I arrive in a midnight storm bursting from an angry cloud, startled like a child awakened by a clap of thunder. Illuminated in a sheet of heat lightning, I descend in a torrent through the woods and land with a heavy plop that turns the surface of the creek into bouncing jewels. My weight drives me down to the cool dark quiet depths where I linger all night, buffeted between the swift current above me and the silty shifting creek bed below. Muffled echoes of the storm above thump like distant harmonies. I blend formless into the river, at home.
At dawn, the sunlight cuts shafts through the trees above and filters into the darkness of the creek. Its warmth raises me to mid-depth where the current, like a big brother, picks me up and draws me along. So swift. Yielding to it is like finding your heart’s rhythm and never yearning again. We course along the river’s ever-carving path.
At the sharp turn where a thick carpet of ferns stands proud, the river has sculpted a calm pool, shaded by cedar trees. After spinning wildly from eddy to eddy where the river careens around the bend, I catapult into the pool. It lies still, lingering like a chant, strewn with dainty stray leaves curled at the edges and a small branch turning as slowly as an hour hand. I am close enough to the branch that I could adhere to it, like a child to a blanket, but I remain silently suspended beneath it, hovering and shifting for hours in the quiet pool.
Two fallen cedars covered by a velvet moss overlap across the cavernous bottom. Like distant ancestors, they feed the river as the river once fed them. A brook trout appears from behind the decomposing cedars, absorbs me and then gracefully swims to shallow waters, reaping my oxygen, and expelling me on its way.
I submit to the current once again, replenished by the spring-fed streams that seep through the river banks. It’s a joyous jostle. We babble and bounce, the sun catching our splashes, the current twisting our flight path, churning us under and tossing us up. It’s rowdy and then tranquil, resounding and then quiet, like a day in the life of a happy family. Deborah appears, paddling upstream atop the surge. She advances towards me with a measured cadence, while I, in free flow, hurl headlong towards her. We meet where the river narrows. Her paddle scoops me up. What are the odds! Now I’m exposed – a single droplet pulled from the trillions of droplets in the mad river. Time stops. Deborah’s eyes glance at the face of the paddle on which I jiggle, caught by the sun sparkling on my surface. She smiles and sighs. The scene is picture-perfect: a woman paddling a small vessel up the river through the forested valley on a late spring day. The trout thrash in the shallow marshes; the birds swoop, ringing out a hoot and holler. The flowing water and the blowing breeze marry in a whoosh of soft white noise. It would be nice to be back with my siblings in the river, but this is fine. (I don’t possess yearning.) The paddle travels upward, and scarcely before it re-enters the river, I slide down its face. Plop! I’m swept once again into the current, off and away, leaving Deborah behind humming softly.
Our flow cuts into the muddy banks fringed with tender grasses, exposing the roots of an ash tree. The roots cling symmetrically, spreading out on either side of the ash’s trunk like a Rorschach image, their tendrils weaving a living hieroglyph. We curl and filter through the root mesh, loosening the sandy soil, carrying it away grain by grain, chunk by chunk, at times collapsing whole sections that muddy the river before settling on the bottom or joining a quicksand beach on a curve. Here today, gone tomorrow, the river-nation is forever changing. Sculpting the bank is our job, as is feeding the trees, shrubs and grasses that bind it. Maybe by next year, the ash will be at the river bottom, maybe by next month.
The pace slackens so slightly the human eye would not perceive it, but even so, the current knows it will, in due course, widen to join the lake, a vaster world. Two structures built in a clearing on a hill preside over uniform rows cut into the sandy soil. Open fields lie in the sun where a teeming forest of hemlock, aspen, oak and hickory once stood. A tributary flowing down from the farm spills a warm effluent into the river and, like clouds of dye, meshes with our pristine spring-fed molecules. We dilute the discharge but it envelops us, pushing us downstream.
Now that the river has widened and slowed, we move in a stealthy column, our former buoyant clamour a low monotone. Although I do not possess memory, I recognize a dull horror. Laden with the unnatural toxic run-off, I enter the lake with my siblings, blending with the steady influx of the worrying slurry. Some of the mix eases into the dense marsh that borders the lake. The unassuming marsh, the finest of sieves, filters and traps the toxic soup. Being cleansed by the marsh is like falling in love – revitalizing and stupefying. Where the marsh meets the lake, gushes of clean water confront the thick ribbon of nutrient-laden lake water, diluting what it can, but like a regiment confronting a nuclear warhead, its strength and purity fail.
The day is warm for late spring and motor boats drone across the horizon. By midsummer, blue-green algae blooms will form in the lake, robbing oxygen, strangling lake life and creating dead zones of rot and waste. As the sun’s waxing heat draws me, a toxin-mule, upwards to the surface, one side of me makes contact with the warm air. Caught in a doldrum, I heat up beneath the penetrating sun and in an instant, despite my impurity, I leave the lake, transform into vapour, and burst invisibly into the air.
The sun continues to draw me up into the cool sky, where I am transformed once again, along with other droplets and particles in a growing cloud. Carried by the wind, we merge with other clouds and, when full to bursting, will pour down. My circular journey, from cloud to storm droplet to river to lake and back to cloud is my destiny.
It is a cruel reality that we do not rain where we are needed. We will pummel the already wet soil. We will carve out vein-like rivulets that, that yes, fascinate children. But we will burrow chasms that swallow up roads and villages. Hills and shorelines are transformed in a single storm. Toxic soil flushes into the lake. Basements flood while southern forests erupt in wildfires and parched cracked bare lands leave withered vegetation and dull roots baking thirstily under cloudless skies. The cycle is out of whack.
I once got a lift on a paddle, sparkled in a babbling current and rested in the cool depths of the creek bed with the brook trout. You once cupped me in your hand and drank me in. We were like that then. Your love for me was protective. But you changed. And so did I.
Valerie Hickey grew up in an agricultural region on Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario. As a child she spent most days in the little dingle down the hill from her childhood home, a natural playground that influenced later decisions to chair an environmental not-for-profit and join in climate activism. Valerie travelled extensively until the age of 36 when she settled in Toronto, got a master’s degree, enjoyed a career in business and raised her son. Now back in her home county by the lake, Valerie travels and writes about the nature of life, relationships and human interests.