Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The River Muse

High in the night sky your bright boat
hung like a smile. I saw your reflection
shimmer in the river…

from “The Needle and the Thread” in Dark Healing (p. 94)

On the Big Rivers

In the spring of 1962 Richard Messer was living in Boulder Colorado. He was in Graduate School studying English Literature, and engaged to be married to Gloria. His Wyoming buddy, Jerry Deacon Sanders, proposed a river trip, down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, paddling a canoe. For Richard, better known as Rich, this was a “no–brainer,” even though the trip was 3,800 miles, even though no one had done it before in a canoe, even though Gloria wondered if she’d be “demurely waiting” when he returned.

More than fifty years later, Rich, with the help of his buddy Jerry, better known as Deacon, wrote a book about that journey: On the Big Rivers: From Three Forks, Montana to New Orleans, Louisiana. Dan and I have both read it. It’s a page–turner, a soul stirrer, an American Odyssey haunted by Huck Finn and Jim, by the painful histories of Indian tribes and slavery, a buddy story, an initiation saga. Dan loves history. I love psyche. We both felt nourished by this wise and compelling story.

Rich, now in his seventies, is a poet whose work I love. He and I are poetry buddies by e-mail; we show each other drafts of our work. Rich has a strong background in Jungian psychology and his writing shows it. This trope of the river is of course both literal and symbolic. Reflecting on one’s young self in the context of a river journey is a way of coming to terms with one’s life journey, and in the case of this book, with our country’s journey.

Missouri River

To Stumble After Vanishings 
Isn’t the soul always back there, fumbling
with old photographs, going down worn paths
that lead to weedy vacant lots? It doesn’t do any good
to stumble after these vanishings—yet I do…
never mind my bruised knees and the cobwebs across my face.
I have to know: have I spent my life trying to wake up?
Or go to sleep?

“Trying to Get Home” in Dark Healing (pp. 65-6)
Part of the task of aging is to “fumble through old photographs,” trying to make sense of what our life has been about. On the Big Rivers is, among many other things, an initiation saga about two soulful, adventurous and/or foolhardy young men, as seen from the mountain peak of late life. They were initiated by the powers of the river gods, by wind, by dams that weren’t supposed to be there, by sudden storms that almost did them in. They were humbled and made wiser by the unknown and the unexpected, by “sheer drudgery and dismal hardship” (p. 63) and by the fortuitous kindness of strangers.

Carrying the Queen

Here are some glimpses of their ordeal from a section Rich calls “Initiation:”
The wind…turned vicious, ripping at us full blast…There was no sky, only massive low clouds and horizontal rain and whipping wind. The waves, driven from the distant shore…mounted quickly to four and five feet high…The piney shore looked as if it were receding into the small end of a telescope. 
Jerry yelled a string of obscenities and we both pitched into our paddling in deadly earnest… 
My lungs were on fire and my heart was pounding harder than it ever had. To quit paddling was not an option…
We were just beginning to understand why the Missouri is called, Ol’ Misery. (pp. 13-15)
Initiation, from the Jungian point of view, serves the function of transformation of the individual so that he or she may function at a higher level of consciousness. The water initiation, as distinguished from the fiery initiation, is, according to my reference book, Archetypal Symbolism, about renewal within the earthly context. It is about the necessary loss of innocence that prepares one for reality. Deacon and Rich lost many kinds of innocence on this journey—their innocence about nature and the river, their innocence about their own nature and that of others, their innocence about fate, their innocence about the nature of America.

Rich’s optimism gets sorely tested:
Ever optimistic, I had reckoned that most of the water in the heavens had already been dumped on us. It couldn’t get any worse. But it did. (pp. 73-4)
His endurance gets sorely tested:
…enduring mid–point blues, also known as “halfway–there–let–down”…We had been on the river for fifty days and nights and we were worn down…threadbare of spirit. (p. 90)
Weather is a dominatrix:
On the water in a canoe you are at the mercy of the weather; it plays with you, dominates you. The wind…is always poised to spring some new attack on you…It seems like a trickster spirit…allows you a day, or even tow, of fair passage. Then sneers and pummels you with six kinds of misery… (p. 68)

Fate is a trickster. They learn, the hard way, that “luck is nothing if not fickle.” (p. 112) Their canoe, the Afrigin Queen, with its droll nod to Bogart and Hepburn, disappears one Sunday in June. Deacon has a theory:
See how red and muddy the water is—and all these god damn sticks and crap along the bank?… When we pulled in none of this shit was here. A cloud burst must have hit back in the hills during the night…Christ, the water level is up by at least two feet—so the canoe just decided to float right up and take off downstream. Son of a bitch.” (p. 51)
They learn about Fate’s beneficent side, “otherwise known as the kindness of strangers.” (p. 91) A kind stranger helped them find their canoe, kind strangers helped them throughout their ordeal.

Deacon and Rich lose their innocence about America as they travel down the Mississippi in the South, stopping to eat at the Riverside Café in Vicksburg:
It was a little Greek place, a diner….Approaching it, I noticed there were two doors to the place, but made nothing of it. We stepped through the right hand door, and I came to a sudden halt…Before me at the counter sat only black diners who turned and stated. I stared back. Then one of the black men motioned us across to the other door. We had entered the “Colored” section of the café… 
On that September day in 1962, Jim Crow was alive and well. 
…[We] were shocked and left feeling threatened. The dehumanizing and pernicious nature of what we had just witnessed couldn’t have been made any clearer… 
I was a tourist in the land of racism. (pp. 154-5)

They paddle through reservation country, the Sioux and Assiniboine peoples, “the ninth largest reservation in the United States.” When Rich walks into town for supplies, an Indian in a pickup gives him a ride. The men in the back share their beers with him, tell him he looks like “Nature Man.” He knows his appearance is unkempt and wild, and takes their remark as a compliment. (pp. 69-70)

“Sitting in the bow of the Queen, paddling for hours on end,” (p. 89) Rich ruminates about Lewis and Clark, about Sakakawea, the mythic Indian woman who guided them though she was sick and pregnant during the journey.

As they paddle into the lower Missouri and the Mississippi they begin to be disturbed by the environmental degradation they see. Rich quotes the Earth Day website to describe what they saw:
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad pres. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. (p. 98)
Rich writes of his “simmering resentment for the ‘Dump it in the river and forget it’ attitude.”

But despite all the difficulties, despite swarms of mosquitoes, which Deacon dubs wickerbills, despite quicksand, a lost canoe, sudden storms, environmental degradation, the intimidation of the tiny Queen by great seafaring vessels on the river, despite losing the hat Gloria had sent him, worrying about how she was doing and if he really wanted to tie the knot, Rich and Deacon came through their ordeal, changed men, matured, deepened, sadder and wiser. Rich writes: “I was not the man Gloria had waved goodbye to.” (p. 169) Dear reader, you will be happy to know that Deacon was the best man at Rich and Gloria’s wedding.

In Memoriam Jerry Deacon Sanders
Who was the first Neanderthal to scatter
flower petals on a grave? Memorialized
in that moment, love entered the world.

“Excavations” in Dark Healing, (p. 9)
Deacon died on this past June 5th. Dan and I both felt his passing as a personal loss. We feel we know him, because Rich relied on quotations from the Deacon’s journals to fill in context and feeling in his book. They make vivid that long ago river journey. Deacon was a great spirit and Rich has given us the gift of knowing him. Deacon took the lead in the original journey. Rich took the lead in gathering their river stories much of a lifetime later. Among many other things On the Big Rivers is a buddy saga. Deacon is the planner, the one with the maps. Rich is the feeler, the worrier. Rich writes: “He didn’t have to tell me his plan. We had been together twenty–four hours a day for weeks and I knew what he was thinking…” (p. 51) And yet their roles were fluid. “We kept getting confused,” writes Rich, “about who was Huck and who was Jim.” (p. 114) For this city girl their adventures were astounding, wild, often foolhardy. And yet they seem exactly right in the light of this late life retelling. Toward the end of his story Rich writes:
Surely, the voyage wouldn’t have meant as much if we didn’t do it the old–fashioned, Huck Finn way. More than once I repeated that to myself. (p. 151)
The Huck Finn way. That about says it. It names the integrity of a ritual that stems from the depths of the American cultural unconscious, a powerful ritual informed by Mark Twain, American Indian tribes, Lewis and Clark, segregation, the wilds of the natural world and of fate, providing two young men with the lived experience of becoming themselves in an initiation by river and by storm.

Rest in peace, Jerry. You get the last word, from your journal of July 10th, 1962:
It must have been about noon. Rich and I were in no hurry. We drifted through some deep green cold water…Slow current, there were many white sandbars there. The river banks were covered with heavy undergrowth, the draws filled with choke cherry trees, junipers, lots of berries to eat, bramble patches; the bottoms along the river were weedy, with tall cottonwoods and sandy shallows… 
I am beginning to solidly enjoy this type of life—except for the wickerbills. We went into the little village of Washburn, S. D. Giggling waitresses. Black label beer, people on street eyeing us, suspicious of two bearded, shabby, river rats, wearing cardboard nose shields.
Then we floated two and a half hours. Drank & sang. Rich jumped overboard and right back in boat. Water still cold. Saw badger coming down for a drink—couldn’t get a picture. (pp. 77-78)

Check out Richard Messer’s blog: http://www.richardmesser.com