Of Rivers and Renewal

In the following post, guest blogger Wendy Williams reflects on how the destruction and renewal of nature can be a mirror to our own human experience in this excerpt from her memoir Autobiography of a Sea Creature.

The Salem dam near Elizabeth, New Jersey (courtesy Wendy Williams)

The Salem dam on the Elizabeth River in New Jersey (courtesy Wendy Williams)

After days of ferrying my mother around to doctors, making order in the house, and getting my mother back on a three-meal-a day schedule, I head down to Conant Woods or Salem, the park adjacent to the railroad tracks, a sizable acreage of trees in my home town Hillside, New Jersey through which the Elizabeth River runs in the east central part of the state. The river flows past Conant Estates, a housing tract the building of which, according to my mother, destroyed all the flowering dogwood, and forks at a large pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in the city of Union.

This place had been a refuge for me when I lived here as a child. As I hike along the trails, I become preoccupied with memories of the past—me as a confused thirteen-year-old smoking cigarettes, drinking with friends, and making out with my boyfriend, hidden from adult eyes by the trees and brush of these woods. That period was a harbinger of the despair I would face as an adult. The water was polluted back then, but it is worse now. I accept my sadness at seeing the despoiled river, riverbank, and flood plain and ask forgiveness for the part I’ve played in its destruction.

I become aware of my breath, of its surprising presence in my knees, my elbows, my middle. I feel my chest lift and fall. The earth carries my feet. The forest comes to life. I notice a particularly wonderful archway of reed-like stalks, providing a yellow ochre canopy over the winding trail. From these slim branches hang delicate, papery hearts, each three-dimensional made up of three concave, heart-shaped sides united by a single seed at the center, like a tiny dark eye. To my left, land rises, swelling into gentle hills where wild onions grow. At the base of one of these hills, buff-colored grass sprouts with feathery tufts, each supported by a spine composed of tiny stiff spikes crossed like a row of x’s.

Nature has gone about its business, regardless of the mustard-colored silt at the bottom of a nearby rivulet, the result of the dumping of chemicals; regardless of the eyesore of plastic bottles, wrappers and packages strewn throughout the flood plain, hanging from branches, smashed into soil or simply lying in the brush; despite an eerie buzzing coming from a strange pair of thick metal posts jutting from the ground just across the river from the huge pharmaceutical plant; and despite a toxic teal sheen painting the water with an unnatural iridescence. Wherever I look, the secrets of this small stand of woods open to me. Maples and oaks tower overhead, short green and tall buff grasses flourish in the lowland and bromeliad-looking plants sprout from higher ground. Far from being destroyed, the forest is resilient.

Standing on a footbridge, I stare into the flowing water and imagine a small fish swimming in the way that fish do, curving its body in and out. In all the time I spent here as a child and young adult, I have never seen a fish or evidence that one existed. No splash from the quick turn of a tail or the quick break of surface by a fish snatching a fly. What type of creatures lived here once upon a time? Could fish live here again? Is there any life in this river now? Later that evening, my mother surprises me by handing me a black and white photo of Salem Dam along the Elizabeth River, not knowing that I had just returned from roaming downstream from that very place. In the photo, two young women, wearing clothes characteristic of the thirties, sit on the concrete levee, enjoying the pristine view. Thick canopies that cast deep shade tower over a wide river, rushing past banks free of debris. The bushes bordering the banks are lush, shelter for ducklings and protection against erosion. This is the Salem she remembers and loves.

This photo testifies not only to how the river and its environs once thrived, but how they could do so once again. It occurs to me that in a way, I am Salem—the river, the riverbank, the flood plain. The setbacks in my life did not destroy me; I am still beautiful and strong. I have the strength to make one of the most important decisions of my life, to bring my mother home with me to California, so she can get the care she needs. I recognize something wonderful–whether a river or a human life, renewal is always possible.

Author and award-winning poet Wendy Williams blogs at Restory Your Life, which features inspiring words of healing, highlighted with original artwork, that help people cope with early trauma and post-traumatic stress. Wendy speaks to groups and teaches classes on writing and healing from trauma. Her poem “Winged Victory” will appear in the spring issue of Canary, a Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.

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