Feeling the Rivers in the Sky

Towards a re-wildering of our sensual and physical world

Michaela Vieser

This Essay first appeared in the Rewilding Issue of The Lissome Magazine with illustrations by Mimi Robson.

“A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.[…] This is the grammar of animacy.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

There are rivers in the sky. Fed by the oceans, called by the trees. Serving as particle messengers, fungus spores and terpenes are released from the rooted soils and leafy foliages, sent up into the air to ionize the clouds. Anthropomorphized, the summoning by the trees might translate into: „Come hither, Come hither, you droplets and driblets of water.“ Addressed in nature’s language this works — not like magic and not like an algorithm, but because of the sensual interplay of everything alive.

From the sea to the coast into the lowlands and highlands, the drylands and wetlands, the farmlands and marshlands, these invisible rivers gather and meander. Their current is the speed of the wind, their shores are made up by the endless sky. They are not invisible to all: the golden winged warbler feels the storm coming before any meteorologist will know about its formation, despite the borrowed eyes from satellites watching down from outer space. And even our normal house cat senses the rain hours before it falls. Amongst us humans there are those who can communicate with the weather phenomenon in their own syntax: Rainmakers (a profession found in almost any culture, from the Andes to the Japanese archipelago) know songs and rhythms to entice them. How their melodies reach the clouds remains a mystery to us who listen to tunes made of digits: the music penetrating our brains through ear phones makes us forget the power of sound-waves, subdues basses and beats of their tickling and stimulating qualities, leaving organs and glands out of the loop of the full body experience of music.

The sheer presence and longevity of the rainmaking profession gives it credibility. The ancient Greek writer Plutarch observed the interplay of sound and rain. In his Parallel Biographies he writes: “Extraordinary rainfall often occurs after great battles; it may be that some divine force cleans the polluted air in this way and washes the earth with showers from above.” He is hinting that the sound waves unleashed from the loud war instruments induce rain, but there is more to it: If one was to understand all the micro-mechanisms of animated life and the invisible connections between species and spheres, shouldn’t there be an old/new worldview to tap into? Anthropologists like Sussy Gump of Mass University in Kenya are looking at how indigenous cultures interact with the atmosphere and how incantations of rain can actually or possibly make rain happen. They find that rainmakers seem to be able to read the landscape and the movements within it: “The Nganyi Forest Shrine in the village of Esibila, in western Kenya, may not appear as an important symbol on any geographical map, but the forest, which lies on just one hectare of land, has an untouched biodiversity that helps the community of Bunyore to predict weather conditions for generations to come. The shrines are made of huge and rare native trees that form a canopy and are considered sacred. The small forest areas attract reptiles, birds and insects, whose behaviour is observed to predict the weather ahead. The Nganyi have appropriated their interpretation of this detailed information into a floating ritual art between legend and science.“

While meteorologists read data from thermometers, hygrometres, barometers, ombrometres, parynometres and ceilometres in an ever more fragmented, reductive and digital-centered approach, rainmakers simply read the world around them. It is not for nothing that witches and druids of the old European past lived in the middle of the forest and spoke to animals and trees. Maybe their magic is nothing else but the ability to conjure up the right connections in a world where everything is connected to everything else. Italo Calvino touches upon this principle in the chapter Cities and Sky 1 in his Invisible Cities. He describes a carpet in the city of Eudoxia, which reflects everything that happens in the city: „But if you pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced that each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things contained in the city are included in the design, arranged according to their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving. All of Eudoxia´s confusion, the mules´ braying, the lampblack stains, the fish smell is what is evident in the incomplete perspective you grasp; but the carpet proves that there is a point from which the city shows its true proportions, the geometrical scheme implicit in its every, tiniest detail.

Reading the weather is a bit like writing a perfect story — it is a matter of filtering out from an almost infinite possibility of variation those passages that are essential, those that make up a narrative. Such a view and interpretation of the environment naturally makes it richer. While the scientific revolution of the 17th century led to the creation of a silo culture regarding Nature, indigenous cultures have been perceiving it as a whole and as something we access with our senses. The US American psychologist Edward Tolman put forward the hypothesis that the cognitive maps of people, such as the rainmakers, druids and witches, naturally increase empathy, while narrow cognitive maps, such as those we obtain through codified knowledge, lead to a ‘’dangerous hatred of outsiders’’, ranging from discrimination against minorities to social upheavals. In short, cultures that read the weather using their physical sensations are less prone to xenophobia than cultures that rely on measuring instruments.

There are rivers in the Sky. If one would follow one of them from the Indian Ocean into the Delta of Bengal and further up North, to where the hills first undulate and wallow, then rise and soar, there is a place where the clouds let go with a giant sigh, before they continue with their climb. This particular river has a seasonal name: monsoon, and is called from a sublime voice. When it comes down in Mawsynram, it whips and trickles, splashes, sloshes, showers, sprays, pours, drips and drizzles, drums, streams and steams. And those amidst it, must adopt to such a drench.

The mountains might remember the time in the Carnian Pluvial Event, when it rained for two million years straight and might think nothing of the yearly waterfalls, but for everyone else it is a downpour and an outpour, not frighteningly so, but recurring and hence a situation that needs to be dealt with in daily life.

Some take it light, like the Jacobin cuckoo, a bird living in these hills. It enjoys the rain. Every year it will migrate from Kenya just before the monsoon arrives and drink those river-sky-waters, but never from the brackish ground: it will be sipping raindrops that drip from the leaves, pure and sweet, slightly betel scented and filling, directly into its beak. Chatak they call this bird in the old Sanskrit language and the word also carries another meaning: it is the sound of flower petals opening, if only one were to listen careful enough.

The Khasi people also made this region their habitat, despite the natural challenges. Building any kind of infrastructure in such an environment remains tricky: their houses look like shells, sporting roofs from which the rain just glides from and never has the chance to sulk, their entrances never face to the southwest from where the rains come. But the biggest architectural challenge are their bridges which are life-sustaining in this environment: Normal concrete bridges would simply be flushed away year upon year and the trail to school, to the market, to Auntie´s house, to the secret hiding place or to any other place would be barred and made unusable. Instead they have developed the indigenous lo-tech bridges of which the Khasi are now known for far beyond their hill regions. Made of vines from the rubber fig tree and supported with the woods of the betel tree, they are an aesthetic feast of efficiency in terms of energy input, usability and sustainability. The architect Julia Watson writes about them in her book „Lo-Tek“ in which she collects examples of agricultural and engineering practices by indigenous people who live in extreme conditions: the Totora Reed Floating Islands of the Uros in Peru; the Qanat Underground Aquaducts of the Persians in Iran; or the Milpa Forest Gardens of the Maya in Mexico. Lo-Tek is a term she coined, from TEK meaning traditional ecological knowledge and Lo-Tech — a primitive, unsophisticated technology. What the examples in her book have in common is that they have been in practice for centuries, some of them for millennia, and have been preserved until today because no modern implementation could come up with better solutions. Collected in her book are practices that are sustainable from every perspective; from their embodied energy to their aesthetics to the care system that keeps them alive like a living organism. In a way this is what these technologies have become, an extension of the indigenous people´s body functions. Or as Watson puts it: „Innovations that are arranged to amplify mutually beneficial interactions between multiple species.“

Take the aforementioned vine-bridges of the Khasi: Once latticed together and cared for year after year, these kind of bridges can outlast rains and civilizations. The Khasi have been inhabiting the same hills since the first century BC. To maintain their system of bridges, they incant them in their origin story, where a tree ladder connects heaven and earth. The bridges were taught by the gods and hence the Khasi culture and spirituality must protect them. Care is given to every action concerning the bridges: Law kyntang are sanctified areas and sacred forests along the rivers. Trees growing left and right of rivers must never be felled. The maintenance of bridges is a spiritual caretaking. The jinkieng dieng jri, or the rubber tree bridges, might take a generation to grow and generations after may use them.

There is a distinct aesthetic to the bridges of the Khasi people, a perfection that remains untamed and wild. The hill dwellers have not become slaves to a system: Technology to the Khasi people is not something that strives to always try and error new, to take apart and put together new, but having found something so efficient, that all it takes is a system of care to pass it on from generation to generation. It is based on a socio-ecological worldview in which a story of interdependency will keep trails alive for all generations to come. Care is woven organically into everyday life and evoked through ceremonies, songs, and actions. The big noun „Knowledge” in this context is not something that takes apart, but something that connects. Knowledge is storytelling and keeping those stories alive.

Still other Rivers feed keystone species, that sustain all and everything that leans towards them. Take the yellow cedar, fed by strong rainfalls, clinging on to the hills along the coastal regions, standing still. A sacred resource for the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation on the Western Coast of what is now Canada: With its silver weaving bark and the smooth and slender trunk, it embodies a woman to the the Nuu-chah-nulths. To them, life around connects to life within. Empathy is extended to all living organisms. Or, as Wade Davis, an anthropologist striving to preserve indigenous cultures legacies writes in his book Wayfinders — Why Ancient wisdom matters in the modern world: “The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. And no description of a people can be complete without reference to the character of their homeland, the ecological and geographical matrix in which they have determined to live out their destiny. Just as a landscape defines character, culture springs from a spirit of place.

One needs stories beyond the utilitarian to forge connections to the land.

The bark of the yellow cedar contains water-repellant substances. The Nuu-chah-nulths developed a technique of weaving it and used it to make diapers, capes, dresses, shoes, headbands. When someone died, the body was wrapped in it. In the humid weather, nothing could compare to the light cedar cloth. The cedar bark clothing rubbed lightly on the body, creating a feeling that the Nuu-chah-nulth called „invigorating”. A tingling sensation that reminded one in every moment to the world around. The alternatives of woolen cloth and heavy ship sails they were forced to wear after the arrival of the European settlers were uncomfortable and soaked heavy with water over time.

Finding the right kind of tree was a matter of understanding the landscape.

While the Nuu-chah-nulth had several words in their vocabulary for the different types of cedar trees, it was shamans who went into trance to find the perfect tree whose bark was of the right age and showed the right properties for the use that was to come. When a tree was found in this way, the ancients would guide them, they had names for each stream, coast, hill or rock. Prayers would be said before visiting the tree to thank it for having its bark removed. Local knowledge and body knowledge were woven together in a living narrative that held the wisdom of a nation.

And sometimes the Rivers leave their heavenly riverbed and will dance with the waves. They will tickle the ocean floor and draw patterns into the silky sand, making it hard for the shrimps to perch. When the female Ama pearl divers of Japan delve into the sea and find the bottom slightly turvy and the shrimp paddling around excitedly, they know that a storm is coming and will leave the waters right away, warning the fishermen and everyone around. Centuries ago the Ama were themselves transported by the currents from the southern seas to this archipelago. They found a land filled with everything one could wish for. Trees and mountains, springs and seawaves. Their descendants called it 森羅萬象 Shinrabansho — the all covering forest, within a myriad things. With this compound word they found a name for everything that existed in their world.

There were once rivers in the sky that created a cosmic mandala. In its every detail everything was alive. By connecting with them and letting them run through our bodies and minds humanity survived for millennia.

And now climate change threatens to change everything, forcing us to adapt even as we are forgetting the lessons of those rivers, those patterns, those ways of being. „Dedicated to the next Seven Generations“, writes Julia Watson in „Lo-Tek“. But what kind of habitat will the 7th Generation know? Which technologies will they use to stay alive? Will they have to start at point zero and re-learn to building vine bridges and finding the right cedar tree? Will they have the sensitivity to name birds after the sound of a flower petal opening? Perhaps modern culture will learn to embrace the knowledge that already exists and embody it. Maybe a great listening will take place, a listening to Rivers, to little birds and to old stories that sound new.

Nature Writing. Science. Senses. Sacred. Sound.