Rivers

By Roger Emile Stouff

April 3, 2009

I am smitten, it is clear.
   Odd as it may be for a swamp-reared boy, cradled on black, still water beneath stands of cypress and tupelo. A bayou boy who explored the banks of the Teche through endless summer days. A lake denizen, as happy there as in the folds of heaven.
   But I am enamored of rivers. What did I know of rivers growing up? Big, hulking beasts like the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya, the Sabine. Though I admit a Twain-esque devotion to them, it was not until I stepped off a plane in Montana that I really understood rivers. We took a car across the Rockies from west to east, on what they called the Going to the Sun Road, and rivers were everywhere. Call them rivers or creeks or streams, those magnificent waters were alive.


The first river: Glacier National Park, Montana

   Finally we stopped at an overlook. This is what I wrote then about that first river I got near enough to meet:
   It was a fast beast, this river, growling menace as it went, crashing between and over gray boulders, exploding itself into a thousand sputtering droplets then reforming an instant later to continue its frantic, single-minded advance southward. It's determination was humbling, its power startling.
   Everywhere I looked, nearly, there was water. Creeks no more than a trickle, like a cup or canteen overturned; streams like small veins, capillaries, tendrils of a larger whole. Streams surging, streams rolling over rocks of every color, shape and size, streams whispering, muttering, speaking and shouting; streams singing, chanting and weeping; streams and rivers, meandering, tranquil or hysterical.

   That’s when I began to lose my heart, I believe. But in late 2006 I suddenly became aware of other rivers in Louisiana besides the Big Muddy and such. That fall I visited my first Louisiana stream, and I would write the following week, White sand under our feet, evidence of the tremendous antiquity of this stream, and the depth of the ravine witness to its former might. Twenty or more feet down there was the river, leaping over rocks and sandstone terraces, chortling and laughing, murmuring and grumbling. I thought about closing my eyes for a moment and trying to believe I was back on Otatso Creek in northern Montana, but decided to do so would be to diminish the magic of this place: this stream needed no comparisons, no enhancements. It had flowed here thousands of years; my arrogance would only demean it.


Otatso Creek, Montana

   But even then, I didn’t know the depth of my obsession. It took a couple more visits to that place, and others. Finally, I knew that I was lost. Lost, surely as a man fallen in love with a sultry gypsy; surely as a dreamer of star voyages, as a painter of ghosts.
   And so now, rivers and streams and creeks – moving, laughing water of any kind – rush through my dreams at night, behind my eyes as I gaze out the barricaded windows of this concrete bunker I spend my daytime hours within. It’s one thing, as A.A. Milne said, to “watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you and you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” It is quite another to walk into it, let it course and envelope. It is electric. It is powerful yet gentle. It may, even at normal flows, suggest that it could sweep you away on a whim, crack your skull on rocks, break your bones and fill your lungs with itself. Like any deity, it offers love but demands respect, and the price of carelessness is high.


A north Louisiana river

   Now, at last, I understand what Harry Middleton wrote, “It has always been water, moving water, water still marked by wildness, water that is active rather than passive. Wild water scrubs away layers of dead skin, stirs my dreams and the legacy of blood and bone, the legacy of earth and sky, sunlight and wind, water and fire, the rush of the universe, the drift of time.”
   Not until I stepped into them, for the third, fourth, fifth time did I understand. I suppose I had to let their power take the time to saturate, get past the layers and shields of paved highways, steel girders and plate-glass windows.
   So here I am, and of course, you’ll consider me foolish, those of you who know me well. Just me, getting all het-up about something again. What, last month it was puppy dogs? Last fall it was wild onions and irises? It’s always something with you, boy. And yeah, you’re right. But the common denominator to all such things will only occur to you if you can see the sum of the units, organize the parts into the whole.
   Rivers. Ah, rivers. “I started out thinking of America as highways and state lines,” Charles Kuralt wrote. “As I got to know it better, I began to think of it as rivers. Most of what I love about the country is a gift of the rivers… America is a great story, and there is a river on every page of it.”


River of Dreams: The Roaring Fork, Tenn.

   Soon, I’ll be there again. Ah, the promise of it! It is enticing and tempestuous. But when this wind and rain allows, I’ll be where I’ve been longing to be for so many months now. A place where there’s no phone service and no good place to hang a clock. There are places to be alone, and yes, there are rivers there, laughing and chattering like school children, or old men and women. A chorus. A choir, set into song by cold springs and scented rain.
   I’ve spent the winter chilled but dreaming of rivers. Rivers of memory, Harry Middleton said, that grow and shrink with the recalling, mix and mingle in the chaos of recollection. The time, at last, is almost nigh.
   Soon. Oh, soon.