Speak, Water

‘On nights when I am having trouble falling asleep, I tell myself a certain fish story that I love and then tell it again and again until sleep comes.’

Author: Mark Phillips

Phillips Dt84 The Met Public Domain Use This Image Lake George by John Frederick Kensett, American, 1869, oil on canvas. Bequest of Maria DeWitt Jessup, from the collection of her husband, Morris K. Jessup, 1914.

In our beginning, water. We followed the Genesee River north, veered east along the southern shore of Lake Ontario and climbed northeast through a land serrated with conifers and brindled with tannic brooks — our gear and clothing and food piled on the back seat and floor, the small and outdated engine threatening to overheat as the altitude rose — and finally reached our honeymoon location in the Adirondack Mountains. Margaret and I hiked and camped along the Oswegatchie River for most of a week. We left the river only to follow a tributary upstream, failing to find the source without going too far out of our way, pausing to drink on our hands and knees, frightening trout into the jagged shadows of boughs. One night we stayed up late on the riverbank, where in the tumult of a nearby falls I heard words. None were the word that I had hoped to hear.

I settled for our human words. We went to the Adirondacks to begin in the wild and because in our feral love we would have each other forever; that was the story we told ourselves.

Where we live in southwestern New York, a five-hour drive from the Adirondacks, a spring rises between the roots of a white ash. The tree is a remnant of a virgin forest and was spared by Horace Guild, the first permanent settler on what is now my family homestead. The water temperature stays between 42 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit regardless of the season and weather, just as it must have when Guild took breaks from clearing and farming his stony soil and got down on his hands and knees to drink in the manner of a deer or wolf. I imagine that when his lips met the cold, he was surprised to hear the water speak. The spring watered his livestock and no doubt he believed the myth that to cut a tree over a spring will cause the spring to disappear, and so it is that — two centuries later — I can stand within the hollow core of the ash and peer up through a skylight of a sort and into the wind-broken and partly regenerated crown of the girth. For only a few more years, though. The small mountains around my home have been invaded by the emerald ash borer.

Margaret’s and my land used to be my father’s property. When I was a boy, back when to me a year seemed to last as long as a decade does today, I assumed vaguely that the hollow ash would live nearly forever. I might have felt otherwise if I had realized it was centuries of flowing water that had eroded smooth the stones I overturned when capturing crayfish and salamanders that somehow survived in the cold that arose between mossy roots.

Sometime during the early years of my marriage, I made a phone call to a government hydrologist to ask him about the temperature of the spring. He reasoned that since normally the groundwater in my region is 50 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit, the colder temperature of my spring water might mean that it passes through an ice cave before surfacing. Every ice cave has an opening to the weather outside, swallowing water that freezes in the belly of the cave during winter and can stay frozen all year, and yet my hikes of farmland and forest and questioning of loggers, hunters and landowners have not led me to a cave. My chances of finding the source of the cold are now small, even if an ice cave does exist somewhere around my home. My quests are less frequent and shorter than when I was a young man, and recently a neighbor sighed and said, “You asked me about a cave a couple of times before.”

Leave your hand too long in freezing water, and you lose it.

The only time that I knew the exact location of an ice cave, I avoided it. On an Adirondack vacation, Margaret and I and our two children crossed North Lake in a canoe and camped below a mountain where, according to a map, there was an entrance to the cave. The kids kept asking when I would take them to the cave as promised, but I delayed until I chickened out, explaining that should any of us fall in, the ice, slickened by the summer heat, would prevent us from climbing out. They promised to stay a safe distance from the opening, but still I refused, made queasy even by the idea of their gazing upon that mouth.

I have paddled too many Adirondack lakes and ponds to recite their names without beginning to bore even myself — but have never been on any of the several Adirondack waters named Lost Pond. Maybe if I canoed and camped on such a pond, I would guess correctly how it got its name.

During my otherwise idyllic vacation with my wife and children, I was annoyed to find myself haunted by the old story of my father’s terminal cancer. Was I 13 or 14 years old when he was diagnosed? It is difficult for me to remember the date of the beginning. But it is impossible for me to forget the details of the ending, such as those nights when I woke to his moaning in his bedroom on a different floor of the house. He became addicted to the injected morphine that caressed his agony, and once he hallucinated that the bedpan on the bedroom dresser was an alligator. Because I was a foolish boy, instead of picking up the pan and telling him I would move it outside, I insisted that there was no alligator.

At North Lake, I awoke one night to the realization that my daughter was missing from the tent. I heard her, though. She could almost perfectly imitate the yodeling of loons, and naturally I found her at the shore communicating with a loon that was floating somewhere beyond the skating of her flashlight beam. I like to tell myself that their shared, mysterious songs were ballads. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” according to Joan Didion; and all true stories “end in death,” according to Ernest Hemingway; and both writers were correct. The story about the little girl and the disembodied loon is one that I tell myself in order to live a while longer.

Until the children grew up and left home, our family took a canoe and camping trip each summer. As if the words are a prayer or a folk song with ancient roots, I sometimes soothe myself by reciting the names of the lakes we crossed on a long loop through Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park: Opeongo, Proulx, Little Crow, Big Crow, Lavieille, Dickson, Bonfield, Wright, Opeongo again. If I am with my family, the names call forth stories. Do you remember that time on the Crow River when we had to wait until the bull moose would let us pass? All the fish we caught? The time we heard an animal rummaging through our aluminum pots and plates in the dark outside our tent, and how we huddled together and whispered jokes about which one of us should be sacrificed if it was a hungry bear out there?

I have paddled too many Adirondack lakes and ponds to recite their names without beginning to bore even myself — but have never been on any of the several Adirondack waters named Lost Pond. Maybe if I canoed and camped on such a pond, I would guess correctly how it got its name. Was it discovered and then lost; and, if so, how is it that its location is indicated on maps? Did an unrepentant sinner see his reflection on its surface and recognize the terrible truth? On its shore did a Native American have a vision that the entire continent would be lost to rapacious invaders? Was it named for time?

I remember encounters with Adirondack and Algonquin trees too thick for me to reach more than halfway around them. And whenever I wish, I can close my eyes and again see the dark blur of a fisher as it scampers up the bole of a white pine, and a moose stretched out on the bottom of a marsh so that all of her except her snout is submerged and safe from insatiable flies, and a bear lapping up lake water in the mist of dawn, and an eagle wearing a white bonnet and laboring to rise with a hefty fish pierced and clamped in its talons, and a largemouth bass with a fresh perch in its belly until I gut and scale and fry them both, and a turtle laying leathery eggs in warm shoreline sand. The loons I only hear, but I see a midnight lake sprinkled with the milk of constellations, and smell the smoke and feel the heat of a campfire as it spits light into the darkness.

Wilderness winters are banished from my stories, but Margaret used to tell a story about a camping trip on a November weekend when the weather was forecast to be friendly. In her story, she recalled our breath rising white in the tent, a film of ice strangling the last open water on a pond, and the snow that fell as we broke camp and hurried to our car. I once suggested that we sell the homestead and move to the Adirondacks, and she responded, “The winters there are even longer and harder than the ones here. So dress warm. And be sure to write to me.” After our kids moved far from our home, she no longer wanted to go on overnight canoe trips, and I understood why. Back when we saw an eagle fly off with a fish in its talons, I claimed that we had witnessed “a spiritual event,” and she responded, “Think about the fish.”

On my first solo canoeing trip, I pitched my tent on the edge of Round Lake in the central Adirondacks, and in the morning a young couple and their two small children passed in a tandem canoe. They were close enough to shore that we waved to each other, but not so close that they could notice my grief.        

Although we never moved to the Adirondacks, we did purchase a small, off-grid cabin there, near Blue Mountain Lake. I stay at the cabin one week a month from May to October; Margaret usually accompanies me but sometimes stays in the care of relatives while I am away. The cabin sits on a hillside above the dead end of a seasonal dirt road that skirts the Salmon River, and near the edge of New York state forest preserve where, with a handheld GPS or a good compass, I can hike for many miles without encountering a road or another person. I usually limit my canoeing to mornings on one of the several bodies of water within a short drive of the cabin, but when Margaret is with relatives my trips are longer and — on days when my back doesn’t complain too persistently — tend to involve carries between ponds. Occasionally I point to a deer or other wildlife, as if Margaret is with me. At the cabin, she goes to bed early each night, but usually I stay up late on the porch, watching fireflies or stargazing and listening for the word I long for in water rolling like laughter over a beaver dam in the river.

Yet to tell you the truth, I am not sure the word exists.

The closest I have come to hearing it is in the hermetic murmuring of lovers. And the closest I have come to reading it is in Article XIV of the New York state constitution, which includes a clause stipulating that the millions of acres of public forest in the Adirondacks “shall be forever kept as wild.” Of course, the arguably loving clause refers to the Adirondack wilderness that New Yorkers have come to know; not to the wilderness when the Adirondacks were covered by 10,000 feet of glacial ice or to the wilderness a century from now when human-caused climate change will have extirpated several species of Adirondack trees, along with the brook trout, moose and many other creatures. The spirit of the word, if it exists, is evoked in journalist William Chapman White’s 1954 book Adirondack Country, which includes description of a lakeshore where “a man” can see species of plants, wildlife and fish that “were here in the summer of 1354, as they will be in 2054 and beyond,” which in White’s telling means that in protected wilderness a human “can be part of time that was and time yet to come.”

A year after the publication of Adirondack Country, White was dead.

The reason I leave Margaret “in the care” of others during some of my stays at our cabin is that she has an unusual form of dementia. Eight years ago, brain cancer and surgery and radiation treatments damaged her concentration, reasoning and short-term memory. And her emotional range was reduced. Every so often, perhaps nostalgically, perhaps insecurely, perhaps stupidly, I ask her if she loves me. She replies by saying “yes” — and that’s all she says on the subject.

Always I wait for more words.

I am greedy.

A loving human “yes” is enough.

Or should be. For now.

On nights when I am having trouble falling asleep, I tell myself a certain fish story that I love and then tell it again and again until sleep comes.

While the alarm clock ticks on the writing desk next to my bed at home, a trout rises from a submerged shadow in the cold current ahead. It sips the stiff-hackled dry-fly pausing atop the center of a gentle eddy, the tip of my rod dowsing in the morning light, the pulse of line conjoining me to the flow hugging my waders, and eventually, after its struggle upstream and down, and its leaping and diving and weakening, I net wriggling color and unhook it and cradle it exhausted and submissive now in my hand submerged beneath the wrinkled surface of the stream until life regains its strength and swims into the shimmering of words.

Mark Phillips lives in southwestern New York. He is the author of a memoir, My Father’s Cabin, and a collection of essays, Love and Hate in the Heartland.