River Voices: Richard Gordon

I grew up in South Los Angeles and it was probably everything you can imagine it to be. Growing up in the hood, connecting with nature wasn’t really a thing. But luckily for me, it seemed to be in my nature. I found myself thirsting for wild places to explore and would imagine wild places where there were none. I even made friends with a jacaranda tree near my house that was very old and had very low hanging branches, which made for prime climbing. His name was George! 

Selfie of Richard in a fishing boat on a Minnesota lake

As I got older, George and I drifted as I got involved with drugs and gangs, eventually finding myself caught up in the criminal justice system. Having been in and out of detention centers until I turned 18, I ended up turning back to some of those same vices that landed me in the system to begin with. After a while, I dug myself out of that hole and, thanks to a stint with vegetarianism and raw foodism, found myself reengaging with nature in new and unexpected ways. 

This led me to choose my first major in horticulture, where I could begin learning how to grow my own food and medicine. This experience further deepened my connection to the natural world. I thank my grandmother every day for providing me with a place to call home and for helping me to nurture that sacred connection. 

One day, my grandma introduced me to a distant cousin of mine who would ultimately wind up recruiting me to live with her in Minnesota, where I enrolled at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). I remember being beside myself at the beauty of the wild spaces, not to mention the proximity to the Mighty Mississippi which was less than a mile from the house I lived in.

Just as I became friends with George the jacaranda tree, I had become friends with the Mississippi River. What I didn’t realize was how powerfully important and rewarding my relationship with the river would become.

As much as this new friendship meant to me and inspired me to realize who I could become, I found myself continuing to struggle with drugs and alcohol, which took an enormous toll on my declining mental health. I dropped out of my program at SCSU, and became severely reclusive and suicidal. During this time, I made several attempts to end my life. After one really close call, I woke up in the hospital following a near-death experience where I was shown an afterlife that was perfect and timeless, and I was able to embody that. 

I was given a choice, a choice to stay in that afterlife and exist perfectly forever or to return to the very temporary and imperfect life that I was so desperately trying to escape. My afterlife was perfect! Like the face or voice of god perfect! It made me weep and sob in utter and complete joy. As perfect as it felt, the thought of only feeling that and nothing else was equally saddening, and suddenly the struggles of a temporary imperfect life seemed meaningful and much more desirable. And so, I decided to come back to my life here on earth but with a profound sense of self.  

After leaving the hospital I shared my struggles with the family for the first time. They were surprised but very supportive. One of my cousins then introduced me to meditation, specifically meditating in wild spaces barefoot. I learned about the currents of energy that flow through all things and the practice of grounding that energy by simply putting skin to the earth. This made sense to do near water and is how I found my way back to the river... 

Richard standing with folded hands in front of a man-made waterfall

As part of my healing journey, I would take frequent trips down to the river to meditate barefoot on its banks. It was my safe space to cry, rage and express any other emotion I needed to in order to come back to center. By developing this meditation practice that honors that flow of energy, I was able to transform the conditions of my life in every way. 

Through this process, my relationship with the natural world became even more foundational in my life. I found myself slowly starting to re-emerge and soon began to realize that I had untapped talents in grassroots organizing, working on both issue and electoral campaigns. The experience that I gained during this time helped propel me into a new career I didn’t even know I wanted: working on behalf of the lands and waters that we all cherish. 

Now with The Nature Conservancy, I get to use my passion and talents to advocate for the true source of life that’s always been there for me: nature. I hope you will join me! 

Two people chatting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River
Two people chatting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River
Image Credit
© Mark Godfrey

Got a Story to Tell?

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How has your connection to water shaped your life path? Do you have a favorite Minnesota lake or river? How are you sharing your love of Minnesota waters with others? Whatever motivates you to take action for Our Mississippi, we want to hear about it!