|A heron by the
There used to be an old abandoned house by Chapman Pond. This is
a lovely, long, shallow pond, half a mile in length, which
merges with a mile of tidal marshes. To the east of these is a
wooded hillside; to the west: a low, wooded island and then the
river. The pond and the river confer by estuaries. The wet parts
of the marsh are filled with cattail and wild rice; with
pickerelweed, bull rush and yellow iris. The dry parts with
viburnum; with wild rose and mallow. The island is a sand bar,
and some silver maples there have grown so stout that you and I
together couldn’t reach around them.
I was fortunate to own a few acres on this island and had built
myself a cabin there - a wildwood retreat for my wayward soul.
The pond was my neighbor, the marshes my larder, the river my
goddess and the island my shrine. And my nimble, swift canoe was
my closest friend. Across the pond, the hemlock clad hill rose
slowly toward the local road, a quietude away. There still
remained the vestige of an old woods road coming down to the
pond and leading to the house at the water’s edge. This was a
small, two-story structure with a mortared stone foundation - a
proper house half a century ago. Now it was empty; the windows
smashed and graffiti of the biker clubs scrawled across the
plaster. I’d explored the house. It was merely a shell; a tiny
square dot on the town assessor’s map.
But one day, one summer, as I paddled to the island from the
ferry landing, I could see a column of dark, dirty smoke
climbing up the clean air beyond the pond. No fire truck could
navigate the unkempt woods road. The police came by boat, but
there was nothing they could do except keep the blaze from
spreading to the hemlocks using hand held sprayers. When it was
over, nothing remained save a smoking foundation. And a crumpled
gas can and a large melted ruin of stolen goods.
And the overdone remains of what had been a man. A lot of
excitement for our little town. There was much speculation with
few results. Nary a witness. Not a house about for half a mile
in any direction - save mine, of course - and no one ever
thought to ask me. And not having been aware of this business,
my answers would have been to no avail. Had they asked me where
the osprey made her nest, had they asked me where the trillium
modestly blossomed, I might have answered. Had they asked me why
the black snake watched my woodpile, why the phoebe perched upon
my door, I might have responded. But what could I have told them
about the world of men?
The police brought out a launch that they towed with their
patrol boat, piled it high with the stolen gear, and took it all
away. They were no more than half way across the pond when the
launch capsized from overloading.
The water, there, isn’t more than up to your ears so they
managed to retrieve nearly everything. A good thing, too. For
the carp has no need of any more distractions than he has
already, the great blue heron no need of the sight of man made
rubbish as she glides above the pond to her cottonwood tree.
Finally, all of the men were departed, and the marsh and the
pond were quiet again. Except for the four hundred redwing
blackbirds nesting ‘mid the rushes - clucking and cackling and
singing of the summer. Except for the kingfisher swooping down
the estuary, chuckling to himself. Except for the splash of the
snapping turtle dropping from her hole in the sandy bank. And
the muted rumble of the oil tanker, laboring up river; her
plaintive horn calling for the old swing-bridge to open.
In the evening I emerge
with my nimble canoe and wander by the marshes. I listen to the
squawk of the lovely night heron, watch the bats come wheeling
across the pond, and hope that forever there will be some
wilderness - even though men and their idiocy persist.
The river inundates the
low-lying banks below the old steel swing bridge. We shall
readily canoe to the doorstep of our octagon on the island. The
tide backs up the impatient river in vain - a mere three feet of
brine cannot back up the spring thaw of New England. Abetted by
the wind, the Connecticut in turn backs up the tide; the whole a
slow but steadily seething mass. The river fills with boards and
bottles, Styrofoam and Adirondack chairs.
In the parking lot behind the Riverside Inn, an abandoned blue
Buick stands in silty water up to her wipers. The airstrip
beyond has tucked its little planes away in their hangars. The
pier is submerged; only the weed wrapped crowns of the pilings
attest to its location. We park in the village and launch the
canoe in the swollen creek that runs beside Creamery Lane. We
canoe down over the runway. Not even the pontoon plane dares
Below the airport, several cottages squat along the submerged
dirt road that follows the riverbank. Though the cottages crouch
on concrete blocks, the river rises within a foot of their
thresholds. The residents have parked in the village and have
come back home in their boats. Things normally kept in the yard
- those hens, for instance - now sojourn on the porch. Canoes
and dinghies wait patiently by the steps.
Just another spring freshet. The dormant gardens again receive
fresh nutrients. Silt will coat everything, everywhere, for a
while when the river recedes and noisome trash will abound, but
no one complains. One takes what the river offers, both good and
bad. The joy of living by running water far outweighs the
sorrow. We pass the cottages, wave to the children sailing boats
from their deck, and paddle off into the woods.
Amid the trees, the quietude assails one’s ears - the little
birds have forsaken the drowning underbrush. We emerge from the
wood and enter Chapman Pond. Pond and marsh merge into one
expanse of grey and turgid water. Poplar Hill, the second of
Seven Sisters, bounds the inland shore of the pond. Our island
bounds the other. Here, huge silver maples tower above the
murky, presumptuous flood. They seem very little concerned. A
hundred springs or more have they seen the river swell and surge
and recede. They sigh in response to the wind, flex themselves
and drink deeply.
We urge our canoe among them and over the path that leads to the
octagon. Built on four-foot concrete piles, its floor stands
eight feet above mean high water. The fourth step up lies
exposed but wet, the third is still under water; the river has
crested. We unload tools, provisions, five gallons of water, and
shove off again to explore. We find a few sturdy planks among
the trees and tow them back to the house where we make them
fast. This occupies the remainder of the forenoon. What of it?
What is time to a
water rat? What is time to the river? Only we humans obsess over
days and minutes, hours and seasons. Life goes on - within us
and without us. To thrive comes first: to be sentient, quick,
responsive. Off we go, our paddles busily pushing aside the
river. Our sensuous prow parts the water into halves. The river
closes phlegmatically in our wake. We wend our seamless way
downstream to the landing.
Gillette’s Castle, aloof on its wooded hill, The Seventh Sister,
frowns down upon the landing. The ferry, made fast in her slip
with heavy hawsers, floats above the level of the road. We turn
into Whalebone Cove; pass the ledge with its rusted ring that
hasn’t secured a ship for half a century. The creek leading into
the cove has spread beneath the budding red maples. The cove
beyond is a flat expanse of filthy water broken by the
bedraggled plumes of eight-foot high phragmites: the pampas
We return to the
river. The wind has died and the water has calmed a bit. We moor
to the massive ring in the rock and share our simple repast. In
the channel, some hundred yards off, the remains of an
unfortunate boat, a thirty-foot skiff, drift downward to the
ever-receptive ocean. A herring gull wheels hopefully above the
ruined vessel. The sodden hull veers slowly about in the river.
The sea heaves heavily round this whirled earth.