our days of atonement

Two of the great rivers of North America come together just north of St. Louis, Missouri. The Missouri River, carrying mega-tons of silt from the…

Two of the great rivers of North America come together just north of St. Louis, Missouri.

The Missouri River, carrying mega-tons of silt from the high prairies and Rocky Mountains, transforms the Mississippi into the muddy Mississippi at their confluence.

Or is it that the river that draws the dividing line between the East and the West in the United States, which lightens up the Missouri River?

It has been a subject of some hydrological debate as to which river actually flows into the other.

One report I read a couple of years back noted that in times of drought in the upper Midwestern states the Missouri actually contributes up to 70 per cent of the flow of the conjoined river.

Partisans of the wide Missouri claim that the whole riverine course down to its delta below New Orleans should bear its name.

However, on average, the Mississippi’s flow seems to marginally exceed that of the Missouri when they join.

The Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, governor of New France, probably hold the distinction of being the first Europeans to record seeing the tumultuous confluence of the two great rivers in 1673.

The Mississippi already bore the Anishinabe appellation meaning ‘great river’ or ‘gathering of water.’

The Missouri eventually took its moniker from the name the Illinois people had for another First Nation to the west that lived along its banks, ‘those who have dugout canoes.’

Both rivers have inspired a couple of centuries of prose, poetry and song.

Mark Twain’s tales will always stand out for me.

I only once had the opportunity, though, to emulate Huck Finn and lazily raft down stream for a day on the Missouri.

A sculptor friend had ingeniously glued slabs of recycled Styrofoam together into a light, very buoyant craft with built in benches, food coolers and a mast.

We set off from a levee that usually kept a riverside park in Kansas City dry and headed east with the Missouri’s current.

The only real hazard for us was keeping out of the way of the huge barges being pushed upstream in the three-meter-deep, 1,000-kilometer-long channel constantly dredged by the US Corps of Engineers.

We tried to steer, though, into the metre-high wake they left.

It gave us the only approximation of the riffles that this river must have had before it was impounded, channelized and generally tamed.

We came across a lone fisherman at the mouth of the Blue River.

It flowed through an industrial district. An oily blue slick swirled from it into the dirt-brown Missouri.

You literally could see chemical vapours rising off that water before it mixed in.

Industrial pollution — nearly 30 million kilos of toxic wastes, such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene, dumped annually into the Mississippi alone according to a study in 2000 — have ruled out fishing and swimming along much of the course of both rivers.

Despite the sad condition of the rivers, tens of millions of people still are forced to rely on them for their drinking water.

We can’t afford to be smug about the condition of our environment here in Canada when comparing it to the crises elsewhere.

From the Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia to contaminated minesites here in the Yukon we certainly have contributed mightily to despoiling the Earth.

“We are called as co-creators to join God’s work to repair some of creation’s wounds,” urged the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops in a 2003 Pastoral Letter on the Christian Ecological Imperative, “which have been inflicted due to our ecological sins.

“We are also called to creative actions of solidarity with those who have less access to the benefits of God’s bountiful creation.”

They call us to recognize that “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one. Ecological harmony cannot exist in a world of unjust social structures; nor can the extreme social inequalities of our current world order result in ecological sustainability.”

This Saturday is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is the day when the faithful are called to remember the betrayal of their covenant with Yahweh when their ancestors worshipped the golden calf.

At synagogues throughout the world, rabbis will call on their congregations to say together three times: “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.”

We, too, worshipped a golden calf, a false image of progress.

Now we and generations following us all face long days of atonement as well for our earth-destroying arrogance and greed.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.