An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers

A painted landscape of fact and feeling along the flow of existence.

An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers

“There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers after she walked the River Ouse from source to sea — the River Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf slipped out of the mystery of life, having once observed that “the past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.”

Rivers are the crucible of human civilization, pulsating with the might and mystery of water, their serpentine paths encoded with the precision of pi, their ceaseless flow encoded in our greatest poems.

“Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river,” Borges wrote in his timeless refutation of time.

But, what exactly is a “river”?

That is what Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė contemplates in What Is a River? (public library) — part prose poem and part encyclopedia, exploring the many things a river is and can be, ecologically and existentially.

The story begins on the banks of a river, with a little girl picking flowers — “every flower has a meaning” — and watching her grandmother sew. What unfolds is framed as the grandmother’s answer to the girl’s question of what a river is:

A river is a thread.
Beautiful patterns are created by it.
It is a bridge between people and places.
It ties stories together.

The narrative weaves in the encyclopedic — geology and history, curious statistics about famous rivers — but fact and feeling remain entwined in the poetic.

The river is the beginning of a journey.

A bubbling spring, a gap in a glacier, a boggy marsh, a silent lake — a river can begin anywhere.

The river can go to many different places, including cities and prairies as well as dense forests and meadows. It also travels through steppes and tundra, mountain peaks and valleys. It is able to travel in both hot and cold temperatures. It can leap from dizzying heights and cascade down like a waterfall. It is a lazy slinker through marshes. It twists and then turns, before it continues its way. It tunnels underground. It creates valleys from mountains and reduces rock to sediment.

As the Nile is home to us, we can imagine how many lives are touched by it in one day as it travels across Africa’s 4,100-mile long meander. Or the Danube through the ten European countries that it crosses (my country, Bulgaria, being just one).

As a river, we see it as home for many animals, such as the hippo, heron, platypus and dragonfly.

The river is a place of meeting, as well as a source of name and country names, sensory terrain, and an emissary for deep time.

Myth and fact converge into a larger reflection on the ceaseless flow of existence, linking the Ancient Greek myth of Oceanus — the great river encircling the Earth, from which the word ocean derives — with the ecological reality of Earth’s immense, interconnected, ancient system of water circulating through the atmosphere and pulsating through the biosphere.

What Is a River, Complementary? with Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor serenade The River, then revisit poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on the mountain as a lens on the meaning of life.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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