Headwaters The Journey Begins

[The Ohio River Speaks] Headwaters: The Journey Begins

Originally named Ohi:yo’—“beautiful river”—by the Seneca, the Ohio River is now the United States’ most polluted river. The dominant culture teaches us to view natural beings like the Ohio River as objects to be used, consumed, and destroyed for human benefit.

This is a primary reason the destruction of the natural world is intensifying. How would our relationship to the natural world change if, instead of viewing nonhumans as objects, we viewed them as living beings capable of speaking to us? As allies who desire to communicate valuable lessons to us?


Where Does a River Begin?

By Will Falk / The Ohio River Speaks

This journey – like the Ohio River – has many beginnings. A river’s physical beginnings are often called headwaters. Water wells up from the ground or falls from the sky. Then, aided by gravity, water navigates the specific peculiarities of the land to collect and form the first wet trails distinct enough to earn names such as creek, brook, or stream. These creeks, brooks, and streams tirelessly search for each other, perpetually seek communion with their kin. And, when enough of them join together, they become rivers.

 Where should we say a river begins? Which of those first passages of water in the round Pennsylvania hills or the thickly-wooded West Virginia mountains, which of those first liquid motions over white Indiana limestone or black Kentucky coal can we name as the beginning of the Ohio River?

Many mapmakers seem determined to pinpoint precise headwaters for the world’s rivers. This is strange because the idea that a river has only one starting point is belied by the very maps declaring this to be true. Google Maps has grown to be one of the most widely used maps in the world today. When I look at Google’s map of the Ohio River basin, I am told that the Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh, PA.

Tracing the River’s Veins

But, if I follow the thin ribbons of blue twisting and curling across the map to their disappearance on the page, I am taken to dozens of different places. I trace the thin blue line representing the Allegheny River to the hills of Potter County in northern Pennsylvania. I trace the line representing the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh and the line quickly splits in two. The map continues to label the western line “Monongahela,” but the eastern line is labeled “Youghiogheny River.”

I follow the eastern line up into the mountains near Aurora, West Virginia where it disappears. I go back to the line representing the Monongahela but it splits in two once more at Point Marion, Pennsylvania. The western line once again remains “Monongahela” and the eastern line reads “Cheat River.” Following the eastern line south, the Cheat River splits in two, one “Shavers Fork” and another “Black Fork.” The “Black Fork” line is joined by a line labeled “Blackwater River” which then splits into three lines named the “Dry,” “Glady,” and “Laurel” forks. These three lines then disappear in the hills of West Virginia near the Virginia state line.

Tracing each of the Ohio’s tributaries’ tributaries’ tributaries would take a long time. At the very least, we should understand that arbitrarily locating the headwaters of the Ohio River at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh is inaccurate, at best, and downright dishonest, at worst. So, why are geographers, topographers, and cartographers so determined to name a river’s headwaters? Is this a peculiar side effect accompanying the choice to don the suffix “-ographer.” Or, more likely, is it a symptom of the colonial impulse to control, to define, to destroy ambiguity, to produce one true answer as there is one true ideology, one true religion, one true God.

Stories Are Rivers and Rivers, Stories.

The Ohio River is not so much concerned with either accuracy or honesty as she is concerned with creativity –the land she shapes, the communities she forms, the songs she sings, and the lives she makes possible. Metaphor is a creative channel. It is a way of knowing far older than science or philosophy. I suspect that metaphor is a way of knowing far older even than logic. The Ohio River beckons me to swim in the channels of metaphor.

Stories, of course, are rivers and rivers, stories. The story of my journey with the Ohio River has many headwaters. These headwaters will flow into streams of written consciousness, lyrical vignettes, and fluid reflections. Like water, they will seek their kin who share thematic similarities and topical currents. The strongest writing, achieving a certain depth, will collect in pools as essays and chapters. One day, I hope, these stories may join together to form a book worthy of the Ohio River.

As I begin this journey, I feel the headwaters of many stories gathering within me. They well up from my lifelong love affair with oceans, lakes, rivers, and marshes; with fish, turtles, toads, and tortoises; with ripples, tides, waves, and the way crescent moons are best seen from a still pond face; with the infinite voices water sings with; with all water creates and all the lives water facilitates.

Blood and Water

My experiences as a practicing rights of Nature attorney and my work to stir bravery in the souls of those who love Nature begin gathering as another headwaters. I feel the waters in my body boiling for the respect they deserve. My heartbeat pounds, insisting on the sacredness of the water in the blood my heart works so consistently to move. My organs agitate against the poisons they must filter out of my daily drinking water.

I find the trickle of yet more stories in my family history. I recall how, in Evansville, IN on the banks of the Ohio River, my grandmother was prevented from being a Poor Clare nun. And how, if this didn’t happen, I would never have been born some 30-odd years later in Evansville not far from the Poor Clare convent. I hear the metaphors growing in clarity. The other sisters feared my granny was too talkative to take a vow of silence. Fortunately, my granny’s signature chattiness, her need to gossip and share stories, are properly understood as a beginning of my life’s story.

Current events are natural springs of stories. As much as I wish I could bury some of those springs, plug the wells, I can’t. I can’t ignore the images of black people being murdered in the streets for having the simple audacity to walk those streets. I can’t deny the scenes of indigenous people being teargassed on their own land for having the simple audacity to protect water. I can’t forget the reality that the natural world is being polluted, clear cut, dammed, consumed, and driven to extinction for having the simple audacity to exist. Thunder clouds and lightning appear on my inner horizon. These are the dark stories. The stories of mental illness, psychiatric hospitals, and court-ordered involuntary commitments. I need the rain, but I fear the acid that may fall with the guilt and shame. I fear the floods. I fear where those floods may carry me.

Rivers and Stories: More than One Beginning

Just like the Ohio River, it would take far too long to trace these stories’ tributaries’ tributaries’ tributaries. It is enough to say this:

No river has only one beginning. No story has only one beginning, either. But, writing is linear and sooner or later, but before the story is heard by a listener or read by a reader, the story teller must locate all of the story’s headwaters and direct her audience’s attention to one beginning. I will need some time to decide where that will be.

Give me a few days, and I’ll be back with my decision.


Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem and a practicing rights of Nature attorney. Rights of Nature advocates work to transform the legal system so that it recognizes the “personhood” of natural beings. For the rest of 2020, Falk will travel through the Ohio River Basin asking the Ohio River the two questions he asks any client who steps into his office: “Who are you?” And, “What do you need?”

Featured image: Not far from the Ohio River’s true headwaters in Potter County, PA. Photo by Melissa Troutman.

3 thoughts on “[The Ohio River Speaks] Headwaters: The Journey Begins”

  1. If naming rivers is part of “the colonial impulse to control,” how do we explain the fact that indigenous peoples do it, too — like the Seneca naming the Ohio?

    And rivers do speak to us, if we only bother to listen. One of the more meaningful experiences of my life was drinking from a spring near the summit of Mt. Dana, at the eastern edge of Yosemite, and realizing that it was one of the places where the Tuolumne River springs forth from the Earth (and, sadly, is just a few miles from where the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was dammed — the particular rape some have blamed for the death of John Muir, who described the now underwater Hetch Hetchy Valley as the most beautiful feature of the Park).

    Another of my most meaningful experiences was driving into the Hoopa Valley Reservation, near Eureka, and seeing the confluence of the Trinity and Shasta Rivers, at the native village of Weitchpec, which is as beautiful a sight as I have seen anywhere.

    The Hoopa Valley Reservation is perhaps the most glaring exception to the tendency for Native reserves only to encompass lands the settler culture didn’t want. On a map, the Hoopa Valley Reservation looks like a tiny state within California, because it includes a panhandle that goes all the way to the sea. From Weitchpec to the Pacific Ocean, both banks of the river are Native land.

  2. Mark, I was specifically referring to the need to name one specific headwaters for a river. I was making my point in the context of mapmaking. Creating maps of “discovered” lands is one of the first things colonizers do. I should have worded that more precisely.

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