The once magic river

I used to wade in the river where the bank softens its steepness and comes close to the old river road. You could park on the side of the road back then. We would park, Sarah and me, and cross the road without looking, since not many cars came through back then.

Sarah’s instincts would carry her to the water. Labs must have it in their blood: She would know what we were up to and start bouncing about in the bed of the truck, full of excited anticipation. Joy would quiver through her solid, sleek body as she leaped from the truck—sometimes right over the tailgate if the excitement was just too much.

Across the road, down the bank and into the brush and trees to find a stick; the water beckoned, but that had to wait until just the right stick could be found (Labs are also about everything being well done). Sarah needed to find a stick just the right size, with just the right heft so it would carry to the far bank when thrown, and just the right length to fit the flow of the currents.

Sarah liked her stick thrown far up the river. That way she could bound across the shallow flats in a leaping, hopping gate that recalled a spring releasing and recoiling. She was like an Olympic triple jumper with choreographed steps designed to build maximum energy to be released in one final jump into the deep water.

I never stopped being in awe of the way her instincts allowed her to calculate the current as she swam across the river. She aimed not for the target, the stick, but for a point where the current carrying her and the stick separately would intersect. She let the water do the work of retrieval, reuniting stick and mouth.

Then she’d turn and let the river guide her back to me. Drop the stick at my feet—ears up, eyes wide, happy and focused—bounding in place as she waited for another iteration of the game that mimicked her instinct for work.

Not so many years ago, there was a place farther on up the river where a storm-bent oak had reached out across the bank toward a deep hole in the water that drove currents around and past it. Someone had tacked two-by-fours on the trunk to form a scaling ladder. They had tied a rope far out on the trunk, and you could swing, Tarzan style, out over the river and let go above the deep hole. Kids would hang in the air, arms and legs flailing, waiting for the fall into water so cold it sucked the air from your lungs faster than the yell of youthful play.

The scene was like a picture from a dream or a filmmaker’s idealized version of a hot, July country day. With the river and the tree in the foreground, plowed fields backed up to Morgan Hill, where the outlines of Savannah Ridge rose up to join the sky. Country life: a gravel road, old pickups, barefoot kids in overalls and white T-shirts. In life, it was us; on film, it was a tease—a stylized ideal to be sought and reproduced.

I drove down the old river road the other day. The cars move faster now and come more often. Someone cut the rope off the old swinging oak: It smelled too much like unregulated fun, without helmets or kneepads; a lawsuit waiting to happen.

You can’t park along the river anymore. Somebody bought paradise and put up ropes and signs that scream KEEP OUT or NO TRESPASSING in big, red letters. When we drive by the spot, Sarah still gets excited, even though she’s old and gray now and her hips are bad. But fun is fun, and the instinct to be who she is will stay with her no matter what lies the passage of time tries to impose. She’ll be game as long as she has breath.

Sarah can’t read the selfish signs that keep the magic spot in the river out of reach. I’m glad she can’t, because instead of just being sad or disappointed at a missed opportunity, she would be heartbroken over a possibility lost for good.

Folks talk about finding the small-town, country feel. They come here to live a Rockwell painting or some other romantic ideation. But ropes and gates and fences and signs that hate a neighbor give the lie to that painting, stealing the possibility that it will have the dimensions that bring depth and life. It is a scene frozen flat.

Ida Mae says that before you can have a neighbor, you have to be a neighbor. But when connection and contact are treated as a threat, and when NO TRESPASSING takes the place of “Come on in,” how can you be anything but scared?

[Mark Jamison lives with his five dogs on 67 acres in Jackson County’s Speedwell community. When not tending the land, he tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]

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