Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Old Friends, Old Rivers

Some famous books would be justified by the brilliance of their titles alone.  One such is Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River (1935).  Should you have to choose between the title and the book, I have to advise you to go for the former.  Though Wolfe’s life was brevis, his art was longa indeed, perhaps excessively longa.  Isaac Watts, who lived twice as long as Wolfe, was considerably more succinct in literary expression.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
            This post will be about time and rivers, the utility of Christmas letter exchanges being merely a supporting theme.  But first I must effect for my readers a breathless introduction to two old friends.







Among the thirty-two American Rhodes Scholars who “went up” to Oxford in the autumn of 1958 was Charles Fish, a recent graduate of Northwestern, though elected through his home state of Vermont.  We were both from rural backgrounds, and both students of literature; and we fell into an easy friendly relationship, though we didn’t actually hang out much together in Oxford.   Chuck, as I then called him, was at Hertford College, with its wonderful faux-antique “Bridge of Sighs” spanning New College Lane.  I was at Jesus, in the Low Rent District.  We both submerged ourselves in Oxford life, but later resurfaced and reconnected in graduate school at Princeton.  Fish began there in the fall of 1961, and his reports were among the encouragements leading me to join the program the following year.  He had by then married Eleanor, and I spent my first night in Princeton under their roof.  Life later took us in different directions.

Now think of the late 1960s: Vietnam War, SDS, Back to the Earth, hippies, yippies, and the Democratic Convention of 1968.  The Flemings, including two small children, are spending their summers encamped in the deep backwoods of the Arkansas Ozarks, ostensibly building a log cabin above the wild Buffalo River.  They have joined together in an intensely bonded mini-commune with a small group of undergraduate friends, including a handsome and accomplished Floridian from the Class of 1970, one W. Dale Allen. This man loved the wilderness, worked like a dog, preached the green gospel; often of an evening he stood atop a crag in the wilderness playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a flute!
Once again life moves on, and we are out of touch for years at a time.  Fleming sinks ever deeper into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  The Fishes have removed to Vermont where Charles has been a professor, a dean, a house restorer, a real-estate manager, a writer.  Dale has returned to his native parts, but he has never abandoned his bliss or the public good.  He has, indeed, made his career working for the Trust for Public Land
Two streams of old friendship converged at Christmas in the annual exchange of news.  In a coincidence obviously worthy of more than a blog post, I discovered that these two long-lost friends—one at either end of the American East Coast—have been working to celebrate, preserve, or enhance our precious but threatened American rivers.

Author Charles Fish (in what I very much hope for my sake is an older photograph) with book jacket (in an indubitably quite recent  photograph)


I have just finished reading, with the keenest of pleasure, Charles Fish’s published account of his efforts: an elegant book entitled In the Land of the Wild Onion: Travels Along Vermont’s Winooski River (2006).  The Winooski flows through northwest Vermont, and mainly in a northwesterly direction, debouching into Lake Champlain in the general vicinity of the Burlington campus of the University of Vermont.  Not long before that it meanders through Fish’s boyhood home in the village of Essex Junction.  In its time the Winooski has performed the confused tasks assigned to so many of our rivers its size: it powered mills, watered cattle, flushed away the filth of riparian civilization, not least that of Montpelier, the state capital.  At some places it is as fresh as a fisherman’s daydream, at others boxed into concrete culverts like a storm sewer.  Fish covered every inch of it, apparently mastering along the way an impressive amount of history, woodcraft, hydrology, sociology, ichthyology, soil conservation theory, and industrial archaeology.  His true forte is human ecology—interacting with the people who go with the river, so to speak.  Fish is an expert in American literature, and his deft writing recalls some of our best naturalists—Thoreau, John Muir, or Wendell Berry, perhaps.  (Lest the high seriousness threaten to intimidate, I should add that his actual navigation sometimes recalls Jerome K. Jerome.)  A wise man once said: “All true patriotism is founded in the love of locality.”  I recommend this beautiful and patriotic book.
The Winooski may be new to you, but everybody knows about the Suwannee River of northern Florida.  That’s because Stephen Foster knew about it.  Well, actually, he knew the name, which, when mispronounced as a disyllable, served his metrical purposes. It rose in his imagination as the perfect emblem of the sentimentalized Southland, in which chattel slaves were picturesque accent details of his musical folklore, like the Italian peasants in Victorian watercolors of the Baths of Caracalla. The actual river rises in south Georgia, then meanders and loops through some Florida counties, through the state capital (Tallahassee), finally opting for a southwestward flow to the Gulf of Mexico.

There are many indicators of increasing antiquity, some more deniable than others.  It is impossible not to notice that my own former students are now retiring after long careers.  In his retirement Dale Allen hopes to return to a project long ago conceived but suspended midstream, as it were. The Suwannee’s banks have probably supported human communities for thousands of years, and certainly far back into the pre-Columbian period.  It has experienced many of the vicissitudes of American “development,” yet its surrounding wilderness has cushioned it from others.  The Suwannee is constantly refreshed by a large number of pristine springs—one of its most fascinating features.  And though long stretches of the river banks were heavily logged, much of the resultant “waste” came into the possession of the state and is now reforested with a formidable second growth.  It is in these riverside forests that Dale Allen intends to continue his life-long amateur project of finding, reclaiming, or refining wilderness hiking trails.  The Suwannee is already famous as one of the world’s great paddling rivers; Dale Allen wants to see it famous, too, for it walkability, one of the nation's memories of Paradise.   So, you see, it isn’t just pompous blather when I claim many former students are making the world a better place.

Recreational map of Florida's Suwannee River

Dale and his wife Karen are traveling in Panama at the moment, and he lacked the time or vanity to send me a current digital photograph.  I can offer you only this example of the platonic decay of forms, a shade of a shade.  You can see why the Philosopher-King would brook no artists in the Ideal Republic.  But Dale did tell me that his project was at least in part inspired by those long-ago summers on the unspoiled Buffalo, which, on March 1, 1972, became America’s first National River, including within its permanently preserved precincts Prince Fred’s Knob, the mountain on which we so mightily labored.

 Marion County, Arkansas, ca. 1970.  W. Dale Allen horsing around with the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in United States History and the College at the University of Chicago (Photo credit: Matthew Brady)
A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT.  Mr. Richard A. Fleming, alias They Say It’s a Cold World, currently birding his way through Viet Nam, has a particularly engaging cluster of recent blog posts at antarcticiana.blogspot.com.