“It’s nice the see this place in day light,” Ben says as he puffs his pipe.
He means of course bright light rather than the dim place this river had been for months, a dried up, dismal landscape that had seemed more like the surface of the moon than a place of flowing water – drought exposing its ribs so as to look like a starving version of the man William Carlos Williams claimed he could see in the Great Falls downtown.
In spring, when wet, this place comes alive, and upstream – maybe as far west as the mythical
– April had indeed brought showers so we could see May flowers popping up
around here. Lake Passaic
I remember my first time coming here with my grandfather and how amazed I was by what I saw, not the Great Falls here, but a tiny eight or ten foot variety that made me claim it as my own, with white water tumbling over it down onto the flat surface filled with stones below – and moving fast again towards the arches of the Outwater Lane Bridge down stream, a twisting current that made me think of it as a silver serpent and still does.
My boyhood imagination, along with the nasty tales Leonard Suresky told about the river made me actually believe real monsters lived among the trees or in the deeper water, so that I gripped my grandfather’s hands until my knuckles turned white.
But if there is a beast here, it is in the flow of water and how it beats the shores with both fists when it is in full bloom, as it is now, a lush, flush powerful water that sometimes – if the sun is right – looks green, reflecting the trees that are only just beginning to blossom as well. My favorite trees, the mulberries, just showing off their new green dress, while my second favorite tree, the willows, barely turn green at all, or a variety that seem godlike and golden, even before autumn turns their leaves to bright yellow.
Geese and duck float now over places they waddled only a few months ago, looking cleaner than they did, though the water hides their legs and washes away the mud from their feathers. They dip their beaks into the surface and come up with silver fish they had to dig in mud before to get.
But they are still restless, wondering when exactly the good times will end and force them back into old nasty habits they only reluctantly take on. Survival is a mean mistress that makes us all do things we might be shamed of in better times.
For a short time many years ago, I lived homeless on the streets, begging for coins and feeding off the kindness of a donut maker who gave me the stale end of the day remains. I still hate lemon-filled donuts on that account.
I laugh at Ben, and tell him beauty is a thin veneer, and beneath its surface lurks dangers unseen, claws that will rip a man to pieces if he makes the wrong move. Even the water is not innocent, and I recall two boys who drowned in the puffed up water when it first came, kids, who like me at their age, presumed they could handle nature and assumed the landscape would remain unchanged, and did not account for the deeper water when they waded out into it.
When Dave and I came here, we survived by luck, making the same mistakes those kids made but somehow saved from the worst. We were even more foolish, looking for the big dangers that did not exist, like wild wolves, while failing to see until almost too late, this loose bit of stone or the glass over which our bare feet walked, mistaking sometimes the broken pieces of soda bottles for jewels some imaginary pirate left – or the pearls my grandfather once told me actually could be found here in oysters the size of dinner plates.
We found no treasure – or at least not the kind we could bring to the bank.
But I still come here, searching not for fortune, but for peace, and strangely in the midst of seasons, be they flush or not, I find it, and so does Ben between each puff of his pipe.