At the bank of the Salmon the river’s mind is evident. So too is its subtlety. Boulders attend the shores and hunker in the current, carving the water into channels, into deep green pools where trout hide and pebbles are smoothed. Moss on the larger rocks holds wildflower seeds safe until spring. The stripped boles of trees lie across the stream, or jut from the brush out over the water, and holding it all is the white-noise voice of the current itself, come down from the mountains with soft syllables that sneak up on you when pronounced. For a few minutes I stand in silence – not a true silence, but the silence of my own kind – and listen. It helps to think like water, constantly moving, never settling, exploring every stone and every hole and every eddy, every pool, every little rapid now contributing to the conversation taking place, and it takes time to sort them all out.
I don’t know if I can.
I haven’t listened much to rivers lately. My thoughts tend towards mountains, towards alpine meadows and tiny tarns, towards heather and bent fir, and ridges between glaciers. Towards the source. But down here, in valleys thick with ancient trees and ancient communities and truly wild growth, there’s wisdom more fecund and more creative and more entrenched than that of the seasonal blush of the windy heights. The wildflowers of glacial till and volcanic ash are beautiful and strong, but their tenuous grip is diminutive and sentimental, compared to the deep rooted hold of cedar and mycelia and rhizomes, among the mushrooms and the ferns.
But I can’t compare. Sentimentality is just an emotion I assign, unconnected to reality in the way these mossy Doug firs and red cedars are. There are bear and cougar in the shadows that don’t care about my sentimentality. The river itself would drown me if I let it. Voles that never come down from the top branches don’t care where I step, and if I step on a fawn lily will the fawn lily care? The trees have seen many people like me stop and look up at the wild light filtering through the boughs. But every lily on the floor is unique.
Life down here by the river has been at it for centuries, promised in the soil and stream, and angling for the sky, rain, and snow, trying again and again. Life at the tree-line may be equally as old – skeletons of white pine and rings of lichen on the hardest outcrops, growing an inch every hundred years – but it is as rarified as the air, perched upon an arête where chance landed it and gave it a single summer to make it or die.
How comforting, then, to see this shrine survive in such a transient perch. I clasp my hands before it, say “Delightful is the place where the sprits dwell” five times, and like the river, I flow on to another rocky beach, where the wet stones are the product of a different sort of sentience, one that investigates river and mountains thoroughly.