The river and I strike a deal

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When the Penobscot River behind my house swelled with the first autumn rains, I watched with dismay as a small bridge I had constructed over a feeder creek was lifted up and floated downstream posthaste.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Although I had put great effort into the bridge's construction to obtain readier canoe access to the river, I should have known that my work would come to naught.

It was a cold February nearly 12 years ago when I moved into my home. This being Maine, the river was frozen solid. When April arrived I awakened shortly after ice-out to find the newly freed waters lapping at the bank not 40 feet from the kitchen window. I was a bit nervous at first, but when the river ebbed a couple of days later, I accepted its brief rise as a sort of welcome, the licking of a friendly dog.

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It wasn't long before I learned how to get along with the Penobscot. A river is different from a lake, which tends to stay put and is always ready for its picture-postcard-perfect close-up. A river is alive. It's going places. Its currents run deep, and it can swell and retreat in whimsical fashion.

Early on I tried, for example, to put a raspberry patch on the flood plain. During that first growing season, the canes rose up with determination, thriving in the full sun and fertile soil of the riverbank. The river itself lay low, coursing as gently as sweet Afton. The following spring was supposed to be prelude to the berries' first bearing season, but the Penobscot didn't think so. It flooded and put the whole show underground.

It was clear that I would have to rethink my relationship with the river. I decided to allow it the bulk of the flood plain: I would make no attempt at a boat dock, nor take garden advantage of the rich, black soil, nor cut swaths through the cattails for hiking. As a seal of my goodwill, I erected a low stone wall at the edge of my backyard, delineating my domain from that of the river.

That wall has frequently elicited comments from visitors. They notice that it doesn't seem to serve any purpose: It has nothing to do with a neighbor's property, and it's too low to ward off so much as a muskrat. On my side of the wall the grass is low, suitable for a putting green. Just over the wall, the cattails, loosestrife, and wild morning glory form a thick green forest in summer, a low tangle of brown in winter. This is the Penobscot's purview, and the river has kept its calm since the deal was struck.

So why my recent attempt to build a bridge when our peace treaty had kept us good neighbors for so long? This past summer's drought had brought the river lower than I had ever seen it. Local folk were able to walk far out on exposed bars and rocks to study the bottom and collect interesting bric-a-brac.

When I set out on my own investigation, I was rewarded with a large deposit of waterlogged wood from the days of the river drives, when the lumberjacks danced upon monstrous, jostling herds of logs, prodding them down to Bangor's sawmills.

"This wood already belongs to the river," I reasoned. "So if I build a small bridge with the river's own materials, it won't mind, I'm sure."

And so I labored mightily for more than a week, laying down the ancient flat planks, bordering them with smooth, rounded logs, and staking the whole thing together under a blazing summer sun.

It was perfect, both the idea and the construction, granting me an express lane to deep water.

The only thing was, I had built the bridge on the other side of the peacekeeping wall. A week later, the first rains of autumn came and the river pulled itself up onto the flood plain. I found my bridge the next morning - bound for Bangor, where its wood was probably headed in the first place. I did not rebuild and I made no further attempt to compromise our agreement. Since the bridge washout, all has been quiet on the riverfront.

The town has even put in an expensive, modern boat launch down the street from me, at a higher elevation on which the river makes no claim.

The town, it seems, must have once learned its lesson as well.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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