The Haunting of Water

I like standing at the river. Sometimes the water is mildly rough, or the current is strong, and the sound of water is persistent, and it is easy to understand that such sounds have always been with us. But even when the water is calm, a mirror, I can hear the slow, gentle lap at the sand. There is never no sound, even in the calmest moments; and at night (when the river always seems quiet), I stand motionless and always hear water and it somehow meets my moods, like Zhuang, who said, “The sound of water says what I think.”

The inviting sound of pounding waves at the ocean also calms my nerves, slows my pulse and puts me in some state of suspension where I could be five in Point Lookout, Long Island, or ten on the Great South Bay. Seventeen with friends at Seventy-Seventh Street, or fifty on the Outer Banks, the same pounding, though each set of waves has its unique tone, and over the years I have come to know the meter, the slow crescendo, the fermata—brief, barely a pause, and the sound of retreat accompanied by that dizzying visual of the next wave approaching as a thin layer of the last one recedes under, and it is deafening and immediate, though it doesn’t make a sound. Not really.

And out over the channel some gulls glide by, or work their way into the wind, hovering, watching for fish below. I’ve seen them dive sometimes from so high it is hard to imagine the impact not fracturing their frame, but no; they rise, sometimes swiftly, fish in claws, other times tentatively, wading a while, then shaking off the water, some seagrass, and taking off hungry.

But it’s their call I have come to find comfort in, the high-pitched shriek of an osprey or eagle, the deep-throated, almost guttural gasp of a heron, and the familiar scream of the gulls.

The marsh is almost always silent during the day, save the frightened call of a heron or the circling of some osprey calling to her young. But in the late hours of the day and even later, when dark, the sound of spring peepers is ever-present, and the occasional bullfrog closer to the edge of the trees where the marsh pools around the holes of former stumps. There, if you walk too closely along the bank or at the edge of the road, the bullfrogs leap quickly from some pads or high grass and jump into what Basho described as “at the ancient pond the frog plunges into the sound of water.”

Sometimes I can hear a fishing boat, but usually only in the mornings or early afternoons. I am startled at how midday somehow dilutes these sounds, the water, the marsh, the gulls, even though from this vantage I can’t hear the cars crossing the bridge or the conversations of neighbors, since anyway no on lives close enough to see them, let alone hear them. Still, the sounds so present at dusk and dawn disappear when the sun is high, as if the very light itself has shrouded the music of water and the rhythm of nature.

I come here to the river to listen but not be heard, to see but not be noticed, because, like Thoreau, I believe, “There is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us alright.”  After all, Nature is the true artist, the composer, the painter, the writer, and the rest of us spend our lives imitating the master the best we can, which, on the best of days, remains a shadow of our thoughts when standing on the sand, listening.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

The river was cut by the world’s great flood

and runs over rocks from the basement of time.

On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words,

and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

–Norman Maclean

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