“What is this nonsense about water under a bridge? I keep thinking about that – like I’m just supposed to let everything go… after all, the bridge/river metaphor is so strongly present in all my stories. What does it mean? What do rivers have to say about bridges? What do rivers have to say about liminal space?”
Beloved Taescach wrote that a year ago. A lot was happening in her life; even more has happened since. I asked perhaps the most bridged river ever, the Mississippi, to respond:
Bridges do look different from the bottom up. And yet this is the first time I’ve heard of a person asking one of us streams for our view of them. You clearly have an artist’s curiosity about how to see things.
Your easy insertion of the word “nonsense” shows you have discernment as well.
The idea that difficult bygones are like water under the bridge may be accurate — but not for the reasons people think. It’s because the water under most bridges is having a problem AND creating problems. And it’s the bridge’s fault.
“Bridge” seems to have constructive (yes, we rivers often gush puns) connotations for many humans. To them it symbolizes a way to get over some obstacle on the way to where they want to go. Or a way to link two sides of a gap.
It assumes there IS a gap.
And when someone builds a bridge over me, they are saying I am that gap — an obstacle. I’m in the way. It’s saying “we’re going to go right over you to get past you.” They don’t want to go through me or in me or even on a boat across me. No interaction. They don’t want to get wet.
I like how you open the possibility that I am less like a problem and more like the middle, ambiguous, disorienting part of a rite of passage — a threshold between old and new ways of structuring identity. As you have no doubt experienced, the quintessential trait of the liminal is its fluid and shifting nature. In that way nothing could be more liminal than us rivers. And whenever/wherever people try to fix a threshold in space — to harden it — they often create trouble. “Permanent liminality” can mean endless acts of separation, meaningless ceremony, or violent alienation.
Trying to harden any part of us rivers is a very delicate situation.
In some ways, the concept of a bridge could be fine with me. If a LOT of folks were coming and going right through me, all that traffic would muddy my waters or wear down my edges. Unfortunately bridges are usually just way too narrow and/or too low, and then:
- The reduced cross-sectional area means even my crucial, annual “bankfull flow” can’t fit through there unless it speeds up. The higher velocities generate unnatural power for my current setting, and I have no choice but to do something with that power. I down-cut right into my own bed — my foundation — and banks.
- While my waters wait their turns to fit through the small opening, they back up. There’s a “backwater” effect where I eddy and scour the shore AND dig a sort of abnormal reservoir — a place that starts gathering sludgy gunk.
- As I shoot out from under the bridge — back into a free-er state — the transition means a lot more turbulence and more erosion of the stream banks.
- The situation’s even crazier when the bridges have vertical piers right in my channel. Getting through the whole ordeal is usually a definite rite of passage for me — a wounding one. In extreme cases, my erosion actually makes the bridge fail.
Obstacles and even liminality turn out to be a matter of perspective.
So — whether you are a river or a human or both — if you find a fixed threshold eroding parts of your life or getting you stuck somewhere, then I have two ideas for how to deal with said bridge:
1. Burn it. And don’t forget to take out any pilings or head walls built down in the channel. Just let wading through, boating over, or swimming in this fluid gap be an integral part of life. Alternately:
2. Make the bridge very high and wide. It’ll be more archingly beautiful and exciting for people AND leave room for all kinds of riverine transitions.
You have my thanks — more than you know — for asking.
~ The Mississippi