When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound of fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go lie Dow where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of the wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
On Saturday I went alone for a paddle on the Falling Water River, whose stillness seems complete and belies its name. I was in no hurry. I had no one to keep up with, no particular destination or goal, other than presence. The water was so slow-moving as to almost seem stagnant, its surface covered in the fluffy pollen of some tree, which pollen was also dancing in the air, lending the scene a dreamy quality.
Being on a kayak and unhurried, you are somehow at once connected to earth, water, and sky, the denizens of all three within your notice. As I paddled, deliberately seeking out the pretty little painted turtles stunning themselves on the exposed branches of half-submurged trees, a leviathan paddled past me beneath the surface, its ridged shell recalling ancient things, its slow movements making me hold my paddle to watch him for a long moment. Further on, a monstrous carp that seemed half the length of my boat curved among the sun-shadowed river weeds below me.
If I’m honest, I spent far too much time trying to photograph the stately blue herons whose fishing I was disrupting, and not enough time just admiring them. Again and again, they would watch me as I pulled up my paddle and drifted slowly by,
trying not to bother them, but also trying to photograph their pterodactyl-like takeoff as they winged upriver ahead of me. The kingfishers skittered their in-flight songs as the drifted from tree to tree, and families of geese watched me warily, concerned parents herding their fuzzy children away from the neon orange intruder.
The Falling Water is a suburban sort of river, not at all wide where I put in, lined with manicured, sloping lawns on either side. It was a Saturday, so there was no illusion that I was really alone with nature, with almost-unnoticed background music of traffic and lawn mowers. And yet, I actually saw no human as I paddled practically through their back yards. This is one of the things I love best about rivers and streams. The edges of the water were not as impeccably manicured as the lawns were, trees allowed to grow as they will, dipping roots in the nourishing muddy silt, arching branches delicately reflected in the placid water. Were I to wander on foot through these close-clipped greenways to get a better look at a bird, someone would surely call the police, but the river belongs to everyone, and no one, and only itself.
It belongs to that whitetail doe who paused and lifted her dripping muzzle to regard me, before turning a flashing tail and bounding up an embankment. It belongs to the flurry of swallowtails flitting across the narrow waterway, gracing mud puddles with gossamer yellow wings like flowers born one moment, to vanish the next. It belongs to the half-ounce titmouse who, when I was once again on land, darted past me on swift wings to go about her business of bug-hunting for a brood that was well hidden in the knot of a tree right next to the pier, peering around the rough bark to see if I was still interested in her activities. It belongs to the leviathan turtle and the indignant heron. Their scatter at my approach reminds me: even if I owned one of these houses and paddled here every day (wouldn’t that be a meditation practice!), I would still be a guest and must always be respectful and polite.
If only we all walked, and paddled, so lightly.