Remembering the source

When I was a child my family lived in southern Ohio. It's a picturesque region of rolling hills and valleys, a countryside quilted with corn and soybean fields, small patches of woods, and numerous rivers. But it's the rivers and streams I remember most vividly.

One of them flowed within a mile of our house, snaking its way between vine-covered banks, past woods and fields and then on to the city. The river offered an exciting contrast to the other geography of my life. Many of my afternoons were spent exploring the mysteries of its banks. Occasionally I was accompanied by my father, sometimes by a friend from school, and sometimes I went alone. My fishing rod was an occasional companion; more often I'd come just to watch the river.

I was convinced then -- and stayed convinced for several years -- that the river represented a kind of magic. It was too beautiful to be anything else. Several times I'd hiked all the way to where the river began, where it narrowed to an insignificant stream, where that stream split into two streams. Both of these rivulets originated as springs: fierce outpourings of crystalline liquid, pushing up miraculously out of ordinary ground. The day I located the springs I stood motionless for nearly an hour, awestruck by what I'd discovered. There was nothing in my experience to explain such a phenomenon. Daily for the following week I returned to this place, fascinated by the movement of the water , its gradual transformation into what I know as riverm . My consequent questions were boundless, many of them directed eventually at bemused teachers and acquaintances.

The beauty of the river remained a happy mystery for a long time, something no one could explain. The water, where it emptied from the earth, was completely, almost unimaginably clear. So clear, I thought, that it wanted to be called something other than water. As it widened out, collecting in pools over a white gravel stream-bed, its surface had the refractive power of a mirror. If I stood with my toes at its edge, I could look down and see the details of my own eyes. At times it seemed I could identify the colors of the images captured on the water. Occasionally a minnow or bluegill would shatter the surface with shock waves of color. The water assumed a prismatic quality then, bending the sunlight so that everything the water touched was infused with color. The fish became brushstrokes of silver, gold or bright blue. My own feet -- if I'd slipped off my shoes, let my toes dangle over the edge -- became exotic yellows, greens and reds. The stream bed itself became a rainbow, a melange of all color.

All of this quite obviously was magic and I felt obliged to make everyone else aware of this.My friends, teachers and family were all given notice of its wonders and suffered my ongoing astonishment and sense of awe.

It wasn't until a few years later, though, than my father and I had occasion to go fishing downstream, near the city, some twenty-five miles from the river's beginnings. There was a certain spot, my father alleged, where we were almost guaranteed our limit of smallmouth bass. It was a place he'd fished many times during his youth. When we located it that morning it was different from what he remembered. The banks had been reinforced with concrete; houses and light industry now extended nearly to the shoreline. The water itself was murky, its surface obscured with grease and sediment. Cans, bottles and old tires were visible along its banks. It was shocked: this section of river bore no resemblance to the river I loved. What had happened, I wondered, during those twenty-five miles: When asked, my father shook his head sadly, guiding me back in the direction of the car.

The image of the polluted river stayed with me for a long time. I found myself resenting it -- as if in its changing it had somehow betrayed me. It took some time to realize that that perception was not a valid one. The river after all, its essence, had not changed. My view of it was merely distorted by the sediment and foreign matter that had taken up residence there. I reminded myself that the beauty I'd once perceived in the water was still present, disguised by the adulterants men had added.

Later, parallels emerged between the movement of the water and that of my own life. Like me, the river had absorbed much of what it had touched in the course of its wanderings. Because of the water's purity, all of this foreign matter was sharphy visible, set off by the extreme contrast between the differing materials. Twenty-five miles -- or twenty-five years -- downstream and that identity was all confused; its actual nature had been obscured by the variety of additives. Mechanisms for cleansing now had to be found and applied. Or the journey of the river had to be retraced and followed back to the innocence of its beginnings. I reminded myself that what was good was still there, it merely had to be looked for, recognized, believed in. . . .

I received a long letter from my father at the beginning of March. After giving me the family news, he mentioned that most of the ice had cleared from the river; that the melting snow had at first muddied and then purified the water. He added that he'd taken up canoeing recently. It's a wonderful way to spend Sunday afternoons, he said. And the river? It's exquisite now, more beautiful than ever. You wouldn't believe it, he explained, and then offered to take me back.

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