Haunted by waters

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“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, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, 1976)

My first memories of my affinity for rivers are from around five or six years old.

The Laurel Fork of Holly River—a tributary of the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, a tributary of the Gulf of Mexico—ran behind the rustic cabin my parents had rented for a week in Holly River State Park, deep in the upland forests of Webster County, West Virginia.

The stream was barely knee-deep for a child there, where it cut through lush moss and fern covered banks under a canopy of hemlock, giving me safe quarter to catch salamanders and crawfish and snails from tiny pools surrounded by flat rocks washed by eons of river and rain.

It was a magical spot, made more so by my vivid imagination of woodland faeries and leprechauns hiding amongst the trees and wildflowers, watching my every move and whispering silent musical spells through the soft breezes that gently shook the surrounding leaves and blew slight riffles across the water.

I remember the first time my dad took me trout fishing on that same stream, showing me how to slide a greasy salmon egg from a slime-covered jar onto a bare hook and how to position my bobber on my line at just the right depth to show me if a fish had taken my bait.

I also remember quickly losing interest in not catching fish but becoming keenly fascinated with how a flat rock would skip across the water’s surface if you threw it at just the right angle.

And I remember dad telling me how that would scare the fish, but patiently allowing me to keep on doing it because he knew I was having fun, and fishing was supposed to be fun.

And how I later figured out that the reason it was important for fishing and rock-skipping to be fun was because they both connected me to the river.

The home I grew up in is still located on the West Virginia bank of the Ohio River, which I could watch flowing by from our front yard and my second-story bedroom window every day.

We all become parts of the environments in which we live, and they become a part of us. And so that big river in many ways defined who I became. It was a constant reminder of the relentless movement of life, of the cycles in which we exist that have neither beginning nor end.

There is a flow to life. A rhythm. An overarching and unending cadence within which everything that is exists.

And, for me, rivers have always provided the perfect—and mostly unspoken—metaphor for that reality.

But what’s interesting about humans is that we somehow uniquely have the ability—the choice, if you will—to step outside of that flow. To disrupt the rhythm. To interrupt the cadence.

Sometimes we do it unintentionally, accidentally finding ourselves disconnected from it by circumstances beyond our control.

But mostly we do it on purpose, arrogantly assuming that we know a better way.

I used to drop sticks into the water behind that cabin on the Laurel Fork of the Holly River and watch them float downstream and out of sight, imagining them floating into the confluence with the Elk, down to the Kanawha, on to the Ohio, into the Mississippi, and eventually finding their way into the Gulf of Mexico.

They had no shortcut from Webster County to New Orleans. No way to skip a part of the watershed that seemed to run too fast or too slow or too muddy.

And I wonder if that’s not somehow descriptive of why we call humanity “fallen.” If it’s not the message hidden somewhere in our creation myths about snakes tempting people to eat magic apples.

If the story of who we are is somehow defined by our ability to either live in the flow or out of it, whether by choice or circumstance.

And if that’s why in those times I find myself somehow disconnected from the flow, my first instinct is to return to those places where rivers begin.

To find in the trickles among moss and ferns and rocks those spells whispered on the winds by faeries and leprechauns, to remember the deep truths I could not hear but always felt deep in my being.

To experience what it’s like to listen to forest symphonies played by an orchestra of wind and trees, water and rocks, and to feel what it means to be a part of it rather than apart from it.

To remember what it is we’re all made of.

And what it is we’re all made for.

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