On certain autumn afternoons there is a brief passage — if you are lucky you may get ten minutes to appreciate it — when the sun has drifted low and the afternoon breeze has calmed and the light reflects off the surface of the river as from a mirror, doubling the trees and the intensity of their lingering color, and the earth gives the illusion of brightness. The season and the hour have so muted the wood’s palette that the russet of late-hanging leaves calls louder than crimson in June. The sudden splash of gold away downstream beckons like summer’s lost oasis. But the bare arms of sycamore and ironwood make a stark fence against it, and it recedes from my approach — the light, the afternoon, the year. The vestigial warmth of summer dissipates like a mist; winter seeps from the earth and fills its absence.
From the high ridge the river is placid, dark, smooth, its motion undetectable except by implication of the muddy-pale passage my analytical self knows to be rapids. It winds through the landscape, around unperturbed boulders, past trees positioned as dramatic backdrop by unseen woodsman stagehands. A heron lifts off from some hidden cove and glides easily over the water, ages below me. If the river misses him it keeps its feelings to itself. Occasionally a spot of foam tossed up by turbulence twinkles in the sun, just to keep the viewer interested. Oh, it is beautiful, this placid unmoving scene. It is the beauty of the Grand Canyon, the mountain overlook, the window on the eighty-seventh floor. The beauty of landscape that renders us insignificant before its grandeur and yet also grants us power over it. We comprehend the landscape while seeing nothing of real importance. We look on it with the gaze of science, or of bureaucracy — broad, encompassing, staking authority while proclaiming modesty, underscoring the insignificance of our achievement. From here we are assured that the river runs smoothly on its course, an assurance we have granted ourselves by choosing to remain distant from it. A cold, uneasy beauty.
On Friday I hiked the portion of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail that runs along the Eno River, about nine miles from Roxboro Road in Durham through West Point on the Eno Park, across Guess Road into the Eno River State Park, and then to Pleasant Green in Orange County. One day, when the trail is complete, I hope to hike the whole state. For the moment, this will have to do.
These are my snapsnots from the walk.
The rains part like a curtain; the underbrush
Stirs with sultry buzz and hum. Summer?
Goose on the river watches my confusion:
Which way the trail? Which hue the blaze?
He’s not telling.
I sit and rest by spring’s last bluets,
Pale and drooping in the summer heat.
The sycamore leans out over the river,
Stretched root to branch like a diver ready to leap,
Stripping his bark as he goes.
Swallowtails loop around the weeds
In search of some forgotten nectar,
While laurel clings to rocks above.
I typically don’t blog in photographs because I am not really much of a photographer, but the Eno River made it easy today. The air and the water were absolutely still, the sky deep cloudless blue, and the low angle of the afternoon sun coaxed a glow from the trees and the river that I can’t find words to describe. I can see why Monet spent a lifetime trying to paint light and reflections on water — and why he was never satisfied.