By Kathy Hughes
A Sam Cooke retrospective aired recently on a station I listen to, and the musical theme was his anthem, “A Change Gonna Come.” What captured my attention wasn’t Sam Cooke, or his influence, but the song’s first line, “I was born by a river . . .”
The river, of course, was the Mississippi, which inspired so many songs and stories, and it strikes me that rivers are one of the most powerful metaphors there is. They represent renewal, freedom and life itself, but most powerfully for me, the passage of time and eternity. Anyone who lives near a river can’t help but be aware of nature’s power, the passage of time and of forces greater than we are.
While I wasn’t born by a river, our family lived near a river, the Potomac, for most of my life. It was just over one of the high hills that border much of its course. This portion of the river is tidal, ebbing and flowing, just like the sea, which served to enhance the awareness of movement to another level.
Lakes do not flow, and do not rise and fall with the tide. While I’ve come to appreciate their serenity and calm, my first impression was “how boring.” In what is now embarrassing ignorance, on my first visit to Green Lakes State Park, I asked, “What time is high tide?”
Rivers, as well as all the creeks that feed them, are exciting and inspiring to anyone with imagination. Where does the water come from, and where does it go? They demand to be explored. My friends, my brothers and I spent countless hours exploring the creek near our house. Before reaching the Potomac, it meanders more or less parallel to it, to a point which I never reached, but my brother may have, but only once.
Following the creek, meant hours of being away from home. There were places where you’d be forced to wade across, or to jump, due to an impasse, and when further progress was possible only by crossing to the other side. There were frogs, pollywogs, box turtles, minnows and water strikers that would often distract us from our journey.
We’d run into problems, and have to figure our way out by ourselves. It was very important not to fall in, which, more than our absence, meant we’d be “in trouble” when we got home. This happened only rarely, but it did happen. For me, it was a no win situation; if I fell in, I’d be in trouble, but if my brother fell in, I’d still be the one in trouble.
One time, in following the creek upstream, I found the creek flowed through a cow pasture, fenced by barbed wire. Another problem with the cow pasture, there were cows. Taking one problem at a time, I climbed through the wire, but not without catching my sweater. I thought I was safe, took a few steps, when I was charged by a cow, who meant business. I was so shocked, I had been led to believe that cows were docile creatures, chewing their cuds, and all that, I never expected to be chased by one. Needless to say, I exited the field, including the fence, much quicker than I entered. Thankfully, my mother never found out about that one.
I am still entranced and mystified by flowing water. I watch a waterfall and this enormous volume of water just keeps coming and coming, day after day, year after year, for centuries or more. Where does it all come from? It isn’t a temporary display, like a rainbow or an eclipse, it is constant and seemingly endless.
Some day, the rivers may all cease to flow, but just like infinity, I cannot imagine it. A flowing river is as close to eternity as I can imagine, and, as hard as I try, I cannot quite comprehend it.