Yes, we mourn for people, but sometimes we also mourn for places.
We can mourn their loss, when we return after many years have passed and find them gone or transformed. Or we mourn their wounds, as they are devestated by a disaster.
I was born in Colorado and althought my family moved to the east coast not long after my birth, Colorado has always been an important place for me. We returned a few times when I was growing up, but the visit I remember most took place just after my first year of college.
I took a summer philosophy course on ethics and community which included a backcountry camping trip into the Rocky Mountains designed to put what we had been learning into action. The trip started on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which runs parallel to the Animas River. Our crew jumped off halfway and hiked two days into the San Juan Mountains, up to about 10,000 feet in altitude. We were scheduled to stay up there for a week but a July snow storm, and a bout of food poisoning that struck one of our faculty members, forced an early evacuation.
To get out, we had to cover two days hiking in one day, with a sick member of our group. Throughout that frenzied hike back, all we thought about was that river. We had one chance to make it back to the river in time to get onto the train. If we missed it we would have to spend another night in the woods.
We made it out.
As we rode back down the railroad, we wound around rocky ledges and stared down into the river, which seemed to be sweeping us back to Durango, back toward the hospital for my professor. After a night in the emergency room our professor was on the mend. We were back in Durango with an extra day to spare so we decided to go rafting on the Animus River. After watching it from afar, there was something amazing about riding its rapids and feeling its force.
Today, that river runs yellow, the result of one million gallons of contaminated water being accidentally released by the Environmental Protection Agency from an old gold mine up stream.
I read the stories, and look at the pictures, and I mourn the river. I mourn for the animals that may not survive. I mourn for the communities whose lives and livelihoods are built on its shores. I know that the river will outlive this disaster, and outlive many of us, but I mourn for it all the same.
There are those places where you leave a piece of yourself.
The Animus River is one of those places.
At some point on that trip I traded a piece of my heart for a memory of that place. I picked it up, like a river rock, tumbled smooth by the current, and slipped it into my pocket. But in exchange I left a piece of myself there, in that river. Something sharp, something angular, something that needed to be made smooth.
It is that piece of my heart, left behind but never really forgotten, that aches today.