I have a habit of going down to the river when I don’t know what else to do. I’ve lived near running water for most of my life, in one place or another, and the walk from land down to the edge of the river is so coded in my muscles that I do it now without thinking. I’ll settle for a lake in a pinch, but the river is where I go to find what I’ve been missing. When I feel lost, when I’m looking for answers, when I’m stuck on a project, when I’m feeling grief or loss or pain–I find myself by the river, stepping over stones, crouching over the shallows, listening, waiting.
Today is one of those days. I look at the blank page and I turn away. Pain is slipping into my wrists and fingers, though it’s early afternoon and I haven’t used my hands for much yet today. I’m frustrated with my body, arguing with the aching I feel deep in my bones. I have a genetic connective tissue condition that ages me, it makes me tired and slow. I hurt, plain and simple.
The sky is clear and blue, the air is seasonably cool, and the sound of the water through my window draws me outside as if I’m sleepwalking. I don’t know where I’m going. I only know that I have been out on this river many times before, and that I always leave it with something I didn’t have before.
Down the hill, under the elephant skin of the wizened holly tree, through the break in the crumbling mill wall, past the low dogwood boughs, out onto the stony outcropping by the dam, over the rocky ledges, towards the reeds out in the middle of the river, this way is familiar until I reach the water. I have not tried a crossing like this in many years. The river is not deep here, and the rocks are easy enough to follow in the direction of the other bank, but usually I stay close to the shore as if ruled by an invisible boundary. Three turtles slip off of their sunny log as I step carefully from one stone to the next, and dozens of American Rubyspot damselflies rest and take off and rest and take off in endless cycles.
I am looking for something. It could be anything. It could be the turtles, on another day; it could be the damselflies, on another day. It is not the turtles or the damselflies. All I know is that I haven’t found it yet.
I need a reminder that my body is part of this landscape, that we can still talk to each other, this river and I, even if I’m in pain, even if I don’t scramble across the boulders any more. My brain doesn’t know why I’m taking this path across the river, but my legs allow no tremor of uncertainty despite the stiffness in my knees. I am headed for the island of reeds by a tangle of washed-up branches, more than halfway across. The rocks here are embedded in mud and covered by grasses; the surrounding water is deeper than it is near the shore.
Instead of turtles and damselflies, today I am looking for a heron feather. I am looking for it because I find it resting gently on the reeds by my knees, when I reach the place I didn’t realize I was headed for. I have grown up on southern rivers and seen more Great Blue Herons than I can count, I’ve heard their awkward twisted cries echoing through the woods and watched them wading silently in the water, but this is the first heron feather I’ve ever found.
The feather is quiet, it is patient, it is trembling in the breeze. It sits lightly in my hand, my hand that is hurting, without saying a word. I twirl it between my thumb and forefinger, feeling its flight architecture. It is nearly the length of my hand from palm to fingertip, half downy, half spiky, half inimitable heron gray-blue, half bright white, the fluffy after-feather still attached to the quill.
Today I am looking for a heron feather, but it is not what I expected to find. I am feeling angry and completely humbled; I am feeling certain and absolutely unsure. I am looking for the heron feather that I now hold between my fingers, because it reminds me that I can be both. I can be the down and the barb. I can be the dusky deep blue and the optimistic flourish of white. I can be hurting and whole. I can be imperfect and just right. I can be headed somewhere I’ve never been, anywhere, and be in exactly the right spot.
My body has carried me to this point, positioning me perfectly to receive this offering. On a day when pain overtakes me, this gift is vital, merciful. The river reaches out to me, and I am able to reach back. Gratitude swells over me as if I were swimming in the water.
I grew up by a modest trickle named Dry Creek, which curved through the woods past beech trees and a sandy crescent, until it opened up into the shallow pool created by an ever-evolving beaver dam, then wandered away towards the bridge. I haven’t walked there since we moved a few miles away when I was fourteen, but cradled in the DNA of Dry Creek is the origin story of my search for this heron feather. I wrote my first poem by that creek’s waters. The words are simple, they are plain, but they describe a person lost in the woods who doesn’t know which way to turn, and who turns instead to the creek for guidance. I ran home to write it down with a newfound urgency, and still sometimes I recite it to myself when I’m unsure of what to say or do.
When I turned to the creek that first time, really turned to it, I was a skinny nine year-old with wide eyes who hadn’t learned yet the value of carrying a pen with me everywhere. I turned to the creek not knowing what I was looking for, and I found poetry. It was as sacred as my first heron feather. Now I’m in my late twenties and I still forget the pen sometimes, my eyes still widen at the sight of the raw and rocky world, and my sense of urgency at the water’s edge hasn’t diminished. I do not know where I am heading, where my body is heading, what I’ll feel like tomorrow, what I’ll be able to do. I do not know, despite my impatient desire for answers.
So I still turn to the river, and I don’t ask why. I turn, I walk, I wait until I find what I’ve come for.