Water and time have forever been linked in the literary imagination. In Genesis the first acts of creation are the definition and separation of waters. Fitzgerald connects the two throughout The Great Gatsby, with the bay standing in for the gulf of time between Gatsby and Daisy, and then, as if he’s worried you might have missed that, he closes with a metaphor that makes it explicit, framing humanity as rowers beating against a current that inexorably carries them onward. In Winter’s Tale, the bridges across rivers mirror the bridges across the centuries that Peter Lake traverses from one iteration of New York to the next. Speaking of Shakespeare references, I’m guessing I could dig one up in The Tempest that would further prove my point. I can’t say I’m confident that my ideas are on par with these fine works, so perhaps it’s a foolish topic to cover.
But it’s rained pretty much constantly since March, which makes it difficult not to think about the water that’s sloshing all over the place, and managing a farm begets an niggling awareness of the time since the last good shower – if the small ponds are dry, if the garden needs water, if the pasture is too muddy for the tractor. The constancy of the weather and the landscape has made the changing of the seasons strange, as the spring has bled into the summer with hardly two days in a row of real sun. The thistles and burdock flowering and the burgeoning flocks of swallows are a surprise, out of place in the afternoon twilight of yet another thunderstorm piling up to the west.
Erosion is the most literal manifestation of water over time, and swollen by this year’s storms the stream has continued gnawing off huge chunks of its banks in an effort to dig curves and switchbacks into the artificially straight ditch to which some previous owner confined it. Down by the driveway the deep brown gashes and exposed rock remain where tons of earth have been gouged away overnight, while half a mile up the exposed shelves of shale testify to eons of slow wearing. The same process is bother wondrously fast and slow.
Beyond the obvious links – the way a stream is constant yet never the same, even from one instant to the next, the way the tides are liquid clockwork – is the shared capacity to invoke the sublime. The Hudson, which flows so broad and placid, might one day rise up to swallow the cities on its banks. Even so small a stream as ours cans swell beyond its banks and scour trees and houses from their moorings. Time is constant as a river, and time can easily be ignored. But there are moments when it comes to the fore, a sense of endless years behind and endless years to come, of a “brief existence suspended between two vast eternities.” The indifferent force contained in a vastness of moving water is, at least to me, a reflection of the ceaseless progression of minutes and hours and days and years within which a human life singly and human society as a whole unfold. “So we beat on, boats against the current…” Well, you know the rest.
Photo Credit – Garth Brown
P.S. I recommend the whole movie Russian Ark, but if you don’t have time just watch the last scene.