September 24, 2014

Of Sharks and Cleaner Fish

by John Brady

Right now I am in recovery mode. I am home after some days on the Missouri River working with others to clean up the river valley and celebrate its noble presence in our lives. The last two days were a time of great effort for the volunteers and crew members of the Big Muddy Clean Sweep.

 We did all of our normal preparation for a large scale river cleanup plus helping set up and break down the structure for a River Festival. That work continues today and most likely tomorrow with dealing with all of the trash removed. I shall rejoin the effort in an hour or so.

But right now, between the loads of laundry, I have time to write a bit and reflect on the meaning and value of the events of yesterday. The cleanup was extraordinarily difficult, as recent flooding on the river made conditions a lot more of a challenge for our crew. As usual, they adapted and found ways to accept and deal with all of the problems that cropped up.

As I was piloting one of the work boats between running cleanup volunteers out to the sites they would clean, running up the wide and smooth river back to pick up another group, an image came to my mind about what we were doing out there. It seemed to me for a moment that today, the river was like a shark in the sea of our environment.

It has been living, evolving and constantly moving through its valley just as a shark roams the ocean, never stopping, always roaming on the move. It is hungry for some things, taking them into its belly in a thrashing feeding frenzy of flood. A river bank here, a fish camp there, it feeds indiscriminately for its time of need and then goes placid, a benign and serene beast, its awesome power hidden to the unknowing eye.

In the shark’s world, there has evolved a species of tiny fish that maintain their lives by cleaning the bodies of the larger fish, the sharks, tuna and other species of the deep ocean. The large fish lay still in their presence, almost in a trance as these cleaner fish remove dead skin, parasites and other things that attach themselves to them. The cleaners even swim into the sharks great open mouths, fearless of the awesome power within.

Today, the cleanup volunteers scrambling up its banks seem to me to be like the cleaner fish that attend the sharks in their shared realm, calmly tolerated by the mighty fish, cleansing and beautifying its body as they remove the parasites and vermin that infest its skin. In this symbiotic ritual, I can see how we mutually benefit each other. In return for the many gifts the river offers up not only to those that have no conception of how it enables our lives, but to these cleaner fish who give back to it the gift of loving care.

The image dissolves in an instant as I give the tiller a sharp jerk to avoid a just recognized floating log. I miss the log and almost tumble my crewman from his seat. He looks back startled for a moment and then realizes that I still have control and turns back to enjoy this brief respite from the hard part of our work today. I too, am back into the day, far richer for having in my consciousness this vision of my value to my beloved river.

As we, this crew of cleaners evolve into a group united by our love of and service to this great resource, the river runs as it always has, a beast of great power, unbelievable beauty and calm serenity. I realize again in this moment how blessed we are to have this day, this crew and this river.

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