from Monumental Fictions, an essay
by Joe Napora
Ohio Brush Creek*
...I long to ascend the river to its headwaters in forested mountains, to flow with it down to the sea, the ultimate wilderness.
-Harlan Hubbard (Berry 8)
Ashland Kentucky, Sunday (May 15, 1994)
Everyone is asleep but me, and I am lost in the sound of the falling rain. It rains so hard that I doubt it will continue long into the day, but whether or not the rain continues, we will. This is our only chance to make this trip. The rain falls and sleep continues to elude me. Why should I care whether we start out wet or dry? This trip is all about water.
For months, Jason and I had been making plans. And for years I have wanted to canoe the Ohio River from its source at Pittsburgh where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to form the Ohio to where it joins the Mississippi at Cairo. This was not to be that trip. We did not put in at Pittsburgh, and as we canoed the trip we did make, we were glad we didn't. Canoeing the length of the Ohio was an idea that had captured me; many times during our trip, we were both happy this idea didn't capture us for days and boring days on the Ohio.
In the morning the sky is clear. It was a hard rain, and that will have helped us. A couple weeks before some friends had paddled down Brush Creek and had to push and pull their way through every rapid. We should have better luck. It takes us a little over an hour and a half to get to where we will put in.
By about an hour before noon we have carried the canoe and gear to a bridge on Ohio Route 73 that crosses Ohio Brush Creek a few hundred yards south of the Serpent Mound. It was here we had decided to begin, and we hadn't yet decided just where we would end. We knew the Ohio meant Industry: the barges, the cities, the recreational traffic. Before we encountered all of that, we wanted to spend some time in relative quiet. There are no wilderness rivers in Ohio, but Ohio Brush Creek is isolated enough that we knew we would find good camping and encounter few people.
Instead of immediately heading down stream and south to the Ohio, we paddle north. We are too close to the serpent mound to not visit. I've been here several times, but this is the first for Jason. And it is my first chance to approach the mound by water, something I've wanted to do for many years. We paddle beyond the flat ground that lies at the base of the promontory the Indians built the mound upon, then we turn and drift down toward a landing spot. Though the mound builders approached from both directions, coming down stream would provide the most dramatic introduction to the site. It once was more than dramatic. With the ground cleared of trees and the promontory cleared of brush, the mound would be visible from the water. From here the serpent is but an extension of the landform; the earth itself is the serpent. From here, then, approaching this way would be a spectacle.
The spectacle for us now, though, is the heron. We see one flying upstream, north. While we slide the canoe against the bank, I think of the relationship of the direction north to poetry, to inspiration, the fact that the heron was once sacred to the great goddesses of ancient times, times even more ancient than this mound; effigies of the heron have been found carved in caves in Spain that date to over 14,000 years ago.
We glide near the eroded bank and tie up to the exposed root of a sycamore and slip and slide until we pull ourselves up to level ground. The night's two inches of rain mean we encounter mud everywhere, but without the rain we would be stopped at every low spot in the river. Better mud than that. And for the original settlers of this place, as for the farmers who still farm along this river, better mud than anything. Mud is fertility, and strangely enough, though appropriately so, it is the fertility of this earth that keeps this mound safe from destruction. As long as the farmers refuse to sell their land, the mound is safe. Though sycamores and maples and oaks grow here now, this ground is ideal for crops. There is no doubt in my mind that all of this was clear of trees when this site was occupied.
The annual silting over of this ground, the soil being fertilized from the waters, is something recognized by peoples from the beginning of time. Perhaps that recognition signals the beginning. And farmers still recognize it. When the spring floods recede and the land is dry enough to plant, they don't need to add chemical fertilizers; they just plant. And the corn grows. As it did for the mound builders, which must have been one reason most mounds are built along the waterways, the water providing transportation, food and drink, and the impregnation of the soil. Some farmers still resist the efforts of the real estate companies and the men who would change their farms into condominiums. When they decide that the land is no longer worth farming, no matter what we do, those of us who have fought to stop the attempt to turn the Serpent Mound into a curiosity, sitting atop an island sitting in a recreational lake for the wealthy, the farmers will move away, the land will be sold. No one really knows just what the mound was built for and what meaning still resides in it. But it still protects this area and itself from destruction.
Here is a site of the ageless battle, life and death struggles in terms of fertility and sterility, diversity and conformity. I have no doubt that the mound signifies fertility, the effigy snake representing what snakes have always meant: water, increase, the necessary but essentially mysterious bounty provided by nature. That bounty-full-ness residing in this mud, the alive earth, sustains us just as it sustained the mound builders.
As we approach the mound we can see the erosion of the sandstone. In places the supporting rock is undermined. The folly of the proposed development here, the condominiums and the recreational lake that would lap up at the base of the mound, is obvious to any but the most rabid promoters of progress. This land is the Place of Caves referred to in many Indian stories as the origin of life. It is not the exact place, but all such places, these limestone and sandstone landscapes, are places of mystery where creation inheres. The land opens and invites us to enter. Here, however, the openings threaten the stability of the Serpent Mound itself. If the waters of Ohio Brush Creek were to be damned up against this rock, they eventually would crumble the rock and the mound that is wed to it.
Jason and I follow a path south to where it climbs the rise near to the tail of the mound. We climb the slope then walk along the length of the serpent, all 1300 feet of it. Each time I approach the head of the mound this way, up the slight incline from the tail, is a confirmation of my belief that there is no spot better for this mound to be, that this is the only place where this mound could express itself, could express the spirit of the people who built it and the peoples who still derive sustenance from it. There is no other place in the world like this, and the mound drives this realization home to me. This is unique, a holy site, a spiritual place. When the great modern naturalist, a true heir of Thoreau, Edwin Way Teale, visited this place in winter forty years ago, he felt the same. It was winter, and he had a better view of the water, but the landscape was no different from what it is now, from what I hope it will ever be:
So, in the stillness of the winter sunset on this ridge top in Ohio, I felt very close to those ancient men who had chosen a spot so beautiful for their master labors. Remotely distant, infinitely far removed from life today, they too, perhaps, had been stirred by sunsets, by all the beauty of the scene outspread below this eminence. (Teale 253)
From the serpents head, we look out to the river but cannot see where we tied up the canoe. Without the trees, we'd have a clear view of the river-the twisting river, sinuous, sensuous mound, each in motion, and us standing but in motion while at rest. We are the river. This is the message the mound announces so that we are able to announce the same message to ourselves. We are the middle between the two extremes of earth and sky. The middle, the place the poet Ed Dorn calls wilderness. And it is. It is where we are, often the least known place of all. Not some distant place, but here at this time, at this place. At this place is where the earth, this mound made of stone and dirt, mimicking the river and the turning motion of the tail of the dipper around pole star, joins up with the star. And it joins me with my favorite writer who knew the art of being lost, as I am lost in here in reverie with my son, and knew the art of being found by looking to the heavens for guidance. Speaking of a fisherman, a fisherman at night poling his boat and drifting while looking for the soft white bellies of fish to spear, a fisherman who is not only a fisher-man but Charon or that other fisher-of-men, finds his way home by his knowledge born of love of what seems most distant, Thoreau writes:
And when he has done, he may have to steer his way home through the dark by the north star, and he will feel himself to some degrees nearer to it for having lost his way on the earth. (Thoreau, "Natural History " 21)
We know we are on our own journey to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves, and we are anxious to get underway. But first I want to introduce Jason to Bill Gustin, the caretaker of the mound. On the way to the concession stand a grounds keeper greets us, puzzled because he didn't see our car in the lot. His puzzlement remains when we tell him we came by water. As we are talking, Bill drives up.
Bill and I talk for a while, and we visit the small display of mound artifacts and simulated burials. It's not an impressive museum, reflecting the little importance the Ohio Historical Society gives to this site. I blame the Society as much as I blame the realtors who want to develop the area around the mound. The realtors are greedy; it's their job to sell land for money. They have no interest in what the land is used for; if they did, they would not be good realtors. The Ohio Historical Society opposes the development, which they recognize as destruction, of the site. But throughout the years they have had this mound in their care, they have done very little to promote it. They have done next to nothing to make this greatest of earthen effigies of importance to the local community. They have treated the local people as poorly as the realtors plan on treating the mound. Bill and I don't talk about the plans of businessmen and real estate developers and state government bureaucrats. We have talked of that many times. We talk about the river.
Bill has been on the river many times; he's a fisherman who is near to retiring and has fished and hunted all the country around here. Soon he will be out nearly every day. He doesn't seem to understand just why we want to be on the river if we don't plan on fishing. A river is to fish. And perhaps he is right. But I'm no fisherman. Jason and I want to paddle, drift, enter the river and hope a little of it enters us. Eager to begin, we make our way back to the canoe.
As we set off three blue heron are startled into flight. They fly upstream, and we are tempted to follow. Little do we know then that we will be following blue heron all the way downstream to the Ohio. Seeing the herons reminds me again of the connection Robert Graves makes, the connection of the heron and all large wading birds, heron, ibis, stork, with birth, creativity, healing, and writing. And the serpent faces North, opening its mouth to discharge an egg or to swallow one. I wonder if that direction was for the builders of the mound what it was for other native peoples, what it is still for writers who believe that writing can also be birthing, creation, healing-the source of poetry.
I haven't time to think much about it though. Jason is pushing us off, and we are adrift pass the limestone bluffs. We are reluctant to put paddles to the water and leave this place, but the current is strong enough to propel us toward the bridge where we put in. I think about the proposed development again, convinced more than ever that to dam this river, creating a lake submerging this area under a dozen feet of water, creating a lake forever altering the relationship of water to land here and subsequently of people to water to land would be a capital crime, a crime of capitalism, private property and private profits determining public policy, denying public participation, further restricting the meaning of community, what it means to be together in a common experience. The shared spiritual experience exchanged for private profit. The only thing common about the proposed development is that it is all too commonly happening everywhere. As yet, it hasn't happened here.
As we drift around the raised landforms and approach the bridge, we hear the sound of rapidly moving water. There are no real rapids on Ohio Brush Creek except during the high water of early spring. Bill Gustin told me that last night's rain measured nearly two inches, so the water is running well and we can hope for ripples that will propel us over the rocks. No rapids, but we won't have to push and shove our canoes either. We get hung up briefly on rock while watching baby ducks flee at the sound of our approaching canoe. Five ducklings make it across the river, the mother with her wounded-wing routine trying to draw us away. We cannot maneuver away; we can go nowhere but down. We couldn't follow the duck if we wanted; the current draws us instead. And it draws her brood. One duckling is swept downstream as we are and seems to have gone under the canoe. Hoping to see the duckling surface, we lose concentration, stop paddling, and get hung up in the ripple. We get our feet wet as we steady the canoe against the current, but soon we are off again. We never see if the duck survives, but I suspect that avoiding our canoe will be the least of its worries. If it survives us, there are hawks and snapping turtles waiting.
We set off at 11:00, and by noon we have seen not only the ducks but red-tail hawks, several turtles, and a blue heron lifting itself from the water and flapping its great wings down river. We stop after a couple more runs through some long stretches of easy to manage fast water. The leaves caught in the branches of the trees show us that the water level now is about ten feet lower than it was during the later winter months, perhaps 6 or 8 weeks ago. The water roared through then, but it will get lower than now all too soon. We have been lucky to be able to be on the water now for it is nearly perfect paddling, the water being high enough to get us pleasantly over the rocks that would have stopped us if we had waited only a couple days.
At 3:00 we encounter a muskrat swimming beside the canoe. It sees us then dives. We don't see where it surfaces; another heron, or perhaps the same one we saw earlier, pulls our attention down stream. We are looking already for a camping spot, trying to assess whether the likely spots we pass are lost opportunities that we will later regret. There are many places that appear good until we get close enough to see that the last night's rain has made mud of all the level land that otherwise looks inviting. As we paddle and drift we have several more encounters with duck families, sometimes with the same results as with our first meeting: the mother squawks, fakes injury, attempts to draw us away from the ducklings; the ducklings are drawn after her into the fast water; most eventually find their way to calm water; more than one is pulled under our canoe and surfaces, if at all, somewhere we can't see as the current draws us on.
First campsite. We spy a bank, six feet above the present water level, but from the leaves and twigs caught in the trees the site was under water not many weeks ago. We pass it then paddle back and scare up a muskrat who dives in from the tree root we tie up at. The ground is soggy from last night's rain, but we decide to stay here anyhow. This ground has recently been under water, and the stinging nettle has rapidly grown up all around the area but not yet high on the bank where we will camp. We unload the canoe, and Jason starts to cooking potatoes, onions and garlic. We set up the tent and re-arrange the gear. I didn't do a very good job of packing. The cardboard box I use for car-camping is disintegrating. We will pack the kitchen items in our duffles and burn the box after eating.
We have traveled about 15-18 miles. It's taken us 5 or 6 hours. The water has been flowing nicely, enough of a current so that when we tire of paddling we can drift and still watch as the land passes by. We had spent the first night at a loop of the river right below where it is joined by a small stream that my map labels Bundle Run. We paddle on a part of the river that loops as far from the road as it gets as it parallels the river for several miles. Highway 41 is far from us though occasionally we hear the sounds of traffic off in the distance. But most of the sounds are the river and the wildlife, the splash of the muskrat, the ducks, heron. We've seen only four people: a man fixing a fence and three people fishing along the bank. For one of the few times in our lives we have seen more wild animals than people: the ducks, herons, muskrats, turtles, red-tails, and those magnificent but ugly red-headed turkey buzzards.
At night, when sounds are magnified, we hear nothing of the highway. Perhaps there is just too little traffic, the people here at home with their television not out to and from the nearby towns. The mist has enveloped us, and we have slipped out of time. And sometime it is just that easy. Little to see and no sound but the night creatures and the running river water. It is times like this I have some hope that even Brian Emler, the man who would damn this river to make a lake for his condominium development, would appreciate the mysticism inherent in the waters, appreciating what Thoreau felt when the water mist surrounded him. He wrote, "I seem to be nearer to the origin of things. There is something creative and primal in the cool mist" (Stapleton 35). The waters. The essential fertility, the original creative principle. Flow and movement. I am preoccupied with these thoughts as I crawl into the tent to sleep. Jason sits upon the river bank. The mist has gathered him into himself as well. As well. As a well, a well we both drink from.
Tuesday morning thoughts while sitting by the fire sipping coffee: The people are not like us, those who have always awakened to the sounds of the river. The River and Time is the analogy so often used that we don't question its rightness. Time is often represented as a river but also a type of arrow, always moving in one direction, moving yet always the same. But native peoples and modern scientists see repetition, movement and return to the source, as a more accurate analogy. Our ancestors must have formed their image of time from the river sounds that surrounded them, embraced them, especially in their waking moments and while they lay waiting for sleep. Time must have been less like an arrow than a song, a song with an ever-changing refrain but with a constant melody, less something to see, and certainly not something to fear, but something to hear and be a part of, something that enters in sleep, dream, and morning consciousness. The first peoples were river dwellers; every river was inside them. In this they were the land, rivers their blood.
While I sit waiting for Jason to heat up the coffee again, I draw a large circle around the copy of Thoreau's Journals that I have brought with me. For many years I've thought that it would be worth the effort to go through his journals and extract the poetry that inheres in them; taking his words as he wrote them but shaping them into poems. I did this once before with a journal that had been in my ex-wife's family for many years. The resulting book I called The Journal of Elizabeth Jennings Wilson, and it had a certain charm as history since it traced a young girl's journey into womanhood before, during, and after the Civil War as well as tracing her journey east, through this very country we now travel through, and on to Colorado. But it also had some worth as poetry. Part of what any poet does is to take from material, extract the essentials, leave the rest as prose. Thoreau wrote few good poems, but there were few who have been better poets. His poems are hidden in his journals, and someday perhaps I will dig them out. This one I resolve to try when we arrive home.
Falling Into Fair Haven Pond
I hear the sound of Heywood's Brook falling
into Fair Haven Pond, inexpressibly
refreshing my senses. It seems to flow through
my very bones. It affects
my circulation; methinks
have sympathy with it.
What is it I hear
but the pure water-
falls within me, in
the circulation of my blood,
the streams that fall
into my heart?
What mists do I ever see
but such as hang
over and rise
from my blood?
The sound of this gurgling fills
all my buckets, overflows
my float-boards, turns
all the machinery of my nature, makes me
to the springs
of my nature. Thus
I am washed; thus
I drink and quench my thirst.
Where the streams fall into the lake,
if they are only
a few inches more elevated,
all walkers may hear.
Jason makes an egg biscuit for breakfast. He has become our camp cook; I am the organizer and packer. After eleven plus miles and five hours, we have dinner: curry rice, cajun fish steaks.
We find a dry spot that is accessible without climbing a mud bank. We are fortunate. It's not easy finding any flat dry land without climbing a mud bank to get to it. The water has been slow moving, not like last night's camping spot. It will be like this for the rest of the journey to the Ohio.
We paddle harder now since the current only picks up at the occasional ripple. Every hour or so we see the heron. I want to believe the heron are pulling us with them. They keep flying down river about a hundred yards ahead of us. I want to believe it is always the same heron, as if we have our own personal guide.
We have another incident with the ducks. Another family of ducklings is drawn into the rapids with our canoe. We see one duckling go under our canoe, and again we don't see if it surfaces safely. We suspect not. The family is scattered. Perhaps the hawk or snapping turtle will feed on them; perhaps they will be drowned in the current. We have been responsible, perhaps, in the deaths of more than one duckling. It disturbs me little to consider this. Being on the water is a reminder that as it is with fertility, the life principle, death, too, is always with us.
I hear dogs barking and roosters crowing. The occasional sound of a splash in the water. The sounds at this campsite are not like last night's. The river barely murmurs here. Houses and cars are not far, but the river isolates us from them. To travel by canoe on these little rivers and small streams is to journey back into history, sometimes into pre-history. Three thousand years ago we started, at the Serpent Mound, we entered history and flowed through to the modern era, and we haven't yet arrived at the worst of the present time.
Tomorrow we will paddle through slack water backed up by the Ohio River. Now my thoughts are anything but slack. My thoughts range among remembrances of rivers I've traveled and rivers I hope to run. I think of the writers who I've followed on their river journeys. I roam wide, and I sit on a bank of Ohio Brush Creek facing west reading Edward Abbey as the sun reflects off the water. The way it should be. Abbey would want to be remembered this way. Abbey and Henry David, who taught us that the landscape of our world, exterior and interior worlds, are seen best in reflection. Water inspires reflection of every sort, and in this it is essentially revealing and refreshing. The light dims, and the cold comes on with the shadows.
Berry, Wendell. Harlan Hubbard, Life and Work. NY: Pantheon, 1990.
Stapleton, Laurence. H.D. Thoreau: A Writer's Journal. NY: Dover, 1960.
Teale, Edwin Way. A Walk Through Winter. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1965.
Thoreau, Henry David. "Natural History of Massachusetts," The Natural History Essays. Salt Lake City: Peregrin Smith, 1980
Copyright © 2002 by Joe Napora
*"Ohio Brush Creek" was originally published in his chapbook
A Flight of Herons, Bullhead Books, Ashland, KY, 1996.
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