When I asked my group of third grade and kindergarten writers what it means to make and keep a promise, I was admittedly asking for myself. After a certain point, promises fall out of fashion. Adults have contracts and expectations but rarely do we stamp our commitments with an “I promise.” For children, however, promises are their informal contracts—trust is emphasized with the golden pinkie promise. As I was coming up with a writing exercise before class, I realized I had forgotten what I kept promises about and why, so I decided to turn to my expert friends at Pueblo Gardens Elementary.
I first asked these young writers what they would promise a friend. Overwhelmingly most replied, “To keep a secret.” One student said, “To never hurt them.” I then asked what they would promise their pets. Their responses revolved around care: “I promise to take my dog for a walk” or “to give my cat kisses.” But some responses, interestingly, blended care for a pet and promises we’d normally make to a friend. For example, one student said they promised to celebrate their dog’s birthday. A girl promised that she’d keep her dog company. An enthusiastic student even announced, “Well, since I am a bird I promise my fellow birds that I will feed them worms.”
That same class, we read Tennyson’s “The Brook” and the conversation shifted toward the question, “What would we promise a river?” In Tennyson’s poem the river-as-speaker babbles over rocks and winds through towns. We imagined rivers we had seen before. And then we imagined what we would possibly promise such a vast, inanimate object.
Promises to the river were varied and, to my surprise, incorporated the types of promises we make to pets—even friends. The primary category of promise was of responsibility. Many wrote that they would “clean the river” or swore to “never throw trash into it.” The second type of promise was, interestingly, similar to secrets held between friends. One student promised that they would, “Tell [the river] my secrets if it keeps them.” Another said, “I promise to keep secrets,” a response that is delightfully mysterious. (This example lets us rethink the presumed inanimacy of the river since, according to the student, the river can make and keep secrets, too.) An additional promise type focused on respect and betrayal, such as, “I promise to never cross [the river].” One student promised companionship and that they would, “be there for the river when it needs me.” In this exercise, the young writers fluidly extended the promises they typically make with friends to promises between themselves and nature. Their exchanges were delightfully reciprocal and magical, as they treated the river like an animate friend.
Our class poem consisted of about forty paper strips linked together in a chain (what we called a River of Words). Each student wrote their promise on a blue strip of construction paper. The last strip I collected read: “I promise the river that when I feel sad I will visit it.” The promise is internal—an interesting contrast to the rest of the lines which revolve around how one should treat the river. This writer’s promise is a promise to the river as much as it is to themselves—that when they are sad they will bring themselves to the river, and do what? Seek personal refuge. In this line the promise is not a commitment that requires the river to be animated. The writer acknowledges the assurance the river can give them, and the promise is left at that.
I like the conditions of our River of Words poem. In the world we created together, preserving the river is not predicated on law or written contracts, but instead merges the relationship between human and human and human and river. In our poem, promises to a river have as much weight as the ever-respected pinkie promise between friends.
Sophie Daws identifies as a femme-nature poet. She is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona, where she received degrees in English Literature and in Creative Writing with a minor in Plant Sciences. Her work revolves around femme imagery, childhood, memory, and architecture--all of which are explored in terms of nature/ecology. She volunteers with Iskashitaa Refugee Network and is concerned with the intersection of global food justice/sustainable agriculture and, of course, writing. She can be caught reading at various bars/femme events around Tucson and was the recipient of the Hattie Lockett Award in 2018.
Feature photo by Tom Gainor