Small River, Long Ago

Photo by Elwynn / 123RF

In those pleasant little towns on Thames, you may hear the fall of the water over the weirs, or even, in still weather, the rustle of the rushes; and from the bridge you may see the young river, dimpled like a young child, playfully gliding away among the trees, unpolluted by the defilements that lie in wait for it on its course.

— Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)

It is now 2015. Has there been improvement since 1865? Or is the situation more like the idea voiced in Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel, Feet of Clay—that the way human beings use clean fresh water is to make it “as turbid and undrinkable as possible.”

That unhappy scenario is often the case in real life. I would like to believe, however, that nowadays we are actually worrying (and unfortunately arguing) much more about climate change and water defilement than they did in Dickens’ century.

I fervently hope that many of us feel guilt on behalf of our species, which has—in my lifetime—tripled its numbers and generally acted as if present greed has no causal relationship to ongoing or future ecological disasters.

I contribute as much as I can to organizations that try to educate us about science, and to other organizations that try valiantly to get us to curb population growth.

It was heartening to read in an article by Andy Isaacson (published in the January-February 2015 issue of Audubon) that David Attenborough (who is exactly my age) said, “I believe that almost every ill that afflicts the world today can be put down to increasing population size.” Yes!

I have also been doing a lot of thinking about what are referred to as “the olden days” by members of the younger generations (almost anybody who is younger than I am). I grit my teeth and try to forgive them as they accuse me of geriatric nostalgia.

I hasten to say that no one should be happily nostalgic about past times when medical science was more primitive, foods and pharmaceuticals less monitored, and when there was so much more active prejudice about “race” and gender. (Race is in quotes because there is biologically only one human race, but gender is not because there are two functionally distinct human genders with variations in between.)

I am admittedly nostalgic about a few things, but before I get to the story about one of them—canoeing on a river—here’s an instance of the vast difference a generation or two makes. Try wrapping your mind around the fact that when I was seven I saw a parade with a couple of tottering Civil War veterans in it. Now, children see World War II veterans in much the same way—with astonishment and some puzzlement over the fact that those “olden days” were real.

My nostalgic story of a small river trip is meant to show people younger than I am that, however much we have gained, we have lost so much—quiet, clean air and water, and simple nudity.

Ha! Shocked you? But I mean it. These days, porn is ubiquitous, but simple nudity is not.

My main experience with nudity—nature in the personal now—took place when much of humanity was gasping with bewilderment at having fallen into the Great Depression, which reduced the birth rate and left vacant lots vacant.

I was lucky. My family’s precarious fortunes had begun to achieve some security shortly before the Second World War smashed into lives. My parents decided they could afford to send me to summer camp, while they stayed home to figure out if they could afford to build a house on one of those vacant lots before Hitler did anything disastrous (he did, and they didn’t).

The summer camp was in Maine, where I was so happy that I wished it would never end. For two months I was blissfully separate from my home, the Great Depression, and the horror of war.

My memories of that long-ago camp are, admittedly, exasperatingly banal. There’s that dark green of pine trees etched upon a brilliant summer sky and the silky sound a canoe makes as it slips through clear water. But notice. The sky was smokeless. The water really was clear. And I will never again go topless in public, in any setting.

The Saco river trips, for about eight or ten campers (I’ve forgotten how many) were prime events of our camp season. Mine started when a truck took us to Swans Falls, where we packed the canoes and shoved off. We had thirty miles to go and three days to do it in.

I have to explain that this camp was run on progressive lines. We campers were not encouraged to compete. We were supposed to envision ourselves as working to develop mind, heart, and body while we played amidst the rugged beauties of nature.

That last cliché—the beauties of nature—was so taken for granted that I came to believe people didn’t develop well amidst anything else (and please don’t remind me that I’ve been a New Yorker for many decades—I live near Central Park and help support the beauties of its nature).

At camp we were taught that life was a series of mountains to be climbed for the love of climbing, and in order to see more clearly the distant peaks we would climb next. I wasn’t much on mountains (I hadn’t even dreamed of the one called medical school). I preferred getting into a canoe and helping the water do the work of progress.

The progressiveness of the camp administration extended to a moderate encouragement of nudity. There were no baths or showers, except in the infirmary, and we were all supposed to scrub ourselves every afternoon in the lake. It never occurred to me that other camps did not do this. Once or twice in the summer, a boatload of fishermen managed to find our lake, but this was so rare that privacy was taken for granted. We tended to extend this sense of privacy onto the various trips we took, at least those that allowed the opportunity to swim.

In the late 1930s, the upper Saco seemed wild and unhurt by human folly; a small river where wildflowers grew along the banks and where we talked softly as we dipped our paddles into the moving water. Most of us (totally ignorant of the threat of skin cancer, which I’ve since had in plenty) removed our tops to give ourselves an unmarked tan.

At one stopping place, we covered up because there was a bridge over the river, but we never saw a pedestrian or a car on the road. Our tops were halters, each made out of a large blue or red bandanna, a piece of string, and a safety pin. They were uniformly uncomfortable. At night we were never nude because it was cold. We put on all our sweaters and huddled in our sleeping bags, waking to chilly dawns with dew on our hair and mist rising from the river.

When we cooked our food, I learned that bacon grease can be removed from the pan part of a mess kit without the use of hot water or detergent. The former was too much trouble, and the latter had not been invented. We did not use soap on our mess kits. Each of us had tried to remember to bring a cake of Ivory for personal use, but if you used it for your mess kit, the contaminating grease was impossible to get out and did not improve the smell of adolescent skin.

Our mess kits were not exceptionally clean, but they were respectable—thanks to clean sand along the river. Enough sand and friction will work, and we were young and muscular. We didn’t need detergents which are now showing foam in all waterways.

We put our sleeping bags on sand only once. Then we switched to pine needles on the forest floor. Sand has a way of hardening under you during the night, and when you turn over, you hit ridges. At night we’d wake up and see the meteors we called “shooting stars.” I don’t know where the nearest electric light was, but it certainly didn’t interfere. And, of course, we had no devices that needed to be plugged in to recharge. Flashlight batteries did run out, but we only used flashlights to make our way to the latrine we’d dug.

My camp diary records that after we portaged some rapids and made our way to Pleasant Pond, I saw a blue crane, wild ducks, and an eagle. I expected to see them, but I hope I didn’t take them for granted.

Somewhere along the river there was a high sandbank that was smooth all the way to the water. We tied the canoes to nearby trees and took off our shorts, worn when paddling because canoe wicker seats tended to waffle human skin. Now that bottomlessness matched toplessness, we could swim. We climbed the bank and slid on our feet into the water and climbed back up to do it again. For some reason—that seems strange to my aged self—this activity felt exhilarating.

I was halfway down the third time when a loud noise reverberated from the top of the bank. I fell and slid the rest of the way on my bottom, thus painfully learning a distinct disadvantage to nudity. All of us got in the water and looked back at the top of the bank.

Peering from a fringe of grass was a bull, shaking his head. He bellowed again and disappeared. It took a while for everyone to venture out of the water, but the councilor—a rather hard-boiled mother hen—told us to climb back up and look. The bank was at the end of a long field, with the presence of a distant farmhouse that explained the bull.

“People shouldn’t live beside the river,” said the youngest girl. I agreed.

It was time to go. Toweled dry and into our shorts, but still topless, we got in the canoes. As we paddled leisurely, I watched the reflection of the trees in the water and daydreamed, something I was already too good at. A small river that passes through woods seemed to contain a universe of slowly moving space-time. The gray shadows of fish, the shiny pop-eyes of a floating frog, the shapes of turtles on logs, the shades of green along the bank, and the wooden canoes themselves were all part of the whole.

All journeys end, but this one had one last moment of excitement as we approached a bend in the river with another steep bank, apparently covered by totally naked boys.

We girls quickly hauled up our halters as the boys, their regulation camp canoes against the bank and not in easy reach, dove into the water, where they remained, silently, until we girls, equally silent, paddled past. Nobody giggled or jeered.  It was as if the denizens of the two camps had disturbed the serenity of the river and had to be quiet to bring it back.

Our canoes, briskly paddled, went down river to the end of the trip at Hiram, where civilization began and the Saco became a commercial river.

I hope the upper reaches of the Saco River are not seriously polluted now, although I’d bet that its privacy—like all privacy—has disappeared.

Nature slips away from us in detergent suds, and while we foam ourselves clean, everything else—including our nakedness—seems to get dirtier.