Human societies have co-evolved not only with rivers, but also with dogs. I’ve been thinking about both this past week. Last Saturday I was in Paris, walking along the quintessentially civilized River Seine, blessed by flocks of tourists, Notre Dame Cathedral, and busy Parisians. A few days after returning home (Santa Fe, New Mexico), our dog Lilly, age 12, passed away. She has been an intimate part of our family, co-evolving with our children, adding playful energy and solace to our lives.
As a domesticated piece of Nature, our dog Lilly also required human attention. We had to take care of her, giver her food (but not too much), take her for regular walks, and provide attention and affection. Our unspoken contract with our domestic animals is one of reciprocity. They help us, and we help them. It’s a “win-win” that probably started with our Homo erectus ancestors more than 100,000 years ago, though recent research on foxes in Russia has shown that the shift from wild to domestic can happen in just a few generations, much faster than we had assumed.
Rivers can also be domesticated very quickly. Some levees to keep the river contained allows cities to build right up to the banks, as in Paris. The domesticated Seine makes Paris what it is. Can you imagine Notre Dame surrounded by land instead of water? The Seine has helped Parisians for many centuries, providing transport (barges), energy (water wheels powered pre-industrial Paris), as well as drinking water, recreation, and of course, inspiration to philosophers, artists, writers, lovers, and as Notre Dame reminds us, to our inner spiritual yearnings.
What is the unspoken contract between people and their domesticated rivers? We need to offer them the same kinds of things my family provided to our dog, Lilly: food, exercise, and affection. A river’s food is water which comes, ultimately, from surface runoff and infiltration. Urban rivers depend on us to get food that is clean and healthy. Both dogs and rivers also need regular exercise. Rivers that are forced to stay inside their embankments while in the city, need to be able to flex their muscles in rural areas through meandering and periodic flooding. Without this exercise they can become lethargic, depressed, and unexpectedly violent, jumping their urban embankments and flooding the city.
And rivers, like dogs, need human affection. They need to feel loved, and are only too happy to reciprocate. Here in New Mexico, the Indigenous Pueblo Indians used to sing to the Rio Grande thanking the river for what we now call “ecosystem services.” I’m guessing (and hoping) that the Indigenous Parisians perform blessings for the Seine, whether through the Catholic church, or as small prayers of gratitude as they walk along the river. [If you have any examples to offer, please post them on the Facebook page of the Water Ethics Network.]
The affection for our rivers, and our dogs, means that we don’t depend on economic cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to take our dog for a walk, or whether to let the river flood into adjacent fields or to keep its meanders. We often force our dogs to stay in the house while we go to work, but we know we need to come home in time to let them outside. Do we have the same balanced approach to damming rivers? A little affection can do wonders for dogs…and rivers!