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Lines of Thinking - October 2018: Water and Light

“Lines of Thinking" is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley.

October, 2018

On a sunny autumn day like today almost anywhere in southern Ohio, driving or walking, one seems bound to catch the flicker and flash-dazzle of wild running water. Stopping by a small crossing of the Little Miami River made me think of that just now and reminded me that unlike deciduous trees, which are also great trappers and conveyers of sunlight, bodies of water stretch their light-play over all seasons.

Over most of my lifetime, when I have given thought to it at all, I have looked at the flows of streams, rivers, bays, and the like, and wondered how they began and where they might end. Gary Snyder’s poem, River in the Valley (from the collection Axe Handles) offers a way of asking, answering and understanding the bigger question to be considered.

River in the Valley

We cross the Sacramento River at Colusa
follow the road on the levee south and east
find thousands of swallows nesting
on the underside of a concrete overhead
roadway? causeway? abandoned. Near
                     Butte Creek.

       Gen runs in little circles looking up
       at swoops of swallows—laughing—
                     they keep
       flowing under the bridge and out,

       Kai leans silent against a concrete pier
       tries to hold with his eyes the course
       of a single darting bird,

       I pick grass seeds from my socks.

The coast range. Parched yellow front hills,
blue-gray thornbrush higher hills behind,
and here is the Great Central Valley,
drained, then planed and watered,
        thousand-foot deep soils
       thousand-acre orchards

        Sunday morning,
only one place serving breakfast
in Colusa, old river and tractor men
sipping milky coffee.

From north of Sutter Buttes
we see snow on Mt. Lassen
and the clear arc of the Sierra
south to the Desolation peaks.
One boy asks, "where do rivers start?"

in threads in hills, and gather down to here—
but the river
is all of it everywhere,
all flowing at once,
all one place.

There are other, slower qualities of water and light that draw us to stand and search for something that is neither a question nor an answer; something that is indistinct and mirage-like, such as when light masquerades as water or when water seems to defuse into a twilight sky. WS Merwin explores these slower movements of water and light in a piece that also finds unity of vision but through a set of darkening lenses and images that hold us, dreamlike, in an uncertain place. 

Low Fields and Light

I think it is in Virginia, that place
That lies across the eye of my mind now
Like a gray blade set to the moon’s roundness,
Like a plain of glass touching all there is.

The flat fields run out to the sea there.
There is no sand, no line.  It is autumn.
The bare fields, dark between fences, run
Out to the idle gleam of the flat water.

And the fences go on out, sinking slowly,
With the cowbird halfway, on a stunted post, watching
How the light slides through them easy as weeds
Or wind, slides over them away out near the sky

Because even a bird can remember
The fields that were there before the slow
Spread and wash of the edging light crawled
There and covered them, a little more each year.

My father never plowed there, nor my mother
Waited, and never knowingly I stood there
Hearing the seepage slow as growth, nor knew
When the taste of salt took over the ground.

But you would think the fields were something
To me, so long I stare out, looking
For their shapes or shadows through the matted gleam, seeing
Neither what is nor what was, but the flat light rising.

(W.S. Merwin, The First Four Books of Poems )

Find links to other editions of Lines of Thinking on the Office of the President page.