No one ever wrote a song about her—but that doesn’t really matter, I suppose. I don’t know how these things are decided but for some reason my family was blessed to find her, and make our lives beside her at a time when our country was new and full of possibilities; I always took for granted that she was there and it took a long time for me to see just what she meant to me, and to understand her role in the lives of those folks that are responsible for my being here.
As rivers go she is really not impressive, not in the sense of the mighty Mississippi or Missouri, or the violently beautiful Colorado or Columbia—but she does have what all great rivers had when they were wild and free—a message of time and life we seem to have forgotten in running down our busy existence. Maybe utility was not the only reason the first people stayed near these rivers—they tell us in a language that we must work at to learn that what is here now is passing by and will soon be gone around the bend, but the new water coming down is the promise of tomorrow. Maybe it was that promise of tomorrow why in this case, in spite of her antiquity, someone named her “New”.
Long before human eyes ever fell on her she worked at building our world. She filled oceans and turned rocks into forests and mighty mountains into tiny grains of sand on far-away beaches. She birthed fishes we will never see and quenched the thirst of animals and birds both long forgotten and never known. A million forms of life sprang from her nurseries as she carved her path in a slow, relentless walk across the land.
The first people that found her did so out of necessity and curiosity; to move through the trackless wilderness and to see what lay beyond the next bend, a true example of the unchanging human condition—the desire to find new and better places to raise families and exploit new resources. She washed their babies and fed them from her bounty and when the time came, she carried away their ashes and their tears.
A river is a living thing and it can be killed, just as any other living thing can; I understand now how and why we humans have used the blessings of God placed here for us, and I am grateful for our progress as a species, but it has always bothered me that we can be so disrespectful of what we do not take the time to understand. I am grateful that the New escaped the fate of the Little Tennessee and so many other lost rivers and every time I come to her shores I say a little prayer of thanks for her blessings.
I am tied to this New River, just as my people before me were so tied to her—she was a part of me before I knew she existed, just as my ancestors were. All the days of my life I have carried her with me, and someday I hope my last act as an earthly spirit will be to cross her to join my people. I find great comfort in that thought.
I wonder if she will remember me.