Once upon a time there was a river that tumbled along between two forests. The forest on the west side of its banks was old and shaggy with moss. The forest on the east side was light and airy, with strong, graceful trees. The river admired the separate beauty of each forest, but it was a passing admiration. The river had so much to do each day, with his constant cycle of rushing toward and emptying into the ocean far away, not to mention gather waters from the mountains high above, that he had no time for looking around.
As time went on, the shaggy old forest began to grow dark. Vines crept over the trees and grew up through the branches, keeping the sun from shining through down below. The trees themselves creaked and groaned as if they were uncomfortable in their new clothing. New animals came, animals that liked to hunt in the perpetual gloom. The men and women who lived in that forest began to be pale from lack of sunlight, and their faces were set with fear. The river noticed none of this. Nothing could grow across his wide, rocky bed. The sun shone down on him as much as it ever had.
At the same time, the forest on the other bank was thriving. Men and women scattered seeds, and fruit trees sprang up among the smooth trunks of the older trees. The new trees filled in the forest but did not crowd it, and their fruit attracted birds that sang among the branches. The birds built their nests in the strong, graceful trees, and the men and women of the forest grew strong with so many sources of food and their faces wore contented smiles. The river noticed none of this. He could not hear the singing of birds over his own gurgling song, and, anyway, what difference could twittering birds possibly make to a mighty river?
Inevitably the time came that the men and women in the dark, fearful forest saw the men and women in the young, fruitful forest and wished that they could cross the river. They first tried swimming, but the river’s strong current carried them away before they could cross its vast width. Then they tried to make a path across by hurling stones into the water. The stones, too were swept away. Desperate, the men and women thought to empty the river. They exhausted themselves with bowls and buckets, scooping out water and hurling it up under the trees. The river never seemed any less, and all that water only made the vines grow more quickly and the forest turn even darker. The men and women cursed the river and blamed it for all their misery. The river scarcely noticed. He had tumbled many rocks into the sea in his day and many men and animals had taken water from him. Water always came back in the end.
But the river knew nothing of the determination of men. The men and women hated the river now and were desperate to conquer it. So they began gathering branches. They discovered that the vines which made their lives miserable were very strong, strong enough to hold together even under great strain. They tied together branches with vines and discovered a way to make boats. Many boats failed and many men and women failed in their attempts to guide them on the river’s rough waters, but they did not give up. Eventually they learned. Eventually they made it to the other side. The river didn’t mind. The men and women may have felt that they were taming him, but he rolled on, scarcely feeling their scurrying back and forth across his surface.
Now that the men and women could cross, it was not long before bridges were built. Seeds of fruit trees were carried across the dark old forest and planted. Vines were cut back to let them grow. Seeds of vines made their way across the bridges as well. The young, strong forest had to fight against the quick growing tendrils. Men and women on both sides worked hard. The forests changed. They grew more alike. The battle between the beauty of the wild and the cultivated beauty of men was being waged on both sides. The river noticed the changes. He admired the beauty of the struggle but only in passing. Struggle was something he didn’t understand. The sun shone, the storms came, he gathered in both the light and rains and the winds and rolled on.
As time went on, the men and women grew more advanced. They built factories to burn the vines and mills to process all the new food they could grow. The factories dumped filth into the river. He did not like these changes, but he found he could sweep along, even if there were less fish than before and an unpleasant smell. After a time the men and women got sick from drinking this new unpleasant water, and they found a way to change their factories, to make them cleaner. The river was glad to be clean again, but he only thought about it in passing as he rushed toward the ocean. The men and women built large wheels and put them into the river to use his strength to run new machines and make light in the darkness. They blessed the river and bragged that they had made his strength their own. The river thought no more of their blessings than he had of their curses. He had pushed through obstacles much larger than their wheels and to him it was only a pause on his constant journey.
So the men and women went on growing. They cut down the forests and replanted them. They built monuments to their achievements. They looked up at the stars and named them all. They called the stars a new challenge and, forgetting about the river, they constructed ships to visit the stars. And the river tumbled along between two forests, never noticing that no more men and women walked beneath the branches.