River of My Youth

Each type of landscape has a soul of its own. — Jens Jensen


     The river of my youth was deep and constant in its flowing. In Summer, its slow, lazy current journeyed within steep banks of valley-bottom soil, but in Winter, its strong, roiling current engulfed those same banks, and the river flowed wherever it chose.

 

The river's surface was peaceful and quiet in Summer (left), its banks lined with willows in which deer liked to rest during the day (right).

     As I watched the river from dawn 'til dusk, from season to season, and year to year I found myself moving inward and changing with it. The river, fluid in its motion and flexible in its moods, instructed me in the current of life that I might navigate it safely without tiring. The river's song informed me that I was but a passing, like everything borne upon its current, from birth to death to memory to birth again in some other form, an atom in a water lily or a catfish. The river's burden of silt taught me that creation and extinction are but opposite sides of the same dynamic--change, which manifests itself through eternal becoming. But the most dramatic lesson of all was that obstacles are temporary and can be overcome with persistence.
     Over the years, I saw bullfrogs and pond turtles sunning themselves, and watched rufous humming birds nesting in the oak trees. I observed deer bedded in the shade of overhanging willows, and I saw ducks, kingfishers, beaver, otters, mink, raccoons, and red fox. These were the quiet, gentle times in my adolescence, and although I saw the river change every day of every month of every year, its basic features seemed the constant in my life.
     But one day in my fifteenth summer, I noticed a small crack in the river's bank, where a tongue of land about a hundred feet wide protruded some fifty feet into the water. The land, in a quiet challenge of resistance, had long forced the river to stay its course, creating a bend in its current, where the river wanted to flow straight.
     Although I had often fished from the shade of oak trees gracing the tip of this piece of bank, I had no idea that the river for many years had been quietly carrying away the underlying soil a bit at a time. Each grain of soil the water loosened in its flowing and transported downstream was an infinitesimal cause that, when grain was added to grain, had the cumulative effect of weakening the tongue of land.
     The process of moving bits of soil from one place to another took longer here than it might have somewhere else due to the tensile strength of the trees' roots as they grasped the soil like interlacing fingers in a desperate bid for life. Nevertheless, as each grain of soil washed away over the years, the trees' roots became increasingly exposed. Somewhere in time, the sheer weight of the trees, now supported by less soil than before, began to weaken the tongue of land, where the river's bank created a straighter line of least resistance to the water's flow.
     For many years, there was no visible sign of the soil's departure because there is always a lag in the time between the initial onset of a cause and its noticeable effect, although some cause and effect relationships may seem instantaneous. Thus, by the time I noticed the tiny crack in the soil, an irreversible threshold of cause and effect had already been crossed. That happened when the amount of soil washed downstream was sufficient to ensure that the land's base of support was irreparably weakened.
     Then, one day, the oak trees began to tremble. Leaping up, I raced to the place from which I used to fish, only to race back again to solid ground as the earth beneath my feet commence to shutter. Turning, I watched with pounding heart as water swirled over the place on which I had just stood. Although anchored briefly by roots of trees growing along the point of separation, the land was gone--as was my known and fixed horizon of the river. Forever gone!
     I was the only human to see the momentous event, the last person to ever stand on that piece of land, as it became part of the river and eventually of the sea. I had witnessed a singular event in the history of the Universe, a visibly decisive moment in the never-ending story of the river, a story of perpetual change, of endless becoming.
     By the next summer, even the trees had been swept away. Clearly, the river itself was changed as the trees and soil journeyed to the sea, the great receptacle of the land's riches that, upon receiving this most precious of gifts, was also changed. Moreover, my perception of the river was changed, for it was now a "different" river, a straighter river with fewer trees, less shade, and one less place from which to fish.
     When I gazed upon the river that summer, I was acutely aware of my mental image, my "snapshot," of what had been, and the reality of the moment, a different moment in my relationship with the river. But then, even had I taken a photograph, it too would fade over time because all things are part of a never-ending story. Nothing in the material world is an entity unto itself, nothing a beginning or ending. Everything is a continuance within the eternal present, from an unknown "past" to an unknowable "future."
     Today, all that remains of the original landscape and the great event through these many years is the imaged etched in my mind, the memory enshrined in my heart. And they, too, are changing as I age, and the intervening years alter my perception of an event that took place over fifty years ago.

 

But for those who came after me, who saw the river for the first time, it would seem changeless (left), even as it carried the pollen of Spring and Summer on its placid surface (right).


© chris maser 2002. All rights reserved.

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