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Ode to the McKenzie River

Question: Which river quenches the thirst of approximately 200,000 people?

What is the sole water source for Eugene? 

I didn’t know the answer either, and I actually live on the McKenzie. Like you, I know now: the McKenzie River. 

There is another question you are no doubt now asking: So if you live on the McKenzie, do you fly fish?

 No, I don’t. I know, it’s hard to fathom, and I’ve endured the puzzled disdain of many a fly fisherman, particularly those who have yet to master the upstream mend. I’ve been asked many, many times: “How do you live on the McKenzie and not fly fish?” I should have a witty retort, but I don’t. I’m still working on it.

I’m also working on learning more about this incredible river, although I’ve been quietly resistant to reaching after the facts about the McKenzie. It’s as if I’ve secretly harbored the idea that learning more technical stuff about this river would actually diminish its beauty. 

Clearly, I’ve not fully abandoned my Keatsian English undergraduate roots when it comes to nature. John Keats, the English Romantic poet well known for “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” insisted that we accept the uncertainty, mystery and doubt about the natural world “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He had a point, one that I unwittingly embraced without fully acknowledging it. 

But Keats would no doubt change his mind if he knew that the “truth beauty” of the McKenzie was threatened. No doubt, he would insist on an “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He might even turn to real science for his facts and reason. 

The bold truth is that the boundless beauty of the McKenzie River is not a given, or as poets and philosophers like to say, immutable — far from it. 

As trite as it sounds, rivers like the McKenzie are indeed “… the veins and arteries of our communities. They give us clean drinking water and are the lifeblood of the ecosystem that sustain us all,” as Amy Kober of American Rivers writes in Water Currents on April 7, 2015. 

Don’t misunderstand my concern. The McKenzie is not on the list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2017, at least not yet — not like the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, which suffers from a battery of threats including a proposed industrial-scale construction project and radioactive pollution from uranium mining, or the Smith River in Montana, cherished for its floating and fishing but threatened by a proposed copper mine at its headwaters, or our own Columbia River and its outdated dam operations threatening  the healthy runs of salmon.

The McKenzie is not immediately threatened. Your drinking water is safe, for now. In fact, the McKenzie River is one of the cleanest and healthiest rivers in the nation, asserts the McKenzie River Trust (MRT). 

But it wouldn’t take much to change this course of events, because much of the McKenzie, according to the MRT, “runs through privately owned land, leaving it vulnerable to development of a kind that could forever alter its pristine character.” 

A month after I moved to the McKenzie almost a decade ago, I was consumed by it, which provoked my inner Keats to offer this ode to it:

I now live on the river,

where the McKenzie widens and

moves judiciously 

and today threateningly, 

a few quiet steps

from my door.

I arrived here late in life,

but each day, 

the McKenzie cleanses 

the cold worry from my hands.

I now know, I will die here.

A week ago, it snowed on the river,

wet flakes the size of taro leaves

fell magically and relentlessly.

I watched the snow and

understood its purpose 

as it fell on Ray’s rock 

with the quiet nod of a promise.

Whether you live on the McKenzie — a 90-mile tributary of the Willamette River — drink its clear and clean water, angle its fish, float and bounce on its strong currents or simply enjoy it from a distance, you intuitively understand that it represents a singular promise — one that an 18th-century Romantic poet fully understood about such natural forces: Beauty is truth, truth beauty. What more do we need to know about a river?