Dancing with the River
By Mark DuBois
This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s
book Consciousness In Action: the Power of Beauty,
Love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press,
Introduction by Andrew Beath
Mark DuBois founded International Rivers Network to preserve
and restore rivers. He has taken an important role in directing
the international program of Earth Day, dating back to its inception,
and has developed an environmentalism-from-the-heart philosophy,
which he presents in workshops and speaking engagements. His efforts
provide valuable modeling of conscious activism.
He is an ambassador for nature’s beauty and magic. Given
the size of the human population, it’s not possible for
everyone to make that direct connection. His love for wilderness
and skill in its communication helps us all to know more about
the things he’s learned. In our current precarious state,
these bridges are important.
His experiences on the river opened his life, not only to nature’s
integrity, but also to people. Learning how to avoid breaking
oars in the rapids taught him how to go with the flow, both in
the river and in advocating for change with those who would destroy
what he loves. Dancing with the river is a dance of life. It taught
Mark that each of us is imbued with magic, if only we stop long
enough to accept Earth’s invitation to join the party.
Mark risked his life to protect a wild canyon from being flooded
in conjunction with the damming of the Stanislaus River in northern
California. During our conversations I asked him to talk about
that experience and about his ensuing commitment to “Heart
Politics.” We started by discussing how he developed his
connection to the river canyon and its untamed creatures. He told
"Car camping with my family in Napa, Tahoe and Trinity County
is where I first touched the beauty of nature. I visited many
places but I kept returning to the Stanislaus River Canyon. My
personal transformation began at sixteen initially exploring the
caves. Then, while rafting the whitewater of the Stanislaus, a
deep love affair with place began. On my very first trip, while
standing on the cliff above the cave we’d just exited, a
fellow spelunker said, “They’re damming the river
and that will soon be a reservoir.” I remember thinking,
“Oh, that’s too bad; it looks really beautiful.”
But I’d visited many dam sites and thought they were just
part of progress.
I worked a couple years as a commercial river guide. Later, a
friend had the idea of bringing inner-city kids out to the river.
So we started leading environmental education/Outward Bound-types
of trips for young people. And slowly I learned about the politics
of the dam.
I also began to discover the magic of Earth, the magic of life.
Eventually, I completely fell in love with all the magical life
in the river valley that had learned how to live with the desert-like
drought for six months a year--it’s cycles, its seasons,
its wildflowers and its critters, all of those. It was the whole
beauty and diversity of the place. My love affair started with
the caves, which had evolved over tens of thousands of years –
often with stunningly beautiful, fragile formations. The Native
American sites where people had lived in harmony with this land
also fascinated me. Sometimes I came across dilapidated gold-rush
shacks that used newspapers for wallpaper and insulation, and
had rusted tools scattered around them.
I wanted to understand it all. How did the canyon get formed?
What kinds of rocks composed it, and how did they come into being?
I found mining rock wall mazes that looked like they must have
taken a century to build, and I wanted to know their history.
The canopy of stars enticed me to learn some of their stories
and orbits. I fell in love with every aspect of the place and
became more alive and connected than I had ever been in my life.
All of my senses were enhanced and I felt the fullness of my being.
I knew that place better than I knew the back of my hand. It held
my attention completely.
One of the lessons I learned came directly from the river. Despite
my strength, I remember the oar being ripped out of my hand like
I was a baby. I was not yet paying real attention to the river.
I broke seven oars my first year because I wasn’t in rhythm
with it. I was fighting against it. The next year I learned to
dance with the river. I remember a friend saying, “You know,
Mark, you learned on the river the lessons I learned through years
in a monastery.”
At one point I was guiding the boat between all these rocks and
the person sitting behind me said, “Wow, you’re doing
that really well.” I wondered how he knew that. Then it
dawned on me that when you’re dancing, you’re dancing.
All the time that I was loving this place there was the dam being
built, which was the constant backdrop. I was embarrassed to write
to my grandmother, let alone someone important, about my love
for this place, but I always felt guilty about not getting involved.
Later, when I was in Moscow with Leonid Pereverzeff, I asked,
“How do we get more people involved in creating peace between
our countries or more involved in the environmental movement?”
He replied, “Mark, first I think it’s important that
one fall in love.” And as soon as he said that I realized--ah
ha! I had fallen in love. I had no choice after that. I realized
that we can’t make a difference simply from our intellects.
It takes falling in love. Once our heart is open, then the other
attributes of conscious activism come into play. But the first
step is falling in love. The rest flows from there.
I remember years later, lobbying for environmental legislation
in Washington. There was a John Muir statement etched in the wall,
“When you try to select any one thing out, you find it is
hitched to everything else in the universe.” Likewise, falling
in love with one place influenced me to start the International
Rivers Network, to become involved as a director of Earth Day,
to work on changing the World Bank and to participate with all
the other environmental groups and activities I work on.
In some ways we all know that we are connected to something much
bigger and much deeper. But we’ve armored our hearts to
protect ourselves, so we’ve lost our sense of this connection.
It’s not necessary to literally fall in love with the mountain
lions or whales. It is sufficient to just remember our connection
with any animal. It can then become our totem for our connection
to all of Life.
Putting Your Body Where Your Heart Is
After years and years of trying do everything possible on legal
fronts— working with legislation and statewide initiatives—at
some point I knew that I was going to have to speak out with a
louder voice, with the only voice I had left. I ended up attaching
myself to the canyon as they were filling the dam’s reservoir
and saying, “Okay, if you’re going to flood nine million
years of evolution you can take one other critter with you!”
They had been filling the lower part and were halfway up. Initially,
I was completely on my own. At the last minute I found a friend
who would help me. I said, “Okay, why don’t you come
in every other day, and if the water gets to my knees don’t
come back anymore.”
The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article, but the Army Corps
of Engineers didn’t believe I was actually in the canyon.
So my friend, Don, asked to bring in Tom Harris, who had written
Down the Wild Rivers. Bill Rude from the LA Times joined him.
The next morning the story was on the front page of both the Mercury
News and the LA Times. With Don’s assistance, Walter Cronkite’s
team came to see me in the middle of the night and aired the story
the following night.
The filling of the reservoir was actually stopped by sympathetic
officials in Washington and Sacramento. They had received copies
of my letter to the Army Corps and convinced them to stop even
before the media hit. Before going into the canyon I found out
surreptitiously that the Corps was planning to violate the California
Supreme Court mandate, which upheld the state’s decision
limiting the filling to the 808-foot elevation. The Corps wanted
to test the dam’s new turbines but needed to raise the reservoir
up another twenty vertical feet, which meant flooding two more
miles up the canyon. We knew this was a complete violation.
I had chained myself at the 808-foot point. At the end of the
week, my friend brought a letter to the Corps from Governor Jerry
Brown, saying. “We are glad you have agreed not fill the
canyon beyond 808 feet and we’re going to be watching you
every day.” After that, I told my friend where he could
find the key to my chains, and I came out.
When I was in the canyon, it didn’t matter what the outcome
was. It was the most liberating sensation I’d ever had.
I felt very powerful. I found my voice completely, and I was speaking
out for my deep truth. I was laying my life on the line for something
I believed in with all my heart.
I call the philosophy of my activism “Heart Politics.”
Its most effective tool is the intention to keep my heart open
to both the falling in love and also the pain. I drink it all
in, honor it all, and release it all rather than allowing uncomfortable
feelings to get stuck in my craw and to eat me away. I know I
can’t stop all the pain in the world. But I also know how
to let it move through me without resistance, because the pain
If I want to be an agent for changing this planet and making
the world a healthier place, I have to do it out of complete non-violence.
I’ve got to be into my connection to love with every living
thing, including all of my own stuff, my own shadow and my own
light. I have to honor what it is and be willing to move through
it. The more I deny my own shadow, the more I deny our culture’s
shadow. Then how do I see the light?
If I really want to change this planet, the only way to do so
is to speak from a Gandhian truth. I’m not here to fight
with you, but I’m not going away, because I perceive your
action will hurt your children as well as my children. I’m
going to be here to help find a better way. I’m your partner
in this and I’m here to work with you.
The lessons I learned in those few years on the river continued
serving me. When I returned to Sacramento, the corridors of power,
the lessons of the river were completely applicable there. They
taught me to just breathe with it, not to fight it, and to keep
looking to where the current’s moving downstream.
I realized in the caves that all life is reaching toward sunlight.
This gave me trust that in the long run, whether everything is
moving downstream or towards sunlight, there’s an incredible
maturation, evolution and flowering process going on. In trusting
that process, I recognize that even the old curmudgeons who are
carrying out the destruction really want to flower. My job is
to learn how to listen more intently and help them to reach their
real goal, which is the same as mine – happiness, peace
and abundance through an honoring connection with all life. We’re
all in this together -- here to live our dreams and to make the
world a better place. Life is beauty.
Nature as Healer
Once I was leading a river trip with people who were paying a
lot of money to benefit river conservation. But I found myself
hiking alone to the mountaintops and feeling, “Ah, this
is a place where I renew my spirit. This is how I renew my connection
with the magic of the Earth.” And I don’t give myself
time and permission to do that often enough. Every time I do,
I see that this is why I’m doing the work.
But it’s also true that the more I am with concerned people,
seeing their beauty and the amazing work they are doing on the
planet, the more I let down the barriers between us. The first
time I returned to Sacramento after being on the river all summer,
all I could see was the pavement, the asphalt and the buildings.
But the next year I returned to the city, after spending even
more time in love with the river, I remember thinking, wow, look
at all the trees, look at all the flowers. That first summer,
I was escaping. After the second summer, I was re-connecting.
It’s similar to escaping from people, then reconnecting
with a deeper appreciation of them.
The second time I returned to Sacramento, one hundred percent
of the people I passed that day melted into a smile. They couldn’t
resist me. I radiated love. I’d been living on the river
and I was completely in love with everything around me. It infected
everybody. But in Sacramento, as I got more into the steep learning
curve of river politics, I forgot my connections. Upon returning
to the river, I begin beaming again.
Creating a New Vision for Ourselves and the Earth
We are all teachers and we are all students, every single moment.
We teach in everything we do, whether being very, very busy and
thinking that we’re important or whether breathing in the
beauty of life.
I think we need to start following our hearts more in order to
tap into our biggest dreams. I honor that we all start in different
places and that we are called to do different things. We can start
with our small dreams, but at some point we need to begin dreaming
bigger and become more expansive. After the creative explosion
of the sixties and seventies, many shut down their capacity to
imagine a better world and to dream it into existence.
The ancient navigators focused on the stars. They knew they could
never reach them; still, it gave them a guide. Whether we talk
about women’s suffrage, which took three generations, or
other issues that have taken a decade or two to resolve, the question
is how do we start having dreams about what would make the world
a better, gentler place for everybody? And how do we find the
strength, love, tenacity and patience to make our dreams come
true? Right now we are co-creating exactly what we will experience
together tomorrow. So let’s be expansive today and allow
our hearts to dream big."