A River Runs through Us ...
The Healing Lessons of Water
By Jesse Wolf Hardin



“Love this river, stay by it, learn from it... Yes... it seemed to him that whoever understood this river and its secrets, would understand much more, many secrets, all secrets.”
    — Hermann Hesse

Most of the time, along most stretches, the river we live on runs less than calf deep. Even then there are certain spots with up to three feet of water, in the churning holes directly beneath shallow falls, in swift narrow sections between boulders and where a long section of fast, straight river runs hard into the base of solid rock cliffs. Its tumbling song is loudest there, drawing us in to drink, bathe, or simply sit in its grass-padded edges and contemplate.

There’s little I enjoy more than an afternoon spent in its company, with a half dozen students deeply connecting to their own river-like paths of heart and soul. Each wear that same blissful look I’d imagine on the faces of all the maidens, elders and spiritual seekers who gathered at this exact hole in centuries before.

Rivers have always been a place of gathering, and nowhere was that more true than in the largely arid American Southwest. The ancient ones almost always constructed their villages alongside running streams from Southern California to Eastern New Mexico, their ditches channeled some of the water to crops like maize and beans, young folk met secretly in the rushes along the shorelines and made love to the sonata of night birds and murmuring currents.

Today the Frisco River is host to a scattering of ranches, each surrounded by national forest land, and the isolated wildlife refuge, retreat and women’s center where we teach... animated by the same spirit — and nourished by the same waters — as those who so long ago followed its course home.

How interesting, that it is named after St. Francis, this patron river of the Gila Biorgegion’s plants and animals. Its sainthood, if we can speak of it that way, comes not through anointment by ironclad conquerors but by the long process of having begun life blessed, suffered from misunderstanding and repression, tragically martyred and then finally its unique goodness sadly missed. It had to be reborn, and brought back to life first in the mind.

And so it was. For eons the Rio Frisco was the lifeblood of the area’s wild creatures and green-growing beings, and long the spiritual fountain of the native pit-house dwellers that anthropologists call the Mogollon (Mo-go-yone). Then came the suffering and trial, with over a century of overgrazing by immigrant Texas cattle. Elder cottonwoods lost to the occasional flood were no longer being replaced, as the sprouts of alamo and willow alike were gobbled up by hungry cows.

This was followed in time by the idea of a river reborn, and then the opportunity and determination to act on it. Arriving in 1979, we were literally the first protectors in a thousand years, fencing off parts of the river, replanting and restoring its banks until at least one section of the canyon was a thriving riparian forest again.

Willows stabilized the banks, wildflowers attracted pollinators like bees and songbirds from afar. Before long, blue heron alighted to nest, and noisy flocks of ducks chose this part of the river for a rest stop on their lengthy migrations. Beaver have built dams, preparing the area for possible reintroduction of endangered otters.

Close on the heels of this influx of vegetation and critters, came our students and retreat guests, touching their authentic natural selves, awakening to their needs and dreams, and each discovering in their own way the river that runs through them. Once loved and healed itself, the Rio Frisco offered the chance of healing to all those coming open to her gifts.

In the Frisco, as perhaps in all rivers, we witness the rise and fall of dream and fortune and the passage of our gifted mortal lives. We discover ourselves in its reflection, our moods ranging from shallow to deep, alert or asleep. Like the river, we can be full of ourselves, spilling out over our edges, exceeding the capacity of our containers, expanding beyond our imagined limitations as we seek to penetrate and inundate the universe.

At this point it becomes a magical or spiritual thing, as we join in as participants in the ongoing riparian Chautauqua, the riverine revival. Freed of rational constraint and incessant doubt, we partner with crowds of buzzing bees and spinning dragonflies, rapt grass and the attendant trees were all made whole by its touch.

The rivers, in turn, need our tending, not only protection but attention and celebration. It may be that all things natural have an intrinsic sacred value, but through ritual, attention and intent we make them even more so. Investing the rocks with centuries of prayer, nourishing the soil with our promises. Swelling the river with generations of practiced magic and directed love. It’s often a part of the belief systems of those peoples living closest to the land — that the river knows when we’re singing to it, and knows when we’ve stopped. And that it holds in its bowels, the memories of all life’s songs.

Ancient river-informed peoples from the Euphrates to the Rio Grande spoke of something like water, continuous and contiguous, that we’re all a lasting part of: what we call the “anima.” They saw the similarity between the physical/spiritual cycles of life and death, and the water cycle’s endless circling back into itself, the balance-within-change that so personifies nature... sometimes symbolized by a “Round River,” a circular watercourse with each part feeding the other.

Here perhaps is the real meaning of the expression “going with the flow”.... not malleable or easily coerced, indifferent or directionless, but rather, willingly and intentionally choosing to move in the cyclic course of our own true natures, and that of evolving life and purposeful spirit. Students of the river know that we, like it, are forever changing... and yet, in some manner or capacity, that we also stay, that something of us remains. That we, too, are dissolved by an energy like the sun, returning homeward like the rain.

So do we of many cultures and colors speak of the power of the “healing waters.” The sinuous touch of a “holy river” blesses as well as baptizes, the chill embrace of a beckoning lake cleanses the mind of the worrisome wordage that can take us out of our bodies and present time.

Mineral seeps and hot pools are considered therapeutic to bathe in or even drink, and we can benefit from ingesting generous amounts of liver-flushing and flesh-hydrating fluid. But just as important may be the way we are affected by simple proximity to the example, gentle sounds and relaxing negative ions of running water.

A favorite thing to do after a day of typing on this laptop is to walk down the Frisco river, stand in the gently moving current, then falling backwards into its welcoming arms. Falling, in fact, back into balance, and into my sensate self. My mind hushed, the cool flow commands the attention of my entire being, and I find myself enchanted by and drawn into the shifting opal patterns of the river surface. With my hands in the river I can feel the water moving through my fingers. I can neither grasp it nor hold it back, but when opening my hand it becomes instantly full again.

Who can say which to call the origin, the ocean or the cloud? Tears of pain, joy and relief are all lifted from our cheeks as vapor, condense into rain that drops and gathers into streams, feeds anxious rivers that then fill the oceans’ bed to the brim only to be called back to the clouds once again. Molecules of water dance in the lightless subterranean tunnels as well as on the bright mountain winds, participating in a vast and constant migration without ever really leaving the flesh and breath of the earth of which they are a part.

If contained or restrained, they immediately seek to evaporate or leak. If swallowed they’re soon spilt back upon the earth. Thus water — like energy or spirit, like the anima life-force itself — is consumed without diminishment, and changes form without depletion.

With clean water and free-flowing streams in peril from pollutants throughout the world, and with aquifers in the American West often unable to keep up with the water demands of its burgeoning populations, it may be high time we made the protection of watersheds and the conservation of water a priority.

Given the stress and trauma of our modern age, it may now be time for us to focus more on water’s helpful lessons, and the vital inspiration and healing it so graciously and gracefully provides.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed author and teacher of Animá earth-centered practice. He and his partners offer empowering Correspondence Courses as well as host healing retreats, vision quests and internships in their river canyon, an ancient place of power. Events include the Woman Spirit Gathering, June 12-17, and the Shaman’s Path Intensive, July 3-6: Animá Wilderness Retreat Center, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830. www.animacenter.org

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