“To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”
By Maria Popova
When the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in 1866 after the Greek words for “house” and “study” to denote the study of the relationship between organisms in the house of life, he had no idea just how intricate this relationship would be revealed to be by the science of the following century.
Imagine how astonished he would have been to know that one day we would find salmon in trees and trees in plankton.
Long after Haeckel had returned his borrowed atoms to the ecosystem, scientists discovered that nitrogen-15 — an isotope of nitrogen found almost exclusively in the oceans — is the reason some trees grow thrice as fast as others. This improbable fertilizer ends up in their root systems thanks to salmon, which carry it in their fatty bodies from the Pacific Ocean as they migrate upstream to spawn. Black bears fishing in the rivers ingest the salmon and metabolize the nitrogen, depositing it into the forest, where it seeps into the soil to be taken up by the hungry trees.
But this relationship between ocean and forest is reciprocal, flowing both ways across the conduits of river and tree: In turn, trees shed their leaves into the river, which carries the acids in them to the ocean to feed plankton — the first link in Earth’s food chain, in turn feeding the salmon and all other creatures uplink, including us.
This exquisite interdependence comes alive in artist Meredith Nemirov’s series Rivers Feed the Trees — consummate paintings of aspens atop historic topographic maps of the Colorado river.
Created in the wake of the region’s devastating wildfires, while a global pandemic was illuminating afresh the profound ecological interbeing of our Pale Blue Dot, this conceptual “rewatering” of the landscape is intended as a kind of visual rain dance — a prayerful invocation of water in acrylagouache and cartography.
The artist reflects:
The linear elements and patterns assigned by map makers to the various aspects of the geology of the land are visual elements in the landscape and the form of the tree. The idea of connectivity in nature has been a recurrent theme in my work and is expressed in this particular series and in this quote by Barry Lopez, “To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”
Couple with Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė’s illustrated love letter to rivers, then revisit Olivia Laing’s magnificent meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.