Posted by: floridanature | August 13, 2008

What the River Remembers

By 7:45 p.m., the waterfront of Lake Monroe is quiet, light breeze blowing upstream from the north, pushing small, low clouds in front of it like wisps of cigar smoke. I park near the City Hall, and walk a few hundred feet across the road and onto the peninsula that juts out into the water. No one yet on the benches, so I go the the northern tip and find the one bench where I used to like to stop when I walked here with Shep. I sit and stretch my legs in front of me, and breathe, just looking around.

Strange, while I have traveled all over the world, I have spent vital intervals of my life in this old neglected riverboat town. I think of the first time I walked out on this peninsula in the early 1970’s, new to Florida and excited with the possibilities my young wife and I would make for ourselves here. I can’t say for sure what I’ve learned since. I only know for sure this river has taught me secrets, intimating how and why it flows, information beyond just the science. But sometimes even that seems like a single crisp glimpse, a stereographic view seen perfectly once and then remembered, over and over again.

The water seems undistinguished by anything other than the light chop from the wind. Too late now to even make out much of a color other than a cobalt blue-gray. I think I see large fins or manatee snouts several times, but I look again for a while and see nothing, so I figure it was just a trick of the water and late twilight. This lake is of course a flowing river, although at this point in its life it widens out enough to fool people, settling down like it does in a paleo-estuarine basin. A hundred thousand years ago, I would have been on the mainland side of a lagoon like the Indian River, and the far shore—across the wide swath of water where Enterprise is today—would have been barrier islands.

But that’s another story. For now, it’s a quiet weekday night in a little city that has never quite caught on like other trendy neighborhoods and towns in our region—Thornton Park in Orlando, Winter Park, Mt. Dora. And in a way, that’s saved it, rescued it from the ambitious schemes the half mad schemers once had for the village on this strange, north-flowing blackwater river.

Lights begin to flicker on, first from the power plant a few miles to the west, where the river passes under two large bridges and folds its way back into a channel. From here, the lights look celebratory, as if strung out for a party and not just utility. To my right, the bar sign lights at Wolfy’s, the pub on the water by the marina, flicker to life, and the channel markers that lead in front of me gradually do the same. Sanford is the end of the dredged and marked channel on this river, and most of the bustle is downstream from here, although it’s a stretch to describe Highbanks and Astor and Palatka as “bustle”.

Two people jog pass me, a white woman and a black man, by themselves. Both are wearing MP3 players in their ears and moving with serious intent. Then a large black woman walking fast, swaying her arms like she’s skiing down a sloop. Then, a youngish white woman with a dog, who notices me and says hi. All is quiet, and then from the dark street behind me, I hear another woman singing a quite good version of the Star Spangled Banner.

Once, a few years ago, I had walked with Shep farther upstream on the waterfront, and stopped to look through one of the telescopes mounted every so often on the RiverWalk there. As a I did, a woman stepped out of the wonderful old Spanish Mediterranean structure that used to be the Forest Lake Hotel (later the Mayfair), and walked slowly down the street playing the bagpipes. I went home and, thusly inspired, wrote a poem about that, about the ghosts of the steamboats I had hoped to see, and the woman I was waiting to meet.

It’s more dark than light now, but nothing moves in the water in front of me. I can see a flock of birds in the distance, flying home, and an osprey overhead with empty talons. I have found fish dropped in my yard, at least twice, and figured an osprey had simply lost its grip on a meal that was a bit heavier than she had figured it to be, natural mistake. Otherwise, just the soft slosh against the bulkhead, not even a mullet jumping.

I get up to leave my bench, and without thinking, I turn to get Shep, but of course, like a dream, he is gone. I had forgotten he was no longer here, just like, if I don’t remind myself, I sometimes think of all the people who have also gone—died, disappeared, moved away. Yet in my memories, they are still here, still alive, still on their way to meet me near the river by the bench with the telescope, or at home for dinner.

In a book I wrote once about this river, I tried to explain it as a palimpsest, a parchment too valuable to be destroyed, one that was used again and again by those who would record songs and lyrics and official documents onto it. The old words would be erased, and the new ones simply written where the others had been, one symbol replacing another.

If held to a light, all the incarnations of that parchment could be read, engendered with the richness of memory, one atop the other, atop the other. A far shore that once was islands; a small dog with a big heart; the intimacy of shared expectations, and of joy.

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