The River

A few readers felt that this descriptive introductory chapter distracted them from the story… so, with some regret, I took it out of the book. The Sassafras River is one of the main characters, though.

It’s not an ambitious river. Only some twenty-five miles long, navigable for three-quarters of that. It is well-accustomed to human use and meddling. There’s fishing throughout — still on an industrial scale near its Chesapeake mouth: stocks of rockfish, blue crabs, oysters and clams, waning in recent years, but still gainful. Upstream it rewards a patient line — unless it’s a bad year (there have been fish die-offs and weird algae blooms). There is a little city of marinas around and about the Georgetown drawbridge, and their effluvia lingers in the water, which in any case has always been slow and tended toward murkiness. A few miles downriver, the murkiness has a more wholesome character, good for swimming, luxuriantly warm in midsummer — if you don’t mind being able to see nothing, underwater, but a greenish-brown luminescence. Kids can bob into the mud for handfuls of clams. The shoreline smells like a soup of cool green living stuff, with light rancid notes where the tide has stranded things in the sun.

Truly, the soft, slow, gently wooded shoreline of the Sassafras River is the sublimest place on Earth.

Tidal flows erode the earth out from under trees, but the trees don’t seem to mind. The sandy ground under pines and swamp maples gets pulled away a toothbrush-stroke at a time. The trees confidently send out doughty horizontal roots. The maples’ trunks arch out proudly from those roots, angled over the river. Any good teenage climber can get a breathtaking view, up among the soft leaves, way out over the water.

sassafrasAway from the shoreline itself the banks are steep. They are covered in a thick coat of old leaves which, generation by generation, turn into the loose, loamy soil that the giant beeches love. Each tree is more astounding than the last. To secure their incredible bulk in such crumbly earth, they grow intricate, muscular, thousand-layered-fractal-networks of roots. You could spend an hour studying any one of them, clambering up and down the bank, occasionally losing your footing (the bank is nearly vertical in many places) and slipping down ten feet or more on the leaves.

When you lost your footing, chances are you barked a knuckle or two, a small bloody scratch that you barely notice — something like the way the beeches barely noticed the scratches people have pen-knifed into their trunks.

To win the top of the bank you often have to struggle through a tangle of stringy brambles. Up there, you find a tilled field, or a line of yards, a chain link fence edging some schoolyard or the junky back lot of some car shop — in other words, some place of no interest, except to offer a quicker route back to “civilization.” The steep banks and the quiet shoreline have the great good fortune of being useless — they are just for you.

There are a few signs. Age-old piles of oyster shells, lightly buried. There’s the occasional beer bottle, or bit of blue China-printed plate, little plastic tugboat hull, or long-rotted shell of a rowboat. Somebody, sometime, hauled a thick manila rope way, way up into a leaning oak, and made an indestructible rope swing. In a few hours the rope will graze the water at high tide — next year a bit lower — the mooring roots still thickening, holding on with great strength. Barring hundred-year storms, it won’t happen soon — but eventually, the roots will let go, like the Zen Master’s fingers on a bowstring.

Once the tide has gone out, the sandy shore itself becomes walkable. This is where it all comes together — where, watching deltas form, seeing the birth of oxbow lakes, engineering dams and pools, you can discover the bigness of the small and the smallness of the big. These bugs that skate on the water, heavy enough to dent the surface, but never falling in. And look! Even this three-inch sapling has had time to throw out its own horizontal roots, leaning out over a tiny model of the river.

Higher up, the beach is pebbly, with the odd sharp stick half-buried (bare feet soon become wary of these); down low, and in the shallow water, it’s oozy. The proper track is where your foot leaves a full, clear impression, showing each toe, not too deep, not schloopy. The tracks won’t be there tomorrow.

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