Teachings of the River:  Spiritual Keystone Species

Happy Earth Day, Friends!

This spring I have been spending lots of time meditating with and receiving guidance from the River. The teachings of the river are vast. I’m pleased to share some of these beautiful teachings with you.

97% of water on Earth is in the oceans.  3% of water on Earth is fresh water which is primarily frozen in ice sheets and glaciers or is water underground.  .01% of water on Earth is fresh water on surfaces as rivers and lakes.  Such a small percentage of water on earth is fresh water in rivers and yet think of how profoundly rivers impact human existence.  Throughout all of time, humans have sought out rivers as the ideal locations for settlements.  The river provides water for drinking and fish for eating. The land near the river is fertile for crops and animals.  The river was an available way to travel and transport goods when the land terrain was often wild and inaccessible.  In many ways, the river gave birth to western civilization. 

And truly, water is sacred and fresh water needs to be honored in the highest way.  Water carries divine spirits and animals.  The animals who live underneath the water bring balance to the world. These animals offer their sacred duty to caring for the water. It is for their wellbeing but also for the wellbeing of all of us, and the earth herself. 

A keystone species is an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem.  Without its keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.  But we can take this further by looking at the Spiritual Keystone Species.  These are the species that carry such important spiritual offerings that there would not be another being who could replace them if they were not there.  Beavers, for example, are a keystone species because of the ways that they reshape the physical environment affecting resource availability and impacting all other lifeforms of the river.  But their presence does not just play a critical role in habitat health, it also plays a really important role in the spiritual health of the river. Many Native American tribes admired the beaver and included it in their traditional legends.  To the Blackfeet, “the beaver is one of the most important medicine animals; it serves as a spiritual medium for the powers of all the other medicine animals”.   Beavers are devoted to a life of hard physical work, presence in nurturing their young and valuing their families, and the beaver language is complex with many different sounds and inflections.  In honoring the Spirit of the Beaver, we are acknowledging a beautiful Spirit whom we share this Earth. 

Salmon are a keystone species.  Through a lifespan of a salmon, they balance insect species, they provide food for sea birds and mammals, they release massive amounts of nutrients back the river and surrounding forests.  Salmon are also a Spiritual Keystone Species.  They teach us of wealth and generosity.  The salmon honor future generations by their last gift at spawning (laying eggs and then dying).  For millions of years, salmon came and left this way, maintaining a profound level of balance in the health of the natural world.  In Native American traditions, salmon are honored for their teachings in prosperity, perseverance, renewal, and determination.

A willow tree is also a Spiritual Keystone Species.  It teaches us about flexibility, being capable of bending without breaking.  It’s adaptable and can thrive under unexpected circumstances and stressful situations.   It offers us the reminder that within emotional and physical pain, there is always room for growth, opportunity and healing. 

The river is so much more than water moving across land.  The river holds medicine, a connection and doorway to other realms of existence.  The animals and plants who live in the fresh water have access to these realms, and they need to be treated with the utmost respect.  We can look to the river for teachings and guidance, we can invite her into our dreams and meditation space.  But how do we connect with the river wholeheartedly?  We become her.  We lie with our heads upstream and feel the water flowing over us and feel ourselves softening into her.  We invite her to move places within our bodies that are stuck and to bring our attention to patterns that need to be adjusted.   We ask a Divine River Spirit to work with us and wait patiently as they show up.  We bring our gratitude to the river and sit with her.

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