My earliest memory of a river is the one behind Bobby Rorey’s house. At the bottom of his large sloping backyard, a brown river rolled slowly through this suburban neighborhood. It was about a stone’s throw across (one of mine mind you) and I do not remember ever swimming in it, although I do remember wading through riffle areas–places where the river turned shallow and ripples danced lightly over buried stones. Along its banks we would play, following paths possibly made by deer, although we did not know that then, or more likely made by adventurous children following the meanders through the neighborhoods and surrounding farmlands. This river seems to be one that appears in my dreams at night at times, and to be honest I’m not sure if some of my memories are not in fact dreams of this place. I remember going down the river further than we had ever gone and watching a giant bull through a fence, but there is a dreamlike quality to the memory that brings into question if it is the memory of an event or the memory of a dream.
When we lived in Merced, California, across from a field of sweet potatoes, (which, even then, was slowly yielding to housing developments), there was a little forest of eucalyptus trees that formed a little copse where my friends and I liked to play. The river here was big and slow and lent itself to an occasional swim. There was a rope hung over the water and we would swing over the water and drop with a splash into the not very deep water. The banks were bare of vegetation and cattle hooves pocketed the muddy banks. Climbing out of the water in the slippery mud of the edges was uproariously funny to watch, and infuriating to do. In both of these landscapes of my youth, Merced and Santa Rosa, were places of refuge and mystery. There were no bullies to bother you along those banks. Moreover, the river seemed imbued with life and spirit. Where did the water come from? Where was it going. Once we followed the river downstream into the wild farmlands through which it wound its way. We found more groves of trees, pastureland filled with fearsome cattle, and a place where there where no houses or buildings just wild hedgerows, windbreaks, and rich vegetation where the grass was so thick and tall we could scarcely make our way through it. This was adventure of the finest kind.
While we lived in Merced, I had started to read fantasy books of every kind, and these adventures seemed to take me to the edge of Elfland, a place of magic and enchantment that I longed for. A safe place. Scrambling along the margins of the river seemed to position me just on the edge of this magical land. I wondered if I just went a little further, or turned off the path at just the right place, if I could find the entryway. This dreamscape of my imagination seemed too beautiful a place not to exist. There I was a powerful, respected warrior, or wizard perhaps. Evil was easily recognized and destroyed (after a fierce bout of swordplay of course). Friends were abundant. Companions and sidekicks loyal—all of who were filled with fawning admiration at my prowess. All things my life at school was not. These riverine places reminded me of such realms, borders on the edge of mystery, and these wild ecotones held me spellbound because of heir potential for wonder.
While I make it sound like I was alone on these adventures, it was never true. I was always with friends. Usually in my life my friends have been a couple of years younger than me, perhaps because I was not mature for my age, and partly because they did not know me at school and join in the swarm of tormentors that plagued me. But in the middle of the school induced—anxiety, I found the trees and river a place where my spirit and imagination soared. There I was able to hone a sense of place and play in Nature, although I would have not called it such, just a deep recognition that I felt right and happy there. The river was a friend, mystery, comforter, and a place to nurture my imagination. Mostly it was alive and I knew it well.
I watch my daughter play in our backyard and I feel sad for her in such a confined place. She at age 12 does not have places to wander far and wide alone with friends; partly due to the fear abroad in our world that stymies such freedoms, fears that I cannot seem to help but buy into. I wish she knew the rivers.