Tag Archives: water

floating through february

Even though we just finished up one series of concerts, there are more upcoming projects here in New York that continue the flow…

On 17 February, the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble with Vicky Chow on piano and Ana Milosavljevic on violin will be performing a show we’re calling Songs from the River and Elsewhere on the Avant Music Festival, which is going to be a wonderful series of concerts, highly recommended.

We’ve already begun rehearsing the repertoire for the 17 February concert, and it’s really fascinating to be embedding RiverProject songs in and among songs from A Book of Days. While the journey down the river definitely changed me and my work, there are some themes that thread their way through all the pieces, and hearing them performed by these excellent musicians is really great.

Also upcoming (on 2 March) is a performance of The Sirens, or Pleasure, my Cagean (Cageish?) collaboration with Yvan Greenberg, by the duo Two Sides Sounding. come check out the bicycle roulette wheel doing its thing, you never know which crackerjack prizes it’ll choose!


Along with these performances, I’m starting work on Pump Music, a big new piece for violin, trombone quartet, and location recordings of hand pumps found in campsites along the Mississippi River, a Meet the Composer commission that will premiere later in the spring on the Tribeca New Music Festival. Stay tuned for news about date and venue, which should be firmed up very soon!


L’acqua che tochi de fiumi, è l’ultima di quella che andò, e la prima di quelle che viene; così il tempo presente. La vita bene spesa lunga è.

Leonardo da Vinci, Note 1174

here’s my translation [eager for improvements from my Italian-speaking friends]

The water you touch in a river
is the last that has passed
and the first that is coming;
so with the present moment.

The well-spent life is long.

Bayou Farewell


Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:

Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)


The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)


The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)


For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)


Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)


If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.

Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)


“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)


If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)

when the saints


Mac and I decided it was somehow necessary to go all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, but rather than following the official channel of the Mississippi River, the road for which reportedly peters out in a sort of industrial place, we chose to drive down to Grand Isle. Famous as the location of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is also known as one of the great fishing spots in the world, and has a great beachfront state park, which we had nearly to ourselves.

It truly feels like the edge of the world. All the structures are built on stilts, on shifting sands that will never be stable. You drive for a couple of hours south through land that becomes more and more intermingled with water, until you are on a little spit of land surrounded by water on all sides. The map of this whole area looks like beautiful lacework. It’s the opposite of the Greek islands, which feel massive and immovable, where the warm and clear waters of the Mediterranean feel like your friend and the earth is dry and stony and unforgiving. Here the water is poised to wash away the tentative stretches of sand and swamp at any moment, and you feel oddly protective of every spit of land that can support life, fragile and wet and temporary as it all is.

Mac and I took a walk on the parts of the path that didn’t require waders, and I found a bird skeleton and took the beautiful curve of the main wing bone as a memento of the final official day of this trip.

On the way home from dinner I hit a pothole badly enough to blow out a front tire, so the next day I cleaned and reorganized the entire car while waiting for AAA to come and change it. Spreading everything out to dry in the December summer sun and warmth, tidying the papers and maps and books that had been floating around the car for months felt really great: the first step of Phase 2, somehow!

We got back to New Orleans in the late afternoon, set up camp at St. Bernard State Park just east of town (the area that was purposely flooded by dynamiting the levee in the 1927 flood), and drove into the city and sampled some live music in the bars along Frenchman Street and then headed over to the Candlelight Lounge, home of the Treme Brass Band. A really great night of music and dancing, totally local in the best sense, listening to the music alone couldn’t possibly give you the full sense of the whole scene, the whole feel, which is urban, cosmopolitan in all the ways that make cities so great. Everyone is radically individual, the small-town pressure to conform is non-existent, instead, it is as if every person is carving out a unique space for their own fierce selfhood, so that the coming-together, the community that is woven together by these hundred souls in a little club on a dark street in the old neighborhood, the birthplace of jazz, is made of a hundred different histories and styles and stories and reasons for being there, united in that precise unrepeatable moment in time and space, dancing together to the music that connects us, the music that will never end.


another confluence


Because I wanted to go to church this morning, Mary decided to paddle the first part of the day, so I helped put her in at the tiny town of Commerce, well-named, since an unpleasant guy there actually charged us ten bucks to put in at his decrepit ramp, which I had to clear of logs and trash before we could use it. I decided to forego church in Commerce, and drove west to Charleston, MO, and ended up at the First Baptist Church. I was a bit worried what I would hear, after my experience of Baptist church in Fort Madison, but I really liked the service. There was a strong chorus, accompanied by both piano and organ, and the conductor was skilled, and she would have us sing the final verses of the hymns without accompaniment, a fine way to experience the coherence of the gathered congregation.

The sermon was good, nothing about beating children or the fires of hell, but an exhortation to give of the gifts we have been given, not just the offerings required by law, but freewill offerings from the heart. And he spoke vividly of time and talent, as well as treasure: it was not all about money, for sure. The sermon was all the more effective because he got quieter at the climaxes, drawing us in to follow his argument. Not unlike the a cappella final verses of the hymns.

I was repeatedly and warmly invited to stay for dinner (no coffee and donuts here, it’s a whole meal!), but I had to leave right after the service to drive way out on farm roads to the boat launch where I took over paddling from Mary. The last bit of road was too muddy and pitted to drive, so I left the car and hiked about a half mile to the ramp. Beautiful place, really remote: it’s at the beginning of a ten mile meander the river takes, shaped like the Greek letter omega, almost doubling back on itself before continuing down to the confluence with the Ohio. When Huck and Jim traveled this stretch it undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

It’s becoming a Sunday afternoon tradition to hit a big confluence! I took a back slough at mile 5 (the river mile numbers start again at Cairo), and came out on the right side of the ”long tongue“ below Cairo Mark Twain describes, and there’s actually a point, the tip of the tongue if you will, where the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. It was a bit intense getting across the confluence and down a couple of miles on the left where I had told Mary I wanted to get out. The swells were big enough that the kayak disappeared in the bottoms of the troughs, and down in them I couldn’t see land at all. The ramp was obscured between some dry docks, so I almost missed it, and had to paddle hard to get in. No boils or breakers this time, just fierce big water. I take it very seriously.

We drove back in to Cairo and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the official completion of the upper river. 1325 miles. I am very moved to be here in the heart of the heart of the country. But it is heartbreaking to see the state of decay Cairo is in: practically a ghost town except for some pretty awful barracks-like projects on the outskirts. The liquor store was virtually the only functioning place in the whole town. We camped completely alone at Fort Defiance, which felt a bit risky, but somehow necessary, and were rewarded by a clear night with a million stars. I kept Uncle Bob’s very sharp knife in the hammock with me, more as a totem than as an actual weapon, and slept without fear.


flow in flux


Leaving St. Louis was sort of hard: spending time with Amy and Frank and Emma and Spencer is fun under any circumstances, and my excellent uncle Joe arrived Tuesday night, adding to the pleasure, but hanging out here is especially comforting when I feel a bit like I’m about to launch into the unknown. I’ve spent very little time in the south before now, (Los Angeles doesn’t count!) and St. Louis is the last place along the river where I have family or close friends, where I know I can land for a while if need be. And it’s rainy and gray and unseasonably cold out, so it really took some self-discipline to get in the car and drive down to Cliff Cave Park, where Mike told us we could put in to avoid the crazy-busy port of St. Louis.

We got to the park, which is the antithesis of North Riverfront Park — all manicured, with a gorgeous shelter and bathrooms and everything, but of course it’s in a wealthier area — but there’s no official boat launch, so Mary helped me get the kayak down to the water, and I put in and paddled off, uncertain until the very last minute if I had enough juice to do it.

And of course, once I was paddling I was no longer cold or uncertain. For one thing, it’s really fun to be able to do thirty or more miles in the time and effort that twenty took before. The current is really moving, there isn’t much traffic other than towboats pushing barges, and they are the best drivers on the river, and most of the logs and stuff are already downriver ahead of us because we’re behind the hump of the highest water. The trees are turning, so in the midst of all the gray-brown water and gray-white clouds, the reds and yellows and greens of the trees on the bluffs look positively gaudy. And now and again huge flocks of birds will fly over, dancing against the clouds, turning in the wind, and I just stop paddling and watch them go. Yesterday the clouds were really low and the wind was pushing them at about the same speed and direction I was traveling in the water. Only the land was still, everything else visible was moving together in concert down towards the delta.

We have camped out every night, and it’s been pretty cold, but there have been an excellent succession of campsites: Magnolia Hollow was a tiny hunter’s hideout way up a back road, three fire pits and a few picnic tables; at Kaskaskia State Park we hung our hammocks in a stand of pines away from the official campsite; and at Trail of Tears State Park, we had the tent camping area all to ourselves. It’s beautiful country, rolling hills and farms, and fewer towns than anywhere I’ve been on this trip except maybe at the very beginning.

The Trail of Tears is well-documented in the visitor center at the park, and also commemorated in highway signs in this whole area, as are the paths of Lewis and Clark and Marquette and Joliet. When I then add the multiple layers of Mark Twain (Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi), it feels like I am traveling with hundreds or thousands of people, and the virtually unpeopled landscape that is actually before me is really surprising. There are places on the river where I can see five or six miles up and down and not only not see anyone, but also not see evidence that people currently inhabit this place, even though I know that this part of the river has been settled by Europeans for centuries now, and by Native people for millennia.

But then I remember that this part of the river keeps changing its mind, moving course so as to orphan towns away from the river or flood them into oblivion. Islands appear and disappear, attach to one shore or another. Nothing here is permanent, everything is in constant flux. The maps Nick gave me are out of date here, 1991 is too long ago to accurately document the river of 2009. It’s a strange sensation to look at this imposing, serious river and think that it will be likely flowing some yet new way in another twenty years.


Today was one of the best days of my life.

I got up and went to First Presbyterian Church in Alton with Wita, which maybe was backsliding in a way, since I’ve been aiming to go to churches that are theologically and liturgically less familiar and comfortable to me as the journey continues, but I was really glad I went: the people there were so very welcoming and kind, and the sermon (on that tricky passage about the rich camel going through the eye of the needle and all that) was really excellent. A guy who quotes Hank Williams as a spiritual advisor is a guy I am happy to listen to.

After church, we headed out to brunch with Dale and Linda Chapman, the President and Dean for Academic Affairs, respectively, of Lewis & Clark Community College, an institution that gives me a whole new understanding of the phrase “community college.” What a team those two are! They are building a River Research Center just down from the Alton Dam that is going to be an incredible place for research on all aspects of the river, and after brunch they took us for a tour of the nearly finished structure, which is completely self-powered (hydro and wind), built of limestone layers (really beautiful) with a green roof, and full of labs that will allow scientists to study the river on a scale and intimacy that has never been attempted before. And this is just the start: they are planning the second building as this first one nears completion, and we can all hope that this will be the Woods Hole for river research, an international center for understanding rivers. How cool is that?

But this was just the beginning of the day.

We said goodbye to Dale and Linda, and to dear Uncle Bob and Wita, and drove over the bridge to the boat launch just south of Alton Dam, where beloved Mike Clark, who I paddled with last week under the full moon, had within a matter of a couple of hours managed to get a canoe up to Alton and to wrangle Steve to be a shuttle driver so that Mike and Mary and I could go out on the river together.

Mike and Mary got into the canoe, and I got in the kayak, and we paddled south through a back slough, where Mary saw her first eagle in the wild, a very excellent thing, and then we headed down the main channel to, yes, you’ve got it, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Oh my, oh my! I imagine it’s a miraculous thing every single day, but I felt really lucky to experience it after these few days of rain have swelled the river. The Missouri appeared actually to be uphill from the Mississippi, I’m guessing because all those locks and dams hold back the flow of the Mississippi, and the afternoon light shone on this fierce flow of water coming from far far in the West, and at that moment there was no question in my mind that the Mississippi is the tributary here, the Missouri is the MotherFather river for sure for sure for sure. And just after I paddled into the actual confluence, a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before.

I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.

We paddled on for a bit and then stopped at 4 pm for Mike’s river version of high tea on an island, and then Mike took us through the vaunted Chain of Rocks, which were safe riffles as opposed to the murderous rock course it would have been a week ago, and we paddled down to Mosenthein Island, where our campfire of a week ago is under 14 feet of water today, and we stopped to visit the cottonwood tree the beaver is almost done with, and I found an intact and beautiful turtle shell, and then we paddled hard across the channel to land at North Riverfront Park, where not only Steve but also Scott were waiting to take us back north to the car.

Mike has been telling me bits and pieces about Scott Mandrell and his re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a project he has been doing in segments for years now. Scott is an incredibly charismatic man: I could immediately regard him as the Captain after being in his presence for about thirty seconds.

It turns out Scott and Steve had returned this very day from the last phase of their re-enactment. They had been riding horses through the wilds of Tennessee yesterday, living out the 200th anniversary of the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis. Scott is absolutely certain that Lewis did not commit suicide, and he has a totally thrilling theory about what actually happened in those woods 200 years ago, but I will not tell that here, leaving it for Scott to explain in his own time.

The idea that Scott and Steve would come and drive a van around in order to allow Mike and Mary and me to go out on the river together — on the very evening of a day that started for them in the deep woods of Tennessee following Lewis’ journey to the end — completely blows my mind. These people are teaching me something incredibly powerful about the merging of the practical and the conceptual, the physical and the spiritual. I begin to understand what confluence really means.

not even a hair is missing

So I’m driving back from dropping off Rafaela at the Quad Cities Airport (I felt really bad that her whole visit was taken up with searching for the lost gear: not much of a river trip for her, that’s for sure), and as I was heading over the Burlington bridge, the phone rings and it’s the Lee County sheriff saying he thinks they’ve found the kayak just down from the Green Bay launch caught in some trees and reeds. EXACTLY as I had hoped; exactly as I had asked you all to dream! We had gone out looking very slowly and carefully yesterday, and hadn’t found it, but maybe the wake from the boats in this morning’s bass tournament dislodged my kayak from where it had snagged! So I go sit impatiently in the library for a bit and the sheriff calls again and tells me to come down to the Fort Madison launch. I drive down and find John Pawling from Lee County Conservation and the sheriff, James Emmett, standing there with my kayak. Not only my kayak, but ALL the accessories: paddles, life jacket, skirt, safety gear, even my well-used boat shoes and slightly stinky gloves. EVERYTHING!

And then John looks up at my roof rack and says “Where’d you get that bike?“ Cindy and Tom had lent me one of their bikes yesterday, and we had made a plan to meet up in New Orleans when I’m done with the journey for them to retrieve it. (A fine excuse for a trip to NOLA, don’t you think?!) John says, ”I’ve got your bike, too.“

Can you imagine?!? It turns out he saw it locked up at Ortho landing and thought perhaps someone had stolen it and hidden it down there, so he cut the lock and brought it back to the Lee County storage facility.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to have imagined I had lost everything, and suddenly have it all restored in the snap of the fingers like this. The Lee County Conservation folks even gave me a new lock to replace the one they had cut!

So I spent the rest of the day driving back and forth several times between Fort Madison and Burlington: returning Cindy’s bike, picking mine up, heading out to River Basin Canoe to buy a lasso lock for the kayak, and calling all the amazing people who had offered me replacement kayaks and bikes, written articles to get the word out, offered money to re-outfit, places to stay, searchboats to go look, to tell them the miraculous outcome of this story.

And I’m going to choose to believe that the wind pushed my boat six to ten feet down the beach into the river all by itself. No kids, no vandals, no theft, nothing like that. The outpouring of kindness from the people of Burlington and Fort Madison and Keokuk has been such an amazing gift to me. And the support and love from all of you here and on Facebook means so so much: I really feel like I am carrying all of you with me on this journey: you are keeping me safe, and all shall be well.

If you want to make a gesture in support of the people of Lee and Des Moines counties, and all they’ve done to make this story have such a wonderful ending, you could send a donation to either Des Moines County Conservation or Lee County Conservation.

And I’m heading down to Quincy and Hannibal this weekend, to the heart of Huck and Jim territory, and Lincoln/Douglas territory, and the Underground Railroad, and more cool stuff I can’t even predict, and it’s gonna be GREAT!

between Monticello and Anoka

instead of writing, I decided to do today’s post as a sort of voicemail from the river:

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at the headwaters

yesterday each of us took a turn on Lake Itasca in the new kayak: wow, a totally different experience than the recreational kayaks I’ve used in the past. sort of like how a powerful sportscar is different from my beloved father’s honda accord: it responds to every move you make, so you better decide the moves you want to make! the paddle is really great, too: light and sized for my hands. I’m amazed at how much easier it is to move through the water: ninety minutes of paddling felt nearly effortless and I’m not at all sore today. I paddled up to the actual headwaters and then drifted among the grasses and lilypads to see if I could feel a perceptible pull to transform lake into river. It’s a funny thing: Lake Itasca is just a northern lake like a thousand other northern lakes: for the duck family or the loon I passed as I paddled to the headwaters, this lake probably doesn’t seem charged in any particular way: but we have a whole story, we ALWAYS have stories, and I really enjoy picturing this circle of lake focussing into a line, a directed stream that will grow and amass into this incredible, powerful river. And I think of my friend RIck in Pittsburgh, and how “his” water will join this water here, and I realize it’s just simply impossible for humans NOT to lay our own narratives on nature. it’s just what we DO. to whatever degree I can, I will avoid sentimentalizing this journey, romanticizing it; but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to avoid humanizing it, and I wouldn’t want to if I could.

I have to tell you I was really moved by that loon. my mother joycie’s favorite bird. very very excellent to see her as I start out.


there was an article in the NYTimes the other day about hammocks as an alternative to tents, so at REI the other day, I picked up a “Brazilian” hammock with a mosquito cover, and I have been sleeping in it every night, with a tarp over the bottom half so I can look at the trees and stars when it’s clear but scrunch down a bit and get out of the rain whenever I need to without getting out and adjusting the tarp. It rains on and off all day and night here in Itasca: Mac pointed out that 20% precipitation means just that: not 20% chance of rain, but it’s gonna rain 20% of the time.

I LOVE this hammock and totally recommend it to any of you campers out there: forget the tent and the sleeping pads and all that! A little hammock that fits in a stuff sack the size of a softball along with a sleeping bag and a tarp for rain are all you need!


Watching the woman filling water jugs at the campsite this morning I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of years women have been carrying water. (why women, I wonder? water is seriously heavy!) but anyway, there she was like the model of the type, leaned over the source (a faucet, not a stream, but still), willowy, her hair shadowing her face, and the water so fresh and clean and new. she turned and I could see her, and she was younger than I had placed her, she had seemed so calm and implacable filling her jugs, I had figured her for a woman who had finished raising her children.


Because I have VT plates, people of course assume I am from VT. I have mixed feelings about this.