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Reflecting on rivers – don’t let the engineers talk you out of doing it!

Here I am in the city of Hamilton, in the heart of one of New Zealand’s biggest dairying regions, in a hotel room looking down on the magnificent Waikato River. Crossed by a number of bridges in the city centre, it is increasingly becoming a community focal point: it’s been lovely watching all the people walking and cycling across it – a steady stream of people walking and cycling home from work, giving way to lots of joggers, cyclists and walkers exercising in sight of the water, then to groups of people more dressed up walking into town to catch a movie or dine out – many groups of friends and couples hand in hand – it’s been absolutely delightful.

The 6th Biennial Conference of the NZAEE, or New Zealand Association of Environmental Education, has drawn me here, and we all guffawed when yesterday’s keynote speaker, Les Robinson, told us about Saskatchewan (at least I think it was Saskatchewan – anyhow, I just wanted to spell it again – what a great name!) – someone at the conference had pointed out how Hamilton, like so many river cities, had turned its back on its river and was only just starting to turn towards it again. Les told the story of the mayor of Saskatchewan, who took a more revolutionary than evolutionary approach to this and simply sent in the bulldozers.

When asked about the boldness of this move, she apparently said it needed to be done, so why wait – and advised, “Don’t let the engineers talk you out of doing it!”

Hilarious! Mind you, most of the engineers I know love bulldozers, and so do I! Any big rigs, in fact. Yesterday I treated myself by buying two children’s books to bring along to my training workshops for a bit of light relief – “The Little Yellow Digger” by Betty & Alan Gilderdale and “A Bigger Digger” by Brett Avison, to go with the magnificent yellow dump truck I got from the Caterpillar store in Peoria, Illinois a couple of years ago. (And no, I don’t play with it on the floor, but ask people to put their business cards in it!)

Watching the stately Waikato flow under the very high bridge spanning deeply cliffed banks is quite hypnotic – it moves at a fast but steady pace, with endlessly changing whorls and lines that hint at the water’s massive power. Being a pounding surf type myself, and a physical geographer to boot, I find big rivers frankly terrifying.

The Waikato reminded me forcibly of one of the upper reaches of the Mississippi at Peoria, also a river town. I walked along the river for some way and gazed at it for ages – it is immensely wide, even that far North, and the cute paddle-steamer reminded me of Mark Twain and all the people working on that enormous river. When I found some steps down to a pontoon, I overcame my trepidation to walk down and stand on it – but the sensation of its movements as the deep, black water coiled its way underneath was too much for me, and after a matter of seconds my nerve failed me and I scampered as fast as I could back onto terra firma.

Many years ago when Mum and Dad were taking us kids on a family holiday, my father pointed out the broken concrete spans of an old bridge in a braided river bed – the protruding steel reinforcing rods had been pointing upstream, but over the years had been curled back like fingers in a fist by the flood flows. “That’s the power of water,” he said. And I’ve never forgotten it!

Click here to find out more about the NZAEE and here to find out about this year’s conference – there are similar associations in many other countries – here’s the Australian one, for a start.

And click here to find out more about the laconic, deceptively funny and very inspiring Les Robinson.