I'm not thinking of a large river. Mine is modest, flowing in the heart of the woods. You won't find it on a map. I like to stand near the place where it mysteriously emerges from an underground spring and watch it flow away.
There are only a few ways to get to the river without bushwhacking. The ruts of an old logging trail will lead you in; another way follows a path overgrown with high grass. Once you have found the river, it's difficult to follow its course. Its serpentine twists, dividing into alternate tributaries, creating island clusters, confounds the expert hiker, who must negotiate the banks of gnarled roots and slippery mosses and look out for tiny frogs and other creatures. There's no real danger though; the worst is embarrassment: falling in some scum-filled water. Better to get in and swim or float.
No matter where you go, from the source to where it empties into a lake or a larger river, you can't find the river's beginning. It is always flowing no matter where you go or when you get there. In some places the flow is strong and supple, good for rafting. Calmer when widest, there remain little eddies, which cause the leaves and insects to circle rather than progress downstream. There are jutting rocks here and there, violently splashed by spring water. The same rocks sit quietly among damp pebbles and stones in the later summer drought. Momentary rays of sunlight illuminate otherwise undistinguished patches of muddy water or washed out grass.
The river tells no story. If you want a story you can listen to the conversations of friends who visit on the weekends, or the stories told by campers late at night. You can make up stories about river sprites and forest gods, or the lives of the animals you might glimpse if you stay very still for a long time. These stories will not have plots that start or end if they are truly inspired by the river. And it doesn't matter if you tell your stories or keep them to yourself.
The river is always changing. It takes some time to appreciate that it never repeats. You might feel loss if you think on a time when the river was beautiful. You might feel impatient if you were hoping for the river to do something special. But you will get used to these feelings; besides, there are always surprises. Memory will fail, so you return again and again, but each 'again' is new.
Meandering River was written in the Winter of 2001 for pianist Fang-Tzu Liu.