Meet the Potomac’s own philosopher

If the Potomac River has its own trickster (our friend Patowmack), why shouldn’t it have a philosopher as well?

Despite his life of despair (note the tear), Heraclitus teased posterity with a double-edged aphorism about stepping into rivers.

My philosopher of choice would be Heraclitus. As his name suggests, he was an ancient Greek, and he had some important things to say about rivers.

Member of a distinguished family, Heraclitus lived 2,500 years ago in the city of Ephesus, which was located on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea in present-day Turkey. Through much of its history, this fabled city was a major commercial and religious center. Vestiges of its past glory survive today in the gleaming ruins of its temple, its vast amphitheater, and its great library. The city also figured in early Christian history as the probable origin of the New Testament’s Gospel of John.

Despite his illustrious homeland and family pedigree, Heraclitus led a lonely and ascetic life. He despaired of just about everything, and according to some accounts, at his life’s end he smeared himself with cow dung to cure himself from an unknown illness. The remedy proved ineffective, and his body was cast out in the street where it was eaten by dogs. Heraclitus was known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”

Restless rivers. Even if you have never heard of Heraclitus, you probably know his famous aphorism:

“You cannot step twice into the same stream.”

So true. Every time I go down to the Potomac I find a river that’s constantly reinventing itself, from year to year, from instant to instant. Its water flows clear one day, discolored the next. Mayflies are hatching one hour, then nothing but dragonflies an hour later. The water warms, then cools; its volume ebbs and flows; levels of oxygen and pH and other chemical indicators rise and fall in an ceaseless continuum.

A wall-to-wall carpet of stargrass one year nearly disappeared the next.

One year I’m dazzled by beds of stargrass that turn the river yellow from shore to shore; the following summer I find only scattered patches. An island recedes; a gravel bar forms upstream. I catch smallmouth bass along a stretch of shoreline one year; the next year only largemouth bass rise to my fly.

The restless river redraws its own geography. Mountain rivulets cut into mountain slopes and change the spot that marks the river’s sources. Downstream sediments build up and form oxbows that loop across the landscape. The sediments that reach its mouth create new land and extend the river further into the lake or sea.

All this is true, even obvious. But it hardly seems like the stuff of philosophy. Am I missing something?

Our mind’s river. It turns out that the idea of constant change was only part of what Heraclitus’ thinking about rivers. Here’s something else he said:

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.”

What to make of this? First off, Heraclitus could have used a good editor. (Actually, the blame for the clumsy writing likely goes to a compiler named Diogenes Laërtius, who wrote some 700 years after Heraclitus lived.)

I read the sentence over and over until my brain went into neutral. So I checked online to see what the experts had to say.

Now I think I get it, and it does seem to be legitimate piece of philosophical wisdom. Part of the idea is that rivers (and all else) must change, because otherwise they wouldn’t be rivers. Change is the very essence of a river.

But at the same time, rivers must remain the same—at least in our minds—to enable us to continue to speak of them as rivers. When we imagine a river, we conjure up the same image that we’ve had in the past and will continue to have in the future, despite the fact that the actual river itself is always different. Just by using the word “river,” we are implying that this object has essential qualities that we recognize as immutable. It’s kind of like a taxonomist’s type specimen, which anchors the defining features of a given species.

Heraclitus’ river. I’d like to think that Heraclitus had some kind of personal experience with an actual river. Not that this experience would be first-hand. I can’t imagine him taking delight in feeling the river mud squish between his toes or turning over rocks to see what lived there. He was a Weeping Philosopher, not a river rat.

Writhing across the valley, the Küçük Menderes shows how change defines a river.

If an actual river was the subject of Heraclitus’s philosophizing, it would have been the Küçük Menderes (also called Cayster or Kaystros), which flowed past Ephesus.

About the size of one of the larger tributaries to the Potomac, the Küçük Menderes today snakes through a mosaic of agricultural fields as it probably did even before  Ephesus’s founding.

Heraclitus would have found the Küçük Menderes a fine example of change. The river’s very name means “meander,” and so it has over the millennia, its channel looping first one way, then another, constantly on the move.

It’s also a silty river, and its currents continually transport these sediments downstream to its mouth on the Aegean Sea. The sediments create more land on the coast and extend the shoreline—along with the river’s mouth—further out into the sea.

Modern-day pilgrims to Ephesus’s Temple of Artemis come with cameras and tour guides.

As the shoreline marched westward, it left Ephesus behind. By 1000 BC the city’s harbor had turned to marshland, and Ephesus had to be moved closer to the sea and provided with a new harbor. Around 300 BC the port silted up again, and the city was moved once more. In the 5th century AD the harbor was abandoned. Today, the ruins of Ephesus lie landlocked about 4 miles from the sea.

A canal linking Ephesus to the sea bypasses the river that has silted up ancient harbors and left the city landlocked.

But this was not the end of it. The Turkish government now has a project underway to connect Ephesus to the sea, not by moving the ancient ruins, of course, but by constructing a canal to the ancient site. And in place of boats laden with grain and amphorae of wine and olive oil, the canal will now carry yachts loaded with tourists.

No doubt Heraclitus would have wept over his city’s transformation into a tourist attraction. But that is the price of change.

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