Heraclitus was wrong. Yes, you can step into the same river twice. What could be easier? You find a shallow spot, take off your boots and socks, roll up your pant legs and step into the water. You feel the chill and the smooth stones beneath your feet, turn around and wade back to shore. Then you do the same thing over again. If you are 19 or 20 years old, as I was at the time I discovered the old Greek’s error, you can smile smugly at your friend. “There, I did it twice,” I proclaimed.
She was a few months younger than I, but decades wiser. “No you didn’t. The river is not the same and neither are you.”
“OK, so the water I stepped in isn’t here anymore; now it’s downstream. But I’m still here, the same.”
“Only in name, Michael. When you waded in the second time you were a minute older than you were the first time.”
Now I’m older still. Her name was Barbara, a girl from Carpentersville, upriver. The river is called the Fox. She left this world in a car crash sixteen days before her 22nd birthday. But the Fox endures, winding its way from Wisconsin through northern Illinois on its way to the Mississippi. I haven’t visited it for many years, and I’m told that housing developments and strip malls have buried the cornfields and forests that kept us company when we used to walk along its banks.
Since those days a long time ago I have learned that, generally, pre-Socratic philosophers and women continue to be wiser than I am. And rivers are still magic beings.
The Bear River near my home in northern California is not nearly as wide or as deep as the Fox. It flows less than a hundred miles from its source in the Sierra Nevada until it merges with the Feather River. Like the Fox, it fascinates me in a way I can’t explain. So I draw it and paint it as best I can, but it still remains a mystery, beyond the reach of what I can grasp.
Once in awhile, after a lot of work and hours, the sketches might yield a painting.
At the end of his novel, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes, “I am haunted by waters.” Waters haunt me too. I doubt that the wise girl of many years ago believed in the existence of heaven any more than I did, or do. But if a heaven were to exist for either of us, in my imagination it would be a river, without beginning or end.
One thought to “A River Without End”
One of the oldest archetypes in literature is the lost paradise, notably in Milton but also all the way back to Homer. For fundamentally, what is the Odyssey but an effort to return home, to return to the lost paradise of Ithaca, an island in the waters of the Ionian sea? At a psychological, even biological level, human beings desire to return home, to paradise, and the most remote home each of us has known is the womb, where we were comfortably warm and nurtured in the amniotic waters. The earth itself, if not named “Earth” for the dry ground on which we mostly live, could perhaps more correctly be referred to as “Waters,” since water covers 75% of our home planet.
Your fascination with and ongoing depiction of waters in your art, that haunting feeling about water, make perfect sense, being human and given your early years living near rivers and lakes. The particular painting that is the stimulus for this post, “Bear River,” is a wonderful expression of enchantment with water and rivers in particular. I especially enjoy the play between standing, pooled water and rushing water. I’m unsure whether the water is running right to left or left to right, and it not only doesn’t matter, it is appropriate that ambiguity/mystery either has its origin or its destiny in darkness/oblivion. Both are true. We are born from darkness to light where we live, then travel toward the darkness of death. Jorge Manrique, 15th century Spanish poet, writes in his “Coplas por la muerte de su padre,”
Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar,
que es el morir….”
A river certainly does “run through it.”