What does the River Want To Be?

Dr. Gail Thomas

Plato, the Greek philosopher, told us in the 5th century BC that before any important activity is begun, an image must be implanted firmly in the eye, so that everything one sees, is seen through this image.

I see this as being our problem. WE HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH THE WRONG IMAGE! The great spirited people of Dallas have been worrying over the Trinity River for almost one hundred years, and we still do not have a living relationship with it. The people of San Antonio began working on their river in 1904.

Instead of cutting their river off from downtown, they built a bypass for flood waters, and allowed the river to continue to meander through their downtown. And look what they have today – the most visited tourist attraction in the state — a 2-mile River Walk, the economic engine of the city.

We have been operating almost an entire century with an image of a foul and dirty river. Ever since the 1908 flood, we have been determined to tame the river! Now, we can look back and see that in our attempt to control the river by straightening it and containing it within levees, we have robbed it of its mystery and therefore, of its power. After 65 years of river control, it has lost much of its enchantment.

Perhaps what our river wants to be is a river that gives us joy! We have spent almost a hundred years trying to USE the Trinity River for commerce and for profit. All of these schemes have failed. Because they have failed, we have turned our backson the river and dumped our trash into it.

We have spent the last hundred years building a remarkable infrastructure for our city. We have airports and roadways and commercial centers. But, all of us in this room know what we don’t have. And we all yearn for it. We don’t have “NATURE” in our city. We have covered our grasses with concrete and enclosed our streams into culverts. We have straightened our river and enclosed it within levees, and even last year, we cut down 2 miles of 60 year old trees along our “straightened” river, just ½ a mile from Downtown Dallas, in the name of more control.

Let us ask ourselves this question. What do our children and grandchildren need growing up in our city?

Yesterday, on the river, I watched turtles lazily sunning on tree branches; I spotted beavers scurrying into their hutches and followed blueherons, flocks of geese and ducks, down the entire 8 miles stretch of the Trinity River, just ½ mile from the center of our city. I began to imagine what Dallas could be 50 years from now if next year we saw to it that every boy scout, girl scout, campfire, Indian Princess, BlueBird troop in Dallas, went down the Trinity River in canoes. You just can’t have this experience without imagining a different city!

How do we know what it is that generates the infamous “Dallas Spirit”? How do we know what forces are at work drawing people to this region?

I would like to imagine that the forces of the original river are still present in our city -the Great Trinity, the river that inspired Alonzo de Leon to call it “The river of the Holy Trinity”. It must have been a mighty force for de Leon to name the river after his God — the Holy father, the Holy Son and the Holy Spirit, all in one being. To de Leon the river, WAS a great brown god, as the poet T.S. Eltiot says.

Straightening takes the spirit out. It controls Somehow we need to allow the river to be, once again, a river. To bring its force and power back into our city. What does this mean? Perhaps images come to you immediately. Does it mean uncovering the original river, restoring the meanders? Allowing the river once more to have a presence in our city?

Dallas is a city of mythic proportion. We have a great imagination. Let us imagine the power of a great river.

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