The following article was published in a broadsheet by Mare Liberum for Radical Seafaring, a show at the Parrish Art Museum.
You can ride the Susquehanna River 444 miles, from New York state through
Pennsylvania and Maryland and out into the Chesapeake bay. When I’m building
our first raft, 140 square feet of scrap wood decking topped by a canvas wall
tent, I choose a section up near the northern border of Pennsylvania to put in. It
isn’t far from Philadelphia, where I live, and it is undammed for over a hundred
miles. A junk raft is not easy to portage.
The first summer, we go for a week. We load my little blue Ford Ranger with a
towering stack of 55 gallon plastic barrels and wood Kelly and I have scavenged
from the streets and notched into a frame that can be assembled with a screw
gun on a river bank. We call it the Lusty Jamcracker, after the rivermen in the
logging trade whose task it was to bust up logjams, when spring flood carried
millions of board feet of huge, virgin timber down the Susquehanna to market.
The tent walls are painted with scenes from the river’s American past — two
handled saws threading through tree trunks, Three Mile Island’s cooling towers.
There are maybe ten of us, on the raft and also in an old Mohawk canoe, until
the latter goes broadside to a dead tree sticking out into the current. It fills with
water, sinks, and, pinned against a branch on the riverbottom, snaps in half. On
its surface, the river seems so slow and placid, and we have yet to learn how to
read its power in the smashed trees and mud deposits coating the banks.
The Jamcracker has enough room for us all, as it turns out. We take a week to
meander the shallow miles from Sayre to around Wyalusing, cooking out over
campfires on islands in long summer twilights, unrolling the walls of the tent
at night and lying next to each other above the silently flowing water, our mats
lined up on the old wool rug, brushing our teeth and spitting in the river.
The second year, there are more of us, and we stay out for longer. We build a
second raft, this one smaller, with a spiky bamboo A-frame on which the canvas
can be rolled up in nice weather and down to shut out rain. We get the wood
and the foam insulation that serves as its flotation from behind a house in Ithaca,
and launch it and the Jamcracker (which has spent the winter in my basement
in West Philly) in a New York river town, near dusk.
There are balconies and decks overhanging the river on the old brick buildings
— restaurants and apartments where people are eating dinner—music, voices,
it must be Friday night. Light from the yellow doorways sluices on the water as
we slide swiftly by in the shadows. A dark bridge looms suddenly. We pole off
of the pylons with oars and feet and the rafts spin narrowly through — and just
like that we are alone in the summer night, town left behind, the river wild and
dark and aroar with insect song.
The susquehanna is the author of this landscape. If we lived here, it
would be the author of us as well. Instinctively, we know that all authority
flows from the land. That is why we see those people who live
closely on it — farmers/peasants/indians — as authentic. It is why we
seek our own authenticity here.
You come to the river on a lark — no problem with that. But then the narrative
shifts. You find that the thread of the story you first stepped aboard up in Owego,
New York, is unwinding, the voice that was speaking starts, stops, loses its
train of thought, eye caught by dragonflies sipping in an old tire, fireflies rising
like sparks off a dark meadow, and the uncountable shimmering threads of a
landscape through which you infinitisimally drift.
As days pass, conversation subsides. Sentences slough off like dead skin. Even
the instruments are quiet. Finally, you step out of the words you came clothed
in, and as the current takes your body, you think oh, yeah, i remember this.
Only you only think that in hindsight, because at the moment you’re just paddling,
steering. Reading the current.
If authenticity flows from the land, not just our physical survival but
our psychological and spiritual wholeness is bound up in it.
When our ability to live with even a marginal connection to the land is
severed — by, say, industrial contamination — we have not just a public
health crisis, but an existential crisis, in every sense of the word.
You’re quiet, and you’re reading the current. But there’s something in the water.
There’s something in the air. A sentence strung of chemical compounds. In the
houses on the banks they are speaking it. Hunters, waitresses and schoolteachers,
truck drivers, housewives—murmuring radium 226, benzene, flare-off,
slickwater blues. After spending time in a couple towns along the river, you
start to see a language of worry, tension, conflict amassed around each community,
a tower of babel, rising above the quaint riverfronts and dusty barbershops
in an invisible hum, like sodium lights, like truck after truck after truck
after truck crossing the Wysox bridge, crossing the Ulster bridge, crossing the
Sayre bridge, crossing the Scranton bridge….
you ask yourself, what does it mean to be a victim, to be seen and heard
and have the violence continue. It is the nightmare of screaming for help
and no one coming, of believing in your heart that justice will prevail, so
that defeat comes not just from the poison in the air and the lies of your
enemy, but from the silence and indifference of the good, just world.
We ask ourselves, what does it mean to be able to float away from all this.
As they say, we all live downstream.
The boat launch parking lot in Owego NY is reached by a dirt road — a grey dot off a grey
line, laid out in reassuring cartographic permanence in our battered atlas in the front seat.
The river is just down the hill, separated from the grass by 15 feet of fresh brown mud, twenty inches deep: this spring’s flood was a hard one. The mud is nowhere on the map. Just the clean white paper slipping under a sinuous blue line: Susquehanna.
Before us, that ever-moving liquid entity, not blue but brown, is cycling the earth’s water. From deep Pennsylvania springs and trans-atlantic rainstorms, 444 miles of water unfurls
down its sleepy, massive gullet to the Chesapeake Bay, a silty, sun-baked uroborose. Sinking into its muddy margin to reach the water feels like pushing through the elastic tug of the outer boundary of Town, somehow stepping through the very concept of map, into a place that is no place, only movement, either with or against the current. The river’s map is gravity and texture.
The susquehanna’s muddy cradle will bound our river-bourne rafts on either side for weeks, until Japanese knotweed, loosestrife and goldenrod creep over it with the advancing season to reclaim the sunniest spots along the riverbanks. The mud is like a body that holds onto you. Your feet sink deep into it and it reaches to receive them whenever you wade to a fallen tree to tie up for the night, or to wait out a passing thunderstorm. You feel the simple glee of cool mud on a hot day.
But above your animal feet, your mind is rattling off the names of chemicals. You’ve heard
about the spills and discharges and reports of trucks dumping chemical-laden fracking
wastewater. You’ve heard about the fish kills and the disappearance of salamanders. The
headaches, nosebleeds, and mysterious heart problems. Out in Colorado, where they’ve been fracking for years, cancer rates have soared. And yet, here you are on the north branch of the Susquehanna River, one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever been, a river that possibly predates the break-up of the continents, the shape of our known world, and there are eagles and herons and muskie in the creeks. It’s hard to wrap both your feet and your head around a poison river.
And so what started out as a lark, for us, was becoming a kind of journey through the underworld…