“Nature!” shouts Immanuel Kant and the nativists of psychology. “Nurture!” shouts John Locke and the behaviorists. The current consensus is that human development is about 2/5 nurture and 3/5 nature, but the percentages will undoubtedly continue to vacillate with new discoveries just as they have for centuries. Perhaps this psychological “nature versus nurture” model of attribution in human development can also be applied to our perceptions of rivers. Rivers play an integral role in modern culture, and they’ve played an even larger role in the past. They are also necessary to survival; every civilization in the past 10,000 years has been based around a major river. Is our love of rivers more something we are born with and express as part of a human dependence on water, or is it an appreciation learned from culture that changes with the tides?
Ann Woodlief, author of “In River Time,” could make a strong argument that humans’ love of rivers is in our genes. While reflecting by the water, she wonders if “perhaps the fluid life within us welcomes signs of the river’s generous cleansing.” She suggests that our own flesh and blood connects us to flowing water. By focusing on the similarity every human has with the river, she explains how our perception of them is as much biological as cultural. She feels a base connection with the river and its flow, taking every opportunity to describe how human life is just a blip in the long, terrain-shaping life of a river. This relative timelessness helps explain humans’ appreciation of rivers as it factors into religion.
Religion is undeniably a product of nature. Every early society independently developed a religious structure, which means that it can’t have come from the spread of a cultural idea. We worship things that we see as above us. Forces of nature, since they dictated the lives of early humans, were seen this way, and so were worshipped. Rivers, in addition to being forces of nature, were also givers of life through food and clean water, so were even more worshipped. For example, the Powhatan, a tribe that lived below the fall line of the James, worshipped the god known as Okee by throwing tobacco and beads into the river as sacrifices.
On the other hand, different cultures have had vastly different perceptions of the rivers around which they were built. Ranging from apathy and pollution to worship and reverence, these differing cultural views have far too much variety to be explained by a common human reaction ascribed by the “nature”argument of attribution. Rather, views of rivers are learned through nurture. Unsurprisingly, societies with religions and livelihoods focused on coexistence with the earth treated rivers better than those that focused on progress and expansion. When explorers from England reached the east coast of North America, the Thames was already polluted with human waste and carried disease. The rivers of North America, on the other hand, were pristine- an explorer named Edward Wingfield described it as “a River, for breadth, sweetnes of water… so stored with Sturgion and other sweete Fish as no mans fortune hath ever possessed the like.”
A cultural dichotomy exists in America between those who love rivers and those who are apathetic towards them. Guest writers at the HJ Andrews experimental forest fall into the first group, many of them focusing on the shaping and sustaining qualities of rivers. Sanitra felt able to imagine herself in the HJA when she read Robin Kimmerer’s “Listening to Water.” Parr, when reading the same reflection, noticed how Kimmerer described each drop of water as having an important story to tell while traveling and sustaining life. Most Americans, however, don’t notice how rivers shape their lives. Even in Richmond, a self-proclaimed river city, most citizens aren’t aware of the river’s importance and many have never been to the James’ banks. Globalization and specialization have both most likely contributed to a declining appreciation for rivers- as we globalize we have to think less about where products come from, and as we specialize we trade an individual understanding of the system (which includes rivers) for a deeper understanding of just a part of it. Different people in the same culture have vastly different levels of passion for rivers, and different cultures express different amounts of interest in rivers. Both of these factors suggest a cultural influence on perception of rivers.
Just as psychologists on both sides of the nature vs nurture debate acknowledge that both have some influence, we must acknowledge that both have an influence on our perception of rivers. Cultures equally dependent on rivers can have vastly different perceptions of them, suggesting that a universal genetic attitude toward rivers is not present. Cultures where religion (a product of human nature) is focused around rivers tend to have a much greater appreciation of them. Writers like Anna Woodlief and Robin Kimmerer believe humans are linked to rivers through our shared dependence on water. We should utilize the “nurture” aspect of humans’ love for rivers to build cultural appreciation for and awareness of their many benefits to us.