Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paddling the River of Memory

A few years ago, I returned alone to that stretch of river where Heather & I long ago shared our greatest youthful adventure. This essay is what I came back with. Call it a coda, written 30 years after the music ended.

Should you like, you can read about the original adventure here & here.

No warranty given or implied that it'll help you any with this...

Presque Isle

Autumn is full upon the ground.

Burnished bronze through brilliant gold are fallen. The world breathes ragged at the edges, cut by the wind. Season and spirit are unbound. Resonance withers and what remains stinks of nostalgia.

Repelled by the scent of decay, whisperers in the woods are silent; entreaties saved for ears more fresh with inclination to listen. Water over rock murmurs in muted voice. With winter just beyond a fast dimming horizon, effort lent song now would prove ill spent later, when darkness runs long and flow goes cold. Only the wind boasts full voice, chilled even from the west and never silent. It roars, subsides, draws deep and rising fresh throws a thin veil of grey over an otherwise radiant afternoon.

The sun dims in acknowledgement. Long shadows mark the land, no matter midday.

Buzzards ride updrafts, alert to failed spirit. They crane on the fly and peer straight through thinned forest, down to the moist maze of color at its floor. There nothing stirs save yellow death upon the breeze. Great black birds with dried blood heads peel off on a gust, soar sideways to the south and are off to richer fields. In a moment, they're not even specks against the sky.

That's not easy to do, when one hasn't wings.

Once, we knew how to fly. Or thought so anyway and the two are not so far apart as to make for critical distance.

We drew full the nuances of autumn and soared upon its spirit. Owners of time, we pleased to call Death arbitrary. Then the future was whole with the past, Janus-faced and vibrant. Awareness made us weightless and at liberty to soar. Should a salamander live in a fire pit, the great owl stand guard at the gate and otters disdain foolishness with gruff rebuke, we knew the way those signs pointed. Or told ourselves we did, which is all the same.

And in a moment, we weren't even specks against the sky.

History outweighs promise. The ground is nearer than ever. Maybe time demands that, prerequisite to intimate relation with the Earth. Flight is made the province of dreams -- lest memory invite that acid of old age and slayer of spirit no matter the age, regret.

Autumn is full upon the river.

Slow black water assumes a semblance of day as a mask for a heart run cold. Wind abated, reflection is a real as real can be, but with heaven overturned. Only the faintest ripple betrays a canoe sliding across a liquid sky. Clouds part before the bow, pass on in silent moment then with a visible shiver reform behind. Shining blue pierces dark current. Little fish seek precious warmth in shafts of light, unmindful of exposure. Now and then, slender green tendrils dance in bunches through the sky, waving with revealed rhythm.

At its center, the world meets upon itself. Distinctions of perspective are healed. Stones hover, weightless. Grasses weave in every direction. Forest rises from forest, reaching clouds above and below. The wind points nowhere and everywhere, no compass need apply.

A great heron rises from the river and takes a wide, slow arc across two skies before coming to rest again downstream. Somewhere unseen, but near to where recall resides.

Memory is writ so large that sometimes actuality disdains to contain it. A remembered torrent is a trickle, distance becomes squeezed and youthful courage long tamped down by the weight of perspective turns tremulous.

It's not that memory lies. In its time the moment was true and so remains. There the dead thing was, life reduced to muck and ooze. And here is the spot where determination forced decision and two spirits joined forever in lifelong pursuit, mostly up to the task. The woods were thick, the trail obscure and blazed with fortitude as darkness fell. Thus is narrative created.

Memory is a stain indissoluble. And if the size of it doesn't fit the present, it's only that history has grown so large as to make the past seem small.

The day turns late. It's no trouble to move upstream. Only occasionally does facing current urge to the side and course correction is easily achieved with a bit of will accompanied by a gentle push. A pair of tiny ducks lead the way. Their delicate, duplicate forms effortlessly maintain safe distance.

An otter appears. Its smooth fur throws river on the rise.

The injury of time fades. If scolded for daring, convergence would be complete, old acquaintance made fresh, the past resurrected. Instead, the otter is playful and curious. Repeatedly it dips behind the clouds then reappears to make inquiry with a melodic string of delicate chirps and whirs. A slipstream in the sky marks its underwater path.

Then the otter is gone. As happened long ago, in a heartbeat unnoticed, an invitation is withdrawn. Some secret briefly there for the asking is withheld.

Now history augments flight and seasons come undone.

The worlds of otters and of men intersect and memory is rendered irrelevant. The present is a promise that can be forsaken but not broken. Knowledge is no better excuse to deny what's true than is ignorance.

Autumn is full upon me.

The trip upriver is leisurely. Air and water are one. Earth and the heavens are indivisible and firelight streams through all.

Season and place are reflected whole in the richness of moment. All around, schools of tiny fish leap, fall back and leap again like black specks turning together across high sky. A few lingering golden leaves sway brittle in a freshening breeze. The river runs as deep as heaven is high. Winter is at the horizon, with night just beyond.

Steady against the current and with memory tucked safely again into its bed of dreams, flying proves instinctive.

And from this vantage, one can see that the Evening Star will find its proper place upon the river so to be cast by it back to the sky, as once was a midday sun.


  1. As a former Milltowner, I am so happy to have stumbled onto this blog.

    Love the Presque Isle canoe story. Made the same mistake during a spring run.

    1. As I've gotten older, I very much favor flat water over fast, which is a game for younger folk. Or maybe those braver than me, whichever.

      Thanks for the kind words and welcome aboard.