There once was a river …an allegorical tale


Written and narrated by Thomas H. Greco, Jr.

There once was a river that flowed through an arid land, and though rainfall was scant and infrequent, the river provided an abundance of cool, fresh, sweet water with which the people who lived along its banks were able to irrigate their crops and water their flocks. And the people prospered and lived in peace and harmony; and so it had been for as long as anyone could remember.

But there came a time when the water’s flow began to diminish. At first it was barely noticeable, but as time went on the water level fell ever more rapidly until there was barely enough water to keep their animals alive, much less to irrigate the fields. Day by day, the people grew more alarmed as their crops began to wither. Then the men and women of the valley came together to discuss their plight and what might be done to deal with this calamity.

Now, no one knew where the river began or where it ended. They only knew that throughout their generations, it had always been there and it had always provided a reliable supply of water from which everyone was able to draw freely.

Then one of the women elders stood up in the assembly and said, “We find ourselves these days in dire straits. We have always depended upon the river for our very existence, but now the river is failing us, yet we remain ignorant of its ways; we know not where the water comes from or where it goes. Let us send scouts upriver to see if they might discover where the water comes from and why the water does not flow as it did before.”

So the people sent a few brave men and women to follow the river in the direction from which it flowed in hopes that they might discover the source of the water and why it no longer flowed in abundance. But much time passed, and conditions grew still worse, but the scouts were never seen or heard from again.

Then one day some strangers appeared in the valley and they called the people together and said to them, “You know us not, but we declare to you that we are wise in the ways of the river, and we are able to restore the flow of its waters to its former abundance. We can serve you in this way but you must agree to pay its cost by providing us with one third of all you produce–one third of your sheep and cattle, one third of the grains from your fields, and one third of all your handiworks. And you will not be obliged to pay until we have proven to you that we are able to do as we have said.”

Now the people upon hearing these words were both troubled and hopeful and they argued amongst themselves, some complaining that the price the strangers were asking was much too high, others arguing that the alternative was to wither away along with their crops and that they really had no other choice. So it was decided that the people of the valley would agree to the strangers’ demands if they were able to prove their words and restore the waters to the river.

So the strangers went away, and soon the waters of the river began to rise. Seeing this, the people were jubilant, as they were able to irrigate their fields and water their flocks, and the people once again prospered. But at harvest time the strangers sent their agents with carts and barges to collect the one third share of all the produce of the valley that the people had agreed to pay. But the people grumbled and argued amongst themselves, some saying, “It was not the strangers that restored the waters to the river, but the gods. Why should we pay the strangers when it is the gods who have done this work?” But others argued saying, “The gods did not ever in our memory test us in this way; it must be as the strangers have said, that they are wise in the ways of the river and are able to make the waters flow. We fear that if we refuse to pay what we have promised, the river will again dry up.” And so it was decided that the people of the valley would pay what they had agreed.

Thus it went year after year for three generations until no one alive remembered the prosperity of the former times. Yet, most people were able to live comfortably on their two thirds share of their produce because of their cleverness in finding ways to increase the yields of the fields and the works of their hands. But others, who lacked lands of their own, struggled greatly and were able to subsist only by selling their labor to others who we able to employ them. But some employment was unsatisfying, and some employment was actually destructive to the environment and the common good, yet people did it just so they could live. Others who lacked skills and imagination turned to theft, robbery and other crimes, and the valley became a less peaceful place than in former times.

Now it came to pass that the river once again began to show signs of diminishment and the people began to worry that if it continued there might not be enough water to irrigate their fields and water their flocks And some of the elders among them recalled stories they had been told by their grandparents about “the great river drought” that had occurred in former times, and they wondered if such a calamity might possibly be visited upon them again.

But many argued that the strangers, who had by now become rich and respected members of the community, could be relied upon to make sure that such a calamity would never again recur. Others were more skeptical saying, “The strangers have grown rich at our expense; we know not what they do or how they do it. If they are in fact wise in the ways of the river and are able make the water flow, they must also be able to prevent it from flowing.” But those who had been employed by the strangers to collect their dues answered them saying, “That is just a silly conspiracy theory. You are spreading fake news and should be censured for disturbing the peace and upsetting the people!” 

As time went on, the water level in the river did continue to fall until, despite continued gains in productivity, there was not enough to go around and many people were able to subsist only by borrowing from the strangers. Soon the river’s flow had diminished to the point where many people were barely able to keep body and soul together. Then there was a great outcry amongst the people, and they pleaded with the strangers to do something. And the strangers answered, “We understand the ways of the river and we are able to make the river flow again, but it will require drastic measures and great sacrifice. You must agree to give us two thirds of all that you produce–two thirds of your grains, two thirds of your flocks, and two thirds of all the works of your hands. If you do this, we can make the river flow again with an abundance of cool, fresh, sweet water as it did before.

Now at hearing this, the people were wroth and there was great turmoil as many arguments were put forth about what might be done. Some said, “We must trust the strangers to do as they have said. They are wise in the ways of the river and we are not. We believe they can restore the water and we shall all again prosper and all will be well.” But others again argued saying, “The strangers are not to be trusted. They have grown rich at our expense; we know not what they do or how they do it. If they are in fact wise in the ways of the river and are able make the water flow, they must also be able to prevent it from flowing.” And again those who had been employed by the strangers answered them saying, “That is just a silly conspiracy theory. You are spreading fake news and should be censured for disturbing the peace and upsetting the people! We are utterly dependent upon the river, the strangers are wise in its ways, and we have no choice but to do as they ask.”

Then one reclusive old man who was feeble of voice and difficult to understand, for his speech was impaired from birth, got up in the assembly and said, “I remember a time when as a young lad I accompanied my father on a journey to a distant land, a land that was arid, much as our own, but they had no river to give them water, nor were there strangers to whom they paid tribute, yet they prospered because they dug holes in the ground from which they were able to draw an abundance of water to irrigate their fields and water their flocks.” Then the strangers’ agents interrupted him saying, “The old man is delusional, it is folly to imagine that water can be had by digging holes in the dry earth. Let us do as the strangers have asked and give them two thirds of our produce so that they might restore the water in the river to its former state.”

Then one of the elder women of the valley stood up and said, “If we do as the strangers ask, we shall all become impoverished and slaves to the strangers. Many among us are already deeply in debt to them, and how do we know if this will be the end of it? It may not be long before they demand of us three quarters of our produce, or even more. If there is a chance for us to be free of their demands, what harm is there in trying? Let us therefore at least make a test. Let us dig a hole in the ground, and then we shall see if we might find water in it.” 

So, although there was much nay saying and ridicule of the old man and his idea, a number of strong young men and women of the valley volunteered to commence digging. And they dug, and they dug, and soon the hole had reached a depth that was three times the height of the tallest among them, but the earth they took from the hole was still dusty and dry. And many of them began to grumble saying, “This is a fool’s errand! We shall not find water in the dry earth. Let us leave off from the silliness,” and they walked away. But others remained, saying, “Let us dig the hole a little deeper before we give up, for our very lives depend upon our having water and we have no better prospects that this.”

So the ones who remained dug the hole still deeper until it reached a depth of four times the height of the tallest amongst them, but still there was no water. And again, many gave up and walked away until there were but three remaining who persisted in the task. Now up to this time there had been many onlookers watching the progress of the project with great expectancy, but they too had all gone away.

Wearily, the three continued to dig, and soon the earth began to feel moist, and greatly encouraged by this they began to dig with greater energy and excitement, and soon the hole began to fill with water. At this, one of them ran to tell the people, and the people came in great numbers to see if it were true that water had been found by digging a hole in the ground. And the people looked upon the hole that was filled with water and were in awe of it. But the strangers’ agents were there too, and they scoffed and said, “This is a trick! These diggers have taken water from the river and put it in the hole to fool the people. There can be no water apart from the river, unless it be rain.”

But some were not deterred by these words. They proceeded to take water from the hole and were astonished to see that the water in the hole continued to replenish itself. Now as word of this spread amongst the people, they began to dig holes all up and down the valley on both sides of the river. And soon the people were able to water their flocks and irrigate their fields with water they drew from the holes, so they no longer depended on the river, nor did they pay any more tribute to the strangers, saying to them, “We know not the ways of the river, nor do we understand if, or how you have power to control its flow, but it matters not, for now we have our own supplies of water from the holes which we have dug, and we are free to prosper and live in peace and harmony as our ancestors did in days of yore.”

So the people prospered and grew in strength, and as their material needs were now easily satisfied, they had plenty of free time to pursue the study and enjoyment of nature, to develop their arts and sciences, and to edify themselves in ways that were both pleasing and beneficial to the common good.

Now some of the people, to satisfy their curiosity, took it upon themselves at last to try to understand the ways of the river, to determine whether or not the strangers had any power over it, and if so, how they managed to control it. One sage amongst them said, “Let us set out to explore the source of the river, but this time we will go in a large troop, well equipped to meet any condition we might encounter, and let us go in sufficient numbers to be able to withstand any mischief that might come our way as we journey.” So a large well equipped troop set out with plenty of food and water, carrying all of the best equipment needed to meet any condition, and all of the latest instruments and devices of science, and they moved steadily upstream.

After many days of travel over gently sloping terrain, the troop turned round along a bend in the river and there before them at a distance stood a range of snow capped mountains. As they proceeded toward the mountains, the terrain grew ever steeper and the river became littered with rocks and its flow more turbulent. After journeying several more days into the foothills of the mountains, they rounded another bend and found themselves in a broad canyon where they were astonished to see before them great earthen works that held back the river’s waters making great pools, and alongside the pools, numerous canals that channeled the water in many different directions.

“Alas” said the sage, “We now have the answer to our quest. The water emerges out of the mountains as the snow melts and feeds the river, but the strangers have diverted the water to other lands and that is the reason why our river no longer supplies enough for our needs, and how the strangers are able to demand tribute from the people down below. It is clear that the strangers have taken control of this essential element, which should belong to everyone, and used it to dominate and exploit the people. It is clear that they must be doing the same to the people who live downstream of the other channels as they have done to us. Let us now go and tell those people how they can free themselves, then together we shall be strong enough to retake control of the waters of the mountains as well as the waters that we draw from the holes we have dug in the earth. Then, we shall all live lives of abundance, in peace and harmony with one another forever.”
And so it was.
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