Interviewsand Articles


Mark Dubois - Reflections on the River and this Miracle of Life

by Mark Dubois, Mar 20, 2021



Revered environmentalist and wild-river advocate Mark Dubois visited a ServiceSpace group doing a weeklong circle on water. Introducing him, I shared a story I’d read: Mark and been in Moscow with Leonid Pereverzeff and asked him, “How do we get more people involved in creating peace between our countries or more involved in the environmental movement?”
     Leonid replied, “Mark, first I think it’s important that one fall in love.”
     About this moment, Mark said, “As soon as he said that I realized- ah ha! I had fallen in love! I had no choice after that.”
     It led to the understanding that we can’t make a difference simply from our intellects. As Mark put it, “Once our heart is open, then the other attributes of conscious activism come into play. But the first step is falling in love. The rest flows from there.”
     It was a special gift having Mark with us, and reflecting on his own life. Here’s how he began…. R. Whittaker

Mark Dubois:  We all get gifted the life we have, and coming to the river just opened my doors of perception. It opened up worlds, realms, took me a long while to really see because my education didn’t have language for the miracle I got to be exposed to. So the river very, very slowly just kept drawing me in deeper and deeper. And I just watched the smiles; everyone smiles, and we see everyone smiling - on the river I watched people smiling more profoundly, deeply.
     There was something about being in the magic of the river and the grandeur of these limestone cliffs in the Sierra Nevadas, and the beauty of wildflowers here and there. It was a miracle everyone time we turned around. Even if it took me fifty times going down the river before I started to see it, because I was trained not to see this way. So I amputated my seeing unconsciously, and the river just slowly woke me up to slowly remember to see the miracle that is everywhere.

Richard Whittaker:  Now there were even earlier experiences, if I recall with smaller streams. When you were young, did you live in a place where you had access, walking access to a stream or something like that? 

Mark:  No, but relatives lived up in mountain country and we would go up to those places and visit them. So I got to go to the little streams, the tiny streams and moving water. As a kid it always drew one’s attention. Then, eventually, my parents got an old mining claim. We had to drive hours and hours to get there, and then we walked in a mile to this tin shack on the south fork of Trinity river in Northern California. It was a little tiny stream in the summer and a raging, powerful, wintery, stormy canyon in the Springtime.
     So, again, that hiking in a mile, trudging your feet - but everywhere you looked it was a miracle - the little springs that came in; the trees that would fall and after a few years would become mossy beds of verdant nature and nursery trees.  So despite my playing in the city with plastic toys and army men and cowboys and Indians, nature sort of kept awakening something much, much more - and much deeper.

Richard:  Those little streams and those little things with moss over them and little flowers, those things, those made deep impressions; they go in, don’t they?

Mark:   They do! They do! I remember walking up to a little trail. There were these waterfall cascades. At one point we had taken a Sacramento friend up to the stream, and after a day or two, he goes, “Wow. I thought people made those waterfall things only for people’s backyards. I didn’t know they existed in reality!” [laughs]

Richard:  That’s hilarious, Mark.  It occurs to me - and I wonder what you think of this - that there’s a profound relationship between water and feeling - a life of feeling in our being around water. And I think people have also remarked about how water is connected with the deeper parts of ourselves - we could even say, with the unconscious. I wonder if you would reflect on this connection between water and feeling. Is this something you’ve ever actually thought about? I see it in you so strongly. Mark; just knowing you a little bit as I do. I feel that water and feeling are so entwined. And to me, you are a person of such feeling. There’s the inner water and the outer water, and the life of feeling. Does that spark anything for you?

MD:  Mmmm…  You know, the times of being on a river and diving into these crystal clear waters and just being cleansed… that learning to go with the flow - the struggling, and eventually learning to dance with the currents. And so, did it teach me?
     I haven’t thought about how much that first struggling, and then learning to dance, has helped my emotions learn - you know, the old patterns of struggling, and then learning to go with this great flow that flows through it all.
     You know what? I did a 45 day, 400 mile river trip one time. I remember halfway through it, I found myself standing on my raft and my arms were up; I could feel the breeze blowing. It had come across the Pacific Ocean and up this river canyon, and I just felt I was being cleansed. Whatever the hamster wheel preoccupation had been doing, it was like whooooEvery part of me was just beyond the words of feeling, being in connection with this friggin’ miracle! - that we live in all the time!

     My hamster wheel can be so seductive that I can forget to be with that miracle. But it was easy to be in that connection in such a beautiful wilderness. And that exists all the time!
    So, I’m not sure I quite answered your question, but that’s what arises. 

Nipun Mehta:  On Day 3 in our water pod, we all read your interview with Richard.  Now, as a 23 year-old, you were going up against the U.S. government - the U.S. military - and many framed your work as adversarial. But you didn't feel that.  One of our prompts here was: how do you avoid being grief-stricken? For someone like you, who helped create Earth Day, your whole life has been about supporting the environment. And you look at the world today and it can feel quite depressing. In the midst of all this turbulence and abuse of nature and this loss of reverence, how do you stay motivated? What helps you respond with joy?  What is it in you that allows for that to happen? How are you finding that through-line in between all this? 

Mark:  Well, I guess Richard started it with Leonid’s line . . . When I said, “How do we get more people active?” And he goes, “Mark, first it’s important that one fall in love.”
     And so right after Sheeba spoke it was like you said, we could end the call. Well, I was weeping the whole time because I’m going, “Wow! In one week you helped unleash, in all of these people who have been playing with you this week, what took me years to learn on the river. And I didn’t have a choice, you know. 
     For me there’s the paradox. You referred to grief. Well, I still have grief over the loss of this miracle, this miracle that transformed me and transformed everybody who came to encounter with it. And the love affair - the depths of what it taught me - is that I know this miracle is on every sacred square millimeter of this sacred earth.
     The process of falling in love with one place made me know the miracle is everywhere. So even if that place is not there, how do I learn to try to speak for the miracle in every other place?
     You know, it’s hard. The intimacy of that relationship made me know . . . I mean, my friends would get to know the Grand Canyon - 300 miles - and I’m going, “How?” I haven’t gotten to know nine miles. How can somebody get to know 300 miles?”
     To me, as we learn to open our hearts - whether it be to our amazing neighbors we share this sacred planet with, or whether it be other places - we get to see the miracle right before us. Once those doors of perception are open, we can’t close them.  And it was like every relationship I’ve ever had; it was my parent, my guru, my teacher. It was all of those things.
     Then eventually I became its caretaker. So it made me - a shy gangly kid who suddenly learned to have my voice in the state capitol and in the Washington D.C., capitol - it stretched me beyond anything I ever could have imagined. And in the depth of that love affair, that being stretched, it just reminded me . . . And I watched all those who fell in love with the river. We all got stretched, and we started doing things well beyond what we were to do. We were told we were this! And the love affair connected to something much more gifted in all of us.
     Okay. What’s mine to do? Whether I have the skills, or think I have the skills, or not, I get to try.

Helen Gennari:  Yes. I just want to thank you, Mark, for all that you’ve done. And I love the concept of that love affair that we can have with water. I’ve had one as long as I can remember. And I do think, when we’re in love, we’ll do whatever we need to do. That’s right? [Mark nods] And you’ve done that. So thank you. I hope to continue mine with speaking in my writing. I really want to do more in my writing with water. So that water has a louder voice, so to speak. Thank you.

Mark:  Beautiful. Thank you.

Susan Clark:  Thank you Mark, and thank you everyone. I will pick up on the love affair theme. A few moments ago, as you were talking about the mossy banks or whatever, I’m like, “Oh. I feel as cosy as pillow talk here.” [laughs] You know, you’re talking, but in the most beautiful, not sexual, but just the sensuality of it. And that feeling, I think, is exactly right.
     I do work in community engagement, where we help the people in the community fall in love with each other and then figure out how to move forward. But it’s so interesting to navigate the policy piece, the bones of our civic structures, as opposed to the heart space. And I’m curious about what you’ve learned about the dance back and forth between the love affair . . . How do you get other people to fall in love, but then also navigate the less loving ways that change happens?

Mark:   Thanks for the question. You know, my sense is what I learned early on is when I needed to get volunteers. I mean we were doing a statewide ballot measure, and we had to gather half a million signatures in California. I remember using guilt once in a while, and it worked the first time; and then they were never there anymore.
     At the same time, the beauty, the magic, the miracle of the river is what drew us, and that’s why most people came. Fortunately I learned early on that using the fear and the guilt was like putting your hand in fire; it doesn’t work very well. So that lesson from the river was that when we operate from that deep love, then we’re unstoppable. Even if it takes a long time, and even if we lose, the love transcends that.
     For me the environmental movement, because of a love affair we’re fighting for… well, when we fight “against,” it takes much longer to get there than when we’re fighting “for.” So your beautiful work of helping people in the community fall in love with each other and then operating from there, rather than pointing fingers – “Let’s fight them!” That works to mobilize; it’s what most organizers in every sector of change have been doing. They have been fighting for change.
     When we learn to dance for change, and invite others to play with us, rather than to fight with us, to me, we are slowly learning to accelerate transformation and living with each other. And we’re becoming an invitation for the world. We get to co-create rather than struggling and fighting and wasting our time depleting ourselves. Thank you for your beautiful work.

Genevieve Cassani:  Mark, I think you are a mystic. I know you are a mystic. I want to recall the words of Hildegard de Bingen, the 12th century mystic, who said: "If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion." I see that. I see that in you, and I'm taken with your expression: miracle. You used that at least three or four times now and why that word, miracle? Thank you, Mark.

Mark:  I will have to get that quote from you. I hadn't heard that one, and it clearly lands somewhere deep. I probably use that word as a default because after decades, literally decades, of not having any English words to capture what I had learned from the river, it opened up doors of perception. Then I came back into the city and tried to walk the corridors of Washington and Sacramento, and I had to use these words: "Well, we're going to save power and save energy and save water."
     We got a long ways that way, and we changed the history of how water is treated -- at least we did a good beginning for it. And yet I could tell that people were on our side, not because we used our logic to convince them of the absurdity of the old ways, but they could feel something else coursing through it, that we had touched something in that place even without vocabulary. We do live in a miracle. Our language has amputated us from our [putting his hand to his throat] . . . Our collective, whatever we have inherited has distilled things down to the tangible material world. And there is this friggin’ miracle that we are woven in. You know, we can say we are all one, and we are all one. Your joy, your sadness is mine. We can intellectually get that and yet that we are part of this miracle where we are that. To me we get to explore more profound language that may convey our soul's knowing. And yet what we have right now is what we have. We get to grow into helping our collective emerge into who we are truly meant to be at this amazing transformational time we're in the middle of. Thank you so much. 

Samir Hulyalkar:  Hi Mark. I was really impressed by all that you talked about. The question I have is, you talked about how, when you started, you felt like this [hands closed in close to each other], but then you did this [hands spread wide]. Are there any secrets you can share as to how you can go from this (held in) to that (open)? That would be very helpful for me.

Nipun:  For all of us! Ann is raising her hand!

Mark:  Boy, if I knew the secret, I would live there every day. It’s amazing to me how easy it is to forget that. ServiceSpace to me is just such a pioneer in doing that inner work. I have never been able to sit very long, and dancing down the river became my meditation. Twirling down the water - it coming through despite my closed eyes. The beauty just kept on. So, making time - that making time to sit.
     We are right now in this beautiful place in Tecate Mexico. I remember I'd been walking and just looking at the birds and the beauty, and I came upon this one man sitting with this just beautiful smile on his face. Clearly he was watching the miracle of nature.
     I needed to be moving through it. But it was clear that just sitting there he had opened his antennas to see what was right around him. I see that wherever I go. When I sit long enough to pay attention, the miracle is there. Then I get past the hamster wheel and all the human doing to experience the beingness of, and that inner connection, and let it transcend the mind's part of it and learn to be it. So, when you learn it, we will learn together. 

Nipun:  Thank you. Beautiful. We’ll go to one last question from Patrick, and we will close out the session. 

Patrick:  It is not so much a question, because I know a lot about Mark - more than he knows about me. You can read a lot of books and you can talk a lot, but people have to have a first-hand experience. Mark did that by taking some inner-city kids out onto the river. And in my career as an ecologist - and I grew up with Aldo Leopold, Rachael Carson and one of my favorites, Ed Abbey, who wanted to fight with things.
     I decided, “Well I can't fight them, I'm going to join them.” I became a BLM ranger on the north coast. I had three different YCC camps, all with kids from Oakland and Berkley. I also had kids from the reservations up in northern California. It was quite a trick to try to get these kids to open up to nature through a summer of work out in the environment. We had some pretty ironic situations. We had people from gangs who were fighting with each other. Once we got them out into nature, once we got them close to the ocean - we were up in the King range, on the Matole River and on a virgin watershed of the Eel River near Branscomb, California, virgin redwoods, Incredible areas - and once those kids got out there, I saw them soften, week by week. That personal experience created something in them that by having an entire summer out there they were able to take back. I know Mark has seen that.

Nipun:  Maybe we can ask Mark that question. Where have you seen that? Just in his closing reflections to build on Patrick's response - the healing capacity of water and nature. And any final words for us here as we try to live into a little bit of what you say you don't know, but we feel like you do know.

Mark:  Well, it was humbling when my friend Fred had the idea of taking inner-city kids down the river. You know, I had done a couple years of commercial river running and, you get PAID to do this? Anyway, then we got donated these old boats, and we took these kids down. And because we didn't have any money, once every other month, we'd do a trip with "normal kids" who could pay thirty-five dollars which gave us a little funding to cover the gas and the ice cream we needed to fuel our journeys. And I realized that on the river the difference between "normal kids" and "delinquents," there wasn't any. Because on the river [long inhale], it just absorbed everyone's energy and attention. And it healed every one. It was healing all of us. And that tapping into the verdant beauty all around us just definitely seemed to be healing all of our souls. 
     One other piece that I'll just share because it's ... Over the years when I started coordinating Earth Day internationally, and I was taking the ferry every day, I used to ride on the bow of the boat. I started just looking at the water, the waves of Puget Sound or the Salish Sea. And I started trying to learn to see the different dimensions of water. And as I've gone back to rivers, I've tried to learn to see the different dimensions of water.
     I've played with seeing at least seven different "categories" of water - what's right in front of me. And yet there's more there. And as I've watched the waves I've slowly learned . . . as I look at the surface-chaos of water, I've had this sense that if I can learn to truly just sit and observe, the miracles of the universe are right before me.  
     In this pattern, in this tapestry, that's right there. Yes, you can get a telescope and learn the universe. And you can study the waves with all the modern technology. And my intuition tells me that when I can sit long enough and learn to really see beyond my mind, but see what's right in front of me, the universe is right there.
     And so that may be true in any part of anywhere you go. For me, it happens to be in water - the patterns, the frequencies, the flow and the dance, and what appears to be chaos, but there are patterns beneath it all.

Nipun:  Any other stories that come up?

Mark:  So, I might share two stories. One was that we went to the river once to essentially mourn our loss. We’d had campaign after campaign to stop the New Melones dam, and we kept losing. And we’d just lost another one. So we went to the river to mourn our loss, but we were going to brainstorm our next campaign. But by the end of the evening, it was really easy to mourn but we couldn't figure out what to do for our campaign.
     I don't think I put conscious words on it, but I think I half-way sensed that it was time to move on. It was clearly an impossible task. And so early the next morning, I got up and was hiking up Wolf Hollow, this beautiful limestone waterfall canyon creek. And as I experienced this little place, the butterflies were dancing, the new grapevines were reaching out across the water-skeeters on the water. This miracle place - I just felt the life of that place. And in a moment [snaps his fingers], I knew that if I turned my back on this place I would be like the people of Germany who knew what Hitler was doing but turned a blind eye. And by now I knew we weren't doing this project because we needed to. It was an old idea that was out of synch with time.
     And so that was the pivotal point where I knew I couldn't leave. This place had inculcated me, this miracle. If you're going to cut off my arm, sorry you can't do that. And if you're going to cut off part of my soul, you can't do that. So fast-forwarding and not having any idea what I was going to do, at some point I decided, "Okay, I'm going to attach myself to a canyon."
     But in the meantime we're trying to do all the politics. We're going to Washington. We're trying to educate people. We're trying to get media attention. And at some point, a friend says, "The water's going to be up on Monday night!" This was a Wednesday, and I still did not have any clue how am I going to attach myself to bedrock. And I did't want to commit suicide. I wanted them to consciously . . . “You're flooding nine million years of evolution so you can consciously flood one more critter. Because you don't care about nine million years of evolution.”
     So that was the only thing that came to me. And I was in a little bit of a panic state because, you know, what am I going to do? So I went to the hardware store and said - I'd discovered that truth is way better than anything, any time I don't do the truth it's always funny and awkward. But this was an unusual time. So I asked, "How do you attach mining equipment to bedrock?" And I learned about a star drill and attaching to bedrock so it can't be removed.
     Then I went back, and my friends had finally typed up the letter I’d written the night before. So as I went, I dropped off the copies to the Army Corps of Engineers and then dropped a copy off to Jerry Brown. It was his first turn as governor - and I came out to pay homage to this little Toyon shrub. (Hollywood was misnamed. It should have been "Toyonwood" because Toyon is a ubiquitous plant up and down California. Earlier during the fall, a fifteen people had walked with a red wagon and they had taken this little Toyon shrub to the state capital. And then with five hundred people outside of Jerry Brown's window in the capital park and with Senator Peter Behr, the father of California's Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, we had planted this little Toyon tree. So I went to pay homage to this little tree, now the only living thing from the Lower Canyon, because the reservoir had was already flooding everything in the Lower Canyon.
     And when I got to that little Toyon shrub [whoosh] it had grown! It was over three feet high. It was like [gasp] - again, in a moment - the most powerful sensation in my whole life. It's like I felt LIFE.
     The life came through that little shrub. And as I connected with life, I realized it didn't matter whether I was around for five more days or for a hundred years. By not being afraid of dying, by being ready to speak with life with all of my life, it was the most extraordinary sensation I've ever had. And I'm amazed I can still live the rest of my life in fear of what I'm saying or not saying and doing, and yet I learned in that moment that when I live in that kind of connection, I get to speak for Life with all of my life.
     And I'm still trying to remember. How could I forget that all these decades afterwards?' - with all the little fears that still can hold me back from living in communion with the sacred miracle of connection that we all have. I don't know a better way to convey that lesson from a little plant that - oh, it's just one more little plant, right? I mean, we're surrounded by miraculous plants, and yet one spoke through to me, incredibly powerfully.     


About the Author

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