Monday, August 31, 2009

Still Life

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
-T.S. Eliot The Waste Land

It is amazing what the camera can see. Watching Clementine with my naked eyes, I had the fleeting impression of an arc of water. But here you can see a frozen spiral, as perfect as the spiral of a sea shell.

Greta had a go. Her water horns and spikes of hair were invisible to my naked eye.

Later, we tried other things.

Big rocks.
A skipped stone.

I wonder what we miss as chemicals migrate their way across our synapses.

Oliver Sacks talked with a Parkinson's victim after he had been "frozen" for several hours. Sacks showed his patient a photo of himself and asked why he had held his arm out, frozen, for so long. The bewildered patient said he wasn't frozen, he was wiping his nose.

The next time the man was "frozen" Sacks set up a camera and took photos of the him at one-minute intervals over two hours. When these stills were assembled into a time-lapse film the man could be seen smoothly bringing his hand up to wipe his nose. He had no sense that this had taken him any longer than usual. The man could wipe his nose 12 times and call it a day.

How fast his life must pass.

And how long our lives would seem if we were fast enough to see drops of water going over the falls or the iridescent beating wings of dragonflies.

On the river I am always confronted by my mortality. It is not just the bleached crayfish legs.
Or the huge trees, trees that welcomed Spanish missionaries and 49ers, trees that have lived three times as long as I can hope to, felled by the river.

It is the flow of the river itself, relentless and neverending.

The American is no longer a natural river. The Chili Bar dam controls the south fork, the Oxbow dam the middle fork, and the Clementine dam the North Fork. But we can never completely control the river.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget.
-T.S. Eliot The Dry Salvages

The American may be a tame river, and yet, the remains of bridges, the undercut banks surmounted by trees awaiting their fates, remind me always of what I would choose to forget.

The flows on the American are brought up each day for the pleasure of boaters like us. But if we dawdle too long skipping stones or picking berries, the water will slip away from us, leaving us a bony river to bump and drag our way along. A reminder that time will get away from us.

I don't usually take my camera kayaking. The river is also destroyer of electronic devices. But this time I pack my camera in the dry bag, wrapped in a towel. I will not let the river carry away all our memories.

Of little feet.
Getting bigger.

Of skipping smooth stones and soaking hot heads.

I put away my camera and we get back on the river. The air is so hot that the herbs are giving up their spicy aromatic oils to the air. It is like a dry sauna. The water is deliciously cold. Greta, sitting in the front of the boat, holds up her hands with excitement and recognition.

"Mom," she whispers. "This is where we landed."

I don't think I have mentioned here before that Greta is an alien. It used to be her job to carry water from Pluto to put out the sun every night.

Evelyn has discovered that cottonwood bark makes good cordage. Whenever she isn't paddling she is making string. Clementine is sailing her crocs by the boat.

I am sieving moments out of the river of time and preserving them so one day I can spiral back and re-examine them, spiral back to the 100 degree day when the air was spiced with eucalyptus and fennel, when the spotted fawn lifted its dainty hooves in the shallows, when Clementine stuck her head in the river and tossed her hair.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.


The Stone Age Techie said...

What wonderful pictures! I always feel like I have so many comments I want to make about the amazingness of your posts, about each pic or paragraph, but then I go on to the next pic or paragraph and am bedazzled, so then I get to the end and can say only, 'oh, wow!'

Kristin said...

So eloquent--All this camping is doing wonders for your mind's eye. You've got a wonderful camera and you sure know how to use it. Great shot of Clem's Arc.

AM said...

Wow. I feel unworthy to comment.

I will say ... maybe the picture provides an opportunity to investigate the nature of the Golden Mean.

Kat said...

What an incredible image you captured.

Molly said...

my kids and i can't wait to try a similar picture the next time we're at the river. wish us luck! any tips on shutter speed?

and i can't wait to meet you at adventure playground later this month. tricia mentioned she was going to invite her friend susan ryan, but i didn't put two and two together that i knew you from your blog! i'm so excited!

Susan said...

Karen, I bet you can guess that kayaking is really fun with me.

Child: Look, mom, a crayfish claw!
Me: Aaaah! We're all going to die!

Susan said...

Kristin, I am not so good with my camera really, but I am pretty good at getting my child to stick her head in frigid water....again.

Susan said...

Ashish, you crack me up. I was thinking the same thing about the golden ratio, but...hold on the kids are running through the house screaming "angry bees!"

Susan said...

Kat, thanks! it was a combination of luck, persistence, and camera setting.

Susan said...

Molly, I am appallingly ignorant of my camera...I have never set the shutter speed...but I set it on the little running man icon. In that setting the camera snaps 16 photos in rapid succession with one click. We started with Clem's head in the water, I said, "go!" and then just held down the button. We have a lot of funny outtakes. I am so looking forward to meeting you at our adventure playground get together!

patricia said...

My gosh, are you trying to make me sob into my breakfast yogurt?

This post is beautiful.

I suppose our blogs are made up of fragments to shore against our ruins. Not that I ever quite thought of them that way before.

You never fail to give me a new perspective.

Anonymous said...


gina said...

I'm speechless. Astounding post. If astounding is the correct word...