Friday, January 12, 2007
Water, Water Everywhere
The town of Roscoe sits at the confluence of the Willomec Creek and the Beaverkill River. It is tucked into a niche in the Catskills, a valley through which the Beaverkill traipses like a dancer. Unlike the Mississippi, say, or the Columbia, there is no sense that this is a river of broad, burly shoulders, pushing aside huge mounds of dirt on its way to the sea. No, this is a gentle river, home to thousands of lazy trout, and eventually, the river flows into the Delaware and after that, Chesapeake Bay.
But back in late June, central New York state and northern Pennsylvania were drenched in ten inches of rain. And the tiny little Beaverkill became leviathan. Roscoe, Walton, Livingston Manor and other towns were under eight feet of water. People drowned. Houses were carried downstream. Roads were washed away.
In August, I walked along the river. It had returned to its pre-flood daintiness, and in fact, I was told that the river was now so shallow that you couldn’t take a canoe down it. You’d have to portage the canoe through the shallows. The signs of the destruction were everywhere. Part of the motel where I stayed, a motel I’ve stayed at several times before because it is quiet, inexpensive, and sits upon the banks of the river, had washed away. People told me how they’d watched the motel building run into the bridge, and then, smashed by the torrent, watched as it was carried miles downstream. On the door to my room was a dark mark a foot or so above the door handle. It was the waterline. Inside the room, only the bare essentials had been restored. There wasn’t even a phone. Just a bed, and a couple of pieces of furniture that looked the worse for wear. The bathroom had been scrubbed clean, but the smell of bleach and mold was overpowering, sickening. In the corner of the bathroom grew a fungus that looked like kelp, something Neolithic, as if it belonged on the sea floor.
So, I did a lot of walking. The sky was a shade of blue that would break your heart—so much deeper than forget-me-not, but not as dark as the indigo indications of an encroaching storm. How to describe the ripple of water over stone? As I walked along the Beaverkill--the sun on the back of my neck, its warmth on my shoulders as if someone had draped his arm there—I watched the water. The movement is subtle in most places; your senses tell you that it is, in fact, still, but the water moving across the stones dispels the notion of stillness. The sun glints in such a way off the angles of the water, those angles the signs of the disruption on the surface as the water moves over stones.
And the stones are testament to motion. The stones are not jagged. There is not a rough edge left on any of them. They are ovoid, softened by the caress of water. I’ve noticed these changes in my face of late. My face is softening, like a baby’s face, the skin that used to cling so tautly to the bones beneath are letting go, sliding. Maybe I have smiled too much in my life. Perhaps I’ve focused on too many things out of my reach. The furrow in my brow is now a gorge, a chasm in the otherwise smooth plain of my forehead.
I feel too fleshy. Such a privileged complaint, I know, to lament the passage of time and its effects on the body. I have already surpassed the average life expectancy of entire sections of the African continent. I should be grateful. Instead, I bitch. But I note the patterns of sun and wear on my neck and chest, and I see a glimpse of my older self.
If you didn’t notice the smashed guard rails, the washed-out sections of road, the boarded-up buildings, there would be little evidence of what had happened along the Beaverkill. Already, the wildflowers have filled in the spaces created when water washed away earth. The downed trees have become part of the landscape. The Canada geese, the loons, drift undisturbed. The water was clear, and I could make out the tiny fish fry—just a couple of inches long, that swam close to the banks. A bald eagle beat its wings and flew a straight trajectory, the center of the river directly below it.
Only the people had suffered. They had built their towns on flood plains—not even 100- year flood plains, either. The river has flooded twice in three years. Despite that fact, folks were rebuilding, in exactly the same spots that they had been flooded out of just six weeks prior.
I keep that in mind as I contemplate my body, the one that nature is wearing away. Time doesn’t seem to be moving, but it is. I don’t think I’m changing, but then, every now and then I catch a glimpse of myself and I think, “Have I always looked like this?” I could undergo plastic surgery, could coat myself in miracle products that promise to rejuvenate my skin, make it appear fresh. But there’s no stopping this process. I am getting older. My body is getting older. Eventually, bit by bit, I’ll be washed away. But the wildflowers will still be there, as will the eagle and the loons. And ultimately, that means everything to me.