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Basia Irland

Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at basiairland.com

WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: Narmadā River, India

I was born from the sweat of the Hindu Lord Shiva while he was dancing. Or perhaps he was meditating so hard sweat flowed down his body to become my body. Or another legend says that I was formed from the tears of Lord Brahma. From whomever I was birthed, I am sacred, second in sanctity only to the River Ganges. I am like a mother, and am called Narmadā Mai.

WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: French Broad River, Asheville, North Carolina

According to geologists, I am the third oldest river in the world, with the first and second places going to the River Nile and the New River (Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina). As an old-timer my gradient is low with slow erosion, whereas younger cousins flow more quickly, tumbling down to the sea carrying lots of sediment. My waters flow south to north for 218 miles (351 kilometers), and they helped to shape the Appalachian Mountains. I am the French Broad River, named by French settlers in the region centuries ago at a time when I was one of the two broad rivers in western North Carolina.

WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: Deckers Creek, West Virginia

Photos by Basia Irland unless otherwise noted.  Source pond at spring Beginnings of the creek As a tributary of the Monongahela River, which runs through north-central West Virginia, I am only 24.6 miles (39.6 km) in length, with a watershed of 64-square miles. In my upper reaches I flow through some beautiful stretches of land, including…

WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: Great Miami River, Five Rivers Fountain of Lights, Dayton Ohio

I am the Great Miami River (a tributary of the Ohio River) flowing 160 miles (260 km) through southwestern Ohio and Indiana. My Shawnee name is Msimiyamithiipi. In English I am named for the Miami, an Algonquian speaking tribe. I flow along quite contentedly until I reach the confluence with the Mad River in Dayton, Ohio, where all of a sudden I am drenched from above — moisture on moisture — not by rain, but from water falling from an enormous fountain! Pumped from the local aquifer, water is harnessed into five jets housed in concrete towers surrounding a center geyser.

WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: Nisqually River, Washington State

Birthed in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington from glacier melt on the southern slope of Mount Rainier, I flow seventy-eight miles into the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and on into Puget Sound, a fast and galloping ride from 14,000 feet down to sea level. I leave the glacier as melt water, with a milky cloudiness made from small particles of rock, minerals, and organic matter picked up and carried in my swift current.

What the River Knows: Amstel River at Amsterdam, Netherlands

Photographs by Basia Irland My name, Amstel, is derived from the old Dutch, Aeme-stelle, which means “water area.” In the 13th Century, a small fishing village, Amstelredam, was constructed near my mouth beside a dam. Today we know that town as Amsterdam. As early as the 11th Century, farmers began building dikes to try and…

What the River Knows: Nisqually River, Washington State

Photographs by Basia Irland Birthed in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington from glacier melt on the southern slope of Mount Rainier, I flow seventy-eight miles into the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and on into Puget Sound, a fast and galloping ride from 14,000 feet down to sea level. I leave the glacier…

What the River Knows: Portneuf River, Pocatello, Idaho

Photographs by Basia Irland (unless otherwise noted) I flood. That is what I — and all my cousins — do from time to time. It is part of our rhythm. In their hubris, humans build cities and towns right on our banks, then get upset with us when our waters rise and destroy some of…

What the River Knows: Bagmati River, Nepal

The Bagmati River at Pushupatinath Temple, Katmandu, Nepal

I am clogged with human ash and bits of bone. Garlands of marigolds float on my body as an old monkey watches. I have always borne the remains of the dead, who are taken to the Pashupatinath Temple on my banks near Kathmandu, Nepal, placed on pyres, ignited, and blessed in Hindu ceremonies. The cremated are swept into my murky waters to plod along toward the confluence with the great mother Ganga as I join other tributaries downstream.

What the River Knows: Virgin River, Utah

I flow out of a cave at 9,000 feet elevation near Navajo Lake at Cascade Falls, Utah, descend toward Lake Mead at 1,000 feet, and empty into the Colorado River. The length of the Virgin River is 180 miles, however I am only the 33-mile stretch of the North Fork.

What the River Knows: Yaqui River, Sonora, Mexico

My struggle as a river is interconnected with the struggle of my people, the Yaqui Indigenous Community of Mexico in the Sonoran desert, as I try to provide the ancestral source of water for drinking, everyday use, irrigation, and ceremonial purposes. Together we have had a long and complex history.

What the River Knows: Eagle River, Colorado

In this series, “What the River Knows,” by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents at regular intervals. The first post was about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok; Kamo-gawa River, Kyoto;…

What the River Knows: Kamo River, Japan

In Japanese I am called Kamo-gawa, (kanji compound 鴨川).

Translated from the kanji my name means “wild duck,” and “gawa” is river. Not only ducks, but also a large variety of birds wade in my shallow waters in search of their next meal. Herons and egrets wait patiently as they stalk their food.

What the River Knows: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia–As I flow through the town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I am slow moving and bucolic-looking most of the year, with green parks and benches for people to sit and watch me flow by. But sometimes during rainy season I overflow and flood nearby buildings and roads. Along both sides of my banks there are old collapsing wooden houses hanging precariously over the water. These are currently being torn down in order to clean my body, while the local inhabitants will be relocated to rice fields nearby.

What the River Knows: Chao Phraya River

Here in the heart of busy, bustling, Bangkok, I am an urban working river with constant traffic of long heavily laden cargo barges pulled by tug-boats chugging slowly upriver. Speedy water taxies (known as longtails) zip across my spine from dock to dock. Wooden sampans speak of days gone by. Every day jam-packed ferries transport thousands of passengers including school children, commuters, monks, visitors, and families.