River Medicine for Winter Doldrums

Recalling what we Oregonians giddily refers to as “The Flood of 1996,” I had to go for a look.The sun is out, the temperature a balmy 51 degrees, and brief bouts of birdsong percolate through the neighborhood, but don’t be fooled. It is February, the least-pronounceable and most-dreary-weather month in Oregon (not counting January, March and April). A week ago, cargo ships of rain unloaded into the creeks of the Coastal and Cascade ranges that feed the Willamette River, which runs through the heart of Portland. The river, three blocks west of my backyard porch, rose at an alarming rate. Another incoming storm, this time a “Pineapple Express” (because of its warm abundance of precipitation from the south), was forecast to reach the Oregon coast within a day or two. It seemed likely that there was a river catastrophe at my doorstep.

Recalling what we Oregonians giddily refers to as “The Flood of 1996,” I had to go for a look.

Indeed, the rising (low-40 degrees and brown) water had erased the familiar margins and markers of the river while picking up and forming small islands of shore debris. Anxiety ran high among houseboat owners anchored to wharfs and docks along the river. The Willamette had flooded the shoreline park along with some of its picnic tables and benches. A damp earthy smell permeated the air. The river made strange, barely audible noises — gallumps, swooshes, hisses.

The Willamette does not carry the romance of the Colorado or my personal history as a boatman, and yet, I lingered, mesmerized by the raw fluid expression of what has often been called “nature’s wrath.” In the 21st century, we are arguably “safer” then ever before. Perhaps this knowledge, along with 24-7 media exposure, accounts for our fascination with tsunamis, earthquakes, eruptions and rivers in flood. Today, the river’s indifference to man-made structures and its own riverbanks serve as a timely reminder that our outdoor-vacation-adventure-river trip-nature-as-benign-fun-loving-reliable-amigo remains potentially hostile.

Contrary to popular belief, however, it is not The Rain (which can range from eight inches annually in the desert plateau region to 200 inches at the higher elevations of the Coast Range) or its progeny, The Flood, that troubles we webfoots on the west side of the Cascades and astraddle the 46h Parallel, though newcomers would beg to differ. One only has to understand that Oregonians will pay for a beachfront house or hotel in February in order to “storm watch.” This recreation activity revolves around staring out a picture window as the foul weather from the Gulf of Alaska assaults the Pacific Ocean. Some of us venture out along the broad beaches in high winds and horizontal rain that would make anyone from warmer climes gasp.

When it snows at the beach, we are delighted.

The kind of weather that really haunts us and contributes mightily to our winter doldrums (even more than watching the Republican debates) is the interminable gloomy cold muck gravy grayness of our winter skies. Dull and soundless, it is the shark-fin in the sea of our collective unconscious. A string of dismal days can weigh heavily on even the sturdiest of us. It drives our above-average in-door habits of library use, book-buying, caffeine-swilling and bar-hopping. Fitness clubs show increased attendance in December, peaking in January, flattening in February and, by May, when the sun finally appears, look like abandoned airplane hangers.

Our dismal, northwestern grays fall into four general categories: achromatic, off-gray, cool and warm, each with five shades I won’t list. (To the color taxonomy I have, after many winters, added my own “gray” descriptives: rubber raft, pewter, dirty dishwater, paste, fireplace ash and sidewalk cement.)

With the possibility of depression lingering right around the corner, you’d think Oregonians would be sprinting to church of their choice for relief. Oregon, according to Wikipedia, ranks #1 in the U.S. with the highest percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults, roughly 25% of the population. A full 40% (including those belonging to a faith) rarely or never attend services.

In the 1980s, a relatively new, but less lethal, clinical diagnosis of the impact of the lack of sunshine on our moods appeared on the scene: seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.), formerly known as the blues and decades earlier, melancholia. Hence, bookings to Hawaii and Mexico increase as well as the sale of “light therapy” kits with catchy names like Winter Blues Combat Kit, Sunsation Combo, Feel Bright Light and the Rise and Shine Sunbox in Oregon.

To counter the overcast abyss, we Oregonians seek mental and physical relief wherever we can find it, indoors or out, cheap or expensive, idiosyncratic or run-of-the-mill strange.

My own first line of defense against the blues (er … the grays?) is physical movement. I resist the urge to call it “exercise,” which implies a daily routine and unseemly discipline. But I do manage to walk or bike along the Willamette River regularly and when the river is agreeable in winter, paddle my inflatable kayak. Throw in a few trips to Mt. Hood and Mt. Bachelor to cross-country ski, and the beast of blah is held in check.

In between these modest outdoor efforts and dreams of running rivers in summertime, I also find fleeting sanctuary from the winter doldrums in the salubrious-sounding names of Oregon’s rivers. The bible of Oregon geographic names is a deliciously fat tome by Lewis A. and Lewis L. McArthur named, of course, “Oregon Geographic Names.” It is the perfect companion for a wet, gray afternoon of browsing names, their source, history and of course, pronunciation.

Many of our present-day river names in Oregon have evolved from the corruption of the language of Native American by French trappers and later, early settlers. Time seems to have worn away the original native pronunciations, but not the essence of the sound. A kind of ongoing, unequal cultural tug of war: “you say tomato (toe-may-toe); I say tomato (tah-ma-toe)”

River medicine for winter doldrumsThe sound of the names of the larger, better known, Anglo-named Rivers — the Columbia, Snake, John Day, Mackenzie — enter and leave my ear without much auditory excitement. More history than poetry coursing over their streambeds.

The poetical sound of river names can be found in Southern Oregon’s one-syllable, guttural Rogue River whose evocative name (from the early French trappers who thought the local Indians scoundrels) indicates a river bathed in myth and misbehavior. Then there are the Pudding and the Row (rhymes with cow, not slow) rivers, playful-sounding names that suggest bit of whimsy but whose origins were rooted in far more harsh realties: the latter was named after a fatal fight between brothers-in-law and the former received its appellation during a dire weather situation and a sever lack of food.

The mellifluous-sounding river names that catch and delight my ear and sooth my winter doldrums are exactly those slippery, rolling, feel-good-coming-and-going-on-the- lips mispronunciations of native-named rivers: Alsea, Calapooia, Mollala, Deschutes, Suislaw and Santiam. Then there are the honey-and-tart bite of the Millicoma and Nestucca, and the reverse, the Clackamas. The Metolius dances a jig off your tongue; the Umpqua carries a deep back of the throat drum-beat-uhhmm sound, emerging with a round, wind-blown release of breath. The pleasant-sounding Owyhee (Ah-wha-he) River in the far southeastern corner of Oregon was at one time called the “Sandwich Island” River after two Hawaiians who were killed by Snake Indians in 1819. Somehow Owyhee (the name used for Hawaii at the time) overtook “Sandwich Island” in the stumble towards appellation immortality.

When the couch is beckoning more than my stroll along the Willamette and my winter-weary soul hungers for richer sustenance, I turn to my ragged shoebox of river poems that I have collected over the years. If names are the echoing ponds of sound on a bleak winter’s day, then poems are the rushing creeks, rivers and freshets of words and their sounds strung together by poets. Sound, image and rhyme to counter the shapelessness of an overcast sky whose color is weighed down with negative emotional connotations.

After years of avoidance and indifference, poets have, once again, become my fellow voyagers, deep swimmers to the parts of the river of my soul I cannot reach alone, surfers and skiers on the wave of my imagination, climbers stretching for the handhold just beyond reach, chairlift operators that make sure I get on (and off) the chairlift of everyday ordinary life and remain aware of the “extra” buried beneath habit, routine and convention.

River medicine for winter doldrumsI have borrowed a term from the science of (river) hydrology to describe the nature of poets’ work: hyporheic (hi-pour-he-ik). The hyporheic zone is defined as “the percolating flow of water through the sand, gravel, sediments and other permeable soils under and beside the open stream or river bed.”

Poets, then, are minders and guides of our underground rivers.

To anyone who wants to hide or run very fast in the other direction at the mention of POETRY, I don’t blame you. Who does not recall high school English classes where a handful of teachers braved the inmates who sat in the prison of their mother tongue smirking and giggling? So much of it appeared (and appears) impenetrable, and frankly, boring, to everyday readers. Never mind the embarrassment of not “getting what a poem means.”  (To this day I have kept poems that I still cannot understand what the poet is saying.) Combine ambivalent social attitudes and 24-7 entertainment venues with our short attention spans, and reading a poem today becomes, well, torturous, a serious “enhanced interrogation.”

Alas (how can you not like that word?), all is not lost.

Before you step in the deep end of the poetry pool, I suggest a couple of viable alternatives. For those of a more gregarious social nature, go to one of those “occupational” poetry fests where poems are read aloud. You’ll encounter plenty of ballads, light verse and rhyming couplets. There is a fisherman’s poetry festival in Astoria, Oregon, and a cowboy read somewhere in northern Nevada. Rumors of a boatmen poetry rendezvous in Flagstaff, Arizona, and mountain poetry readings (Telluride?) persist. At any of these events, there is bound to be beer-drinking and kindred outdoor spirits who know how to have a good time.

Think of it as a crowded eddy, where you can get your poetic bearings before rowing, if you choose, on to deeper, faster rivers with unfamiliar currents.

For those solipsistic, screen-hugging individuals who eschew crowds and noisy bars, the Internet offers easy, but solitary, relief. Try the webpage “River Quotes,” a treasure trove of verse.

Perhaps, however, you are ready to go it alone. I suggest the following: find one poem (maybe ask your smart-ass English-major friend or worse, a closet poet, for suggestions). Sit down, take a long breath, read slowly, pause at commas or line breaks, let the sounds and images arrive, let whatever sense or meaning, if there is any to be had since some poems travel light, come as it may. (Yes, stop snickering or trying too hard!) Read your poem again, at your leisure, maybe out loud. Hang with it for a time. If your poem has not grabbed you, set it aside, but within reach. Go in search of a rhyme that is more fun to the tongue: a childhood ditty or a campfire ballad a la Robert Service.

A good example of playful nonsense verse is “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Twas bryllyg, and ye slithy toves/Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:/All mimsy were ye borogoves/And ye mome raths outgrabe/Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!/Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun/The frumious Bandersnatch!

If you are brave and dare to tread where only fools rush in, memorize your poem and perhaps one evening at your local bar, recite.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Never mind.

As far as my own favorite poets, I would test your patience if I listed their poems and the history of how and why I thought them worthy enough to warrant a place in my cardboard box. In no particular order of favorites, I offer a taste, or better yet, an earful. Here are a handful of names, slices of poems about rivers, or poems that use the rivers as image or metaphor to get you through a gray day in your part of the west.

Where better place to start than with William Stafford (1914-1993), Oregon poet who wrote a poem “Ask Me.” Here is a snippet: Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I have made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life/ …. I will listen to what you say/ You and I can turn and look/at the silent river and wait. We know/the current is there. Hidden; and there/ are comings and goings from miles away/that hold the stillness exactly before us/ What the river says, that is what I say.

And these few lines from “Being a Person”: Be a person here, Stand by the river, invoke/the owls. Invoke winter, then spring/Let any season that wants to come here make its own/call. After the sounds, wait….How you stand here is important. How you/listen for the next things to happen/. How you breathe.

Kim Stafford (1949- ), his son, wrote “Cascade Rapids with Fisherman.” It begins: A man stands by the river/All-that-was flows away/ A woman stands by the river/All that-will-be is coming….

When a boatmen/friend of mine recently ran life’s last rapid, another boatman sent me this poem by Billy Collins (American 1941- ), former U.S. Poet Laureate, titled “The Dead”: The dead are always looking down on us, they say/while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,/they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven/as they row themselves slowly through eternity./They watch the top of our heads moving below on earth,/and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,/drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,/they think we are looking back at them,/which makes them lift their oars and fall silent/and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

The image of my friend peering through the glass-bottom dory with his wicked smile seemed to match his “bad boy” character and my mood. Better than going to church.

E.A. Robinson (1869-1935) stated his preference for rivers plainly: I like rivers/Better than oceans for we see both sides/An ocean is forever asking questions/And writing them down along the shore.

“The River Voyageurs” by Wendell Berry (1934- ) hearkens to the early French-Canadian voyageurs who toiled, rather than played, on the rivers of North America. They are modern-day boatmen’s ancestors. No matter how many times I read Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) “West-Running Brook,” I seem to discover something new, or that I missed before. Maya Angelou (1928- ) used some river imagery in the inauguration poem she wrote for my favorite scoundrel, Bill Clinton. R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) wrote a fun light piece “Where Go the Boats.”

For anyone, especially river and mountain folk, who seek to pacify the winter blahs or cabin fever, give these bards a hearing, perhaps in small doses, one poem at a time: Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Louise Brogan, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickenson, David Wagoner, Richard Allen, Elizabeth Bishop, Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder and Michael Anania.

Or try a small collection of river-related poems called “Gathered Waters” (Backeddy Books, Cambridge, Idaho), selected by Cort Conley, veteran river guide and author. Come river season, it will fit nicely in your ammo can or the vest pocket of your lifejacket.

The forecast for Oregon promises more rain and more gloomy gray days. I’ll continue to gawk at rising rivers and take refuge in river poetry. I might also check out a Feel Bright Light or a Sunsation Combo, if only for the sound of their silly names.