Last night the river spoke. It was enough to wake me from sleep: the brief thud, echoing ever so slightly in the still-bare woods. The first collapse of ice. The river flexing its arms as it stirred from winter sleep.
This preparatory, tentative breakup of the sidearm of the Penobscot River along which I live filled me with the first real sense that spring was under way. Have the days really been warm enough to melt the 18-inch-thick ice? I can still clearly hear the river's November voice, when the ice first started to form. As the water expanded and hardened, it felt inland a ways, embracing the thick, peeling trunks of the silver maples that line the riverbanks. And then, as I stood watching and listening, the river paused and settled, and the ice fractured, sounding like the crack of gunfire. Then it began again, the thickening, the rising, the spreading over the flood plain. By December it was done, and snow was laid like a blanket on that which had finally nodded off.
This morning I went outside at first light to see how far things had come since the river cleared its throat last night. There it was: Down the middle of the ice, all along its length, the ice had collapsed. A shallow pool of frigid water had seeped into the depression. Soon it will begin to flow. We are at the point of no return then.
When I went into town for groceries, I took time out at a cafe. While sitting down to tea I overheard a woman speaking animatedly about, of all things, the stretch of river on which she lived. "I think of moving sometimes," she told her partner in conversation, "but ... well, once you've lived on a river, there really are no other options."
Exactly. That was exactly it. I had to interrupt her, affirm her in her commitment to river life. "Did you hear it?" I asked her. "The ice breaking during the night?"
Not yet. She lived a few miles to the north of me, where the ice was even thicker. "Don't worry," I told her. "Any day now. Any moment."
She left the cafe almost quivering with anticipation.
We are of a kind, we river-dwellers. Bounded by land on three sides, the fourth is a magnificent window of water which, we know, runs into the great ocean. The river, then, is actually my window on the world. I must have it, or I would feel landlocked. A pond or lake just can't compare. I once got into this debate with a friend of mine who owns a cabin on a Maine lake. She described it as somehow superior to rivers because her lake is idyllic, placid, glasslike, respectful of borders.
Little did she know that she was making my point for me. Rivers are different from other freshwater bodies exactly because they are not placid or glasslike (at least never for long), or prone to staying put. Rivers are alive. Even John Masefield, a former poet laureate of England, took time out from writing saltwater ballads to pay tribute to the enduring quality of rivers:
All other waters have their time of peace,
Calm, or the turn of tide or summer drought;
But on these bars the tumults never cease....
I suppose I have a real sense that folks who live on ponds or lakes are playing it safe, not taking life by the horns. When the river speaks in spring, I watch as neighbors begin their annual river walks. They approach the half-melted bank, pushing against a remnant of ice with the toe of a boot, wondering how far the water might rise.
And I join them, if only to encourage them. For no matter how long and hard and dreary the winter has been, by May they will dismiss all thoughts of moving to Florida and wonder how they will ever get any work done at all, so occupied are they with resting their eyes upon the river.
It is April now. The channel in the center of the river has widened, and the water is noodling its way through, gurgling just loud enough to be heard. Soon, plates of ice will peel away from the banks, spinning and bobbing south, like seagoing mammals at play. Then the river will swell.
Once it has opened wide, there will be a massive wash of ice from the north, the chunks blue and sparkling, nudging against each other, tinkling like crushed glass. Finally, it will be done, the great catharsis.
The river will feel for its natural banks again, settle in, and from day to day will be different. Rising in times of rain, receding in drought. When it's on the move, canoes and kayaks will color its surface. On the rare day when it disguises itself as a lake, the girl down the road will float off in her inner tube, reading a novel under the sun. My own boy will wander its muddy banks, earnestly plodding in search of frogs.
As for me, on a bad day I will wonder if another house, another neighborhood, another state is in order. And who knows what the future will bring?
In the short term, though, I will recover from the lure of errant thought. For the moment, at least, I belong to the river as much as it belongs to me.