Make Ecologies Strange 1

Trevor Arellano — “The River is Alive Within Us”

Trevor is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania double majoring in Anthropology and Health and Societies. Trevor is from Lawrence, Kansas


Begin by finding a comfortable and quiet place where you can sit or lie down preferably next to a flowing river or body of water. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, allowing your body to relax. As you inhale, feel the tension leaving your body, and as you exhale, let go of any stress or worries. Submerge yourself within the bluespace you have picked and begin to think about what this place means to you. Hold it close to your heart to save for later. 

Now, imagine yourself standing at the edge of your beautiful river. Picture the scene in vivid detail. Notice the color of the water: with your eyes closed try and picture the color of the water. Hear the gentle flow of the water and the sounds it creates as it moves along its ever-winding path. Take a moment to appreciate the serenity of this natural setting and the history of the space you are sitting in and around. Imagine the sound 10 years ago. Imagine the color 50 years ago. Imagine the smell 150 years ago. Is it crisp? It is heavy? Is it perfect? 

As you observe the river in your mind start to feel the flow of water in your veins. Your pulse mimics the craft of mother mature. Feel the rise and fall of the water as you breathe. Inhaling as a surge of energy, exhale as a moment of peace. Your brain is the source of your flow, everything you feel flowing in and out, up and down, side to side, with it finally releasing through your toes onto the next. 

Now feel the signs of foreign bodies introduced into your body of water. The water might be murky with visible traces of debris and waste. The sounds of the river might no longer appear as pure and soothing. Take a moment to acknowledge this reality, knowing that pollution is a real issue affecting many waterways in the world. Your body is witnessing the consequences of your ancestors. How does this make you feel? Stand with this waste corrupting your blood, your breath, your skin. Understand how toxic you feel, without your consent. 

Now, imagine yourself rolling up your sleeves and stepping into the river. Feel the coolness on your feet and the sensation of the polluted water against your skin. Visualize yourself being surrounded by a protective light, as if it forms a barrier between you and the pollution. See this light purifying the water, transforming the toxins into neutral energy and restoring its natural clarity.

While standing in the river notice the banks of your body. How do they look? Are there other people? Do they notice you? You are improving but are people even observing? Think about the blue space you are sitting in. How is it constructed? Is it positive or negative? People move in and out of you, but they lack the awareness of what you truly are. You know who you are and your integral part of your community. Recognize that the health of our rivers and the planet is interconnected with your own well-being. Take a deep breath.

Now, shift your focus to the sounds of your river. Listen to the gentle babbling of the water, the occasional rustle of leaves, or the distant chirping of birds. Allow these sounds to remind you of the potential for renewal and restoration. Now feel the objects within your river. Embrace the fish ticking your legs, the microorganisms racing by, or the wooden debris that nudges your torso. Notice the natural manifestations of your source. Now see the beauty of your river. 

As you continue to stand in the river, visualize the water gradually becoming cleaner and clearer. The shimmering reflections of the sun bounce off the ripples of flowing water, providing energy and sustenance for all who interact. See the debris being removed, the pollutants dissipating, and the vibrant life returning to the ecosystem. Feel a sense of hope and gratitude for the resilience of nature and the potential for positive change.

Take a final deep breath, feeling a renewed sense of purpose and determination. Express gratitude for this moment of reflection and for the awareness of the need to protect our rivers and incorporate them as productive blue spaces. Take with you what you hold close to your heart, your blue space has more meaning now. When you are ready, gently open your eyes, carrying this new profound love and appreciation for your blue space.

Remember that you can return to this visualization whenever you need to reconnect with your inner purpose and find inspiration to contribute to the healing of our rivers and the planet.

The River is Alive Within Us

Just before midnight on Friday March 24th, 2023, around 8,100 gallons of latex emulsion solution was dumped into Otter Creek: a tributary just north of Philadelphia leading into the Delaware River (City of Philadelphia, 2023). The Trinseo plant responsible for chemical spill blamed it on an “equipment failure” that was not elaborated on further. Chemicals such as ethyl acrylate, methyl methacrylate, and butyl acrylate were believed to have contaminated the water which supplied over 1.5 million residents in Philadelphia (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2023). Butyl acrylate is known to have been one of the chemicals released during the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment that took national news by storm (CNN, 2023). Thousands of fish died because of the poisonous fumes released during the controlled and long-lasting burn of the uncontained chemicals, and surrounding people’s health were in question as reports of nausea, rashes, bloody noses, and trouble breathing started to surface (CNN, 2023). However, in both instances, after mass public outcry and hysteria, the local governments tested the water and air to find it completely safe. And, not surprisingly, business returned to normal within weeks and people continued on with their day. But what does this say about our attention and respect to the rivers that created and sustained us? Do they not deserve the protections of pain and suffering we give ourselves? Are rivers which lead to oceans just a tangible right for our water and transportation? How respected are rivers in our communities if serious chemical spills, for example, will not even raise our awareness of the health of these lively historical bodies? 

Countless questions like this emerged in my research into the commonsense ecology of the river, especially in metropolis areas of high-density population. The idea of a commonsense ecology perfect fits into the structure and utility of a river. Rivers are the source of human civilization dating back to the Tigris and Euphrates River system and the Nile River Basin both situated in the heart of the Middle East. Ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia and the Ancient Egyptian used the river and its fertile floodplain soil to cultivate crops, hydrate its people, and create community around. Countless civilizations like these prove the power and identity of Rivers. This is what makes it commonsense. Rivers are the backbone to almost every community even in the modernized and globalized state of the world we live in today. What could be more ubiquitous or common in human society than the collective human instinct of surviving off rivers for sourcing water and community centralization?

For example, Lucas Bessire’s book titled Running Out: In Search of Water On the High Plains exemplifies the complexities of the modern ecology of freshwater in Southwestern Kansas. This hyper focused look into the continuous depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, a river underground, highlights the industrialization and agrobusiness dominance on a water source that has no continuous replenishing redeemer (Bessire, 2021). However, Bessire, after diving into what this water source has done for him, realized that he is more connected to it than he initially thought. He found an untapped identity with the water that he believes others can learn from by looking at their historical connection and reliance on their local water source. With my guided meditation, I offer a chance to start to make those connections with anyone that participates, something I found valuable while beginning this project. 

Likewise, Kristina Lyons of the University of Pennsylvania has spent her entire professional career diving into how rivers have memory. Her arguments center around socioecological memory of flowing rivers (Lyons, 2018). I agree with her ideas that the rivers are not being listened too when it comes to modernization of communities around them. The path rivers take, and the history rivers hold offer more to human belonging and community building than artificial programs of modernity that we accept and rely on (Lyons, 2023). In addition, she brings up dilemmas of river health as industry and urbanization destroy the connections we once had with the source of our lives. Her work has helped me to question the mechanisms of river memory as it relates to the health of rivers and the paralleled health of us. I took inspiration from both Bessire and Lyons in my exploration at how rivers connect, ground, and complete us. 

This guided meditation takes participants through a journey of self-discovery and self-worth alongside the river, wherever that may be. I hope to bring to light the problems rivers are facing today regarding pollution, modernization, and underestimation. Although the meditation brings up hard to sit with topics, it is important to spend time with and extrapolate the feelings these topics bring up. People should be ready to come to terms with their own histories and identity with their river by hopefully coming back to this exercise with new eyes and thoughts. The use of “your” when referring to the space participants are in alludes to the fact that rivers and bodies of water are ‘owned’ by everyone. I think the possession of natural entities hold power. The river you pick has a personal history with you, where only you have the power to find as long as people do not take this possession in a harmful or damaging way, personally or physically.

When I wrote the meditation I drew inspiration from my local river in college, the Schuylkill River. The Schuylkill River, pronounced skoo-kull, is located to the West of Philadelphia proper, sandwiching the main urban space with the Delaware River on the East side. I spent time on the concrete banks of the river where there are miles of concrete trails to service the residents of Philadelphia with a modernized recreational bluespace. There are places to sit and enjoy the scenery, however the river is channeled by thick slabs of concrete on both sides to contain the powerful flow of water and the only sound to hear is the rusting noises of the city. At first this angered me. Why is the river being treated like an animal, corralled into a manufactured set of tracks that limits the creative and dancing qualities of a river? Why is money being poured into the construction and development of a space where people are still inundated by the sensory overload of a stressful life of the city? I could not find the space, time, or patience to work with the river in finding solace with own personal life back home and my non-stop life as a college student in the city. This sparked my interest to explore why this was. 

I first looked to the history of this river as I did not grow up with it or know it personally like the river that I was close with at home: the Kansas River. I learned that the Lenape peoples once lived with the river before colonizers took control of the region. Globalization and the Columbian exchange weakened the Lenape in numbers and by the time Dutch, Swedish, and later English people colonized the land it was easy to trick the Lenape in selling off millions of acres for dismal prices (American Library Association). The Dutch then named the river, Schuylkill, meaning ‘hidden river’ because the Schuylkill River’s mouth hide behind an island before it converged into the Delaware River (Catalano, 2001). Later on, the river was canalized in the 1820s due to the proliferation of the coal industry in the region. The waterway was used to transport coal until the 1840s when the industry transitioned to railways (“Schuylkill River,” 2019). I was shocked to learn how the river received the shackles of concrete just for a twenty-year span of industry use. In addition, the pollution, whether though physical manifestations of trash, biological matter, noise, or light, is now something you cannot avoid. Past industrial endeavors have marked this being as a semi-dump or waste ecology. Where anything that goes into the river must go to the ocean and eventually out of sight and mind, but the pollution permeates into the memory of the substrate and soil under the water and into the banks we cannot see. The memory and personality of the river was lost at the hands of economic pursuits. After discovering why the river now looks the way it does, I began to explore the banks on long mental-health break walks. I noticed bountiful greenspaces along the river cut by thick tracks of roads and sidewalks. I noticed bridge after bridge that divided the river into sections of utilization. And I noticed little to no animals utilizing their ecosystem, especially closer to the center of city life. The meditation almost fell into my hands as I spent time observing little to no comradery between people and water. 

The extreme urban landscape of my immediate area is a difficult and rare phenomenon as there are thousands of rivers, streams, and tributaries in the world. But I imagined my meditation on my river back home. The Kansas River is positioned in a semi-rural environment with little to no channeling and urban sounds. Similar reactions arose as I sat with this idea of the interconnected experience with rivers and their healing qualities. I believe that this meditation no matter the diversity of river experience is beneficial to take a breather. I might suggest noise cancelling headphones, if accessibility permits, if the scene of the participant’s river is situated in or close to a metropolis. However, the power of taking any amount of time, space, and peace with this meditation supersedes the ignorance of overlooking the commonsense space we have access to. 

A spatial theory I want to challenge my readers with is the idea of a modernized bluespace. Bluespaces act similarly to greenspaces in that it is an urbanized area next to or on top of rivers or bodies of water. This distinction between blue and green spaces are important because bodies of water are much scarcer and more lucrative than green areas such as parks, nature reserves, forests, or even a backyard garden. Both act as places of serenity and healing for people in concrete jungles of non-stop work and social play. However, in general, modernized bluespaces do not receive as much attention socially, economically, or conservatory than their green counterparts. This is due in part to people more likely going to the park or hike through the woods than go down to the river, pond, or stream. In addition, modern bluespaces are more often than not surrounded by concrete constructions, channels, or bridges that constrict and de-mystify the benefits of a natural blue landscape. The question I kept coming back to was, “How do we reconcile with a modernized bluespace?” something that I hope to challenge readers with as well. My thoughts behind this question surround discourse of displacement, not only in the natural pristine vision of rivers before humans but in the removal of Indigenous populations that upkept and lived with the river. 

Past manipulations of the river present in the current makeup of our interaction with it. And the future of them, during our existence, is only looking bleaker. The first step to rehabilitating rivers is to recognize the power of them in a connected interpersonal relationship which is something I hope this mediation brings out. It is clear that the lack of respect for the commonsense ecology of rivers with chemical spills still happening today that cause easily avoidable public crisis, depletion of other water sources supplying life here in the United States, and the disregard for the memory and feeling of rivers is a pressing issue in our modern world. To address this complex and nuanced conundrum I implore readers to creatively participate in this exercise of awareness and self-growth. Take to the sources of our history and livelihood, rivers, and bodies of water, to find how the river is alive within us all. 


Bessire, Lucas. Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains. Princeton University Press 2021.

Catalano, Laura, and Kurt D. Zwikl. Along the Schuylkill River. Arcadia Publishing, 2001,,famously%20camped%20at%20Valley%20Forge.

“City’s Response to Spill of a Latex Product into the Delaware River.” City of Philadelphia, 26 Mar. 2023,

Lyons, Kristina. “Rivers and Reconciliation: Elaborating the Socioecological Memory of War through Science and Arts-Based Practices.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 15, no. 1: 141–163, 2023, doi:

Lyons, Kristina. “Rivers Have Memory: The (Im)possibility of Floods and Histories of Urban De- and Reconstruction in the Andean-Amazonian Foothills.” City & Society, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1111/ciso.12191.

“Philadelphia Drinking Water Contaminated Following Latex Spill into Delaware River.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Mar. 2023,

“Philadelphia Indigenous History.” American Library Association, Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services,,of%20Philadelphia%20were%20the%20Lenape.

“Schuylkill River.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Apr. 2019,

“Timeline: East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment.” CNN, 23 Feb. 2023,

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