Low, flat, wet floodplains: these have become my home, and they are beautiful, and they are due more regard than they are given.
But then here I am, too, drifting down the Middle Mississippi, and remembering just how scenic a river can be. There is a floodplain to the east, carving out a few flat miles in Illinois; but to the west there is grandeur. Hills, bluffs, cliffs. The far, ragged edge of what becomes the Ozarks, towering above the water.
We are hunkered down now for a few days on the Illinois side, on a beautiful curve of sandbar beach of Salt Lake Island, waiting out dangerous gusts -- up to 40 miles an hour today -- and an approaching hail storm. We are already behind schedule after a late start yesterday, to wait out the rain. But there is a thing called “river time,” and that’s what we are on. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and these are the markers that matter. I already have to stretch my mind to remember what day of the week it is. I’ve moved my gear in from the beach to avoid the blowing sand, and made myself a home in the woods. (I can hear the gusts on the beach, and am glad I’m settled here.)
Walking this morning around the upstream bend of our island I thought about what unifies these landscapes, east river and west. The answer was clear, because it was carved in the mud itself, loops and whorls of different shades of tan and brown -- dependent on its saturation -- and in horizontal bands etched through the cutbank above.
It’s no original idea; I’ve written this many times before; but: the river is a place where you remember that place itself is inconstant. The silt arrives; the sandbar grows; and somewhere else the water is carving away. When the river rises, the sandbar is swallowed by the floodwater. The bluffs are forever carved by wind and water. It’s a reminder that creation -- the Creation, if you want to get spiritual -- is not singular and past, but forever happening. We can lose that knowledge in the concrete world, but not on river time.