River Driftwood

"The river is always young. How many sailors have gone down to the sea along its channel, and from what strange countries have the ships come in and brought them home again up this crooked highway!"  

jewettext.word At the head of tide-water on the river there is a dam, and above it is a large millpond, where most of the people who row and sail keep their boats all summer long. I like, perhaps once a year, to cruise around the shores of this pretty sheet of water; but I am always conscious of the dam above it and the dam below it, and of being confined between certain limits. I rarely go beyond a certain point on the lower or tide river, as people call it, but I always have the feeling that I can go to Europe, if I like, or anywhere on the high seas; and when I unfasten the boat there is no dam or harbor bar, or any barrier whatever between this and all foreign ports. Far up among the hills the ocean comes, and its tide ebbs and flows.

When the tide goes out, the narrow reaches of the river become rapids, where a rushing stream fights with the ledges and loose rocks, and where one needs a good deal of skill to guide a boat down safely. Where the river is wide, at low tide one can only see the mud flats and broad stretches of green marsh grass. But when the tide is in, it is a noble and dignified stream. There are no rapids and only a slow current, where the river from among the inland mountains flows along, finding its way to the sea, which has come part way to welcome the company of springs and brooks that have answered to its call. A thousand men band themselves together, and they are one regiment; a thousand little streams flow together, and are one river; but one fancies that they do not lose themselves altogether; while the individuality of a river must come mainly from the different characters of its tributaries. The shape of its shores and the quality of the soil it passes over determine certain things about it, but the life of it is something by itself, as the life of a man is separate from the circumstances in which he is placed. There must be the first spring which overflows steadily and makes a brook, which some second spring joins, and the third, and the fourth; and at last there is a great stream, in which the later brooks seem to make little difference. I should like to find the very beginning and head-water of my river. I should be sorry if it were a pond, though somewhere in the ground underneath there would be a spring that kept the secret and was in command and under marching orders to the sea, commissioned to recruit as it went along. Here at the head of tide-water it first meets the sea, and then when the tide is in there is the presence of royalty, or at least its deputies. The river is a grand thing when it is river and sea together; but how one misses the ocean when the tide is out, for in the great place it filled the stream from the hills, after all, looks of little consequence.

The river is no longer the public highway it used to be years ago, when the few roads were rough, and railroads were not even dreamed of. The earliest chapter of its history that I know is that it was full of salmon and other fish, and was a famous fishing-ground with the Indians, who were masters of its neighboring country. To tell its whole story one would have to follow the fashion of the old Spanish writers whom Garcilasso de la Vega says he will not imitate, in the first chapter of his Commentaries of the Yncas,—that delightful composition of unconscious pathos and majestic lies. When his predecessors in the field of literature wished to write on any subject whatever, he solemnly tells us, they always began with a history of the globe. One cannot help wishing that he had not disdained to follow their example, and had given his theories, which would have been wildly ahead of even the fancies of his time, in general, and full of most amusing little departures from the truth when he came down to details. But the earliest history of the river can well be ignored; it is but seldom, as yet, that people really care much for anything for its own sake, until it is proved to have some connection with humankind. We are slow to take an interest in the personality of our neighbors who are not men, or dogs, or horses, or at least some creature who can be made to understand a little of our own spoken language. Who is going to be the linguist who learns the first word of an old crow's warning to his mate, or how a little dog expresses himself when he asks a big one to come and rout his troublesome enemy? How much we shall know when the pimpernel teaches us how she makes her prophecies of the weather, and how long we shall have to go to school when people are expected to talk to the trees, and birds, and beasts, in their own language! What tune could it have been that Orpheus and Amphion played, to which the beasts listened, and even the trees and stones followed them to hear? Is it science that will give us back the gift, or shall we owe it to the successors of those friendly old saints who talked with the birds and fishes? We could have schools for them, if we once could understand them, and could educate them into being more useful to us. There would be intelligent swordfish for submarine divers, and we could send swallows to carry messages, and all the creatures that know how to burrow in the earth would bring us the treasures out of it. I should have a larger calling acquaintance than ever out-of-doors, and my neighbors down river would present me to congenial friends whom as yet I have not discovered. The gods are always drawing like toward like, and making them acquainted, if Homer may be believed, but we are apt to forget that this is true of any creatures but ourselves. It is not necessary to tame them before they can be familiar and responsive; we can meet them on their own ground, and be surprised to find how much we may have in common. Taming is only forcing them to learn some of our customs; we should be wise if we let them tame us to make use of some of theirs. They share other instincts and emotions with us beside surprise, or suspicion, or fear.They are curiously thoughtful; they act no more from unconscious instinct than we do; at least, they are called upon to decide as many questions of action or direction, and there are many emergencies of life when we are far more helpless and foolish than they. It is easy to say that other orders of living creatures exist on a much lower plane than ourselves; we know very little about it, after all. They are often gifted in some way that we are not; they may even carry some virtue of ours to a greater height than we do. But the day will come for a more truly universal suffrage than we dream of now, when the meaning of every living thing is understood, and it is given its rights and accorded its true value: for its life is from God's life, and its limits were fixed by him; its material shape is the manifestation of a thought, and to each body there is given a spirit.

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