April 30, 2014
“Water” is the central word and metaphor of my life. My mother and I drowned I in it, Mom by a killer’s hand, and me falling through the ice on the Illinois River on a twelve degrees below zero night, my body soaked through and frozen, my brain sinking into a coma, only to be brought back to life by a screaming German named Marvin: “You vill not die!” I was ready to die that night . . . and now I’m not.
And I experienced a near drowning, standing on the bank of a flash flood on Piasa Creek, my backpack filled with thirty pounds of Indian artifacts, and me calculating that I could jump six feet across the flood to the other shore, me stepping back and leaping, the weight of the stones dropping my body into the raging water, down to the creek bottom, then swept-away boulders and tree limbs crashing into me from upstream, my breath spent, me grabbing a passing log and floating up to the surface and gasping for breath then pulled under once more, then snagging my right leg into a logjam, feeling my hip dislocate from the strain of holding on then landing myself on sand, and sobbing. I had come to Alton for a friend’s funeral and nearly became a body myself.
I’ll let geologists and hydrologists and anthropologists and archaeologists calmly state the facts of water. For me, rivers and streams and ponds and waterfalls and rain are storytellers, and I am the translator. Water is seduction music, a siren luring people to their deaths (Ophelia), to gaze upon their selves (Narcissus), to epic fights (“The Old Man and the Sea”) to adventure (Huck Finn), to mythic journey (Odysseus), to revelation (Updike’s “The Swimmer”).
Moving water falls. Humans are compelled to follow the fall and find what lies beyond. I remember spending a month of the summer of 1957, with my friend Keith Nesbitt and me trying to find the origin of a murky creek that ran behind Keith’s house, outside of Belleville. We followed that ditch upstream to the outlying farms, finally discovering a small, scum-covered pond in the middle of a field, Keith and I triumphant and witnessed by grazing cattle. Our greatest peril was an electrified fence which stung us and thrilled us at the same time. We would have bragging rights in the upcoming school year, each of us telling gaggles of girls of our battle with the fence, of facing down monster cows, of piercings by stinging nettle, of ticks (I had a tick lodged in my bellybutton) and leeches. Our stories grew apart, until it seemed as though we had been on separate missions.
Last Wednesday, my friends John and Judy took me to BurgessFallsState Park, west of Nashville, on the FallingWaterRiver. The waterfall, while not nearly as wide of girth as Niagara Falls, is the longest falls east of the Rocky Mountains. There were upper, middle and big falls ahead, and we hiked on a trail decorated with trillium and dogwood and fleabane and yellow tiger-stripe butterflies. The roar of the river drowned out most speech, the rapids on our right flowing with incredible force. My heart began to adjust to the rhythm of the tympani beat of thousands of gallons of water smashing on limestone, faster and faster.
We reached the lower section of BurgessFalls and stood on a wooden platform one hundred feet above the crashing water. The platform was built into the rocks, anchored on steel girders. I am terrified of heights, which has never stopped me from climbing, but I have to dare myself to look down, even knowing the platform is holding me. And I knew I would climb down to the bottom of the falls no matter what, no matter that we were staring at a massive wall of water that created its own weather of wind and rain.
Judy and I read the ominous warning signs and started down the trail. The first part was a gentle slope. Then we came to a turnaround and saw a long stairway set in a steel cage, descending steeply and looking scary as hell. We held on to the rails and climbed down ever so slowly, and reached the point of no return, a limestone rock below which was a steep descent through a waterfall-created gale, to the bottom. We saw a ten ton boulder lodged over our heads, having fallen straight down from a great distance, now clinging to the cliff by a mere two touch points, just missing the caged stairway. The boulder was Devonian, studded with five hundred million year old fossils of sea creatures.
Judy knew what I was going to do. She shouted me good luck and went back up the stairway and disappeared. From where I stood, I could see that the stairway was anchored into the cliff, and in my imagination I saw the structure parting and crashing into the falls.
This is the fear of death moment, though you call it that after the fact. I have faced it so many times, the knowledge that what you are about to do could kill you. But then you remind yourself that a pizza slice could kill you if you jam it down your throat and no one is there to help you.
On Black Mountain, in New Hampshire, you climb for a mile then encounter a two hundred foot wall of stone; the only way you can get to the mountaintop is straight up hand over hand climbing, no ropes. A sign warns that only experienced climbers should attempt it. And I have done that climb maybe ten times. And coming down is beyond words, for you see down, see your death, gored by the wilderness, feel the wind trying to snatch your body off the rock face. I have cried every time, once in a driving rain, muttering heathen prayers and saying goodbye to my friends.
The Burgess Falls trail was steep but doable, but every rock was slicked with rain and moss, every bush and tree branch was slicker than pond ice, every foot strike slid out into space, and the tearing wind tried to throw me into the water. My shoulder joints and hips ached as I fought the slick and dropped down, rock by boulder, on my butt.
And reached bottom.
And beheld one of the greatest sights of my life—the massiveness of the falls powerful and comet-like and raging. I sat on a boulder and tried to look to the top, but I was overwhelmed and dizzy. I lay back on the boulder and watched the deluge slam down. I wept at the beauty. I slammed my chest with my fists and shouted with joy. I closed my eyes and meditated to the mantra of water, I flew off to distant places, the journey upwater to the beginning, I thought of Keith Nesbitt and his twin sister Karen, whom I loved fiercely with fifth grade love, and I thanked the Shawnee Indian gods, of Space and Moon and Lord Sun and The Grandmother Venus and The Grandfather Venus, and the heaving breast of the Mother Earth held me and I was deliriously happy.
I stood and looked up toward the viewing platform. John and Judy “Ant” waved. It had to be them; who else would wave to me? And then I think, dead Indians wave to me all the time: that’s how I find artifacts.
I didn’t know it at that moment, but the glorious meal at Bobby Q’s Restaurant was but an hour away. And that is how life works. You are a pin in the Universe Bowling Alley, open 24/7, and God is the Bowler and a strike is inevitable. You face your fear and love your friends and eat—until the time you face your fear and smile and die and take your place in the universe which is facing its death in the Milky Way which is splitting apart and dying.