Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper on 1/3/97

    I recently was privileged to witness a Jewish ceremonial cleansing in the Eno River. An infant was dipped in the clear, flowing waters of the river as a symbol of conversion and new beginnings for the child in a family where the father was Jewish and the mother was not. I was quite pleased to find the river playing such an important spiritual role in the lives of local citizens.

     Josie McNeil of Chapel Hill recently returned home from her fall training at the Maryknoll Mission Center on the Hudson River.  I suggested that before she left for Venezuela to start her three year term in community development among the poor, she should drop by the Eno River and have a rebaptimal dip.  On December 30th she went all the way under in forty eight degree water!

   This month I also spoke with the pastor of a church located in north Durham known as the Three Rivers Baptist Church. I inquired concerning the origin of the church's name. The pastor replied that the name came from the church's location near the confluence of the Flat, Little and Eno rivers -- and of course there is that special number three in the Christian faith! Now there's a church that has its spirituality tied to the land.

   In late summer, a reoccurring allergy became embedded in my chest and would not go away. I hacked and coughed for months. For an outdoor naturalist-guide, I was a pathetic case to behold as the echo of my coughs reverberated off the bluffs of the Eno. As fall began to cool down the water of the river, and my frequent personal dips in the river became more of a challenge, I realized I had an unusual opportunity ahead of me.

   Instead of abandoning my river swimming for the winter season as I usually do, I thought perhaps I could push through the winter months and adjust to cooler temperatures. I had seen pictures of northerners swimming in ice-lined rivers with snow on the banks. It is humanly possible. A health care worker informed me that studies indicate that bathing in cold water may even be very beneficial. In the past I had noticed the invigorating effect of cold water on my body when swimming in mountain streams. I began to wonder if some cold shock therapy might now dislodge the cough in my chest.

   So in late October and early November, I began a series of frigid dips in the Eno River. I would wade up to my waist, speak to my clogged chest and declare to myself: "As I go under the water, I will release my congestion and when I come up, I will take in the goodness of the all life forces around me.'' I would then completely dunk myself and come up hollering. What great shock treatment! After a half a dozen dips over a two-week period I was free. My chest was clear.

   Having now arrived at New Year's Day, 1997, it is a convenient time for rebaptism. It is an opportunity to let go of the unhealthy things that have clogged our lives and then to invite the wholesome, healing and inspiring elements around us to reenter. If you are not quite up for a full winter dip, try this. Take off your shoes, stand barefoot in the shallow, moving, icy waters of one of our lovely local rivers. Take a deep breath, lift your hands up and let out a wild holler of thanksgiving for life!

   I am reminded how those of the Hindu faith revere the Mother Ganga, that great river that passes through the land of India. One of the most sacred spots is Hardwar, a pilgrimage site at the foot of the Himalayas where the icy river waters issue strong and clear. There, pilgrims eagerly saunter down the long lines of steps to greet the headwaters of the Ganges River and immerse and bathe in its frigid flow.

   Often the sick are relieved of their ailments. When they finally turn homeward, it is with a joyous conviction that many impurities have been cleansed and that the future had been made more secure. One who is fortunate enough to die with his or her feet immersed in the sacred river is said to go immediately to Shiva's heaven of unending delight.

   There is powerful symbolism in a river. Virtually all the faith systems of the world affirm some river or water source as centrally sacred. This is not by chance, superstition or mere religious convention. Clean flowing rivers do contain life sustaining forces that are vital to the physical and spiritual health of both individuals and communities.

   Maybe this is true because our bodies are composed of 70 percent water. Or it may stem from the fact that in the first nine months of our existence inside our mothers, we develop and grow in the medium of water. Or perhaps our affinity with water comes from the daily awareness of our dependency on rain for agriculture to grow our food and to supply us with water to drink.

   It is my hope that in 1997, we as a community will continually rebaptize ourselves in our local streams and rivers. I hope that as responsible people of faith, science, business and art, we will renew our efforts to protect our local water resources from every possible injury and indignation. Do we in North Carolina have the spiritual depth and foresight to show reverence for our rivers as the Hindus do for their Ganges?

   We have finally brought the Eno River to downtown Durham with Emily Weinstein's handsome, 144-foot mural depicting riverine wildlife on the wall of the Penny Furniture building. Can we in Durham and surrounding areas develop a river cult that sees a vital flowing river as the most important thoroughfare of our community in the midst of commercial growth and expansion? Or will our Triangle area become simply a soulless megalopolis paved in asphalt?

   The Hindu Puranas, or ancient stories, have regarded the Ganges River as holy from its source in the Himalayas to its mouth at the Bay of Bengal. Every bend and every tributary has been glorified with stories of wonderful epiphanies and encounters with the divine. In 1997, will we continue to rally to our Eno River, from its headwaters above Occoneechi Mountain to its entry into the Neuse River on down to the Pamlico Sound? Are we ready to seek some of our own spiritual identity in our locally flowing waters? Or does light only shine from the East?

  Photo by Riverdave: Josie McNeil prepares for mission work in Venezuela in the Eno's 48 degree water