Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mental floss

I had great, inchoate ambitions for the three weeks I'm taking off from work this fall. About half the time, as I'd planned it, I would be traveling; about half would be staycation. Most of all, I had in mind that I could take up the threads of my newest novel project during these weeks away from professional responsibilities (a.k.a. the distraction of having to make a living).

Whatever 'take up the threads' might turn out to mean.

With four days left before I commence a slog through some thousand or so accreted e-mail messages back at the office, and jump back aboard the meeting merry-go-round, I'm ... tentatively satisfied, let's say, with how these weeks have turned out in their 'take up the threads' aspect.

Just last night I returned from a few days in the Sierras, where I stayed at a primitive cabin by the south fork of the American River. The cabin belongs to my friend Bill, and has since the early 1990s. The weather reports promised balmy skies the night before we set out, but in the actual event Northern California was drenched with rain as we crossed the state. By nightfall on Monday rain was still falling, and the river was higher than I've ever seen it before, a fierce torrent. There was no question of jumping in to wash up (Bill's cabin has no running water, the choice was to jump in or ... not). At its storm-fed height, the river would have smashed us to watery bits (see the embedded video, below). Instead we made a fire in the wood-burning stove and had a cozy night in.

The rain petered out sometime in the early hours of morning, and the sky began to clear. The river still ran high at nine o'clock or so, too high to contemplate jumping into the nearest swimming hole just downhill from the cabin. We walked instead to a shallow pool upriver, generally a better site for the day's first plunge in any case, as it gets sun earlier than the local, much deeper pool. We made our chilly ablutions, quick dips in and out of the river, then watched the whitewater rush over broken stone (see still photo, above and compare it with the same stretch of river last year, shown in last year's post, City vs country, sans runoff). After a while we headed back to the cabin for pancakes. Bill makes terrific pancakes.

The strongest memory I have of the upriver swimming hole was of an afternoon I didn't swim there, in July 1999.

It was an afternoon I hiked up to sit beside the water cascading down from Desolation Wilderness, uphill and north of Bill's cabin. I sat for a long while, meditation-still, letting the sound of the river wash through me, scouring me clean of city cares and workaday worries.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement across the river. A small, skinny, dark-colored snake, a Sierra garter snake as best I can make out in retrospect, was slithering down the far bank. It came to a small, still pool sheltered by tree roots jutting into the water, just a couple feet of riverbank protected from the current. So the snake slithered down the sheared-earth bank, came to the pool, and flicked her tongue at the water, as if having a taste. Then, to my surprise, she slithered into the water and disappeared. Sierra garter snakes spend a lot of time in the water, apparently, but I didn't know this at the time.

I stared hard at the little pool across the river, wondering whether the snake knew of some shelter that could be entered from underneath the surface, or whether she'd swum into the current to ride downriver. After not too long, there she came slithering out of the water and up the dark bank and back into the grasses from which she had emerged.

A man came by just then and asked how much further to Echo Lake. While I was answering him the snake reappeared and started down the bank again. I turned my full attention back to the river just as the snake submerged herself for a second time. As before, she again came out from the pool, and curled and pushed her way sinuously back up the bank. Then a third time: she returned to the water, to the narrow, downstream end of the pool, and disappeared. I waited a long time. Many minutes.

When I was about to give up and head back to the cabin, a white flash at the upstream end of the pool caught my attention. This time the little snake carried a prize. The point of her exertions was obvious now. A silvery three-inch fish, perhaps rainbow trout fry or steelhead smolt, dangled at right angles to the snake, clasped in her mouth by the narrow place before the bloom of tail-fins.

The snake climbed slowly up the bank again, pausing each time the little fish twitched, assuring her grip. She gained the top of the slope and disappeared with her piscine prey, presumably to lunch privately in the grass and scrub of the far bank.

The river, as I wrote to conclude my account in the cabin-journal, teems with secret lives.

All day and all night long the sound of the river outside Bill's cabin blurs the hours, one into another, an unceasing flow, wearing away knotty preoccupations, worries both consequential and not so much, opening up space for new and surprising ideas to emerge.

One of my pre-vacation fantasies was that I might draft a new short-story 'prequel' to the novel that's slowly emerging into this slow-paced novelist's consciousness. For me, composing scenes and short stories that take place prior to the action of a longer work of fiction are a common path into story and character.

But prequel-writing isn't how things worked out this time around. It turns out I was dragging a lot of work-related plaque that needed mental flossing in the course of these weeks away from the office. As far as fiction-development was concerned, I needed to take several long steps back from the project as I conceived it last year, then reconceived it in late Spring. I needed to consider its broadest contours anew. A rain-soaked watershed's drainage was just the medicine for me. I'm rounding the final stretch of my time away from work with a fistful of new ideas to play with. One of these days I'll blog about them, but they're not ripe enough just now.

River rush, the rhythm of waves breaking onto a beach ... there's nothing like great, long-running movements of water to clear one's view of the bigger picture.

Here's a video of the river at its height on Tuesday:

... and a still photo from a day later, when the river calmed enough for jumping in:

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Pacific coast watersheds
Drafting vs. editing
City vs country


  1. Steve -
    Magnificant! Thanks for the "virtual" mental flossing. Lindy

  2. @Lindy -- You're very welcome. It sure is nice to get out of the city sometimes...