Friday, August 27, 2021
Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:
Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water was the debut essay collection by the American naturalist and eco-philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, based in Oregon and Alaska, whose other fine books include Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, and Earth's Wild Music: Celebrating & Defending the Songs of the Natural World.
At the start of Riverwalking, she notes:
"The essays in this collection are river essays because I began to write each one alongside a stream or floating down a river, and so they may still carry the smells of willow and rainbow trout. Drifting on rivers, you know where you will start and you know where you will end up, but on each day's float, the river determines the rate of flow, falling fast through riffles, pooling up behind ledges, and sometimes, in the eddies at the heads of sloughs, curling back upstream in drifts marked by slowly revolving flecks of foam. So, drifting on rivers, I have had time to reflect -- to listen and to watch, to speculate, to be grateful, to be astonished.
"I have come to believe that all essays walk in rivers. Essays ask the philosophical question that flows through time -- How shall I live my life? The answers drift together through countless converging streams, where the move softly below the reflexive surface of the natural world and mix in the deep and quiet places of the mind. This is where the essayist must walk, stirring up the mud."
The twenty essays here invoke a range of different waters and terrains-- most of them in the Pacific Northwest, from the region's high desert to the Oregon coast. Moore reflects on the nature of home by the Willamette River, of grief among the ponderosa pines of the Metolis, of change in the shifting dunes of Bear Creek, of death by the Salish River, of clarity and mystery by the Smohalla.
On the latter subject she writes:
"The word clarity has two meaning, one ancient and the other modern. The Latin word clarus meant clear sounding, ringing out, 'clear as a bell'; so in the ancient world, 'clear' came to mean lustrous, splendid, radiating light. The moon has this kind of clarity when it's full, and so do signal fires and snow and trumpets. But that usage is obsolete. Now 'clear' means transparent, free of dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, free of confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.
"For twenty years, I thought that the modern kind of clarity was all there was, that what I should be looking for was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth, that anything I couldn't understand precisely was not worth understanding -- in fact, may not exist to a rational mind. I am beginning to see that this was a failure in courage. I am beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this, that I don't always need to know where I am, that ambiquity swells with possibilities, that possibility is ambiguous, that I miss out on the real chance when I pile rocks at the edge of the river to trap an eddy where the water will stop and come clear while the rest of the river pushes by, boiling, spitting spray, eddying upstream.
"I want to be able to see clearly in both senses of the word. To see clearly in the modern sense: to stop a moment, stock still, and to see through the moment to the landscape as it is, unobstructed, undimmed, each edge sharp, each surface brightly colored, each detail defined, separate, certain, fixed in place and time. These are visions to cherish, like gemstones. But also, every once in a while, to see landscape with ancient clarity: to see a river fluttering, gleaming with light that moves through time and space, filtered through my own mind, connected to my life and what came before and to what will come next, infused with meaning living, luminous, dangerous, lighted from with in."
I love that passage, and was startled by it. For me, clarity in the ancient sense comes easily; it is the modern form that I must consciously cultivate to keep my vision of the world in balance. And that, I suppose, is what makes Moore a scientist by nature; me, a folklorist and fantasist.
We need both ways of seeing, of course. Moore's "stirring of the mud" in these beautiful essays gets the balance between them just right.
Words: The passages quoted above are from Riverwalking by Kathleen Dean Moore (Lyons Press, 1995). The poem in the picture captions is from The Second Four Books of Poems by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 1993). All rights reserved by Moore and the Merwin estate.
Pictures: The photographs are of the River Teign where it winds through our Dartmoor village. The water here is slow and shallow -- perfect for gentle paddling by a recuperating hound. The drawing is "What the Moon Saw" by British book illustrator Helen Stratton (1867-1961).