Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: All Rivers Run to the Sea

A Fair Trade Book: All Rivers Run to the Sea
Author: Joyce (Sequichie) Hifler
Date: 1971
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: none; find it here on Amazon
Length: 123 pages
Illustrations: landscape drawings, not credited, possibly by the author
Quote: “It is not always possible to tell by looking at a river how deep it is.”
Joyce Sequichie Hifler is not known for exquisite, haunting prose like Annie Dillard’s. Actually, her prose style is just a hint offbeat. She writes as if, though fully bilingual, she had learned another language before English. She grew up on the reservation in Oklahoma, so this may well be the case.
Making due allowances for linguistic differences, therefore: Hifler writes the same sort of nature meditations for which Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry are probably best known. Detailed descriptions of a nature scene, often a commonplace one, lead into philosophical musings. Each chapter consists of several short essays.
In a broad sense Hifler’s philosophy might be considered Christian. It is not obtrusively so. Her viewpoint is definitely theistic, and her books are written for an audience that included Christians.
Whatever survives of the ancient religion that was exclusively Cherokee, if anything does, has been a well kept secret. What is known about the ancient Cherokee culture is that it may well have been the most flexible, libertarian culture ever to unify a large and powerful nation. Individuals’ duties varied depending on their position in society, in any case. Any warrior (usually but not always male) who was or had been followed by ten other warriors was recognized as a chief and did not have to reach a consensus with other chiefs. There was a Principal Chief who made decisions for the whole nation, but not many. The ancestral religion probably never was codified and enforced on all Cherokee people. There was a sense of ethics, a belief in justice and mercy and loyalty, and apparently a consensus of belief in a single Supreme Being. Various lesser spirits were worshipped, honored, feared, or used to scare children. Beyond that, what is known about what any individual believed shows that the differences were very wide. 
Hifler, who grew up inside the culture, writes as a Cherokee primarily addressing Cherokees but willing to share her thoughts with the rest of the world. Her thoughts are her own, and can’t be pinned down to any official denominational school of thought. There are lots of quotes from the Bible and from various Christian authors in her books; there are also quotes from non-Christian authors. Some of Hifler’s short essays in this book can be identified with the hodgepodge of Positive Thinking and popular psychology that was vaguely classified as “inspirational” during the twentieth century, but All Rivers Run to the Sea is more substantial than the average “inspirational” twentieth-century book.
Sometimes, Hifler explains on page 90, she goes to chapels with groups of people, and sometimes she enjoys “the wonderful simplicity of the Indian’s personal worship,” as discussed on page 89. However, All Rivers Run to the Sea was written before interest in Native American cultures had been heavily commercialized; none of these reflections begin, as the reflections in A Cherokee Book of Days begin, by teaching readers a Cherokee word. (This is not altogether bad. When English-speaking people start to learn the grammar that would allow us to put Cherokee words together in a sentence, we have to have urgent reasons not to stick to English.)
Readers looking for very new and unusual facts about nature, or very deep and detailed studies of the Bible or of philosophy, don’t need All Rivers Run to the Sea. Readers looking for cheerful little reminders to pay attention to familiar sights and familiar truths, however, should appreciate this book. If you became one of Hifler’s readers after newspapers across the country picked up her columns and the Cherokee Book of Days series hit bookstores, you’ll enjoy this earlier collection.

If you’re not familiar with Hifler’s work yet, but you like Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams, Aldo Leopold, or other twentieth-century writers in the genre established by Thoreau, you’ll probably like Hifler too.

A quick Web search shows no easy way to reach Joyce Hifler online and no solid proof that she's still alive. We'll keep trying. In the absence of conflicting evidence, I'm offering All Rivers Run to the Sea as a Fair Trade Book: price $5 for the book, $5 for shipping, out of which Hifler or a charity of her choice will be entitled to $1.