Teasing the River
I know a man who was once the youngest river boat captain on the Mississippi. He’s old now and has moved from the uncaring whimsy of the great river to the endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. On a high shelf in his small bedroom he keeps a neat row of hard-backed notebooks. These are his river books, each page dedicated to a meticulous, hand-drawn map of one section of the Mississipi and covered with neat notations in different colored inks. Each color represents a change in the river from one passage to the next: a sandbar that shifted, a big tree that got jammed against the soft bottom, a new bend that turns the current over itself.
“The river never stays the same,” he says. “You’ve got to watch it and anticipate it or else you’ll lose your life.”
What the men who travel over the river know, the men who make their lives on the banks of the river defy.
What is that sentiment in a man that lets him believe that he can outsmart the great force of nature? Is it hubris? Arrogance? Pride? Foolhardiness? A dogged determination to not give up on a dream? Maybe even greed?
One time there was a town on the banks of the Mississippi called Napoleon.
Some rich men downstream wanted to protect their investments, the farms and ports and merchant’s shops that had sprung up over the decades between big floods. They set engineers to work to watch the lazy indolence of the big river, to survey the land and do precise calculations to guess where the water might try to go. Then they set about the work of telling the river to move in another direction.
The only signs of Napoleon today are old maps that mark the lives that were once led with a small dot and surveys that show the plans to make the river conform to man’s desire.
That record of life isn’t the marker of any sentiment greater than the desire to keep what you have and to get more.
When the old riverboat captain walks by the ocean he stands tall and breathes in the salt air. He misses his river. The sea wind takes the memories away. He can watch the horizon and wait for the next ship to come in, knowing that there’s a man at the helm who is complete in his knowledge of what will happen that day and unworried about what the next day will bring.