I GREW UP NEAR A SMALL RIVER in southwest Missouri, really a large creek, an easily navigable waterway with a calm current, deep in places, in others flowing with low white ruffles over rocky shoals. I went to this river often, as if to a favorite relative, to see what was happening, wading and swimming sometimes, watching the creatures of the bank shallows and shore sedges, a buzzard or two slowly spiraling the sky, finches and sparrows prattling in the mat of wild brambles. The fragrances of spring blackberry and sassafras, the spicy scent of summer grasses, the musty cold of damp, autumn leaves, hickories, walnuts, oaks rooting in the river’s domain—I found them all.
One summer afternoon I went to this river with my parents and brother and another family. Together we were an ecclesia, as they called it, a word from the fundamentalist religion my parents had just joined. I went to the river this time for a baptism by immersion. Mine. I was thirteen. Words would be said. Transformations would take place, I was told. What would the river be then, I wondered, a participant in a religious ritual? Every religious ritual I had ever known had been performed inside a church sanctuary, out of the wind, away from the sunlight and commotion always present under an open sky, in a subdued church sanctuary enclosed by stained glass, lined with heavy wooden pews, the soldier-like brass pipes of an imposing organ standing at attention at one end, a choir in black robes, the minister in velvet. Baptism in my former church had meant a red rose dipped in water and held to an infant’s head.
Beside the river on this day, they told me my sins would be washed away. I would be cleansed of all the sins of my thirteen years alive in Missouri and be born anew. I didn’t doubt it, whatever my sins were. I already knew the river’s chants and spells. I knew, without knowing I knew, that the river had something elemental to do with beat and blood, their risings and ceasings, everything to do with the transformations that happen when earth and sun and water come together, what emerges from that union breathing, grasping, seeking and scrambling, suckling and nesting, what cacophony of webs, tones, carols, and spans sustain themselves within that union.
Inside the aura of ceremony, I walked into the river, meeting it as always, feeling the cool shore water on my feet, scattering a swirl of river-colored minnows, passing the black beads of a tadpole pod in the reeds, the circling of two water striders, down into the river’s moving presence, its flow stronger, colder, unrelenting, knocking a stick against my knee, wrapping a broken weed at my ankle. A knot of fishing line snagged on a small branch drifted by. I don’t remember the words said as I balanced against the current, but I went down over my head into the river’s swath and taste, its muffled silence, through the dim, broken light of underwater sun, feeling the muddy leaves and slippery stones of its base, a living fish bumping my shoulder, the river sliding against my face, through my hair, far beneath birds winging above faster than the current, down into the force and time of the river’s body.
And when I came up again and gasped the rash blaze and explosion of summer, I believed wholeheartedly in river belief. The river was here, tangible, soothing and biting, cresting and waning, not a gift but an ongoing giving and re-giving. The river, with all the being it spawned, was acting. River was a verb, not a noun. Bank swallow, blue butterfly, bumblebee, bittersweet were not things but soaring and alighting, bearing and consuming. Wild grape meant twining and persisting, dogwood reaching, blossoming, seeding, withdrawing, perch and carp and catfish pulsing, holding, enduring. The river was being—swift, assertive, foresworn—moment by moment by moment. And I knew I was joined in that same being and supreme in the being of believing, moment by moment by moment.
Later that afternoon we ate beside the river. We made a small fire on the gravel bar, just large enough to recall again the frenetic art of fiery vigor and brilliance, the art of woodsmoke climb and fragrance. The river and our place beside it took on the colors of evening. And the crickets with their glass castanets, the frogs hidden near the water with their long bass strums and trilling trebles, struck up their defiant sounds of declaration, once the low melodic call of an owl. The dim fire-points of the stars and the blinking fire-points of the lightning bugs in the heavy bank bushes transfigured the shore, the sky, the night. As the river grew darker, I could hear more distinctly the slow lap and easy slap of its moving waters. We gathered up then and started back, walking single file with flashlights along the narrow path.
I never regarded the river as a god. I would never have tangled it up in the vagaries of that word. Today, I remember, and I want to define God as unfolding, engendering, keeping, yielding. I want to imagine God, not static as the river is not static, as mountains are not static, as the stars are not static, as life is not static, but God as mighty, empowering, urging, infusing, coming, and continually pressing against oblivion.
All the earth is engaged in this being. Every living entity—from the eelpout on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to the bar-headed goose flying over Mount Everest to the golden, orb weaving spider of the mangroves to the giant forest hog of the Congo to the bent and twisted bristlecone pine in the ice of the Rockies to the beds of fluffgrass on the barren Mojave—every living entity is testifying to this and agreeing with me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.