Down the River

“I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars.”

Edward Abbey

Tiny raindrops, grown around specks of dust ten thousand feet high in super-heated cumulo-nimbus drop flipping and flopping to red dirt in central Georgia. They fall as flat lozenges, not the more aerodynamic teardrops that logic would dictate. They gather and flow down muddy drainage ditches into small meandering streams feeding larger more powerful creeks and so create the mighty Altamaha River. Tiny air born water drops become a quarter-mile wide torrent of frothy, brown water flowing through forests and marshes, surrendering only to the void of the sea.

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Entering the Altamaha

Stud Horse Creek is an offshoot of the Altamaha. It transects Lewis Island and terminates in Lewis Creek twenty miles upstream yet from the ocean. Big, powerful, muddy waters are these creeks, coursing through a thick green maritime forest of oak, tupelo, cypress, cedar, and palmetto. I guide my kayak out of the Altamaha and into Stud Horse swept along by a swift following current. The current is fast and strong in the creek and I paddle more to steer than to propel. Bubbles and flotsam flow in the main channel and I glide with them. I have no idea if a snag or downed tree blocks the way ahead. My yellow kayak startles a fourteen-foot alligator, and he slides off his muddy throne into the brown water.

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Stud Horse Creek

At the same time, on a different branch of the Altamaha, eleven people board a luxurious tour boat built for fifty. They are the movers and shakers of a New York investment company. No alcohol is served on this trip, so they stop at the hotel pool bar for a top off before boarding. It is ten AM. They intend to develop a property in Costa Rica – building a city says the Head Man – all white, privileged, and decadent. A city – an entire city – to be hacked out of the pristine jungle on a slope overlooking the Pacific Ocean in exchange for mere money – and they are proud of it. They ogle the mansions lining the creek, wonder at the wealth, marvel at the extravagant hundred yard docks extending behind the houses over the marsh into the creek. The boat turns to run downriver to the ocean, sun sparkling in a bright blue sky. Eleven pairs of eyes ogle a mansion a half mile away – impressed that a President of the United States once stayed there. Unseen by them, a bald eagle chases a white tern over the yellow marsh grass. Pink roseate spoonbills stalk shrimp in the reeds along the bank, sweeping their odd-shaped beaks through the mud. An osprey dives on a redfish, splashes, hauls it aloft triumphant and shivers, flinging water from his feathers mid-flight. Three dolphins – mother, offspring, and nanny – surface, blow, arch and dive away.

On a later tour that afternoon, Dan stands on the foredeck, oxygen bag in hand. Every time he breathes the machine clicks and releases a shot of oxygen into the tube snaking up his side and to his nose. He is tall and gaunt, skin thin and ashen, his scarecrow hair grey and windblown. He is dressed in his best jeans and a white shirt printed with small pretty blue flowers. His breathing apparatus hisses like a quiet Darth Vader. His wife stands forward of him on the bow hoping to see dolphins. She is shorter than he, hides her age with make-up and dye. She is an artificial blond, with red lipstick and dark-rimmed glasses around sad blue eyes; dressed in grey slacks and a simple white blouse. She knows Dan is dying, kept alive by the oxygen and it fills her with dread. A hunter and fisherman, Dan is familiar with death; has seen the soul light dim and disappear in the animals he boated and shot. He is not afraid – curses the god damn disease and wishes she – they, all of ’em – would just let him go. She is terrified he will up and leave her one night and she will wake to a corpse. She can barely look at him. Their paths are diverging, he to die and she to carry on alone without him. It is their 48th wedding anniversary.

Thousands of years ago – or maybe yesterday – on a bluff over a creek just off the Altamaha, in the quiet Guale village of Talaxe, Talisa tends her small garden of corn, beans, and sweet potatoes. The garden is shaded by lofty bearded cypress trees. Lilies, orchids, azalea, and magnolia perfume the air. Venison smokes over a cypress fire and orange trees droop heavy with fruit. A ring of small neat wattle and daub houses rings a central plaza. Her husband will be home from fishing soon. He loves her dark hair, skin, laughing eyes, and irrepressible spirit. Sun and bird tattoos signify Talisa’s membership and standing in the revered Sun Daughter clan. The Sun Daughters rescue lost and desperate travelers from the bewildering labyrinth of the river and marsh and refresh them with oranges, dates, oysters, crabs and corn cakes. If the Guale men are away hunting, the women ensure the lost ones hurry back to their own country for safety before the jealous hunters return. Any attempt to return to the village by a curious wanderer is foiled by enchantments and delusions. I think I spy the village, smell the cook fire, but the beautiful paradise slips in and out of view – now here, now gone.

I work around the last bend in Stud Horse and so into Lewis Creek. The current is against me now and I paddle long and deep to keep up a good pace. I am surrounded by thick deep green forest and swamp and three ospreys eye me from their perches. I rest the paddle across the boat and drag my hands in the water, put my fingers to my mouth and taste the river. A flight of brown and white ibis lifts from a lily-filled, swampy hole next to the channel and flutters over my head. It is so quiet I hear their wings whistle and their breath squeak. Downriver, the deep forest gives way to miles of golden marsh split by rivers, creeks, channels, and rivulets. A white half-moon floats overhead in the blue sky – exerting her powerful pull over the ocean, marsh, and river.

Fifty miles offshore, beyond the mouth of the river, a whale hangs in the blue abyss calling to the spirits. Deep blue infinity extends below him and a sunlit, silvery translucent surface wavers above him. He pushes up to blow and gulp a lungful of air before curving back down into the deep. He is surrounded by impenetrable, immense mystery and is strong, spectacular. He is not separate from the mystery – he IS the mystery. Divinity dances a whale dance. He sounds – dives deep – moves his 30 tons fast and lithe. One hundred feet down, the pressure builds against his skin, and all is dark. He turns and rockets to the surface, breaching into the blue-sky day – pure joy and love.

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I haul out at the dock near my home, butt sore and weary after five hours in the kayak. My right leg and hip are asleep and I nearly topple trying to stand. It takes several hilarious circling staggers before blood flows and I regain control. I am spooked by my time on the river, it has gotten under my skin, broken through my armor, exposed my vanity. The river is huge and I am nothing. And yet, too, I am everything.

Like floating down the river, we flow through space and time not knowing why we are here or where we are going. Under the delusion of ego, we think we are separate and superior to our surroundings and so destroy the sublime for ridiculous and illusory gain. We suffer when our illusions collapse and we fear our own destruction.

We are bodies of water – made of saltwater same as the ocean. Our skin is permeable and open. It is not a barrier, it is a mesh – a sieve – in open exchange with whatever surrounds us. We sweat salty teardrops wept by Jesus. We breathe air inhaled by Ceasar and Lincoln. Sunlight warms us, Jupiter pulls us and microbes nourish us. Our bones are made from carbon formed in a Supernova. The processes that create and sustain us, create and sustain the ibis, osprey, dolphins, cypress, and whales. We are they and they are us. Together, we dance this shimmering universe into existence.

Down the river, I sit in the boat head back, face to the sky, hands trailing in the water, drifting aimlessly downstream surrounded by miracles. Down the river, the sun backlights hanging virga rain, and we are as substantial and beautiful as rainbows.

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