Time and a River
In Dan Brown’s techno thriller book Origin, Edmund Kirsch is consumed by two questions: where did we come from? and where are we going? In his quest to find the answers he made a shocking discovery that cost him his life. Watching the river raises two similar questions: where did it come from? And where is it going? I hope the search for answers to these two questions doesn’t hold the same end for me.
It’s always now. It’s never tomorrow and it’s never yesterday. On Stock Island just up US Rt. 1 from Key West, the Coral Isle Bar used to advertise “Free Beer Tomorrow.” The offer never expired and no free beer was ever tapped. Apparently the ad didn’t work very well — tomorrow never came and the Coral Isle Bar was shuttered up in 2004. The Hogfish Bar and Grill adopted the sign and has been made famous by the Travel Channel’s Adam Richmond on Man-v-Food. There is still free beer tomorrow — not today.
Sitting by the river on an orange Home Depot bucket that washed down from an upstream mud bank campsite, I can see into the future and into the past. With binoculars I can see both the flotsam that will pass my orange bucket in an hour or so and the mangled tree that floated by an hour ago. With respect to my little perch on the bank I can miraculously see the past and the future at nearly the same time — the present is fleeting, almost meaningless from this viewpoint.
Eckhart Tolle preaches the amazing power of “now” and our essential need to embrace nowness. But what is now without yesterday or tomorrow? What can I really learn from the river by watching it flow past an exposed rock in front of my orange bucket — never looking right or left? Sadly, I would severely limit my perspective — I would miss almost everything the river is telling me. The precise “now ” is an infinitesimally small point in time that we never actually perceive. Practically speaking, we are always looking forward or backward. How far in either direction is the question. Sorry Mr. Tolle.
The summer of 1972 was one for the ages. I had just finished my freshman year at Bloomsburg State College (now Bloomsburg University). Even though I had little interest in the life sciences I enrolled as a biology major. The word on the street was that “med-tech” was where all the good jobs were, so everyone was flocking to bio. Now by design, the winnowing-out course for aspiring med-techs was Zoology 101. That was where they separated the academic wheat from the chaff. I turned out to be some of the chaff. All that remains of that course for me are five indelible memories: the stench of formaldehyde; my little blue dissecting kit; a pickled ascaris lumbricoides worm; one mangled white rat (also pickled); and the 70% I managed on the final exam after cramming a full 24 hours. They got me. One less bio major to torture and an empty seat for the next sucker. MY PAST.
It was clear, my world was more rocks and water than worms and rats. So I changed my major to geology — actually, it was called earth and space science. My summer job that year was a masonry tender — you know, the guy who mixes mortar for the bricklayers and endlessly relocates bricks and concrete blocks from one place to another, usually vertically from ground level, up two jumps of scaffolding, ten feet in the air. That job solidly affirmed that my life was cemented in dirt and gravel. MY FUTURE.
So it was that in the summer of 1972 I went off to work as a grunt with the Heintzelman Masonry Company. Ten hours a day of lime dust, mud, scorching sun, AND rain AND rain. That June it rained about every other day — torrents. It was the wettest first half of June on record. But that was just the setup for what came the second half of the month.
Down in the Gulf of Mexico an early season tropical weather system was brewing. It quickly deepened into the first tropical storm of the season and rapidly on to a Cat 1 hurricane — they named her Agnes.
She eventually crossed the Florida peninsula, where she weakened to a tropical storm, then headed up the East Coast where she further collapsed into a mere depression. But in the process of winding down Agnes converted her wind energy into profuse rainmaking, hammering Virginia and the James River with torrential downpours. As she moved into the mid-Atlantic her forward movement stalled over the Gulf Stream where she re-energized into a tropical storm once again. There she sat for three days, slinging her arms of rain over the already saturated terrain of Central Pennsylvania and Southern New York State. The result was the most massive flooding of the Susquehanna River since 1936. The drudgery of the masonry business was put on hold for over a week and was replaced by the drama and excitement of the most awesome natural disaster any of us had ever experienced.
And oh... the experiences were many: listening to the first night of relentless torrents pounding our Cape Cod house roof; filling our garage with the furniture and organ of an evacuated family; floating caskets out of our friend’s funeral home on jon-boats with flashlights; joining townspeople waiting on the Isle of Que bridge to rescue a horse that was swept from its stable; enduring the eerie sounds of debris bouncing off of the railroad bridge; inhaling the acrid smell of muddy water and spilled fuel oil; suffering ordinary citizens, now deputized to enforce the curfew — a few quickly became a petty gestapo, as some people will when issued a badge; being overwhelmed by the stench of the meat lockers at Sheets’ store when they were opened after four powerless, hot, muggy days; reveling in the ephemeral sense of community that natural disasters revive.
During Agnes, the past became veiled and the future was put on hold. We were in the throes of a five day NOW. And that NOW, its midpoint marked by the passing flood crest, was different for each community along the river. The crest is the high water mark of river flood events and is the hydrologic focal point as it makes its way downstream. During the days before its arrival people along the river prepare for its impact — in the days after its passing they begin the process of recovery and rebuilding.
From our vantage point in Selinsgrove, we could see our future a few days in advance and our past many days after the crest. As the climax approached we knew from the hydrographers how high the water would get and exactly who would be inundated. The Agnes deluge gave us a rare, precise, and accurate view of our future and allowed us to watch our past as town after town downstream bore the brunt of the record crest.
A few weeks later, with the crest long gone, and the waters passively back in their banks, the river resumed its timeless gentle nature — no sense of future or past, just the perennial and eternal "nowness" of a lazy river. The recent trauma seemingly a clear sign that her gentle spirit has limits — she reminds us when she’s been violated. Her revenge is fierce and her memories lasting. She reflects a past, a present, and a future.