Standing at the River

Text by Ana Simeon

Photo by Don Hoffmann

The Peace River valley, a place I love, is being stripped and excavated to build a hydroelectric dam. This is happening in the far north-east of British Columbia, a ferry ride and two days’ drive from my home on Vancouver Island. Ever since construction permits were confirmed by the new B.C. government in 2017 I’ve noticed how I shy away from even thinking about the Peace. I have to steel myself to read the news. Two of my friends up there have so far narrowly avoided being evicted to make way for a highway realignment, and another friend, an Indigenous woman, still has a potential lawsuit hanging over her because of her participation in a blockade near the would-be dam site. Whenever I speak to them it’s like a deep dive to a painful place, an underwater rock. My daily life bubbles and froths like rapids around this submerged rock; sunlight sparkles off the surface of the water and this is enough for each day. But every now and then I am compelled to dive down to the rock. I must remember and fully feel the love and grief.

Grieving the Peace

Last July the West Moberly First Nation invited all who feel connected to this place to attend a Feast for Grieving the Peace. They made it clear that the grieving wasn’t about the dam itself: that was still being resolutely fought against in court. Rather, the grief was about what was currently happening to the river in preparation for the flooding of the valley. The deliberate cutting of huge cottonwoods bearing great eagle nests all along the banks. The stripping and dumping of uniquely fertile topsoil that could have fed the whole region. The exclusion of First Nations people from places that had provided food, medicine and spiritual comfort since time out of mind. The razing of river islands where beavers built their lodges, and deer and elk sheltered to give birth. The expropriation and eviction of farm families.

About halfway between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John, the Peace makes a wide bend around Bear Flats. Before expropriation, Bear Flats was owned by my friends Ken and Arlene who leased the upper field to a market gardener, and grew hay and oats in the lower field. In years past, my husband Tom and I used to camp there. There is an old beaver lodge at the confluence where a small creek joins the river. It’s a special place for bears too, because the wide, shallow flats make it an easy swim across (for a bear). We loved sitting there of an evening to watch the sky and listen to the river. Often a beaver would come out to potter around the creek confluence. Just being there, one feels closely held at the great river’s heart; and at the same time stretched to the utmost distance, part of the whole sweep of the valley from west to east, as far as the eye can see.

Giving Back to the River

After the Feast, a number of us gathered at Bear Flats to participate in a ceremony called the Global Earth Exchange which is about giving gifts of beauty to a wounded place. When Tom and I arrived, Bess, the market gardener, was already there with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. The little girl was being very solemn about picking just the right flowers to give to the river. I noticed the mother’s gaze as she followed the child’s movements. It was as if her face, her eyes, the lines of her hips and bosom all folded into a big body-smile for the little girl. Somebody brought a basketful of wooden toy boats left over from a boat race (a community fundraiser) for us to decorate and offer to the river. People fanned out to collect rocks and driftwood, and pick wildflowers and beautiful wild grasses with waving tassels.

We stood in a circle at the riverbank. I felt shy. I didn’t know any of the others, except Tom, and it didn’t feel like a cohesive group. I was supposed to say a few words to get us started but I doubted my ability to inspire and guide people to a place of depth and meaning, the way the Indigenous elder had done the year before. As if “I” or anyone could “make it happen”! But as more people joined the circle with beautiful and unusual bouquets and artwork, I let go. I had expected to feel grief and sadness but I didn’t. I felt joyful and happy to be in the presence of the river again. The sheer mass and power of the flowing water echoed through my whole body. I felt awe. No human force could stop this river’s forward movement – in 200 years’ time all three dams would be gone and the Peace would still flow on. A constriction in my chest eased and I felt comforted. When I looked around the circle, I saw joy and gratitude mirrored on many faces around me.

A couple of people wadded a few steps into the water, tentatively, as the bottom was slick clay and it would be easy to slip. The little girl released her boat, but it kept swirling around in the shallows instead of floating off with the current. An older guy challenged the little girl’s dad to jump in the water. Whooping and hollering, they both did, and swam out to release all the boats into the main current. We looked on as the flower-decked flotilla floated quietly downriver.

That Special Light

A thick bank of clouds had been building upstream from us. Sifted sunlight streamed down onto the water in a “cathedral window” effect. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, again and again. We were getting ready to disband when 20 more people showed up. We formed a bigger circle and were just doing the introductions when the skies opened: such a downpour! We ran to the cars, laughing.

Later that evening, sitting outside our cabin on a promontory on Ken and Arlene’s property, Tom and I gazed at the river aglow in the last rays of sunlight, the whole vast landscape subtly illuminated in that special light of a northern evening. Peace enveloped me, and I sat for a long time with gratitude to and for the river’s great presence and power.

29th of December, 2019

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6 thoughts on “Standing at the River”

  1. Hi Ana,
    Thanks for this lovely story about how we can connect to the things we love, and we fear may slip away. Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes a person or even a way of life. We can fight to save them, and we need something else–something that connects us to the essence of what we love. That you and a group of like-minded people recognized this need and were present to all that was there with great love shows us that even if the loss may be inevitable, we can find strength in our love.

  2. Dear Ana

    I am not sure my comments were sent. They came from the heart, which may not be able to be repeated. It was a moment of appreciation what was awakened from what you wrote about being present in that moment, that sense of being with, being in, being part of a community who are embodied in this natural place of peace. You have given voice to that sense of how it is for them and hence for you, a voice that we do not hear.

    We hear about people in this community and talk about their experience but not how it actually is for them, their own experience as part of their own living of this place as part of a whole community of being almost like the voice of nature itself speaking as though it has words to celebrate itself.
    Thank you, Kevin

  3. Dear Ana, (Diana and Kevin)
    I felt very touched by what you write and I ask permission to translate it in Italian for my WBF students ( I’ll come to Vancouver Island Retreat with 2 of them) who don’t read English .It The Translation will be for private use only .
    I send you all my Best Wishes for 2020. Bruna

  4. Dear Ana,
    My breath is rising and falling in a kind of flowing cadence that is mine and also from your words and the flowing River of which you speak. Loving and appreciating your generosity in writing all this from your experience. In spite of or in contrast to or along with the Losses, Something about the certainty that the dams will indeed be gone in two hundred years and the river will take care of that feels so true, right and Dependable! I celebrate your loving celebration. The rise and fall of my breath meets you in your story of the Peace. Thank you, Laura

  5. Thank you Bruna, of course you’re welcome to share the Italian translation with your students. I’m looking forward to meeting you at the retreat in 2020!

  6. Thank you Ana for giving me a long view of the destruction to our Earth that we are seeing everywhere. I am so aware of the underlying feeling of grief in my body, not just for the loss through death of loved ones but the loss of Earth and community as well as respect for others – the list is long. But what you brought to me in contrast was the joy of community – the laughter as you all ran back to your cars, the mother love for the little girl, the camaraderie as the two men jumped in the river together. So much joy!! and then the long view – two hundred years from now the dams will be gone but the river will rush on.

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