illustration by Ruben Castillo

I’m standing in the shadow of Lewis and Clark. Their statue stands at Kaw Point, where the Kansas River meets the Missouri River. In 1804 they camped here during their journey upriver to see where new Americans might settle. And settle they did. European immigrants loaded up their families and belongings and aimed their wagons west in search of what this new nation promised would be a land of plenty on the farthest edges of the continent. Here in Kansas City, our cultural inheritance is influenced, in part, by people who paused here on their journey, looked around, and said, This will do. They settled for this.

These days, though, I’m less interested in settling. I came to Kaw Point not to reflect on the legacy of Lewis and Clark, but rather to consider the land itself, the rivers coming together, and how it might have appeared to those who inhabited this place long before Lewis and Clark stood here — the Hopewell, Mississippi, Kansa, Osage, Otos, Missouri, and Wyandot.

I’m curious about the differences between settle and inhabit, between the boundaries of place and the movement of time. My question is no longer, How do I settle in this place? It has become, How do I inhabit this point of confluence?

I leave the statue’s shadow. I scramble over large rocks toward the water’s edge, find my bearings, and kneel on the bank, as close as I can get to the point of confluence. A hawk sees more from above. A fish feels different below. But I am neither hawk nor fish. I live on the surface of things. So I skim my vision across the visible edge of this confluence.

The two rivers meet at a 45-degree angle. The joining waters create swirls and cyclones, some of them only an inch across and lasting a mere moment, some of them farther downstream growing two feet in diameter and spinning for a full minute before the swirling lets loose of itself. Glancing across the surface, I see the temperature, color, and speed of one river churn and twirl and ribbon against the other.

Beyond my limited vision, what else happens when two rivers converge? We don’t need to speculate or imagine. We’ve observed. We’ve studied. We know some things. We know that the tip of the 45-degree angle where I stand is the point of stagnation, where the rivers first greet each other in slow motion. We know that farther out in the middle, the flow of each river moves so fast that, when they meet, it’s rapid, it’s abrupt, like bumbling Laurel turning a corner and bumping into Hardy, but a million times at the molecular level.

And yet, when these two rivers meet, it’s not a struggle between two warring parties, not a battle for dominance. Even at the surface I witness the subtle shifts and swirls, the gentle back-and-forth, the give-and-take. It is amazing to witness what it’s like for two strong forces to not fight for control. Neither side wins. The two forces gather, give of themselves, and grow a new creation.

It’s tempting to turn my attention downstream, to wonder about what becomes of this new creation, to feel the awe in knowing that it takes miles and miles beyond the point of confluence for the two waters to fully mix. (Miles and miles!) But no, my point here is not All water flows to the ocean or All things become One. Take marriage, for example. The beauty of a marriage is not the dissolution of two individuals (the mistaken Biblical notion of “two become one”), but what is created new by two individuals coming together. Their union is not a negation, but a new creation at the point of confluence. In the same way, I’m less interested in understanding what becomes of the new creation farther downstream. I’m drawn to the moment of encounter, the gathering place of these two forces finding each other, the birthing of the new, and how confluence itself is a model worthy of attention.

On the surface as well as below and along the edges, when two forces meet and greet one another, what do they contribute? What do they give? What do they concede? What do they retain themselves? What is offered in the service of creating this new thing? What are the lessons learned upstream that come to bear upon this moment? What does each river know at the molecular level that they insist remain essential, and what knowledge served them well upstream but can be released from this new reality?

There are forces at work in water that run much deeper than appear on the surface, ignoring boundaries of county and state and country. That’s what rivers do. They course through every place with no regard for humanity’s imposed lines and limits. Coursing onward is in their veins. And this is where the river touches on some of what we know about art and the human spirit. We keep moving forward, in spite of every attempt at setback or blockade. We seek paths small and narrow, deep and wide. We lie in wait for cracks in the dams along the way. And at moments of confluence, we greet the new, we gather, we give, we receive, we create. We inhabit this moment. We don’t settle.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Michael Johnson is the author of two books: “The Thread” and “On Earth As It Is.” His essays and poems have appeared in “The Sun,” “Image,” “Guernica,” “Crazyhorse” and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Charlotte Street residency, an Arts KC Inspiration grant, a Rocket Grant, a Vermont Studio Center residency and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. 

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