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Ideas flow like the love for the Schuylkill

Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Water Works , where the Project Flow program takes place. The venue has been recognized by the state as an official environmental education center. BETH KEPHART
Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Water Works , where the Project Flow program takes place. The venue has been recognized by the state as an official environmental education center. BETH KEPHARTRead more

Things Are Disappearing Here.

It is the title of a Kate Northrop poem. It feels, at times, to be the state of our existence. It is the sentence I read to 13 rising eighth and ninth graders on a thickly humid day in the belly of the Fairmount Park Water Works.

Beyond me, the Schuylkill runs high and muddy in the wake of last night's storm. Down the halls, children are learning the history of water, how it moves, what it needs, why it matters. Here, before me, sit an amateur ornithologist, a rapping quarterback, a girl who admits to four-language fluency, a boy known for loving the color green, a girl who smiles dreamily when she thinks about her hero.

"Things are disappearing here," I say again, and now we together build a list of the things we are in danger of losing, the things we must protect: Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, love among humans, an ability to control our own greed, the chance to return to the day we are right now living, the California condor, the Philippine eagle. Also: peace, friendship, freedom, wisdom, imagination, time.

The disappearing list is a warm-up exercise for my day with participants in Project Flow, a five-week, daily intensive summer program designed to allow a small group of curious students to explore water as artists, historians, scientists, and social activists. Overseen by Ellen Schultz and Chris Singler, and led this summer by teachers Rachel Odoroff and Joy Caldwell, the program is one of the many reasons the Water Works has been recognized by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as an official education center.

So far, these kids have toured the river, learned the power of watersheds, walked the Wissahickon, and shared a boat ride with young people from a Texas town now living with stage-three drought. I'm here to talk about the river's soul, her voice, her destiny. I'm here to listen, and it is clear to me within a mere 10 minutes that these audacious kids could fill several sheets with lists of disappearing things. It's clear how much they care, how much attention they are paying to the world, how unhappy they are about the mess they've been left, how determined they are to make a difference. There's more, there's more, but we move on. We must. The morning grows old.

I ask the children to consider the emotions of the Schuylkill during the recent storm. Empowered, alive, worried, trusting of the moon, I'm told. Then Raymond Rochester-Pitts, the budding ornithologist, adds that the river, while feeling big and powerful, also felt sad about all that pollution and debris.

How, then, I ask, did this river, with all her feelings, all her capacity, come to be? Write me her creation myth, I say, and Sashoya Dougan writes of a humble girl hoping to be important, a single drop that finds its way to the mortal world:

I was finally important, but after years and years people got lazy and harmful, they would throw things at me and ignore me. I longed to be home again, but this was my life now and I had a duty to uphold. I watched as the world around me turned the beautiful green land into rubble, gravel, and smoke. Not only was it killing the animals that I called friends but it was clouding the spirits of humans and their offspring and it continues to. I am now an old woman. I've seen things I cannot explain, but I've also seen a small but great amount of humans who will want to and have helped this world become healthier and greener. I don't know how much longer I will flow, but I pray to the gods that created me that I will live to see the day that our world is green again.

We've just begun to talk about voice and nouns, verbs and monologues, the river's heart, her love affair, her needs - and look. Every child here has something to say. Every minute that I'm with them teaches me well. I ask them now to imagine themselves taking a walk beside our mayor on the river's banks. What do they ask him? What does he say? Ellie Cheung imagines this:

"When do we know that the river has been fully restored to its original beauty?" I said.

"I can't say we ever will. But we can do the best we can," he said.

"How does one know that it's good enough?" I said.

"When we are satisfied," he said.

"But what about the river? When will it be satisfied?" I said.

"I don't have the answers for the river. I only have the answers for us," he said.

"Then who has the answers for the river?" I said.

"I don't know," he said, sighing.

"Love is a strong word, something that cannot be explained," one of the students says, a few moments later, as we work on a poem about those things the river loves. Yes, I think. Love cannot be explained. But how I felt it in that room.