The Rappahannock, where tonight I stand and think about this “first world” with its factories and interstates and rockets, and more. And I think about the “third world,” or, at least, the third world as I knew it. I have waded across rivers in both; I’ve wandered aimlessly and with purpose in both, and I have touched the extremes of elation and despair in both. Langston is an obvious muse here: I have known rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Rivers are a running theme in my life’s narrative, and I’m not certain if it is because I have always lived near one or if it is more than that. I have always been drawn to them, whether when young and my friend Eddie and I would walk the shore and push through the marsh grass and onto the duck blind near Timber Point, or at college where the river was my retreat, my refuge, and sometimes my dining hall.
There is certainly a sameness about them: the flow of water tells me where the river is shallow or deep, where the sandbar might alter the flow and current, and where the water is warm or cool. Along the shore the markings make clear what wildlife might be about, whether the slushy prints of a muskrat or the skid marks of a croc. All low tides expose crustaceans and debris caught on ancient and mysterious tree roots, and it is easier to know where to walk, when to portage. And hightides, likewise, tell of the coming weather, the movement of the moon, and the suddenly unpredictable movement of wildlife.
The worst flooding I ever saw is a tie between the Amur in eastern Siberia, where its unprecedented height wiped out bridge tracks, and the Rillito in ’83, where we watched a house float by and the bridge of Route 19 to Mexico get wiped out, where just a week before kids played baseball on the dry bed.
The driest riverbed I experienced, however, was the Senegal, which was once so low, my friend Claire and I walked across the wide reach from Senegal to Mauritania to walk through a village there, and we barely got our feet wet. Such is drought in the third world. Such is dehydration and starvation and emigration to find a river with bounty to make a living.
I learned to canoe on the Lynnhaven, to plan the future on the Allegany, and to be a father here on the Rapp. I once wanted to canoe from Harrisburg down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake at Havre de Grace, Maryland, and down to Virginia Beach, but didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t, or I do know why but like so many of our plans and dreams, “why” we don’t do them is such an allusive thought it is difficult to say anything except “life happened,” but that is, of course, a weak response, since life was clearly already happening for a mind to imagine such adventure. Maybe, instead, simply, “You know what? I really don’t know why I didn’t do that.” In the end, I simply didn’t.
I have fallen into all of these rivers except the Neva, the Vltava, and the Charles, which I used to walk along on Sunday afternoons and watch the Harvard crew team scull along unaware. I’d walk to Harvard Square and buy breakfast and sit on a bench near the Chuck and wonder if I could paddle all the way to the Cape, and beyond the Cape to the Vineyard. I do know why I didn’t do that; it was simply a bad idea.
While I have been “in” all of these rivers save the Angara, the Amur, the Vltava, and the Charles; ironically, I’ve only swam in the Allegheny and the Rapp. I’ve fished in the Connetquot, the Lynnhaven, the Allegheny, and the Rappahannock, and from the Allegheny I’ve boiled water, dried fish in the sun, and dropped into it a stack of books so that they were all ruined, and I dried them in the sun like small fish and returned them to the library through their afterhours book drop.
I have skated on the Connetquot.
I have lost dear friends on the Allegheny and the Lualaba, and I’ve made friends on the shores of them all. I studied the Native American life who used to live along every single one of these rivers save the Neva and the Vltava, some of them I studied in more depth than others; a few to the point of absorption so that I could easily believe I lived there in another life, and perhaps I have, since even those days along the Allegheny now seem like several lifetimes ago.
The Connetquot makes me think of Eddie; the Lynnhaven my father, and also my neighbor Karen, who told me while we were deep into a late day canoe trip about a girl who had been killed by a muskrat in a canoe at Bush Gardens, and she frightened us both so much that we never paddled to shore so fast. The Allegheny and the Lualaba makes me think of Joe; the Rillito, Tom and Renee; the Charles, Linda, who, ironically, I only met briefly in Massachusetts, and not along the Charles, and I didn’t even know her there but met her again when she overheard me talking to a friend about “the Chuck” and turned around, five states away, and we had lunch at Bubbas on the Lynnhaven River. The Senegal, Claire of course, and the Susquehanna, Brian, whom I drove with more times than I can remember but not enough times—no, not nearly enough times, all along Route 22 from Harrisburg to the Allegheny on the Southern Tier of New York State.
The Neva reminds me of too many people to mention since I’ve walked the shores with so many friends and family, but mostly it reminds me of the fortitude, perseverance, and sheer will of the women of Leningrad during the Blockade during World War Two, when the Nazis bombed the city for nine hundred days, yet these women broke through the ice daily to find water and fish to sustain the troops and the children. To walk the shores of the Neva is to wade through time so that the war is always at your ankles, pulling you, and the stories of survival run up your legs and saturate your very existence.
The Vltava makes me think of Arnost whose bestselling books often include this distinctive river. It also makes me think of medieval torture methods since I’ve spent some time in that museum right on the river where they have four floors of the actual instruments used half a millennium ago, some of which were incorporated into the bridge crossing the river.
Let’s move on.
The Angara and the Amur remind me of my son, though I can add him to many others on this list except the Rillito and the Lualaba, the Vltava and the Charles, since we have traveled together to many of these locales.
And just about every night now for twenty-five years, we head down the hill to the Rappahannock River and wait for the sun to slip behind the trees upriver, behind the Norris Bridge, behind the distant Hummel Field, behind Fredericksburg at the headwaters, and behind the Blue Ridge beyond that, and the sky darkens to some royal blue, like river water, with channels of burnt orange and rust, and yellow ebbing farther west, hinting at sunrise, which, when we can of course, we catch at Stingray Point where the Chesapeake Bay and the Piankatank River gather and lift us up for the day, giving us pause, so that when we head out to face the unknown, we at least understand we do know rivers, and our souls have grown deep like the rivers.