By Chris Robey
When we brush, we work close to the water and use our creek voices to speak. The water’s voice is so loud you have to shout just to let someone know you’re bumping them by, and even then you’re never completely certain they heard you. I might notice Andi or Kajler speaking at me, asking for a tool perhaps, and pick up vague speech patterns, maybe, but anything more than that is carried away by the creek’s atonal wash.
“What?!” I shout and hope it carries.
Their answer comes back in fragments; I haven’t a clue what was said. I nod my head and turn back to cutting dog hobble.
It can go like this for hours at a time. Even when working around the same five people every day, it can be somewhat isolating. You get caught in your head a lot. You come to welcome the quieter moments, back at camp or during breaks, when we can speak to each other assured, knowing we will be understood.
But some days you never really come out of your head, at least not fully. As I am crossing the footbridge later in the day, on my way to help chop vegetables for dinner, a glimmer catches my eye and I pause, lean into the wooden railing, carved with the initials and jumbled knife-markings of years of passing hikers and look down at the water below. The streams and eddies carry my gaze like a leaf and I feel myself channeled between slick knuckles of rock. The stream empties into a slow-whirling pool and I follow a swirl of foam until it disappears beneath the floorboards, out of sight.
In isolation, brought on by the creek noise, my mind had been a pool and all day a thought had been making slow rotations. A stream can speak something different to each of us. Something about the waters, their constant crash and tumble down the rocks reminds me of ill-fitting river shoes and ankles rubbed raw from hours spent rock-hopping as a child. Dad loved taking me to streams like this. We’d camp by the creekside and spend the day wandering upstream; he would linger to flyfish while I went further ahead, wading through the shoals and clambering over mossy boulders the size and shape of ship bows.
When I had friends along we would stop to cast rocks into deep, still pools and watch them sink out of view. Sometimes one of us dared to dive in and try to touch the bottom. I was never brave enough--the muffled, churning void beneath my kicking feet was too unsettling, too strange. It scared me to have no idea what was beneath me, to be uncertain what my feet or hands might touch. I kept my eyes shut underwater, but sometimes they’d flit open and I’d see a world splotched and blurred and deep, deep green. I remember thinking once, So this is how a trout sees.
I look back upstream, lingering on a slow-bubbling upwell where the water passes over a submerged boulder. Strange, how easy to think of a stream as having a voice. Yet, look long enough at moving water and you cannot help but think of language.
Can waters speak? If so, in what language?
Can we converse? If so, on what terms?
Maybe it’s not so much the stream that speaks as the water itself is a shimmering tongue, a lapping grammar with a syntax of light and movement.
Who then is the constant babbler, the one who speaks in endless circles and whose mood changes with the day? Remnant glow of last night’s crescent moon; sparkle of the gilt sunrise; a glimmer in the afternoon that softens gradually as the sun makes its slow night descent--a changeful temperament.
I stand listening for a moment, then smile. Maybe not babbling, but singing. Water moves through the southern Appalachians like music, light and flowing, a polyphony that keeps these streams humming along to a song as old as the mountains themselves.
A cloud passes overhead, and sunlight fades. The glimmer disappears. The waters are suddenly dissonant, inscrutable.
I step back from the bridge railing. You have to be careful not to become too attached to the idea of harmony in nature. It is far too chaotic, too subject to change to say for certain that there are patterns to be read here. Even the most precise mathematical modeling still cannot come close to replicating or predicting the finer movements of water--the eddies and waves, the slow whirls and churning, the speckles of foam--yet it is something to which we attribute the simplest of explanations. A stream will follow the path of least resistance; water flows with gravity. Such a simple phenomenon, producing movements and details that yet exceed our capacity to define or understand fully.
I stand blinking, unsure where to look. A voice carries across the water and for a moment I wonder who could be shouting. The voice carries again--Jenny must be calling us to dinner. Already?
I turn and go to join the others at the cooking area. Maybe I’ll chop vegetables tomorrow.