Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2010 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5771
Of Time and the River
By Paul Greenberg
SYLAMORE, Ark. --
The last time I was here on the White River, it seemed greener. So was I. After a rush of spring rains, the river flowed high, strong and steady, as if late for an appointment downstream. All was green. The water, the trees, the air. Everything reflected the color of the lush grasses and leafy hardwoods that had sprouted in the wake of a couple of floods the year before. Even the sunlight seemed suffused with green.
The once broad stretch of sandy beach along the shore had shrunk to nothing; the rushing river came right up to the little trees and bright-green weeds on the bank.
Now I am an old man in a dry month, and the river has shrunk away, leaving the widest, rock-strewn stretch of beach I've ever seen along this bend. You can tell where the river has been and whither it is tending by the consistency of the soil you're standing on. It's hard and sun-dried near the bank, muddy and just recently revealed as you walk out toward where the river still flows. What's left of it is steadily punctuated by ripples and bubbles, each marking the strike of a fish. There's life in the old river yet, as in old men.
This year, on this long morning, the light is more yellow than green as it comes slowly drifting down through the tall, stout oaks along the bank. They maintain their vigil year after year, spring after fall. They've seen it all by now, flood and drought, and have the rings to show for it. Trees have time. They have no agenda, no talking points, they've never been interviewed or written an angry letter to the editor, and they're never late for a very important date. They make even the slow-moving river look impatient.
You can't step in this river or any other twice. As was observed long ago, it's never the same river. And neither are you the same creature. The malice of time has worked its way and left its marks, leaving some things behind, sweeping others away. Change happens, slowly and sometimes suddenly.
This morning the ground shifted. There were a couple of earthquakes in these hills, noticeable ones. The first, I learned later, was a 4.0 magnitude at 8:33, the second a 2.5 at 8:43. I was still in the bed when it started shaking. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. It was the first quake I'd ever been in.
I've suddenly developed a new interest in planning for natural disasters. This morning made a believer of me. The very ground beneath our feet can give way. And not just metaphorically.
Rivers, too, can shift, as any farmer can tell you. They'll flow wherever they've a mind to as water seeks its own level -- much like capital in an economy -- no matter what the intent of the planners at the
After a heavy rain the next night (what a wonderful sound on the cottage's tin roof!), the river was up again, and by midday it had retaken half the beach that had been exposed the day before.
Some men can be like that, too, full of ebbs and flows, sudden cascades of raging temperament alternating with deep, still pools. Much like History itself.
It was said of Lee during The War that he had aged as rivers do, always flowing on, seeking where he ought to be, sometimes by breaking through all opposition, at other times withdrawing in the face of Nature and Nature's relentless God. Through it all, he remained deliberate, unswayed by fortune even while accepting its twists and turns, the same within even as he went from young lieutenant to old general.
It was different with Lincoln; you can see him change in every portrait taken from the time he assumed the presidency of a broken Union, determined to somehow put it together again. Each victory and defeat, hope and sorrow, is engraved on his features as the politician becomes statesman, the partisan leader Father Abraham.
By now generation after generation of present-bound historians have tried to explain Lincoln's transformation, each in his own contemporary turn of phrase and thought. They cannot resist cutting the past down to their own small size. They might as well try to explain rivers without looking up at the striated cliffs like the ones towering above the White River at this point in its winding course. Each layer of stone reflects a geological age, gradual or catastrophic.
These trees along the river bear witness, too. Their gnarled trunks record every season. They could be the trees a dying Stonewall Jackson longed for in his last delirium -- after his and Lee's finest, fleeting hour at Chancellorsville. "Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees."
Far away, downstream in the towns and cities, across the country, the hubbub of an election mounts. Once again, right on schedule in our constitutional scheme of things, it is the biennial Moment of Decision at the Crossroads of History. Feel free to supply your own overwrought piece of election-year rhetoric at this point. "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!" The phrase is
Candidates scurry, charges and counter-charges grow ever more petty, and a drummed-up excitement mounts. As the country waits for direction, ever fluid capital hesitates for once, uncertain which way to flow, whether to dry up or break through or both or neither. While time, inexorable, moves on.
As with any river you've known, this one flows with memories. Once there was a river dog around here named Gravy -- he hung out with a pal named Biscuit -- and he was quite the swimmer. An Izard County hound, he'd adopted his only nominal owner. Every time he'd be taken back to the river to visit, he'd jump out of the car, home at last, and make a beeline for the water. One time he emerged, furiously shaking himself off the way dogs do, his black coat now sleek and shiny, with a good-sized fish in his mouth. A trout, of course, The White remains one of the best trout-fishing streams in the country. We'd known Gravy was a swimmer, but he turned out to be a fisherman, too. He's gone now, but the river flows on, heedless.
The river will flood again, and recede again. And leave its mark behind. That's the great thing -- well, one of the great things -- about a river. It restores the mind's soil, memory.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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