Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Folklorist: By a forest stream

I sat and rested by a mossy mountain stream. The stream was darkened by hemlocks and rhododendrons. The water was clear, stainless where it fell over rocks, amber in the moss-rimmed pools. Of course, water has no color; the color of the rocks beneath showed through. The effect was amber, like whiskey or olive oil, healthy and organic. I could see nothing animate in the pools, though there were insects, water skimmers, on the surface. No fish, no salamanders. Only the water. I could see its movement on the surface. I could see its effects on things.

At the end of the pool, for instance, was a leafy branch, partially submerged in water, and the current pushed a twig with a single leaf at the end of it. The twig bent under the flow of water, then the tension of the twig pulled it back. The leaf – it looked like sassafras, still green – waved to and fro like the hand of a passing queen. Freedom and constraint. The movement was loose, and easy, anything but mechanical, and yet rotated within a narrow orbit defined by the strength of the branch and the force of the current. My own life is like this, too, loose enough to give the illusion of freedom, but always tethered by something, someone, some need.

I tried for a time not to think. I listened instead to the sucking sound from the waterfall and the rushing sound below as the water passed through a narrow slit of mossy rocks into a pool below. The dog sat beside me, puzzled perhaps by our inactivity. The dog looked toward me a couple of times as if to ask what next.

Something in the air caught its attention and it lifted its snout, and I followed the direction with my eyes toward a patch of forest beyond the stream, and I wondered whether there was an animal, and I stared into the concatenation of trunks and leaves, that Rorschach of green, to see if some presence would appear. The dog tensed but made no sound. I thought of the keen senses these animals have, how sensitive they are to the smallest things. I suppose they can smell the thoughts of passing birds. Certainly they have the wherewithal, if not the reason, to know what a passing mammal has eaten for breakfast. I read somewhere that early humans encouraged wild dogs to live with them, not as companions at first, but as alarms, for lupine mutts barked at anything strange, an asset to early humans. The dog relaxed its nose. Whatever it was had passed. Or the dog lost interest.

I returned to the sounds of the brook. Just sitting.

Eventually the impulse to move blew through me as a breeze. With some effort I pressed off the rock on my left and got unsteadily to my feet. My knees took some time to straighten, and so did my back. These days I am stiff unless moving, and only after I’ve been moving for a while. I limped back to the trail and we set off to the car. I was glad for the time away, the time alone in the forest. It made me breathe a little easier, if only for those few minutes by the stream.

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