Sunday, November 29, 2015

the hills of home.2

After some excursuses, it's time to become more linear, or at least as linear as I may be. My surprise sojourn in Jonesboro deserves more than the simplifying five paragraphs i wrote before, but now, fifteen years later, I suspect I have corrected my memories to make my time there more heroic than it really was. But still I'll try to describe my capture and escape from the mother land.

The mother land has many delights, not the least of which is crepe myrtle in hard winter light. There seemed no reason not to be happy back in the city ready for tomorrow. I came close to buying a house, but it had sold just before I called about it. It was a wonderful house, one for which I had been part-time gardener one summer while I was in high school, with french doors opening onto a bricked patio lined with privet and punctuated with crepe and hyacinth and roses. But, I suppose, one really can't go home again, even though that's where my body would wake up every morning, in the bedroom of my later childhood.

A general clue about my time there is that a friend from Santa Fe often tried to convince me to leave, saying than when I was in Jonesboro, I sounded suicidal. Perhaps this was projection, as he often talked about suicide, but it is true that moving back to my childhood bedroom did feel rather like a massive fail. The motive, of course, was to try to help my mother, but I'm not sure if children really can help their parents. Despite the fact that it seemed to me that I was completely rearranging my life, mother's own need to feel that she were still independent made the situation touchy. Both of us were seeking an illusion: I wanted my mother to do things that I thought would restore her health, which she was not interested in at all; she wanted to go gentle into that good night, a thing which is not always possible if one ignores one's health.

So, I did the American Thing. I bought things. First, I bought books. Amazon not having come into their glory, I would oft walk to Hastings and buy books. Books about Arkansas: The Fish of Arkansas; The Birds of Arkansas; the Newts of Arkansas; William Bartlett's Journey. And, books about kayaks, so many that now that I live in Port Townsend, I am disappointed that the Maritime Collection of the Carnegie Library has almost none that I had not bought and read in Jonesboro. Oh, and I bought Kayaks. At first, I bought a couple of inflatables that I could carry in a back pack on my bicycle, but soon another purchase allowed me to cart around hardshells, and I had as many as 13 kayaks. I bought, you see, the ultimate badge of normality: a car. The purpose I told myself was that I could take mother about more comfortably than in her ancient Nissan whose air-conditioning had become a distant memory. But it also was an escape capsule. I could fill mother's larders with the foods I thought she would eat, cook them and basically spoon feed them to her, and she would feel well enough that she would kick me out. I would escape, either to the Ozarks or to Santa Fe. Sometimes the escape would be for only a day. Sometimes it might be several weeks. Then the phone would ring--I had now entered the cell phone age--and mother, if things were not too bad, or my brother if things looked really dire, would tell me that probably I should come back.

When I could, I went kayaking. It was  surprisingly delightful to explore the waters around Jonesboro, especially the Cache and St. Francis Rivers, which, except for occasionally fishing on the St. Francis, had just been things to cross quickly on the way to 'real rivers'--the White or the Mississippi or the Arkansas--all of my life.

Paddling through the Cache cypress knees in a sit-on-top kayak was as good as a trip to Jurassic Park. I remember particularly one magic morning when I rounded a bend and many of the branches of a large cypress became great blue herons and glided off into the mist. I considered starting a business, and eco-touring company that would explore the lands and waters of the Mound Builders, who had made their homes here before catching small pox and dying. I worked on a business plan, consulting with all the organizations which were cropping up to encourage tourism along Crowley's Ridge and the Great River Road. It seemed that I would have plenty of customers, but they would be rich Germans, because they were just about the only ones, except for a few Japanese photographers,  interested in the Mound Builders. After coming very close to ordering the kayaks and mosquito nets to start things up, I decided I didn't want to spend my summers with rich Germans in Indian costumes.

In the next installment, I run much farther away from the homeland than I had expected to do.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A River Runs through It: my Life as a Stream

I am writing this amidst the turmoil that surrounds an ISIS bombing in Paris, which has seemed to generate as much interest in the social media sphere as anything since 9/11. How long it will be important in the public mind remains to be seen. But today, it's the thing to think about. For a few days I had been thinking about how to write about the White River, and going through old photographs to choose one for this post was rather amazing. Living life one day at a time, it never seems much happens. Looking back at a big chunk of life, it seems a blur of activity and change. I'd like to look that that blur through the sometimes clear, sometimes murky waters of the White River.

When I was a young child, the White River was a gateway to a world of wonders. At Newport the wonder was the engineering of the bridge across the river. Newport was just south of the White's juncture with the Black River, at Jackson Port. It would be geologically more accurate to call this part of the river the Black. Whatever one calls it, the river here is big, a thing that often floods many square miles of its low lands. The bridge starts abruptly at the edge of downtown Newport, at a right angle to the main street, and soars above the warehouses and train tracks below. There is of course a modest warehouse for the Bunge Corporation, whose faithful servant the river has become.

At Calico Rock, the wonder was of a very different sort. When I was young, there was still a current-powered ferry across the river, and on the town side was sold the best ice cream in the world: Yarnell's. The water then was so clear that it seemed only inches deep. Every rock and sand grain was clearly visible from the ferry. This was a mountain river. There were still few areas of the Ozarks with electricity or paved roads. My family kept a 1947 Ford to make trips to the Ozarks, because it had more ground clearance than the cars of the 1950's. All of this would change after the construction of the Corps of Engineers Dams for flood control and power generation, like this one at Bull Shoals.

At Batesville, the mountain river became a lowland river. leaving the Ozarks for the Delta lands through which its water will flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. But it is not a gentle change. At Batesville there is a dam and lock, and the water, especially if the  big dams upstream have their gates open, roars over the concrete wall, past the lock that was built for steamboats and finished just as the railroad also was finished. The dam and the two more above it were never used, but never removed. Built as aids to navigation, they remain as hindrances to navigation. Batesville also held the wonder of a white sand beach. My friends and I were often very sunburned by the weekends at this shore. It was really a sort of  miserable place: the sand was burning hot and the water, coming from the 300-ft depths of the high dams upstream, was freezing cold. But we all felt like Tuesday Weld and James Darrin when we were there.

As a middle-aged adult, the river opened more wonders to me. I explored its entire length by kayak, or on foot, starting in the Boston mountains where it's just a road ditch beside Arkansas Highway 16, and ending on the white sands again  where the White and the Arkansas Rivers join the Mississippi at Big Island.

Now where the rivers meet is one of the most amazing dams of those on the White River. The picture at the top of the page is of one of the abandoned dams along the river, this one an old power generation dam at Fayetteville. Like so any of the dams on the White, it has been left in place long after its original 'purpose' has become obsolete. The Montgomery Point Lock and Dam, in the next picture, has had a rather different history.

Again and again the floods of the Arkansas or the White or the Mississippi have torn away the efforts to control this important river junction. The White River actually carries more water more reliably here than the Arkansas, so there is a canal for traffic to move from the Arkansas to the Mississippi. Low water on the Mississippi means sometimes there needs to be a lock so boats can make a transition in controlled circumstances. Sometimes the water is so high in all the rivers that the weir needs to allow boats to pass over with with a 12 foot clearance. Montgomery Point is a wonder of a different sort, an engineering wonder which is not yet fully tested.

It seems to me that much of my life has been a series of interactions like those of men with the White River. I work on projects and build theories that are obsolete by the time I've finished them, but which I hang to even though they are now just in my way. The biggest problems tend to overwhelm my solutions, and those ideas I value now may not be adequate to allow me to manoeuvre through the turmoils of today, let alone those ahead. There was a time in  my life when I scorned all the 'improvements' men had made to the White River, and I tended to scorn much of modernity, thinking that, like the clear water at Calico Rock my five-year-old self saw, the past had been easier to understand. When one's own life is in turmoil, it may be hard to recognize the structures that, like the levees and locks on the White River, prevent even more destruction. On may wish to deny that one's mistakes ever happened,to deny that one spent years building a structure that never served its intended purpose.

I suspect it's easier for the river. It seems to have no purpose except to move to the sea, at as close a speed of 10 meters per second per second as the terrain will allow. But even the river is slowed by the stuff it picks up along the way.