Friday, September 10, 2010

A Story of Rivers (Part I)

I’ve always felt that the stories of America, and we as Americans, are inextricably bound to the stories of the nation’s rivers[i]. They have been, and remain, our lifeblood, the focus of our greatest cities, and a draw for our imaginations. They were our inroads to the continent, and the history of our character as a people stretches out along their lengths.

My own life, and my own story are equally intertwined with the rivers I have know.

indian river

Indian River, New York, photo by Joel Kramer (

I grew up on a tributary of the Indian River in New York. When we were small and the world was undiminished, the small piece of Black Creek that threatened our ramshackle old farmhouse with yearly spring floods seemed a raging torrent of water. To young eyes, unable to discern the scope of the world, it was a vast thing. But in the afternoon light of adulthood, it is really just a small creek feeding into a less than notable river in a near-forgotten landscape. The Indian river connected several of the small local rural towns, whose school district bore its name. It meandered around a glacial landscape pocketed by innumerable isolated lakes. When I think of my father, passed on 10 years now, it is often the too-rare occurrences of going fishing at places like Muskellunge Lake. These moments stand out as fond memories in a sometimes tempestuous relationship. Many of my friends had fathers who were woodsmen, outdoors types. My father certainly enjoyed the outdoors, but we never did a lot of hiking or camping together. I wish we had, for both the memories it would have provided[ii] and also to have explored more of where I grew up. [iii] Sentimental wanderlust, perhaps, but it’s also a fascinating landscape to me. My parents death and our transition to adulthood was like a flood, raw and uncontrollable. All the detritus of our past and our lives was driven on before us, and fell out, each in its turn. I feel like we lost our link to that place along with everything else, as we were driven downstream through the years by the tumult. These remembered moments feel like flotsam that eventually found its way to dry ground, but out of context with its origins.

Kring Point

Kring Point, St. Lawrence River, New York

The St. Lawrence River, for all its hulking, massive ore ships, is a river that has always felt to me like a throwback in time. It is broad and majestic. It has a sense of place that seems more like an echo than a sounding call. Stretching from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, it is of a scale that dwarfs and is incomprehensible to the tiny river towns it flows past, but flows with a pace that belies its long journey. Even without the grandiose mansion islands and castle that shackle it to a bygone era, it has a sense of oldness. A sense of being a repository of years and peoples. The deciduous forests and dense greenery of the Adirondacks give way to the gentle sloping rock outcrops and pine stands of the river. My mother taught in a small resort town on the River. We often went with her in the late summer as she spent days readying her school room for the coming year. The old school, empty except for our curious wanderings was equal parts frightening and intriguing. It was old, dusty, and spoke of years and generations gone by. The town around it, even with the last rushes of tourists filtering through the shoddy streetfront bars and ramshackle boat tours, felt the same. Old and patient, waiting through the years. Resolute and cumulative. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to grow up somewhere without this sense of place and identity. I can’t help but compare it to the Black River in Watertown, the nearest City. The Black River flowed in hues true to its namesake. Where the St. Lawrence was picturesque and stately, the Black River was raw, powerful, gritty. It cut, unheeded, through rock cliffs in Watertown, and its history was the hard, mechanical clockwork of industry. My father worked in Watertown, in an industrial park, dingy and past its prime that echoed the same history. In many ways my childhood and my parents were reflective of these two characters…my mother from a stately downstate family, my father from a working class upstate family, she of a patient, old spirit, and his raw and passionate. Myself torn between the pull of history and place, and the demand of the now.[iv] But it’s always been the St. Lawrence that called the strongest to me. In the end, when my father passed away, we scattered his ashes on its waves; and then my mothers, in turn.

[i] I admit to being biased in this assessment, being someone who works with surface water bodiesin a professional context.

[ii] It often feels to me like people I have lost seem to diminish in my memories…not that I think less of them, but that the whole of that person gets compressed by the years. Like when you take a trip and take photos, and as the years go by, it’s the photos that form the backbone of your memory, even though time passed and things happened in between them. Those mental snapshots of my father seem to get fewer as the years go by, and he seems reduced to a collection of still frames, frozen in time.

[iii] I talk a lot about how where I grew up affected me, as it does with anyone, and the uniqueness of the landscape, but as I have grown up I have realize how much more there was to the area than the narrow psychic landscape of the places we frequented. We tend see things as a series of waypoints, and pathyways instead of a top down map. Sometimes that means the interconnections and relationships are lost. The small creek that flowed past our house was part of Black Creek, thence part of the Indian River, and so on…all connected on a map, but not in my childhood head. My sense of place as a child was very much like my sense of people in the previous endnote…single frames tumbling over the threshold of memory without anything but general connection.

[iv] When I left New York and ended up in Houston, it felt like history repeating.

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