WORDS & MUSIC: MAMA CAUGHT FIRE
what do you need from me?
If we ask our rivers what they need from us, how do they respond? This is the question I asked myself while driving to northern Minnesota, crossing many small rivers along the way. When I passed the Grindstone River, this tune came into my mind. I shared it with Abigail and Julia, and we decided to record ourselves singing to the Mississippi River, as it is the major waterway in the Twin Cities and one of the primary rivers in this country. Whenever we perform this tune, however, we sing to the closest river, asking her what she needs.
I grew up hearing about the year the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. But water doesn’t burn. Oil does. In 1969, this industrial river was ignited by sparks from a passing train. The oil-slicked debris on the water caught the spark and flames spread, reaching heights of over five stories. That image always fascinated me as a kid -- the idea of water on fire. The absurdity of the event captured other imaginations as well. Local citizens worked to clean the water, and Congress was inspired to pass the National Environment Policy Act. That was the thirteenth time the Cuyahoga caught on fire.
I spent a lot of time as a child in southern Ohio, where I would play in the creeks and rivers, searching for crawdads and peepers. Since becoming an adult, I’ve learned that many of the nearby rivers were metallic orange and void of life, at the same time that I played in my favorite creeks. Due to the history of mining in this area, acid mine drainage has polluted these waters. When mining exposes sulfide to water and air, sulfuric acid is created. The extraction of resources deep within the ground causes rivers that were once clear-running and fish-filled to fall to a pH of 4 or lower, similar to that of battery acid.
Our rivers are talking to us. They’re sending up bright orange flares. Through thick oil slicks, they’re asking to be water again.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the polluted Onondaga Lake, “...The water has been tricked. It started on its way full of innocence, full of its own purpose. Through no fault of its own it has been corrupted and, instead of being a bearer of life, it must now deliver poison. And yet it cannot stop itself from flowing. It must do what it must do, with the gifts bestowed upon it by the Creator. It is only people who have a choice” (Braiding Sweetgrass).
If we listen, the water will tell us what she needs.
I’ve been looking for some answers
From these long-forgotten trees.
But the water holds the wisdom
Of the changing land beneath.
The water also gives voice to the land around us. She does not leave us alone to interpret the changing world or figure out how to manage climate change by ourselves. Whether it’s a glacial river in the Yukon redirecting its course due to fast-melting glaciers, or our nearby Mississippi setting record high levels and record low levels over the course of just two months, our rivers are reacting to a warmer climate and giving warning signs of a volatile future. As MPR’s Chief Meteorologist, Paul Huttner, says, “Our rivers and lakes are a barometer of climate change.”
When a river flows, her path and direction reflects the environment through which she moves. For example, a slow, meandering river often points to unstable shores, which erode and fill the water with sediment. Deforested riverbanks change the shape of the river’s path. But as surrounding forests are regenerated, tree roots stabilize the soil and the river flows stronger, more fixed in her course. This is the language of rivers. I take solace in the fact that if we can read the rivers, then we can understand the land. To solve climate change, we must acknowledge the wisdom of nature.
Listen as she speaks.
When we perform this song, we teach our audience the first and last lines and invite them to sing along. We sing the last verse in unison, bringing our voices together in one simple melody. To sing these words together feels like a necessary act. We fill the room with a question, “Mississippi River, what do you need from me?” And then we listen.