Old Man River

French Broad River, North Carolina – M. R. Campbell photo

Science tells us that 2.5% of the Earth’s water is fresh water, that only 1.3% of that fresh water is surface water (as opposed to ground water, glaciers and ice caps), and that .46% of that surface water can be found in rivers. Using the numbers from Igor Shiklomanov’s work in 1993, rivers contain 2,120 cubic kilometers of the Earth’s 1,338,000,000 cubic kilometers of water.

How fascinated we are with this 2,120 cubic kilometers of water. We see its beauty, we feel its impact (especially during droughts and floods), and we find ways around it or over it. The statistics relating to water can be staggering. In the U.S., the Mississippi alone drains 40% of the 48 contiguous states, or 1,243,000 square miles.

As a novelist, I follow a long tradition of using the symbolism of rivers in my work. In my contemporary fantasy Sarabande, rivers symbolize change, movement and journeys. Other authors have used rivers to symbolize time, strength, danger, freedom, spirituality, eternity, transportation, food, renewal and a rather endless list of other meanings.

Malcolm on float trip

Here are a few of my favorite river quotations for your labor day weekend:

  • “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus
  • “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Jorge Luis Borges
  • “A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself—for it is from the soil, both from its depth and from its surface, that a river has its beginning.” — Laura Gilpin
  • “It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.” – -Thornton Wilder
  • “I am an intelligent river which has reflected successively all the banks before which it has flowed by meditating only on the images offered by those changing shores.” — Victor Hugo
  • “A good river is nature’s life work in song.” — Mark Helprin
  • “He who postpones the hour of living is like the rustic who waits for the river to run out before he crosses.” — Horace
  • “Ol’ man river, dat ol’ man river, He must know sumpin’, but don’t say nothin’, He just keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.” — Oscar Hammerstein II
  • “The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass.” — Marjory Stoneman Douglas
  • “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
    I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean


A heroine’s journey for your Kindle

Author: Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of "Sarabande," "The Sun Singer," "At Sea," "Conjure Woman's Cat," "Eulalie and Washerwoman," and "Lena."

7 thoughts on “Old Man River”

  1. I love, “I am haunted by waters,” because recently, I have been. What a lovely post. Thank you, Malcolm.

  2. I have always loved rivers, perhaps for one reason, I’m a fisherman. After spending many years in Arizona where every drop of water is precious, I so happy to live now where I can see the Clark Fork river. Time spent near it is time well spent!

    1. Quite a change from AZ to MT, especially the part of MT where you live. Oddly enough, I never became a river fisherman. Fished mostly in the Gulf off the FL coast growing up, and that’s night and day different from understanding rivers.

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