I used to dream about rivers. More specifically, I used to dream that I was floating down a river. Sometimes, the water was a milky blue, sometimes it was clear, sometimes a muddy brown. But the river was always moving, and I along with it.
For a while, I wondered what these dreams might symbolize. Of course, dream interpretation is hardly an exact science. The most obvious interpretation, that I was “going with the flow,” did not ring true, as I am generally not a “going with the flow” type of person. It occurred to me that I always enjoyed floating down my dream river to a greater or lesser degree. In some dreams, when the river and scenery were especially beautiful, I didn’t want the experience to end; in others, even when the river or its banks weren’t especially beautiful, I was still perfectly content to float along. I was never afraid, always at ease in the river.
Finally, I realized that the explanation for these dreams might be simpler and far more literal than any symbolism I might discern. I grew up by a river. In fact, my hometown of Gorinchem, in the Netherlands, lies at the intersection of two rivers, Linge and Boven-Merwede. I grew up in the old town centre, around the corner from that intersection. The water was always there. The river Linge was a narrow stream where it crossed the old town, but the Boven-Merwede was wide, fast-moving, and busy with cargo ships. It was a fluvial highway, and just as dirty as its terrestrial counterpart.
I never floated along in this river and, in the 1970s and 80s, this was for the better, as the river was quite polluted. Moreover, the current around the groynes was treacherous. One of the twin boys who lived across the street had drowned in a vortex after falling in the Merwede, and my mother made sure I knew not to fight the force of a vortex if I ever fell into the river.
Even though the Merwede river was not without danger, rivers were a large part of my sense of home. They were part of my mother’s family, as several of the men had worked as dredgers, and my grandfather had a flat bottom boat for fishing in the Biesbosch river delta. I loved to swim and have been told that some of my earlier experiences of learning to swim were off the side of that flat bottom boat.
It is not part of the culture in which I was raised to describe a landscape when asked where one is from. “I am from Gorinchem,” would be the standard answer when asked where I was from, possibly followed by an approximate distance from the larger cities Rotterdam to the west and Utrecht to the north, if I could tell the person who had asked me the question had no idea where Gorinchem was. Even though the term Rivierenland (“land of the rivers”) is commonly used, for instance for the water management region of which Gorinchem is a part, I would not have answered, “I am from the land of the rivers.”
This struck me powerfully when I heard Dr. Jo-ann Archibald, an Indigenous scholar, introduce herself at a gathering several years ago. I didn’t write down her words verbatim, but it would have been similar to what she has written:
I speak from … the teachings and experiences of the Coast Salish peoples of British Columbia, in particular the Sto:lo of the Lower Fraser River. Sto:lo means “river.” We are strongly connected to the river systems in our traditional territory and to the resources of the river. My Indian name is Q’um Q’um Xiiem, which means “strong clear water.” I am named after a particular place.1
It makes such good sense to name the landscape of one’s youth, one’s family, one’s ancestors that I was baffled I had not been raised with this practice. Whether we are people of the river, the ocean, the mountain, the forest, the prairie, the lake – these landscapes seep into our being and form part of where we are at home. In my case the river is not just a large part of what I was used to seeing, but also of what I was used to hearing and smelling. The low chug-chug-chug of the heavy engines of the cargo ships, the fog horns, the crying of gulls, the sloshing of waves against the stone quay. I did not think of it as pretty, but it was home. To this day, I am suspicious of water that doesn’t move.