Referential

 An essay by Mike Freeman

“It’s beautiful.”

 Four months pregnant, my partner Karen sat in the bow, the canoe gliding unfretfully as I took an occasional stroke.  She’d barely whispered, and didn’t specify her mark.  There wasn’t one outside the estuary itself.  I’d nearly forgotten that, what nature can do, take the air out of you for no other reason  beyond its own depths.  Across the marsh, the backloader’s long, hydraulic arm craned waste about the landfill, the joints squealing where they needed oil, and closer to us a cluster of Canada Geese murmured unalarmed from some vantage in the grass.  Far above, an osprey traced the swamp’s southern arm, while the post-rushhour traffic hummed along the interstate, the distant vehicles scarcely visible between a lattice of feral grape draped from a pair of hickories to our right, their half-turned leaves rotating the light of the late September sun.

It’s jumpable, Pine Creek, trickling beneath the highway, then bleeding into Long Island Sound on the Connecticut side.  Since the glaciers’ retreat, tides have routed a narrow canal around a treeless island, a half-mile square.  It’s unfloatable at low water, and Karen and I had been lucky, getting off the train from Grand Central then making the mile walk to my father’s, where we launched the canoe as the water crested, pushing it through the marsh grass and bobbing bottles and tattered Styrofoam.  After ten years in Southeast Alaska, I’d moved back a few months before, to Queens, and the canoe below and fragrant assertions of high-slack unbound skeins of fond memories, all drenched by hundreds of square miles where glacial mountains meet boreal rainforest meets littoral fecundity meets the Pacific, scarcely a trace charactered by human hands.

My father revels in Pine Creek.  Hemmed in by ocean to the south, a dump to the west, the interstate to the east, and the concentrate of beach houses to the north – including his own – the scant acreage provides his only access to the world he adores.  While out west I’d listen to his beleaguered recitations of the region’s waning life – scarcely a Baltimore oriole this season; haven’t heard a wood thrush in years; not a brown thrasher to be seen.  As a younger man these birds had been in relative abundance, but gradually fell away, he’d said, the way daylight dissipates from solstice to solstice.  These laments, though, were countered by other news, like an indigo bunting, its inky delight harrying a neighbor’s hedge, or the plaintive declination of an oven bird, put forth from the wild rose banking the creek across the way.  Coyotes, too, seemingly everywhere again, hunt the estuary for whitetail fawns and residual mayonnaise, and skunks fuss about his tiny lawn each night, sniffing recycling bins, digging for grubs.  His enthusiasm, then, while hobbled, is hardly repressible.

Karen’s back rose and fell, each salted breath feeding the newfound life burdening her womb.  I dipped the paddle for a lazy stroke, mulling the ambivalence wrought by our developing daughter.  What sort of world do we bequeath?  Doubtless a diminished one, I thought, watching Karen’s sight line trace an undulant tern, and perilous too, feeling foolish in the same breath.  These same questions vexed Adam and Eve, I imagined, or at least their secular counterparts.  Drifting amidst the clamp of macadam and diesel fume, though, air traffic and municipal waste, this tatter of swamp seemed the final thread of that prelapsarian vim.  The setting, then, deemed the inquiry pertinent.  I slipped the paddle in and drew it forward, my pregnant partner and I floating above the occluded water.

A quarter-mile off, a cloud of starlings materialized from the sedge beneath the dump berm.  They banked in concert, then again, and once more on approach before littering the grape tresses with anxious, iridescent forms.  Their manic chatter reigned down upon several mallards and a lone black duck, who fed amidst the high-bank grasses the tide afforded.  When our daughter turned our age we’d be eighty.  Forty years.  What rift, then, between our own baselines?  Birds with whom my father reared were scarcely known to me, but there was also a federal raptor bounty, and he marvels at the hawk life he now sees.  A moose was hit and killed not far from here the previous summer, and black bears, too, down from the north, have begun re-colonizing, like palmers to neglected shrines.  To Karen, Pine Creek is a refuge, where nature permeates you unencumbered.  To me, it’s an oversight, a tainted vestige.  After months within urban confines, however, that stance had weakened.  Terra firma, terra incognita – no two perspectives tread the same patch of land, even within a single mind, and how forty years’ of such revolutions would resolve remained a mystery.

While the past and future may inform the present, though, they never knock us out of it for long.  Where the marsh opens to sound, a pair of jet-skiers carved circles in the flooded delta, but Karen noticed something closer – dozens of needly fish broaching the marble of expulsed motor oils and gentle slack water.  Juvenile blue fish – or snappers – must have been frenzied below them, and I vaguely recalled their gray, brainy flesh, so different than a salmon’s.  We passed a black-crowned night heron, waiting out the tide in the island’s reeds.  Once the water had flushed away it would move to the flats, to raid the fiddler crabs come up from the mud.  Passing the last houses to our left, I looked up.

I hadn’t seen an oriole’s nest for ten years or more, but its bulbous, hang-drop form couldn’t be mistaken.  We slid beneath, and Karen asked what it was.  My naturalist’s love is governed by an amateur’s ken, and I didn’t know whether it was a Baltimore’s or orchard oriole’s, and said so.  It dangled from a cherry branch, while a moth dithered about the grassy stitchwork.  Two months’ abandoned, the delicate weave remained stout.  Not long ago birthy hatchlings peered from the hole that I now glided under, to get a glimpse of their newborn world.  I craned my neck as far as it would go, then righted myself.  Karen trailed a finger in the water, looking ahead where an amalgam of gulls lifted and lit as the backloader allowed, falling upon our remains.  The ocean, as it does, fell out of favor with the moon, and I steadied the canoe in its first subtle tug, saying, “It is beautiful.  Isn’t it?”

           

Mike Freeman lives in Newport, RI, with his wife and two daughters.  In September, 2011, the State University of New York (SUNY) Press will release his nonfiction book Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson, centered on a canoe trip down the Hudson River while reflecting on Recession-era America and the delicate frictions transforming its culture.

Read our interview with Mike Freeman conducted by Jessica Powers, Nature Writing, Procreation and The Human Condition: An Interview with Mike Freeman.

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