My recent trip back in time to my boyhood haunts along the Ashuelot River in Keene, New Hampshire reminded me how lucky I was to grow up on a river. A river can teach a boy a lot about both nature and himself.
I learned how to identify skunk cabbage, cattails, pond lilies and much more along the river. I built a raft and set out for the Atlantic, but never even made it to the town line. (That was how I learned to recognize a foolish idea.) I learned how to read the tracks of muskrat, raccoon and deer, and how to be as still as a stone when they came to the river’s edge.
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. ~ John Lubbock
My first kiss came to me on the river’s banks and somewhere, the date is recorded on the trunk of a maple. My grandmother explained puppy love to me then, but her time would have been better spent explaining why the first broken heart is so much more painful than all of those that follow.
One day I walked south down river-farther than I had explored before-and found that an old oak had fallen and made a natural bridge out to a small, shaded island covered with soft mosses and ferns. One end was pointed like a boat, so the island became an imaginary ship that would take me anywhere I wanted to go. I never told my friends about the island; it became the place I went when I needed some alone time.
“Brooding” was what my grandmother said I did during the times I spent alone, but she mistook my occasional need of solitude and silence, when the low hum of a dragonfly’s wings could be heard from 10 yards off, for unhappiness. They were actually some of the happiest times I had known until one very wet spring when the high water washed away the oak tree bridge. I don’t think I have ever again experienced such a complete absence of humanity as I did on that island, and rare since has been the peace I found within that absence. Later on I learned that Henry David Thoreau once said “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” He, I thought, was a man who understood.
Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything. ~Henry David Thoreau
The old Boston and Maine Railroad crossed the river many times on its way south and long before my time these crossings were popular hangouts for men who liked to drink. My grandmother called them hobos, but people were drinking under those train trestles before the word hobo even came into being. I know that because they used to throw their bottles in the river-and then I came along a hundred or so years later and found them.
Digging antique bottles along a river bank is hard and sometimes dangerous work, but it can pay well. Since the river taught me that hard work earns money, off I went to earn more. Of course, work is habit forming-or at least the paycheck is-so there was no longer any time for lolling on its banks. The river and I grew apart.
But not entirely; though time has flowed past much like the water of the river, my recent return visit showed me that little had really changed-with either the river or myself. As I followed the trails along its banks I found that I still had the curiosity that used to spur me on to always want to see what was around the next bend. Before I realized it I had walked for miles. As I mentioned to fellow blogger Grampy at Goat Sass Farm, maybe the curiosity that rivers instill in us is what keeps us young even as we age.
As a side note, I wrote this in part because of an inspiring comment that Grampy made about boyhood on my “A Walk in The Park Part 1” post. I intended to thank him for inspiring me that day but meanwhile he was writing a post about his boyhood days and thanking me for inspiring him! It’s funny how these things work sometimes, and where and how we find inspiration. So to Grampy goes a belated thank you.
Be like a rock in the middle of a river, let all of the water flow around and past you.~ Zen Saying
The photos of the train trestle and covered bridge are from the Cheshire County Historical Society.
The photo of Tree Bridge is by the U.S. National Park Service.
The photographer and date of the boy on a raft are unknown.