Rivers are magically, irresistibly alluring. Huckleberry Finn felt it. So, it seems, did John the Baptist. The Ganges has full-blown religious significance. Akiko Bush swam nine of them and wrote an excellent book about it. (Nine Ways to Cross a River. Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here)
My river, the Hudson, is always the same and never the same. Tangible to be sure. But also evanescent and ineffable.
For Christians, the miles of benches along its Manhattan bank are as church pews. Churches are closed just now, but the river offers a full range of services: hymns, pleas for deliverance, celebration of blessings, communion with saints, and recitation of Psalms. All silently, of course, and that has limitations; it lacks the affirmation that comes from joining with others in profession of faith. Still, quiet time alone beside the river is of inestimable value. To both religious and secular it can offer a moment of transcendent renewal.
Most mornings, I leave my phone at home, turn off my hearing aids, and walk down to the river to say hello and pay my respects. On busy days, I just nod and acknowledge its presence, like Jim Chee, the Navajo protagonist of the Tony Hillerman novels. Chee begins his days by tossing a pinch of corn pollen into the air in ritual appreciation of his place in the natural order. But increasingly of late, I sit for a few minutes and let the river have its way with me. Many people do. I find their numbers reassuring in this time when the search for distraction seems ever more compelling. Of course, some bench sitters study their smart phones. When I see that happening, I’m tempted to say, “Hey, buddy, you’re missing a lot,” or more directly, “Repent. You are sinning against the spirit of the river.”
Not burdened by electronic gadgets, dogs are really good at being present. Some sit on benches pressed up against their human companions, gazing at the river, exulting in the almost-autumn sunshine, quite at home on the limen between worlds. They seem to be reflecting. Maybe they are.
The Amtrak passes through the park that’s between my apartment and the river. So does the West Side Highway. But the train is out of sight, the tracks buried in the 1930s beneath concrete and landscaping by the parks department under the direction of Robert Moses. The highway is somehow not as noisy as such busy thoroughfares usually are. Now and then, a motorcycle with modified pipes or the screaming siren of an emergency vehicle obtrudes. Trucks and buses are not permitted. Most of the time, a steady hissing hum is all the sound that reaches me on my river bench.
The river changes day by day. I suppose a careful and trained observer could see it change moment by moment. The tide is always moving in it; now the Hudson has in it more of the ocean that’s a few miles downstream, now more of the Adirondacks where it starts. On a winter day with a strong northwest wind, it’s fierce, whitecapping, and frightening. Some days in summer, when the wind takes a rest, it’s quiet as a farm pond. A shower last week was so strong it made the river go dark, and New Jersey, nine hundred yards away, became invisible.
Through a speeded-up natural variation of the right of adverse possession, I have taken ownership of the river. Now It’s my river. It’s immaterial that other bench sitters and dogs own it too. It’s my river.