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Creek Running North
December 20, 2004
Creek running north
I have walked Pinole Creek for hundreds of hours. I have seen it in flood bearing trees a quarter-mile into the bay: I have seen it near dry. I have paddled its channel as far as it was navigable. I have sat at its headwaters, watched droplets condense on grass blade tips and drop off onto the ground, roll slowly downhill. I have seen deer at the ridges, sea lions and rays at the mouth, horses and discarded refrigerators on the banks midway.
I have never seen a drop of it flow through these pages.
Pinole Creek runs north, more or less: I have walked downstream at night watching Polaris not more than a few degrees off the far bank. "Creek Running North" is thus a literal truth, but I chose the name with an old conversation in mind.
I was in the canyons of the Genesee River south of Rochester, the fall leaves an inferno of color. The river ran placid beneath canyon walls of Devonian and Silurian shales, thin gray layers like lithograph etching, rock friable and crumbling in my hand. A family member played tour guide. "The Genesee," he declaimed at one point, "is the only river in the world that flows north."
I smiled. I had heard the same thing said about the Monongahela. People say it about the St. Johns as well. I didn't ask if he'd ever heard of a little watercourse known as the Nile. And what of the Ob, the Mackenzie, the Red, or for that matter the Niagara twenty miles from his house?
Pride of place can lead to unsupportable claims. Riding the Greyhound across Wyoming a quarter-century ago, I listened as the driver pointed out the Uinta Range to our south, describing it as "the only east-west trending mountain range in North America." I thought of him and smiled half a year later, as I hiked in the east-west trending San Gabriel Mountains. New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Vancouverites, Philadelphians, and Halifactuals all claim the continent's largest urban park, which according to my figures is actually in Phoenix. West of Amarillo there is a garish monstrosity at roadside billed as the "Western Hemisphere's Largest Freestanding Cross," which raised the horrifying notion as I drove past that somewhere in the Western Hemisphere there is an even larger one braced by guywires.
But rivers running north seem to have some sort of pull, a resonance, causing their myth to outstrip the others. Search on "only river that flows north" or its variants, and you'll find a huge number of uses of the phrase, often with qualifiers such as "for its whole length in Vermont" or "in Oklahoma" or "on the Korean peninsula." Change the direction and you find that people are not nearly as interested in rivers flowing east or south.
It's a conundrum. Why would people care so much about a river flowing north? Dump some water on the earth, and it will run in whatever direction happens to be downhill. All things being equal, it will flow north about a quarter of the time. Why the fuss? It makes no sense.
Until you look at a wall map.
North is where the Great Bear wheels, where the coldest winds originate, the direction trees' mossy sides face. Walk north, and you will never have the sun in your eyes, and the back of your neck will burn. Geese, gray whales go there in March. On the hills flanking Pinole Creek, north is the direction where the hills are clothed in oak and bay. Head north from the creek mouth, and after a couple hundred miles the trees are thicker, the rains more insistent.
But to those who take maps as truth, north is up.
And rivers don't flow up. A river flowing north becomes an oddity, an uncomfortable embodiment of that aphorism about maps and territories. We note its course, feel despite the river's obvious path downhill that there is something wrong with it. We confine it to exceptionalism. If the Illinois River becomes the only one flowing north, we can mumble a misunderstood cliché about exceptions proving rules and move on.
The river didn't intend to make you uncomfortable, and yet in your discomfort you burden it with a story its waters will not support. Lay your words down across its waters if you must. They will sink, and the fish will not notice them, and all those other rivers will continue flowing north despite your declaring they do not exist. Your story means nothing to the river: why insist on telling it?
Then again, here I am doing the same thing.
Bill Stack, who taught me to play guitar a quarter century ago, was in and out of psychiatric institutions his whole life, diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic. I lived with him in an apartment on the West Side of Buffalo when I was 18, relatively naïve, and I did not recognize the signs of his return to madness for what they were. He stayed up all night every night, not sleeping for a week at a time. He cut out photos from newspapers and glued them to the kitchen wall: I thought it was art. One night, a few days before the cops hauled him away, he shook me awake and handed me a yellow plastic margarine tub with four cents in it.
"What?" I asked. He was exasperated with me, asked if I was pretending at stupidity. I woke all the way. Bill explained things with an exaggerated patience until I got the gist of what he was saying. The four copper Lincolns in the tub were an explicit reference to the Yellow Submarine, which itself was an obvious mocking jab at his status as a lonely man with no Japanese artist wife. The universe had insulted him, and he was angry.
A week later, he was in a jail cell manacled to the bars. Suddenly a character in Fahrenheit 451, he'd found himself in troubling possession of a number of books and started burning them over the gas stove. Realizing the job was too big for him alone, he called the fire department. Three months later we walked in a park along the Buffalo River as he went through thorazine withdrawal. "So the world isn't going to end?" he'd ask. "No more than usual," I reassured him. I hoped he would be better. He wasn't, and they found his frozen body in a dumpster one winter in the mid-1990s.
It was a long time before I realized that Bill's rollicking free-associating sense of humor, which made him such an entertaining songwriter and drinking companion, was not at all, to him, a matter of non-sequitur. There were connections between his unrelated sentences as explicit and broad as the Peace Bridge we saw out our window. The fact that their existence was limited to Bill's brain was our problem, not his.
In response to my short silence, Angus sent a passage from Maus, by Art Spiegelman:
"Samuel Beckett once said: 'Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.'"
"On the other hand, he said it."
"He was right. Maybe you can include it in your book."
I write words like stones to skip across the creek. I could dump in a truckload of words. The creek would flow past without a ripple.
This morning from the train I saw a dozen pigeons, sitting on powerlines along the elevated track.
As far as they were concerned, they were sitting pigeons.
To me, they were a reminder of a photo Katia took, and my email to her saying her photo reminded me of a poem I wrote last year about crows on wires. The day Maddy died, Angus and Kim sat next to her in hospital and read that poem aloud. I wrote it remembering a day when I stalked down the street, anxious at my unraveling marriage and a lost friend, and found the music of the crows unutterably reassuring. I had been too lost in my own unhappy life, and the crows' hollering was a reminder: "We are here. We do not particularly care about you. But we are still here."
Weighting those dozen pigeons with love of Katia, grief over Maddy, gratitude for Angus and Kim, blinding devotion to Becky; with immense joy in the world going on without me, and adding a layer of rumination about these things' irrelevance to birds and the song in my head to which Katia said last week I should listen, I wonder that the wires are not stretched to the ground.
But they are not, and the birds' feathers ruffle only a little at my train's passing.
The line between writing and psychosis is not, to my knowledge, adequately charted. A snake is, an apple is. When the writer starts talking about temptation and evil, she can do so either from madness or from metaphor. The kingfisher sits on a wire above the creek. That sentence is an assortment of light meant to mimic cast type in patterns based on words written by hand that symbolize the sound of someone describing the bird aloud. Even without an Aesopian moral, the telling is five times removed from the thing it attempts to describe.
And you aren't done, as simple description dulls the reader's senses. Humans are the species that insists on meaning where none exists. The trick is to believe the story and to discard it. To tell what the bread and wine mean and yet to remember that they mean nothing. When you persuade yourself you really are eating flesh and blood, you take a step closer to the dumpster.
I write or I don't, and yet the creek flows. The creek is not the passage of time or the bloodstream of Pinole Valley or a living, breathing sentience or a book. It is a path the water takes on its way down to San Pablo Bay from Pinole and Sobrante and Franklin ridges. Ducks paddle in it, egrets wade. At night, I can place myself by listening to the changes in its sound. It is the only creek within three blocks of my home that flows north.
Posted by Chris Clarke at December 20, 2004 02:04 PM
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Oh, but Chris, the largest urban park in the world is in Portland. Eveyone (in Portland) knows that.
I've never read a better description of Emptiness, and what we ought to do with it.
Take our meanings out of it, as we do, and must, and then let them go. All the confusion we experience is nothing but the panicked fluttering of meanings against the bars of the cages we build for them.
The Buddha said so. (He says, deftly snagging one out of the air, and popping it in a cage.)
Bowing to you, and to the Creek, and to the North --
Posted by: dale at December 20, 2004 03:47 PM
You know of course, Dale, that the Willamette is the only river in the world that flows north.Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 20, 2004 04:49 PM
Great essay. Glad you're back.Posted by: Dave at December 20, 2004 05:57 PM
and I would argue, that unless you write, nothing is real. your experience, in words on this page, is an ansel adams photo of half dome, or vincent van gogh's painting of crows over a golden field, or my friend Paula's botanic drawing of a group of chanterelles...
none of these places and things exist in my mind, in fact perish and change so that they no longer exist for anyone, without the artist's effort to record an impression of the reality and a desire to share, communicate that vision with others.
which is why I read your blog.Posted by: susurra at December 20, 2004 11:16 PM
the creek flows through these pages, because it helps to make you who you are. and YOU flow through every word you share with us here. we honor these things and places, who second by second and ounce by ounce help to make us who we are, we honor them by noticing, by trying to record our impressions of them, by searching for every deeper meaning there is in our lives. we strive to protect them by calling attention to them, even though they are small, and we may be the only ones to be compelled by them. you honor US by allowing us to share in your journey - as does every other artist in every other effort. It is really all that we can do.Posted by: Anne at December 21, 2004 09:09 AM
Your writing is of the most paradoxical beauty. It's so tangled and evocative and rich and bursting with meaning, but at the same time, like the finger of that proverbial monk, points so directly, so perfectly, at the moon, the world, that just is.
Thank you.Posted by: Siona at December 21, 2004 12:26 PM
Happy Holidays Chris. Even we non-believers have something to believe in; each other.Posted by: OGeorge at December 21, 2004 04:43 PM