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Flowing By 

Years ago, I worked for a summer program for Yakima Indian youth. One small group of kids from a notoriously spiritual clan told me about Stick Indians.

Stick Indians live in woods and groves of trees on the opposite side of rivers from encampments.

Now, at home, the other side of my stretch of the river is wooded on a steep slope. There are a dozen varieties of trees, imports mainly, gone wild, a dozen shades of green. It's spring, the trees are bursting out with these greens. The sun is bright and the wind brisk.

I always focus on a particular spot among some maples where it's deeply shaded, and for a moment I expect to see the Stick Indians among the wavering branches. There's no one to bother them over there. No one else ever goes there. Not really expecting the Stick Indians, I always search for somebody to wave at, at least.

When I go to the river, which I do every day or so, I never see anyone. I know there are people who walk the same trails I walk, but during all the years I've lived here, I have rarely seen anyone else. Once in a while I'll come across a few beer cans, remnants of small bon fires, rocks stacked exotically.

A blue tent with sleeping bag laid out one time for three days, but I never saw that person. The other day I came upon a nest in tall grass above a bank of basalt rocks; a black leather coat cradled a sweater, a cell phone, a journal, some other stuff. Of course, I wondered who this person was. Recently a digger has been sluicing the bank near where I found the coat. But diggers look for old stuff. This digger leaves piles of old square, rusted nails and shards of porcelain on boulders at different spots.

On my part of the river, people have been a dominant factor for a long time. My house and most of my part of the valley sits on fill from the great fire. A foot below the surface of our lawn is a thick layer of ash. All along the river bank, there are human relics. On the other side, there's a whole steep slope of bricks among the poison ivy. I've even found to be beautiful the old rotted sleeping bags dragging in the current held by the spines of a nearly submerged honey locust, strands of blue tarp whipped in the raging waters around a willow.

As the river goes down after the spring floods, a person might find anything in the river bed. I found a fishing weight carved from a dense basalt rock among the basalt and granite boulders. The round stone about five inches in diameter has an inch-wide groove around its middle. I wanted to keep it but gave it to my friend who lives right there. This is a river and part of its current is the rounded rocks, some huge boulders from some place far upstream, white with black granitic specks. Most of the rocks are black or gray and of all imaginable shapes — brittle basalt, scoured and broken, shaped by the massive flow of water and sediment in flood. The gorge here below the great falls is filled with five hundred feet of these rocks that have been part of that current. Often I pick some odd-shaped rock and pile it upon another, and then join those two with one that just balances. Everything I do along the river now takes on this nature of ritual, since I've lived in our house longer than anywhere I've lived before.

Today I came out above the steep bank where I usually first approach the river. Just below me was a merganser swimming in the fast flat water, gorgeous in its sleek, sharply beaked head — the first I've seen so close.

Overhead, circling on the updraft, was one of the osprey pair that recently began a nest on the top of the very tall power pole up above the gorge on the other side of the river. Sometimes both circle together. Lately I've learned to quietly approach the marmots, also new to our part of the neighborhood. I peek through the grass on the heap of dirt piled along the brink of the river bank during the 100-year flood of 1996. I'm surprised to see two young marmots frolicking about their erect and alert elder, and further on, near a pile of old lumber, I see two more. Also, the magpies are new. Three nests in trees within a hundred yards of our house have appeared this spring, with the magpies squawking if you come close. And a new skunk, one of which I haven't seen or smelled for several years; and of all things, a porcupine waddling away, plump and surprisingly large. That's the river, always bringing something new: a bald eagle, a blue heron, a red-winged blackbird.

The water, however, is what the river is. The hissing sound that the hurtling water makes above the distant roar of the falls is almost a mantra for me as I stare at the surge and spill, trying to put into words the color, the movement, the energy and force. In winter before the thaw begins in the Coeur d'Alene mountains, when the nights are very dark, I have a place I go to watch the ducks. The water pooled behind willows reflects the sky, which is black, except for streaks of lamp light beamed from a couple of friends' houses downstream. In this beam of light, ducks appear out of the darkness, silent, camouflaged black, totally one with the water.

I just took a break from writing, and upon looking out the open kitchen door, I saw a squirrel. Squirrels are not uncommon in Spokane, but I've never seen one down here. Suddenly a pair of our new magpies are diving on the squirrel, squawking and fluttering, raising a commotion, forcing the squirrel to dodge under the deck. That's the river. Everything is changing, dynamic.

Publication date: 06/05/03

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