The Branch, the Tree and the Canoe

(The Nationalist, 7 July 2000)


I remember a day, a good many years ago, when I was standing on the banks of the Luena River, beside the mission of Mangango, in Zambia. It was one of those quiet days when your soul is at peace and you are able to relax, to let go of all routine thoughts, pressures and commitments and just live in the present, savouring every beautiful moment of it.

I was looking at the river, just watching the water flow past, my attention absorbed by the whirls and eddies of the current with its restless energy, constantly in a state of flux – and yet so calm.

A small branch floated past, twirled every way by the current. It had no control over itself; it just went whatever way the current caught and carried it.

Looking upstream I saw a large tree which had fallen across the river and lay in the water – heavy, water-logged and dying. It was a picture of inertia and passivity, just lying there without a move. And yet there was a sort of defiance about it, as if it were challenging the river to a test of strength. It seemed to say, ‘I’ll lie here and block you just by doing nothing’. But, of course, it couldn’t do that. As the weeks went by, debris would accumulate against it, creating a dam of sorts, and when the rainy season came and the level of the river rose, the pressure of the water would be too strong. It would simply lift the tree and carry it along, sweeping it out of the way, probably depositing it downstream on a sand-bank. And there it would lie, gradually bleaching in the sun, utterly dead, a caricature of its former self.

And then I saw a man paddling a canoe upstream. It was made of a hollowed-out tree trunk. You could see at a glance that he was a skilled and experienced paddler. He stood upright in the canoe, working the oar and guiding the canoe in swift, steady movements upstream. He knew how to use the back-currents, those flows at the edge of the stream, almost beside the bank, which go against the main current. He was relaxed and confident. He knew where he wanted to go and how to get there.

It occurred to me that here was a parable about life. You could just go with the flow in a directionless drift like the branch. Or you could dig in your heels and stubbornly fight against life, trying to defeat it, like the fallen tree. Or you could treat life as a partner, learn about its currents and work with them.