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Rivers, from "A River Runs Through It," a movie by Robert Redford starring Brad Pitt

Subthemes: Boundaries, Potable Water, Drying Up, Pollution

A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt, gifts us with scenes of pristine Montana rivers in Edenic grandeur. Beautiful vistas abound of fly fishing by the rocks and eddies of inviting waters. Here is a trailer to remind you of the movie. And, here are subthemes of Rivers we reeled in.

Boundaries: No river delineates a side of Montana, but the Mississippi River borders parts of ten states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The Hudson River separates New Jersey from New York and the Delaware River does so for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We learn this from Earth Observatory, which also notes that rivers frequently mark the boundary between countries, such as the Rio Grande between the United States and Mexico, the Niagara River between Canada and the United States, and the Jordan River between Israel and Jordan. The Yalu River separates North Korea from China. The same online site states that “rivers make up 23 percent of international borders, 17 percent of the world’s state and provincial borders, and 12 percent of all county-level local borders.” And, let’s not forget, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and precipitated a civil war.

Treaties used to allocate territories according to the locations of rivers. For example, after the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris extended U.S. territory to the Mississippi River; the Louisiana Purchase was demarcated by the Mississippi River on the east. In short, maps often indicate not only political lines but also the paths of rivers.

Potable Water In the New World, immigrants from Europe trickled westward. Typically, they settled around lakes and rivers because those sources provided water for drinking, washing, irrigating, milling, and shipping. Clean, plentiful, drinkable water ranked highest in appeal. Sources of potable water were magnets for the establishment of hamlets and towns, not to mention a stately pleasure-dome. It may be that no confluence of major rivers in America lacks a city, such as is the case with Pittsburgh’s Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers or St. Paul embracing the Mississippi, Minnesota and Crow. Reservoirs of drinking water, including the largest in the United States, Lake Mead, are typically fed by one or more rivers and spill out into one of those rivers. Aqueducts are man-made mini-rivers to channel water.

Pollution: The scenes in the movie feature spectacularly fresh water. But such cleanness can be found in fewer and fewer rivers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Natural Resources Defense Council, nearly half of our rivers and streams are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking. Nutrient pollution, which includes nitrates and phosphates, is the leading contamination in rivers due to farm waste and fertilizer runoff. Municipal and industrial waste is discharged as toxins. In the past, a major river such as the Seine might carry off the effluents, but now our population densities, waste removal policies, and factories have overwhelmed rivers. On the whole, because of the tragedy of the commons and capitalist disregard for externalities, we make poor decisions regarding how to protect our natural resources.

True, a filthy river can be resuscitated, but that takes years of work, gobs of money, and unusual political will power. Seoul, Korea’s, Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project runs for 3.6 miles in the heart of the capital. According to the Landscape Performance Series, among the many benefits of the restoration, it “increased overall biodiversity by 639% between the pre-restoration work in 2003 and the end of 2008 with the number of plant species increasing from 62 to 308, fish species from 4 to 25, bird species from 6 to 36, aquatic invertebrate species from 5 to 53, insect species from 15 to 192, mammals from 2 to 4, and amphibians from 4 to 8.” Humans are hardly the only form of life that depend on rivers.

Drying Up: Enjoying the aquatic abundance of the Redford film, you wouldn’t imagine that rivers might disappear. Yet, for many reasons, rivers can reduce to rivulets or less. Mostly, this is a seasonal shrinkage as snowmelt or other causes reduce water flow. In droughts, only the cracked riverbed reminds us of what we have lost. In recent years, may rivers have gone extinct. Shifting patterns of precipitation can strangle the heads of rivers; upstream dams pool too much water behind them; hotter temperatures evaporate water as it travels downstream; farmers and industry suck irrigation waters too thirstily. In China alone, out of 50,000 rivers, 28,000 have completely dried up in the last 20 years according to Interesting Engineering. When rivers disappear, lakes and reservoirs are threatened.


As a metaphor for an idyllic childhood and home, the sparkling, mouthwatering rivers filmed by Robert Redford evoke summer perfection. They also symbolize boundaries between childhood and manhood, or between fathers and sons. We see no signs of dirty water or risk of disappearance as the fishing paradise flows lushly.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept Rivers, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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