the waterways and other aspects of the natural world. My great-grandparents received a very basic education. They knew the land and they worked hard to raise cattle, milk cows, and have enough produce for their families. I, on the other hand, spend a majority of my life with my nose in a book, knowing full well the damage my lifestyle is causing, and doing very little to change my culture’s impact on our natural world.
I lament for Sister Willamette, but mostly, I lament for myself. I grieve about my negative impact on the land that is my home. I grieve that I have not been a better sister. I grieve at the whispered laments I hear as the Willamette rushes on, producing abundance with little thanks in return. I lament for the mess we’ve created through destruction, a mess our children did not cause but will inherit.
I hope that my life contributes to restoring relationship with these places God created and also called “good.”
Those in my parents’ generation heard the lament of Sister Willamette and advocated for her, and through their effort her Superfund site is being restored. I hope that my life contributes to restoring relationship with these places God created and also called “good.” I hope to teach my children to hear this lament, too, to cry it as their own, holding the ache of deeply rooted connection and brokenness. I hope they, too, will answer the call to leave this place a little bit better than we found it, until we all reach restoration and wholeness. I give thanks for the beauty and bounty of Sister Willamette, hoping she will gift me with the grace of her Third Eye, with a wisdom that flows with justice like her mighty water.