Elizabeth Dodd

This is an excerpt from the essay "Riparian" in Prospect.


This morning I think it is not the text that is always ready, but the river. Or, rivers. They are not stationary, they are not eternal, although they have often seemed to people like gods, or places where gods live. I can't go quite so far as to name them necessary and sufficient, since lives and cultures have grown in the absence of rivers—in the desert, in the arctic—but perhaps they're very nearly so. Certainly they've been, across the shifting, rafting continents, across a few million years, important elements of the hominid homeland. Like trees and open grass of savanna country, their loveliness is laid down in our own currents of perception, little lakes of desire still in the psyche, reflecting light.

In Wyoming, in the foothills of the Wind River Range, the Popo Agie (pronounced "popozuh") River brings blessed snowmelt to the high and bifurcated plains. Actually, the Popo Agie consists of three separate forks that converge on the Wind River Indian Reservation, near a town that bears my brother's name, Hudson, before joining the major watercourse, the great Wind River. Popo Agie comes from the language of the Crow, although the confusing spelling suggests French translation somewhere in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. It means "beginning of the water."

Along the Middle Fork, west of Table Mountain and southeast of the grimly named Suicide Point, the waters flow through the stunning and mysterious body of Sinks Canyon. There the land is still parched, although not quite so much so as the plains just four or five miles downstream to the east. Arrowleaf balsamroot rustled in the wind the July day I walked there, each plant dried and withered to a texture like fine tissue paper, each leaf hanging limply in the arid air. In a good year, the field guide showed, they'd have bright green, eponymous leaves, with yellow composite flowers; the roots were once a food source for the Crow and others whose lives were centered in and around that expansive countryside. But it wasn't a good year; the summer was already well into drought.

Something intriguing happens in Sinks Canyon. The river disappears into a limestone cavern; rushing and boiling over boulders in its path, the current races into a kind of rock shelter, an overhang of stone that shields nesting birds in summer, crusts over first with frozen spray in winter, and then finally jams and clots with river ice. It all seems mythically archaic: the water's headlong rush against the rock, and then the noisy movement down and away, in sudden and irrevocable disappearance. It is the mouth to the underworld, of course; the place presents some ancient pattern of being and meaning, inferred through narrative and image from the factual presence of landscape's features, there within the phenomenal world. I sat a long while, listening to the rhythmic, chaotic music of the water's lift and sough and swirl, watching a pair of cliff swallows, gazing deep into that rocky maw, and thinking idly about how very like a whale's baleen the eroded limestone looked, with all its long and bony plates of polished stone.

Only half a mile downstream the river resurfaces in a clear, nearly still pool lined with bright clean sand, where, in summer, scores of good-sized trout hang, facing upstream with their mouths wide open, waiting for what the current brings them. This place is called The Rise, and on the day I stood above its waters, I admired the quality of light within that handsome basin, the slight cast of shadow from the outcropped cliff at whose base the waters spring.

© Elizabeth Dodd

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