Friday, May 23, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 4

 Paddling the River of Memory

Winter has at last released its grip on the Northwoods. Signs of renewal spring through the forest even as I write.

It's more than a year now, since I've stood beside my river. That makes maybe two years during my entire adult life that've passed without at least a visit.

Which means I'm overdue. But come hell or high water, by this time next week I'll be there.

So should you happen to hear a great sigh echoing down from the north, that'd be me.


Some years ago, I returned alone to that stretch of the Presque Isle where Heather & I shared our greatest youthful adventure. Should you like, you can read The Bear Story here.

I'd not been back there since and that particular year, while caught in the melancholy of a fast fading autumn, on a bright day in late October I decided to examine the authenticity of my own personal narrative, just to see what could be seen.

What I found was this...

Presque Isle (Revised)

Autumn is full upon the ground.

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

Repelled at the scent of decay, whisperers in the woods are silent. 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 turns cold. Only the wind boasts full voice, chilled even from the west and never silent. It roars, subsides, draws deep and then freshly rising 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 dead color at its floor. There nothing stirs save mortality on the breeze. The 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 maybe only believed we did. The distance between the two is so small, who can rightly say?

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 just the same.

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

History outweighs promise. The ground is nearer than ever. Maybe time demands that, to prepare us for a more intimate relation with the Earth. Flight becomes the province of dreams, lest memory invite the acid of old age and slayer of spirit, regret.

Autumn is full upon the river.

Slow water dons a semblance of day as a mask for a heart run cold. What's seen on the river's face is as real as real can be, with heaven overturned.

Only the faintest ripple betrays a canoe sliding across liquid sky. Clouds part before the bow, pass on in silence, then with a visible shiver reform behind.

Shining blue pierces dark current and the life of the river is revealed in the sky. Little fish seek precious warmth in shafts of light, unmindful of exposure. Now and then, slender green tendrils dance in bunches, 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 comes from nowhere and everywhere.

A great heron rises from the river to take a wide, slow arc across two skies before coming to rest again downstream. 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 is squeezed and once manifest courage long mitigated by the weight of perspective is revealed as speculative.

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's the spot where determination rose to the occasion and two spirits joined forever in lifelong pursuit, mostly up to the task. The woods were thick, the trail obscure and we blazed it with fortitude as chill 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 paddle upstream. Only occasionally do watery headwinds urge to the side, with course correction achieved on but a bit of will and 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 something like whole.

Daring being in scarce supply, 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 and some secret briefly there for the asking is again withheld.

Now history augments flight and seasons come undone.

The paths of rivers and otters and men intersect to render memory irrelevant. Autumn comes full upon me. In a moment, I'm not even a speck upon the sky.

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

All around, schools of tiny fish leap, fall back and leap again like black specks turning together in a great flock across high sky. A few lingering golden leaves sway brittle in an evening 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.

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