What Does a River See?

Orion’s outreach coordinator, Erik Hoffner, was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month for the National Wilderness Conference, where he met with eco-artist Basia Irland. Photographs from Irland’s “Ice Books” project appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion. Above: The North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion National Park, photographed by Basia and Derek Irland.

Can you tell me about your next water-art project, “What the River Sees”?

Sure, and first of all, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time near rivers all over the world. It’s a blessing to receive invitations from museums, universities, and river advocacy groups to create art that helps people connect more deeply with their watersheds.

When we’re near a river, we are always looking down at the water as it flows by. But what view does the river see as it flows by the land?

To try to answer that question, I take underwater photographs. My new project, “What the River Sees,” began last December when I was in Zion National Park and realized that the ancient river there has had an amazing view of the huge red-rock cliffs for thousands of years.

The view from the Virgin River in daylight and shadow. Photographs by Basia and Derek Irland.

And now you’re off to Asia for the project?

Yes! There are so many exciting rivers to visit and interesting perspectives from which to photograph and write. I’ll travel with my son, Derek, and we’ll visit northern Thailand, Cambodia, and then Japan.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, we plan to participate in Loy Krathong, a celebration for the Ping River, where organic banana leaf offerings are floated downstream at night with candles on them. It’s one way to honor rivers and pay tribute. Then we’ll be off to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat and the Siem Reap River, and then to Kyoto and the Kamo River.

How can Orion readers follow along?

I’ll do underwater photography at each location, and I’ll also blog about “What the River Sees” for National Geographic’s Water Currents.
 Additional blog posts will probably not be made until I return in December, but when I get home, I’ll be sure to post more at my website.

UPDATE: Irland’s blog series is now online at the National Geographic website. The series is written from the perspective of each river, using the first person. They will be posted every other week on Mondays.

Basia Irland creates installation artwork in rivers around the world. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the Rio Grande watershed.


  1. Love the Ice Books, look forward to seeing more of these images from around the world.

  2. Basia consistently speaks for the rivers of the world. She has my unbounded gratitude for this work.

  3. It’s so important to view “river” as a subject rather than an object. These photos hopefully will guide the viewer in that direction so that the human race will embrace the responsibility and recognition we owe our rivers.

    thank you for this work!

  4. To be this close to the consolation of moving water is to be given the keys to a cathedral. The day’s last light falls through the branches of bare trees to the moss green mirror of the surface, in shards of silver and cerulean blue, as if stained glass windows made of clouds and sky had shattered from above. The air today is cool and crisp and dry, the smoky scent of fallen leaves, the past, the hint of winter to come. Yellow gold, the color of Van Gogh’s wheat fields, flashes like lightening beneath the surface over limestone, sand and shadows. There is no greater beauty than what’s clear and cold. The river dreams us watchers on the shore in its sleep. That sleep and its waking, the night and the coming day, engaged in some hushed code of exchange the river oversees – the seemingly ceaseless flow, time itself flowing by. Each day here is its own god and today’s prayer is a simple one. May we know the river as holy.

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