The Canoes of the Memphis Social(s)
A woman emerges from the darkened room, turns around to cast back a whispered ‘I love you, Bye!’, closes the door softly, and scampers off barefoot -- lightly thumping the wood floor -- gathers sandals, and zips downstairs and away. An old man smiles at the youth, the opportunity to care, and good use of precious time. The morning’s first restorative light spears glide across the room. Time to nourish oneself and get in motion.
We are here as part of the Fish Story team for ‘Memphis Social’ that opens in two days. We have been reconnoitering the area, beginning with a canoe trip on the Wolf River May 4, then installing artwork for 5 days, giving one workshop at Crosstown Arts Gallery, and plan to attend the opening Friday night, and organize an international webinar on Saturday, May 11.
|Dr. Eugene Turner and Aviva Rahmani with 8 guides from the Wolf River Conservancy|
The Wolf River cradles the southeast of Memphis, Tennessee. It drains the high ground above the present day Mississippi River, opposite the low ground of the present-day State of Arkansas. Ninety-five million years ago it debouched directly into the salty Mississippi Embayment, then an extension of the Gulf of Mexico. This was 60 million years before the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentrations dropped below 350 ppm, after which it was cool enough for ice sheets to form, and long before our human ancestors could exist as forest dwellers, which was about 6 to 8 million years ago. When sea level dropped because this global cooling, the embayment filled in with sediments to form the Mississippi delta lowlands.
Whap!...our canoe bumps another cypress knee. We push off and it hits another on the opposite side; the current moves us sideways against a tree buttress, and I briefly consider abandoning ship, lest we capsize in six inches of water. The paddle can be useful at both ends of the canoe, but if we both pull strongly on the same side at the same time, then …we’re with in with whatever fish are there. Sometimes we back up because the various openings are not wide enough or spaced apart enough to allow passage. We drag on the bottom. The canoe behind bumps into us. Then we turn in front of them to avoid a log. And so it goes for 10 minutes until we find a wider channel; and then it starts again.
The water is high, or we’d be aground in a 10 mile wide swath of recovering swamp. I say ‘recovering, because it was cut over, farmed, channelized and burnt many times over the last 200 years. Birds, snakes, bear, fish, raccoon, deer and the occasional bison and elk were hunted down as the European-based eastern seaboard culture moved west like termites chewing their way through wood, forming channels and burrows in the eatable valleys. These are mostly cypress, tupelo, and gum trees, but there are also splotches of marsh with bull tongue, waterlily, grasses, and reeds. Life will not be denied, in one form or another – it’s just that the place may silt in, foreign plants take over, birds disappear, and game be sparse. The largest cypress trees now reach up about 80 to 100 ft, but are only 4 to 5 ft wide. The record cypress in Mississippi is 15 ft. in diameter and the largest in the US is 17.5 feet in diameter. The biggest might have been 2000 years old. Gone now, for sure.
Two of the 8 guides from the Wolf River Conservancy are behind mothering us along like a duet of parenting ducks teaching their newly hatched. One of them explored this section og the river earlier this week to mark a new trail. Henry comes up from behind to joke that he has picked up the orange markers so that we can use them to mark the way forward, but wants to know “which way is forward?”. And it is not always clear where the trail is in either direction, either. Last year a helicopter picked up a pair of lost bayou paddlers. More people signed up for today’s trip, but the weather forecast discouraged them and they weren’t at the launch site when we left. But the temperature turned out to be agreeable and there is no rain. It’s cool enough to sweat, but warm enough to hold a paddle, and even to dry out if we tip over. The canoe needs only 2-3 inches of water and we are mostly in less than 1 ft of water. Some of the guides are in kayaks that are even closer to the water. Some of us are in wool (good if you fall in) and others in cotton (not so good). One has the ‘Full Monty’ – a neoprene diving suit from ankles to neck. The view from an airplane must be like a cluster of 11 dots moving across the green and brown, shivering, vibrating and mixing like water striders. If you haven’t seen them, water striders ‘walk’ on water supported by surface tension, with ripples emanating from each of its four legs. The water is muddy from eroded silts and clays. The paddle sometimes digs into sand, which would be bright white streaks when water is low and the surrounding land is restored.
“We”, the tourists, includes the artist, Aviva Rahmani, and me, her team-member scientist who has signed up for what we call ‘art camp’. Aviva has the moxie to set this in motion and we try to help out. Another team member, Jim White, a paleo-ecologist from Boulder who is intimately involved in climate change programs is not here. The guides are from the thriving local canoeing club of the Wolf River Conservancy and are all a half-century old, or more. By virtue of their enthusiasm alone, they are helping reclaim, rehabilitate, re-discover, restore, and just enjoy what this place is and might become again. Mary is a computer-savy health specialist. The SoJourner brothers are former policeman and fireman. The names and specialists of the others are lost in a swirl of shadows and puddles, and I regret not writing them down, but we were in the midst of greenery, balancing, hunger, lightness, bugs and laughter. A camera does not work; cell phones are useless (thank goodness!), and the twists and turns around a thousand missed and a hundred un-missed obstacles kept us occupied.
We stop at some high ground to chew and converse, point and laugh, and smile and inquire about each other. They are proud to be friends and find joy being on the water with a light touch. Some beaver mounds are discussed, the red-berried Ohio Buckeye pointed out, and… is it an eagle or an osprey nest over there? Two of them? And abandoned duck decoys – the flotsam and jetsam of modern life, like a plastic bottle, some loose twine, and plastic bag are picked up, but there is little of it. By the time we pull out to clean up and return home, we are tired, glad to survive and say quite honestly how much fun the work was, and that maybe we’d be a little sore tomorrow. Say, could you send some of those pictures?
Restoration in the broad sense of people, place and other, may be something like this canoe trip: Exploration, capsizes, led by both experience and chance, exchanging the lead to follow, tutoring and yelling, and with some companionship against the stream of dysfunctional pressure to subdue random acts of love, kindness, fun and exertion. The way back will be opaque in our collective memory for lack of examples, extinct species, and common goals. Moving forward with the current, we may get back with stiff muscles, but also with appreciations for how we need to just a little amount of gear to travel well, that the arch of similitude between our ancestral sensual lightness with the world and today can be couched simultaneously in awe and practicality. But more on that later.