Ribbons of Water

At 60mph, the ribbons of water winding under I-95 pass too quickly. The intersection of two highways, one concrete and immobile, the other fluid and fleeting, passes in the briefest of moments. It would be easy to miss, but something has alerted me to the presence of the river- a jarring break in the line of tree tops, or a gleam of light, stray photons reflecting regally off the river only to end their million-mile journey in the corner of my eye. My back straightens and my neck cranes, desperate to follow the path of the river while the bus follows the current of traffic heading to NYC, but I can no more see around the upriver bend than I can slow time to visually explore the water flowing through this rare straight shot of the river. I pick up the book that had rest upside down on my lap and curl the pages, front cover toward back, restoring life to the spine, newly flattened by my hand as I searched for a better vantage point. I flip it back over, but look through the words. The river has stolen my attention, and though my eyes are forced to yield to the river's curves, my imagination knows no such limits. I break free from constraining walls of the bus and the bonds of gravity, and gaining altitude, watch the dull concrete highway fade into the landscape, while the more splendid river retains its glisten.

With altitude comes perspective, and the life of the river stretches below me. Flying over the meandering middle river, I parallel the flat plaines through which the river carves graceful curves. Flying North, and back in time from the river's perspective, the terrain gets steeper. It's early life is now hidden beneath trees and behind boulders, the way time draws a fog over memories of one's childhood, and I must come down from the sky, back to the earth to find where the river becomes a river. This proves more difficult than imagined- paradoxically, it is easy to tell where the river is, but less easy to tell where it isn't. A pool of water gathers behind a rock and slowly trickles its feed down to where an exposed root system drips water onto saturated ground beneath it. Thousands of these filaments mingle, eventually forming a noticeable thread of water, running fast, then pooling, absorbing through the soil, then emerging a few feet down hill, transported through unseen gaps between particles of soil. At first, it runs and pools through the dips and valleys in the craters of dislodged rocks, the tracks of unseen animals, and the diverting affects of fallen tree limbs. Though it dabbles with moving small amounts of sediment here and there, it is a far cry from the landscape architect it is to become.  As more filaments feed into it, the thread of water takes on body, becoming first a stream, then a mountain brook, and now a creek, though where one ends and the other starts remains hidden beneath swirling eddy lines. For now, it runs chaotically and free, borrowing energy from Earth's gravity as it bounces without regard toward an unknown future.

As more level ground is reached, the river matures. Its future takes on a more defined path, though it now has more power to shape the details. The river both shapes and is shaped by the landscape. No longer bound by impervious rock, it sculpts sweeping turns to navigate the the more stubborn rock it will inevitably encounter. For short stretches, the river runs straight and confident, quickening its pace and showing the rippled excitement of its youth, but it takes just a short time before it must detour again. At times, an obstacle is so formidable, the river turns in the complete opposite direction, looking back toward its younger self for strength and hope. Despite the meandering, its destination is more clear now, and it knows that no amount of sidelong turns will keep it from meeting the end toward which all rivers flow.

Nearing sea level, the Earth ceases its pull on the river. Now, a more distant call beckons. Bound by invisible ties, the moon, some 250,000 miles distant, reaches out from its unearthly realm to draw the river toward the sea, but it does not rush it. Rather, its tidal song is a series of crescendos and diminuendos, and the river, which has flowed relentlessly toward the sea its whole life, is suddenly unsure of its fate. The tide floods, and the river pushes back upon memories of its younger self. On the ebb, the river turns reluctantly toward the sea, acknowledging the great ocean that it is soon to join. Ebb and flood, but eventually the pull of the sea will be too great to resist, and the river will run its final course. As it does so, the boundary between river and sea mixes, and just as no single point serves as the rivers beginning, neither is there a singular end.  

Though the river ceases to be, its influence will continue. Some of it will mix, and along with other rivers, be pulled across under water plateaus, canyons, and mountain chains. But some of the river, though it is no longer a river, will be lifted up and sent back; back across the deltas and plaines, back up the hills and mountains, and will fall on the trees that stretch up into the sky and down into the ground. Some of it will stay to feed the leaves, some of it will gather in the depressions left by animals scurrying about their day, and some of it will percolate down through the soil, dropping from exposed root systems to where a small thread of water is trickling down from where it has pooled behind a rock. 

Back on the bus, I leave the river behind and return my focus to my book. It's not long before something catches my eye- a break in the tree line, or a glimmer of light in the corner of my eye, and my imagination takes flight. 


Aaron Mearns