The Undercurrent: A river runs through us

By Kathryn Jones

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Brazos

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Brazos

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about John Graves’ book Goodbye to a River.

The Brazos has been on my mind as the Somervell County Commissioners Court again considered a resolution to extend the John Graves Scenic Riverway to the county — which they approved on Monday — and the Brazos River Authority continues to sort out who should get to buy water from the river. The water fight is on, with landowners, companies, cities and lots and lots of attorneys duking it out.

To give a bit of background, Glen Rose resident Graves, now 92, was born in Fort Worth and went to college at Rice University. But he had spent much of his life in New York and Spain and Mexico and Paris. Goodbye to a River was a homecoming book of sorts. He hadn’t been back in Texas very long when Graves took a canoe trip by himself in the last 1950s with his dog, identified in the book as the “Passenger.”

Graves was most interested in the 150 miles or so of the Brazos from Possum Kingdom Dam in Palo Pinto County to the cedar-covered hills of Glen Rose. He had been hunting, fishing and camping on that stretch of river as a child and decided to visit it again after he heard about plans to convert the Brazos into what he called a “necklace-string of lakes for electrical power, flood control, moisture conservation and water-skiing.”

So he embarked on the goodbye trip, which I understand was mostly underwritten by Sports Illustrated magazine, and was planning to write some magazine articles about the journey. He soon realized he had too much material and started thinking about a book. Thank goodness he did. We are all the richer for it.

Why should we care about rivers? Aren’t they just simple waterways that go from Point A to Point B, just water running downhill and flowing into the sea? But rivers aren’t as simple as squiggly blue lines on a map. A river is a unique, living thing with a personality, even a soul, and it affects everyone around it — certainly everyone who lives along its banks. Its influence runs deep.

That deeper connection was what Graves wanted to explore in Goodbye to a River. One thing he says very clearly, without coming out and stating it, is that a river runs through all of us.

I think of the rivers that have run through of my life. The Nueces in Corpus Christi, where I grew up. I learned to water ski on that river. It once formed the boundary with Mexico. Now there’s the Rio Grande. I’ve crossed that river on foot, in a rowboat, on a rope bridge, on a big international bridge. Several years ago I floated down the river, swollen from snow melt and crashing over rocks, with my husband and two friends in New Mexico.

And now I have in my life the Paluxy. I never tire of seeing that river. I drive over it just about every day. Its riverbed is solid limestone and forms shelves as it flows downstream. And I drive over the Brazos at least once a week on that high metal bridge between Glen Rose and Cleburne and, when it’s warm, my husband and I sometimes go down there and swim.

I’ll bet that you have a special memory of a river. Maybe you went fishing on a river when you were just a kid. Or maybe you crossed the Mississippi for the first time and marveled at how wide it was. Or a river ran through the town where you grew up. Or you spent a pleasant vacation canoeing down a river like the San Marcos or tubing down a river like the Guadalupe in the Hill Country over spring break, or you stuck your toes in a frigid river like the Frio at Garner State Park at summer camp, or you went rafting down the Rio Grande in Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend, or you learned to swim in a river. Surely at some point in your life you went on a picnic by a river.

Whatever your background, wherever you come from, one thing that unites us is that we have rivers in our common experience. They connect not only the dots of towns on a map, but they also connect people. Unlike a lake or an ocean, rivers flow. They connect the past and the present. They course though the cities and the country, through mountains and desert, on their trek to the sea.

Rivers are a metaphor for life itself. The cradle of human civilization is said to be the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East. Think of all the world’s great cities and most of them have a river running through them. London has the Thames. Paris has the Seine. Washington has the Potomac, New York the Hudson, Dallas-Fort Worth has the Trinity – some folks wouldn’t call that a great river, but it’s getting better — Austin the Colorado, San Antonio the San Antonio River, which is the reason the Spanish established their missions there. These cities wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for rivers.

Goodbye to a River is a quiet book. Graves writes in Chapter 4 that canoes are “unobtrusive; they don’t storm the natural world or ride over it, but drift upon it as part of its own silence.” His style produces a kind of lulling, drifting sensation. You need to read it slowly. Graves tells the reader that he’s going to take his time. This is one of my favorite passages from the book, where he says: “Impatience is a city kind of emotion, harmonious with ‘drive’ and acid-chewed, jumping stomachs, and I presume we need it if we are to hold our own on the jousting ground this contemporary world most often is. But it goes poorly on a river.”

I really identify with those words since my move from the city to the country. Because I had impatience. And I had an acid-chewed stomach, and I felt like I was always jousting with traffic or lines or some kind of urban inconvenience. I think I needed to spend more time on a river. Now I do.

And so in Goodbye to a River we’re drawn along for the ride, floating on the current of John Graves’ prose. He shows you the people who lived on the river, the plants, the rocks, the wildlife, the effect the river had on him. He shows why you should care, too. And in that process, he does save the Brazos. He saves it by capturing, in words, what it was like for a moment in time before that moment vanished.

Now it’s our turn to do what we can to help save the river before this moment in time vanishes. One thing we can all do is join Friends of Brazos on Saturday, April 6, for its annual cleanup of debris that gets tossed into the Brazos. Meet at 9 a.m. at Tres Rios Campground; Afterwards the Ranch House restaurant will provide a barbecue lunch. You can get more information at

It’s time to say hello to this river, not goodbye.

Kathryn Jones is editor of the Glen Rose Current.  


3 Responses to The Undercurrent: A river runs through us

  1. Nancy Pricer Reply

    February 9, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I’m on board, so to speak! I did the clean up a few years ago. I just showed up by myself and hopped in a canoe with a stranger and met some great people! I’m on the board of directors for the Brazos River Conservation Coalition and we are very appreciative of the support of Friends of the Brazos.

    • Kathryn Reply

      February 9, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      That’s terrific, Nancy. Wish we had more folks with your spirit. We’ll do our best to get people out for the next clean-up. Thanks so much for your efforts!

  2. Warren Lewis Reply

    January 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I’m in the same canoe with you on this one.

Leave a Reply to Nancy Pricer Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>