How to Write Like a River?

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A felled tree obstructs a kayaker's paths downstream.

How to write like a river?

The river rises in the mountains where it is a dainty stream. Small, unassuming, leaking. Some call it gravity, others call it intuition, some a pre-destiny, some a Higher Power, some a knack, some a je ne sais quoi, whatever. Somehow these drips are impelled to coalesce and steer downstream. The drips become a stream, they are joined by other streams at the end of winter when the snow releases them from its cold embrace. The stream travels endlessly down, pulled towards the Earth’s molten core yet the rocky surface prevents this. The river becomes a river. More tributaries join in its marching downhill through time and through space. A chorus of black swans and platypuses and kayakers cheer the river on from the sidelines. Then there is the question of flow. When the river deepens and widens in places, Bernoulli tells us the velocity of the flow is low. But when a log jam blocks its path; when the bed of the river rises up and shallows; when the banks draw inwards and compress that brownish fluid; then the rate of flow grows and grows and grows. The river splashes and races, it gurgles and whooshes. How do you write a history like that? A history that at this moment is loud with vortices and suctions and plashes;
and in the next moment,
once the log jam has been safely navigated,
is slow and contemplative and restive and sated.
Perhaps lazy?

Log jam on the Birrarung/Yarra River being navigated by kayakers

Reflecting on this question, James C. Scott suggested that “everything moves when you widen the temporal lens.” Mountains and valleys that once seemed immovable are suddenly just as fluid and changing as the river passing through. Geographical and historical axioms become arbitrary, and an ontological deconstruction and a re-centring on the river can finally commence in earnest. Hesse wrote that the river is everywhere; I agree. I also write that the river is everything. The Kulin know this, their Birrarung does not empty into Port Phillip Bay – it flows under it. The river is everything. This has to be true. The river is the rain waiting to fall from the clouds in the sky. The river is the water frozen as snow in the high country in the winter. The river is the water flowing from the tap to the glass to the mouth to the oesophagus to the bladder to the urethra to the toilet to the waste treatment plant. The river is the humidity in the air on wet, sticky, days. The river is the sad tears shed at funerals and the happy tears shed at many moments in the life lived up to that point. The river is in the cotton we wear and the fruits we eat and the bricks we lay and the wine we drink and the fossil fuels that keep fucking up the flow. The river is in the good and the bad. The river is in the dam. I’ve not yet met a river that felt at home in the dam. Willem Dafoe says that dams drown rivers. This I believe to be true.
Dammed rivers/Damned rivers turn stale and infertile.
The sediment – the lifeblood – sinks to the bottom in these dams prisons.
Rivers languish in dams.

Nor would it be {bound} by the rules so favoured by “linguists”. Does. a. river. need. a. full. stop.? A full stop is a hard stop, it is a stop, but the river does not stop, we have already seen this, the river slows in places, yes, that is the job of the comma, a wonderful and organic piece of punctuation of which this cumbersome stream of consciousness rambling has made such excessive use, so the river would probably write with commas, but where oh where would the river use a full stop? The billabongs and swamps and seasonal streams that nourish and are nourished by the river, even these do not stop, the river does not even stop in the face of human-centric human design, the river slows, but it does not stop

Birrarung/Yarra River passing through Melbourne

I’m closing in on one thousand words and I’ve not even begun to address the questions of tone or rhetoric or argument or metaphor. What about source analysis? Conceptual framework? Is the river post-structuralist? Does it care for Hayden White’s Metahistory? Would the river deign to write a conclusion? Wouldn’t the river be unendingly (read: unconcludingly) cyclical and evolutionary? Always in a state of becoming; never merely being. If all this is true – and who am I to say whether it is true, anyway? If all this is true, then a river’s monograph would be a mighty thing. It seems to me like it would be too radical for traditional institutions and funding bodies. There is little to be gained by the capitalists and the colonists and the conservatives in writing like a river. That makes it especially compelling.

How to write like a river?

Just like Bob Dylan said, “Beyond here lies nothin.’” There are no answers; only questions.

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Harrison Croft

Harrison Croft is a PhD candidate at Monash University, on unceded Boon Wurrung Country. His thesis is investigating more-than-human histories of Birrarung/Yarra River.

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