I’ve always had a thing about rivers. Growing up in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, I had to make do with a sewage canal – we called it just “the canal,” and in fact it didn’t stink – that ran from Wilmette Harbor through Evanston into the nether depths of Chicago. It ran between steep banks along the edge of a golf course not far from where I lived. When I was very young, my father rented a rowboat and took my brother and me through the locks at Wilmette Harbor – an adventure in itself – into the canal and on for a mile or two, though we saw nothing but the canal’s steep banks and had no idea where we were. Still, a great adventure, for never again did I see a boat on the canal.
The canal banks were forbidden, for a boy had drowned in the canal long before, and a policeman on a motorcycle patrolled regularly to keep people out. But a half-grown boy hunkering down on the banks was out of sight from above, and I and my friends escaped detection. We climbed in the willow trees, claimed the banks for our imaginary kingdoms, and hunted garter snakes in the grass, stepping on their tails to catch them; we rarely caught any and, when we did, didn’t know what to do with them and usually let them go.
The only true river of my childhood was the Chicago River, a dirty stretch of water jammed in between banks of concrete and cement, so pitiful an excuse for a river that visiting foreigners dismissed it as a victim of tasteless American progress, intent on ruining whatever Nature had to offer. True enough, but when as a young boy I went with my mother to the Loop by L, the high point of the trip, frightening and enthralling, was when the train crossed the river into the Loop on a bridge invisible beneath it, so that the train seemed to hurtle into space and risk plummeting into the dirty, trapped waters below.
When I went to college in southern California, there were no rivers to behold, for back then too there was drought, and what passed for a river anywhere was a dry bed of cracked mud. When I went to France on a scholarship I discovered Paris and the Seine, bridged by graceful arcs of bridges, and for the first time understood why visitors so decried the river of my childhood. But the Seine, however beautiful, wasn’t mine, any more than the Thames of London. When I went to Germany, I was eager to see the Rhine, having been exposed to Wagner’s Ring in a music appreciation course in college. Like a good tourist I boated down it, heard a creaky recording of Heine’s Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten when we approached the Lorelei, a big lump of rock where a gorgeous blonde supposedly distracted boatmen with her singing and lured them to their death; surviving this (the music and the temptress), at times I hiked along the river high up in the vineyards on its banks. If there was any river in Europe that I communed with, creaking recording or not, it was certainly the Rhine, but the Rhine belonged to that nasty racist, rabid nationalist, and genius composer, Herr Wagner; it wasn’t mine.
When I came to New York for graduate work I discovered the Hudson, less lengthy and storied than the Rhine, but it became my river. I walked along it on Riverside Drive, a cruisy promenade where other temptations at times distracted me at night, and later I began hiking on the Palisades, those towering basalt cliffs on the Jersey side of the river, where you can walk on the Shore Path below, right beside the river, and harvest quantities of wild raspberries in July, or on the Long Path high above, a trail that begins here opposite the city and stretches 367 miles north to a state park near Albany, with views here of the river and the city. And views too of turkey vultures and osprey soaring high in the sky, and on one memorable occasion, a bald eagle that appeared out of nowhere, snatched a fish out of the beak of an osprey, and made off with his prey. (Ospreys are big, but eagles are still bigger, and in nature that’s what counts.)
Later still I hiked on sections of the Long Path between the Palisades and High Tor and Little Tor, eminences somewhat farther north that gave me fabulous views of the surrounding landscape and the river, while a turkey vulture circled high overhead, eyeing me hungrily. Then, in the steep descent from High Tor, I found myself skidding and sliding on my bottom at a faster pace than I intended: a dramatic if somewhat demeaning climax to an exciting hike.
I have sailed for a few hours on the Hudson on board the sloop Clearwater, a replica of the old sloops that, before steamboats and railroads, were the best means of travel in the Hudson Valley, since going by stage meant long rides over bumpy, rutted roads that in winter might be blocked by snow. And I once glimpsed the port of Albany, which oceangoing vessels can reach by sailing up the Hudson, and from one such vessel saw scores, if not hundreds, of Toyotas unloaded, each one being met by a driver who got in and drove it off to what destination I can only imagine. (A sure indication of trouble for the Big Three carmakers of Detroit.) Yes, the Hudson’s sheltered waters are navigable all the way to Albany, and even to Troy, a few miles farther north. Long before the time of Toyotas, craft powered by sail or steam brought to the city potash and pork from Ohio via the Erie Canal, flour from Rochester, salt from Syracuse, bricks from Poughkeepsie, and apples and cherries and peaches from upstate orchards, whose intoxicatingly sweet aroma could often be detected from the banks of the river.
The Hudson, which flows only in the state of New York (though it skims Jersey along the Palisades), has its own history and lore, which I cannot go into here. I will settle for the poetry of its origins and the drama of its ending. It originates far upstate in the cedar and spruce-clad Adirondacks, in Lake Tear of the Clouds – a name surely conceived by the native peoples who, living close to the earth and in harmony with it, were by nature poets. (Their name for steamboat: “the fire that walks on the water.”) From there the waters flow into Feldspar Brook and the Opalescent River, before becoming what we know as the Hudson. Lake Tear of the Clouds, Feldspar Brook, the Opalescent River – what magic in those names!
As for the drama of its ending, we must remember that in the colder winters of the nineteenth century the Hudson was frozen over from its source right down to the city, so that people could walk from one bank to another, and ice could be sawed out in chunks, stored in great riverside barns, and later, when the heat of summer came, shipped down to the city and delivered by wagons to restaurants and hotels and the homes of the affluent. So for three months every year the river was closed to navigation and, before the coming of railroads, commerce was suspended.
Then, toward March, the weather grew milder and warming rains came, and the ice cracked and groaned, loosened, tightened again, crushing small boats that had ventured out onto the water, then loosened again, broke up, and began surging down the river, snatching at piers, vessels, and piles of lumber stacked too near the water. Finally, slamming and sloshing its way past the city into the inner harbor and the outer harbor, it spewed forth into the deep waters of the North Atlantic its captive splintered boats, pier ends, sections of bridges, and the thawed bodies of the drowned. Then, and only then, was the river completely free of ice and open to navigation.
I have never lived right on the banks of the Hudson or any other river, but I have read of those who do. They love the river, live close to it, need it, and when, every few years, the melting of winter snows or a surge of rain causes the river to overflow and flood their homes, they wait till it subsides, then clean up the smelly deposits of mud – no small task – and restore their homes. Not for anything would they think of moving. Such is the hold that rivers can fasten on us.
In October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit, the Hudson rose up over its banks and sent an unprecedented surge of water up Bethune Street, but a few blocks from where I live, knocking out all power in Westbeth, the huge artists’ residence located right by the river. The flood never reached my residence on West 11th Street, but it knocked out our power too – for four days. Yes, rivers can be dangerous; they have a will of their own. But the Hudson is still my river, and always will be; it lies but a twelve-minute walk from my apartment and has become a part of my life.
The book: As followers of this blog know, a selection of posts from it is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Sheri Hoyte, in a review for Readers View, called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City…. I highly recommend it to all fans of entertaining short stories and lovers of New York City. It would also make an interesting travel guide for people who just want to learn more about the city that never sleeps." (For the full review, see post #223 of March 27, 2016.)
Coming soon: Kitty Genovese Remembered. A shocking 1964 murder comes to mind again.
© 2016 Clifford Browder