Saturday, May 19, 2007

The history of water

The storms are passed but mud remains. The history of water is written in the rills, gullies and creeks, and, of course, on the broad flat fields bordering the rivers. The water falls, the water rises, the water recedes. What’s left is erosion, muck and debris. And stories. There are always stories.


What remained of the road was a thin narrow peninsula piercing a shallow lake where green shoots of corn once danced above neatly furrowed rows. It narrowed and constricted as if pressed in on its sides by the weight of water, until at last it was barely wider than the truck. I slowed to a stop where a carpet of waterlogged bark, sticks, and black clumps of moldy leaves delineated the high water mark. Beyond for a hundred feet stretched a thick grayish morass bisecting the road. The shortcut to the highway was gone.

The silence was almost preternatural. In the distance traffic flowed over the bridge but left no echo in its wake. To the west the grain elevator jutted above the horizon like some whitewashed cenotaph, a monument to a town once at the mercy of these cyclical floods and now huddled safe behind a tall levee. These lower fields, though, were naked to the river’s moods, and as waves lapped against the road’s shoulder a few swallows arced past, their reedy calls tenuous and brittle, while on the dark mudflats nondescript sandpipers darted about like windup toys, occasionally calling to one another in their pure flutelike voices. Steve and I stared at each other and grinned like crazy fools. The river was still rising.

I was raised to believe that through the medium of water our sins were washed away. Our baptisms were full-body dunkings, the pastor cupping one hand behind the neck and the other half-covering the face, two fingers pinching the nostrils, a gentle nod to warn of what was coming, followed by a smoothly choreographed backards bow, submersion, and reemergence into a holy new world. It was meant to reflect the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah, but in my case the pastor added a superfluous step between the burial and the resurrection so that I feared I would skip the last, and best, part.

(When I again approached the baptismal font several years later I selfishly reflected less on the Messiah’s travails than my own approaching ordeal. It may have been my imagination—fervent indeed, which could explain my suspicion that a second salvation would scour whatever sins the first missed—but it seemed the pastor had a look in his eye that bespoke of an extra helping of burial this time around.)

People were already comparing this inundation with the flood of ’93, the most recent in a long litany of baptisms dished out by an unrepentant Mother Nature. Other dates are invariably intoned, depending upon the age of the storyteller: 1974, the year of the hail, 1953, the flood that overnight filled the gaping maw of Tuttle Creek Dam, sometime in the 1930s, and on and on; these are their dates, their memories, not mine. My past is linked to a dry desert place where water, rare and precious, came in spring monsoons that ravaged the arroyos snaking through town, and now and then carried off a car or two, much to our delight. 1993 was an anomaly, an aberration, a hundred-year-flood with a half-life. And now this rising monster on the outskirts of town, people parked along roadways, shorebirds where no shore should exist.


The day following the deluge that generated the flood a friend from Manhattan dropped by on his way to Alcove Spring. Thunder rumbled in a west gone black. Rain was imminent. I grabbed a jacket, camera and binoculars and joined him.

We descended into the valley on the canyon road. Seldom used, it’s a narrow, winding lane with steep hills rising on each side. Fallen trees and brush were piled high where the road crossed the creek, brought down by a force of water almost unimaginable. In places deep ruts braided the road, and in others banded deposits of gravel writhed across like pale snakes. We maneuvered around these obstacles until the road spilled onto the valley floor. The river was hidden behind a wall of trees just leafing out.

A shallow pool marked the parking lot. We sloshed through it and up onto the trail and dropped down into a quiet grassy clearing. Under the oaks, cottonwoods and sycamores the air was infused with green luminescence, a dripping, virid substance as elemental as fire or water. Seehan Creek was full, rolling between banks littered with blackened duff and lattices of entwined sticks and branches. Tiny rivulets splashed down each hillside, delicate piano notes accompanying the sonorant cello of the creek. Our footfalls made no sound.

The waterfall could be heard long before it came into sight. Water rushed over its rocky lip and spattered on the rocks below with a sound of hands clapping. As a drizzle began falling, softly pattering through the trees, we set up our cameras and went to work. A few quick shots, one long time exposure to smooth the flow into a seamless drapery, and retreat to the protection of the cedars. Conversation was muted under the euphonic discourse of the waters. Nothing needed to be said. Here was water writing its history, grooving stone, erasing hillsides, deepening the channel, rushing over and under and through us in a form of baptism that left me no doubt of its efficacy.


One day later I’m scoping birds on the now dead-end road. A local farmer drives up and walks over.

“That’s my corn there,” he says.

“Ahhh,” a disgusted sound, shaking his head. Then a laugh. “Oh, well.”

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